Even to somebody relatively familiar with Australia’s real history — and more used, therefore, to thinking of it as bloodstained rather than merely blemished — Timothy Bottoms’ close examination of Queensland’s frontier comes as something of a shock. Henry Reynolds, Noel Loos, Raymond Evans and others have previously established that Queensland’s colonial frontier was a particularly brutal place. It’s also well known that Queensland’s Native Police force, which operated from 1848 to around 1910 [see p 7], played a notorious role in this. Bottoms’ book, however, establishes in comprehensive and chilling fashion how bad it actually was.
Was Queensland a uniquely violent place — or does that perception merely exist because of some peculiar propensity of Queenslanders to record their dark deeds? Was it perhaps because much of the violence occurred later in the colonial period than in the south-eastern corner, and records were therefore more likely to have survived? Bottoms makes a convincing case that Queensland was particularly violent — both in terms of quantity of killings, and the quality or savagery with which many of those killings occurred.
Pre-contact, Queensland was densely settled by Aboriginal people. More than 35 per cent of Australia’s Aboriginal population lived there, or something over 250 000 people. By World War I, that population had been reduced by over 90 per cent. [p xix–xx] That is, well over 225 000 people died. While some of these people died of disease, Bottoms makes a convincing and detailed case that many were massacred — with the numbers of recorded double or even triple-figure massacres being greater in Queensland than elsewhere. [pp 189–90]
Why this level of violence in Queensland? Was it just because the Aboriginal population was greater, and white fears correspondingly more intense? Or it may have had something to do with the conditions of white colonisation in Queensland — a tropical colony, and with a European need for non-white labour. Or perhaps it was somehow related to the racial theory of polygenism (that is, the idea that some races of human being were actually descended from a different species), an idea much in vogue during the earliest wave of Queensland’s colonisation. [p 4]
Bottoms acknowledges some role for all of these, but locates prime responsibility in two factors. The first was gun technology. Prior to 1850, the close of the main ‘killing times’ in Victoria, guns were single-shot and muzzle-loading. Most recorded killings were therefore in the one to three range. By the 1860s and 70s, breech-loading Snider carbines were far more effective killing implements, having the capacity simply to ‘tear apart anyone or anything it hit.’ This is significant in comparison with violence in Australia’s south-east — but Western Australia, northern South Australia and the Northern Territory were also colonised with the aid of the Snider carbine, or with Constable Willshire’s beloved and even more effective Martini-Henry rifles, famous for speaking English in the ‘silent majesty of the eternal rocks’.
Second and more powerful in Queensland was official policy. At the highest levels in Queensland, Bottoms argues, this policy was peculiarly avaricious, and peculiarly closely linked to the land speculations of the pastoral ruling elite. The colonial government simply needed money fast — partly so that its politicians could ‘make good’ themselves, and often ‘& at no distant date to return… home’. [p 187] The state’s finances were impoverished after an 1866 financial crash, and ‘Queensland’s early politicians were themselves the recipients of land clearance’. [p 185] These politicians and squatters often bequeathed their names to the towns and districts in which its surviving Aboriginal people now live – almost as if the Japanese had been the victors in World War II, and the streets and cities of white Australia now bore the names of Tojo, Yamamoto, Hirohito & co.
It is arguably futile to compare one person’s killing with another — but amidst the figures and theories, something about the quality of Queensland’s frontier violence does seem to stand out. There is something ferocious and degraded about some of the stories and oral histories Bottoms recounts — of burning bodies, sharp poles, rivers running red, milk tins full of teeth. And there is worse. It would be facile and an affront to the dignity of the survivors to try to recount such things in a short review — for they belong properly, if not in an oral history told on country, at least in a properly detailed account, which locates something of the where, and when, and why. There is a strong case that Queensland really does represent Australia’s unacknowledged heart of darkness — and for those with the stomach for such things, it is here in this book.
It is not all darkness, though. Even in the nineteenth century there were whistleblowers — non-Aboriginal journalists and lobbyists such as Arthur Vogan, Alfred Davidson and the Reverend Duncan McNab, who suffered for breaking ranks but succeeded, nevertheless, in getting the word out. Even today, it seems likely that Bottoms’ account of Queensland’s colonial history would not make him popular in some circles. This only underlines the importance of this type of work – for awareness of Australia’s true history should not just be a task for historians, or academics, or those with the stomach for such things, but as something of which all Australians should be aware.
STEPHEN GRAY teaches law at Monash University.