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BOOK REVIEW — Killing for Country: A Family Story

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David Marr's latest book provides important insights on Australia's foundations of racism and reminds us of the work left for us to do, writes Jim Kable.

THE FIRST FAMILY'S STORY revolves around the events of in late October 1857. They occurred at “Hornet Bank” on the upper Dawson River – near present-day Taroom in Central Qld – but then still a part of the Colony of NSW, where a massacre of the Fraser household took place.

It did not occur without provocation, but what it unleashed was the almost total annihilation of the local Yiman people (of whom Marcia Langton – who endorses the book – is a descendant). And initially taking part in the by far disproportionate vengeance was Henry Charlton Kable.

He was a first cousin to my great-grandfather born in Carwell, NSW in 1853. Henry Charlton Kable in 1857 was then on land at "Redbank Station” on the Dawson, later seeking gold at the Canoona fields near Rockhampton, then later again engaged in growing sugar.

The second family story focuses on Edward James Frederick Crawford (born King's Lynn, Norfolk, then from Oxford). He arrived in Adelaide early 1839, was initially associated with the Southern Australian newspaper and then around 1844 established the Hindmarsh Brewery in Adelaide until 1859. Later he moved to Victoria and then to Sale in Victoria where he passed away in 1880.

His daughter, Elizabeth, born in England in 1837, married John Flaxman in 1857, the partner of George Fife Angas. A son, Lindsay Crawford, was born in Adelaide in 1852. Lindsay trained initially as a telegraph operator and then was apprenticed to his father’s brewing business before heading to the South Island of New Zealand where an uncle was also in brewing, from where he headed by ship to Darwin.

Initial attempts at brewing were unsuccessful so he went seeking gold at Sturt’s Creek and worked back-and-forth for the South Australian Overland Telegraph Service from 1874-1882 (including running a store at Southport just south of Darwin, again unsuccessfully, in 1878) when he again went to New Zealand in 1882. 

He returned to the north in 1883 to accompany the explorer and writer Ernest Favenc on a trip from Powell’s Creek, near Daly Waters, to the headwaters of the Macarthur River and back. This led to work as station manager of Richmond Downs, which in turn led to his becoming station manager from 1884 through to 1894 of the Victoria River Downs came to be known. The initial stock was overseen by the legendary Nat Buchanan

Lindsay Crawford was succeeded by the notorious Jack Watson; aided and abetted in various ways by the equally notorious mounted police constable William Willshire. At the end of the Century, Lindsay Crawford was again back with the Overland Telegraph as part of the A. Pybus’ line party, taking over from him at his death in 1900, but succumbing himself to dysentery at Sturt’s Plain, just to the north of Newcastle Waters in March of 1901. Among the comments upon his death were 'hardworking, respected, a bachelor all his life'.

A bachelor all his life suggests various things to us in these 21st Century days. In 1884, there was a series of terrible massacres of the Wulwulam or Woolwonga people around the Burrundie district 200 km south from Darwin, as retribution for what was then called known as the Copper Mine Massacres, of four miners for interfering with Woolwonga women and girls. 

In late 2014, then Federal Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Nigel Scullion, was at the official opening of a memorial to those people. At least 300 Woolwonga people were brutally murdered but some suggest up to 500 people. Until this Century it was generally believed that the people had been wiped out, but not so.

At least one lass survived. She was known as Jennie and there is a census record of the birth of her daughter in 1889, May Crawford, daughter of Jennie and Lindsay Crawford. A maternal cousin’s sister-in-law is married to one of May’s great-grandsons. His father was born at Wave Hill (Kalkarindji) and is in turn is of a Gurindji mother, Jirrop Bol, and whose father was in the ignorant way of those times simply recorded as “a Chinaman”.

Taken from his mother in 1930, raised mostly in the Old Overland Telegraph Station on the edge of Mparntwe (Alice Springs) until sent to work as a stockman aged around 14 or 15 to Elsey Station. Years later he was a cricket team member playing with Ted Egan who recalls “Hoppy” as a fine fast bowler. Ted himself is a grand old man of the NT, a teacher, singer-songwriter and even an NT Administrator at one stage.

He was himself present at a 1994 memorial gathering at Wave Hill (Kalkarindji) and Wattie Creek (Daguragu) when “Hoppy” was introduced to Gough Whitlam who, with tear-glistening eyes, listened to his story. Later in the same afternoon, his son and daughter-in-law took him to the settlement to see if perchance there might be someone who knew of him or his family, for he’d never been back since being “stolen” in 1930.

And the first person they approached told them yes. She knew his name, he had been her brother, killed in the terrible cyclone of 20 years earlier in Darwin. No, they told her: that’s him over there by the car. “Hoppy" eventually passed away in 2002. By this time Lynette, his daughter-in-law, had tracked down all the stolen objects of the Woolwonga to the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain in London. 

The police constable William Willshire, a mass murderer of First Peoples across the NT, was eventually charged and sent to Adelaide for judgment. The Attorney-General and Premier of the Colony of South Australia John Downer (a grandfather to Alexander Downer) was responsible for William Willshire’s release. Of course. The "squeaky-clean" South Australians were by then running rampant across the north, dispersing First Peoples and taking up huge leases of land, such as that managed by Lindsay Crawford.

This is my introduction to a review of an extraordinary volume just recently published by Black Inc. and written by Australian commentator and literary figure David Marr. His writing clearly invites the reader to reflect on their own family stories. It answers the ignorance of former prime ministers Tony Abbott (criticising "lifestyle choices" for those on country in remote communities) and Scott Morrison (claiming there was no slavery in Australia).

And of that most dangerous and cunning political maverick, Peter Dutton, laying the blame for all the Frontier Wars and deaths across Queensland on the Native Police, neglecting to mention that they were set up and “controlled” by the colonists. They were the younger sons of the titled and landed gentry of England, backed by family connections in the colonial government departments in England and within the colonial structures in New South Wales,  Queensland and South Australia (which colony-then-state was in charge until 1911 of what we now call the Northern Territory).

The squattocracy, taking or being leased vast swathes of land having brought “capital” to invest in sheep and cattle then demanded “their" (stolen) land be “protected” or cleared of the First Peoples who for millennia had lived on that country. Dispersed, slaughtered, as if not human.

David Marr, and the many others to whom he pays tribute in the acknowledgements at the end of the book, has provided the reader with the chapter and verse to uncovering the players most intimately associated with the widespread years of terror permitted, along with some admitted though ineffectual hand-wringing of the authorities.

Though born on Cammeraygal land in Sydney, I grew up in Gamilaraay country in northern NSW and my third teaching appointment was at a school in the northern reaches of Gamilaraay lands. Each time I drove south I crossed the Myall Cree I knew that it was the place of an infamous massacre in June 1838. There were reminders all around us in that north-western part of NSW of death in the various place names but nothing quite so startling as that particular place.

I wonder where exactly it was, the killing place, I used to ponder. Just last year I visited one of my students from 1975 named Kelvin Brown, a descendant of a fortuitous survivor of that infamous massacre (working away on a nearby property stripping and collecting bark) of the Wirrayaraay Clan. 28 members had been slashed and trampled to death and then their bodies burnt.

Kelvin is on the Myall Creek Massacre Memorial Committee. We took a day out and he guided me through the beautiful memorial walk, not far north of Bingara, joined at the end by other travellers also walking the path to listen to his explanation of the events of 1838. It was moving for all of us

Now that Killing for Country: A Family Story has been published, I can't think of a better Christmas-stocking filler for any of us. It provides handy rebuttals to the racist commentariat among us and will otherwise convince those among the younger generations to vote "yes" for the next attempt at reconciliation and social justice for First Nations people in Australia.


'Killing for Country: A Family Story' by David Marr is available from Booktopia for $29.95 RRP.

This book was reviewed by an IA Book Club member. If you would like to receive free high-quality books and have your review published on IA, subscribe to Independent Australia for your complimentary IA Book Club membership.

Jim Kable is a retired teacher who taught in rural and metropolitan NSW, in Europe and later, long-term in Japan. He is also a member of the steering committee of political party The New Liberals.

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