3 March 2024: Defending Country Supporter Julianne Schultz wrote in Guardian Australia about Raymond Evans' lecture. 'Queensland in 1884', Professor Schultz writes, 'was the last colony to allow Aboriginal witnesses to give evidence in court in their own defence, at a time when “the doctrine of extermination” was the lingua franca of the frontier. For decades the significance of this murderous truth was conveniently forgotten but is now undeniable, with a consensus that tens of thousands of lives were lost.'

‘History’s truths are never fixed, total and absolute, but remain in a degree of flux, as they get worried over by researchers, especially as new data and ways of seeing come to light.’ So says Raymond Evans, Adjunct Professor in History at Griffith University, Brisbane, a pioneer in the study of frontier conflict in Queensland, and a source for Rachel Perkins’ documentary, The Australian Wars

Last week, Professor Evans gave a lecture and an edited version was published in The Conversation. It was notable for three things.

Rebalancing Samuel Griffith

First, Evans politely takes Emeritus Professor (and Defending Country Patron) Henry Reynolds to task for giving too much of the blame for bloody Queensland to Samuel, later Sir Samuel, Griffith, Attorney-General, then Colonial Secretary and Premier, Chief Justice, and later first Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia. Evans looks at numerous secondary sources and concludes:

By all these researchers, [Griffith] is shown as intent on pursuing progressive reform and legal balance in face of a colonial society, mainly calling for “blood and yet more blood” – a culture insisting furiously that whites should never be punished for harming or killing non-whites. For this was the nature of the socio-cultural order that anyone considering mitigative reform was up against.

Evans argues the huge size of Queensland meant that effective control of the notorious Queensland Native Police rested with local pastoralists, at first privately, then as Justices of the Peace. Evans further argues that Griffith and Police Commissioner David Seymour by 1885 were trying to reduce the Native Police excesses. 

Evans finds ‘clear evidence of significant policy change’ under Griffith and itemises the improvements he presided over, including prosecution of whites for crimes against First Nations people. Earlier, in Opposition in 1880, Griffith had called for a Royal Commission into the Native Police but the motion failed by a large margin in Parliament.

Griffith’s reform attempts confronted an implacable socio-cultural order in Northern and Western Queensland – and the challenge often outstripped the response …  What we observe here is a culture of genocidal intent and anyone [such as Griffith] hoping to confront it was certainly going to have his hands full … [A]mong almost a score of Colonial Secretaries and a dozen or so attorney generals, Griffith appears to be the only one ever attempting anything practically mitigative while holding office.

Whites on the frontier

Secondly, Evans’ article lists some of the purveyors of this culture, among them:

  • William Forster, squatter who led reprisal raids in the Burnett district in 1849-50, allegedly killing hundreds of First Nations people, and later Premier of New South Wales under whom the Native Police were re-established in the new colony of Queensland;
  • George Bowen, Queensland’s first Governor (from 1859), who ignored instructions from London that Aborigines were British subjects, protected by the Crown, and instead presided over ‘border warfare’ against ‘hostile savages’;
  • Robert Herbert, Queensland’s first Colonial Secretary and Premier 1859-66, who described Aborigines as ‘criminals’, ‘cannibals’ and ‘very dangerous savages, deficient in intellect’;
  • Boyd Morehead, Colonial Secretary-Premier 1888-90, who said in Parliament in 1880 that, ‘If there were no Aboriginals it would be a very good thing … There was not a member in the House who did not feel they had to be got out of the way … [This] wretched, mean race … had to go and go they must … They mainly got only what they richly deserved’; 
  • Anderson Dawson, leader of the first Labour government (five days) in the world in Queensland 1899, later Minister for Defence in Australia’s first Labour government, 1904, who told The Worker (Brisbane) Labour newspaper in 1886 that at the Kimberley, WA, goldrush in 1886 he had taken part in what the paper called a ‘nigger massacre’. 

Queensland colonialism

Thirdly and most importantly, Evans argues that the Queensland story is not about individual blame but about the nature of the colonial economy and society. Most of the men (not Griffith) like those listed above ‘held wide-scale pastoral interests – interests that the Native Police were defending over extended time-frames against very determined Aboriginal resistance’.

So, it would seem that a class/communal explanation for the remorseless dispossession might be a better way to determine causation, motivation and responsibility … This can establish the driving rationale and structural underpinnings of occupation, rather than pursuing a singular crusade of individual blame for the manifest theft and violence.
This explanation is at first class-based because it is clearly a dominant minority class sector of, predominantly, pastoralists – but also plantation and mine owners – who were the principal land-takers, dependent initially on Native Police sorties and violent raids by their employees to secure the purloined landed wealth.

Evans references the work of late historian, Bill Thorpe, that there were over 3000 pastoral run-holders in Queensland in 1876 (1.8 per cent of the population), reducing to around 1000 (0.2 per cent of the population) by Federation. 

But this tiny sector accounted for most of the privately held landholding in Queensland. Furthermore, in the latter stages, it was mostly foreign owned by corporations and banks operating outside of the colony and State.
These people and organisations – often also at centres of political power – were the direct beneficiaries of profit from the captured lands. The various genocidal processes adopted, publicly and privately, to achieve this were in such people’s immediate material interests.
Communally, most of the white colonial population cooperated, in one way or another, with the seizure and displacement process; and a minority of frontier actors took a leading part in inflicting and perpetuating it, thinking they were “advancing civilization” or “extending the margins of Empire” in so doing. Thus, we might conclude, the colonial takeover was class-based in its ultimate economic interest and communally driven in its comprehensive, destructive thrust.

Where does that leave Samuel Griffith?

Griffith is part of and party to – among so many others – the British Imperial/colonial venture that created, for good or ill, present-day Queensland society. As a socio-economic formation and a culture, we have been very slow to accept how utterly that land-taking venture was steeped in bloodshed – and our collective responsibility, historically speaking, for this.

As David Marr summed up in his Killing for Country: ‘Slaughter was bricked into the foundations of Queensland’. 

Feb 27, 2024

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