Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Review: The Secret War, Jonathan Richards (2008)

This "true history of Queensland's Native Police" chillingly reminds us of the cost of progress in the colonial era. Operating alongside the regular police force in Australia's north-east state, the Native Police were a paramilitary arm of government policy tasked with facilitating - at all costs to the despised Aboriginal population of the continent - the agrarian project of frontier expansion.

If you read the book, you will always look askance at golden memories of hardy settlers striving against the odds to tame the land. The land, the book reminds us, was already occupied.

The 1992 Mabo native title case and the 1996 Wik case on land subject to pastoral leases embody the concept of prior ownership. But how many had to die in the interim? Thousands of Aborigines were slaughtered, this book tells us, in the name of progress.

The book details recruitment of Aborigines to the Native Police as well as giving us an in-depth look at the kind of colonial corps heads - sub-inspectors - were recruited to lead them.

These men operated under trying conditions, as they were often forced to proceed in their forays on foot in tropical areas. Their main task was to "disperse" "Wild Blacks" - in other words to carry out reprisals against Aborigines who attacked either settlers or their stock, which was very valuable to them.

The lives of Aborigines were held very cheap indeed. Officially, every 'subject' of the realm had an equal right to peaceful enjoyment of the land, and was due equal protection under the law. In practice, the Native Police would exact retribution for aggression by riding into the camps of sleeping Aborigines at sunrise and shooting everyone they could see.

Then they burned the bodies. This final act was commensurate with the secrecy with which the activities of the Native Police were carried out - at all levels of the force. Even the euphemism "dispersal" carries inside it thousands of untold tales of pure horror and gross inhumanity.

The most common misdemeanour that was aimed at inspectors from the higher ranks was misuse of funds. When it came to killings, it was a case of 'don't say, don't tell'.

The force operated until the end of WWI. It was modelled on similar organisations operating in New South Wales and Victoria. Colonial authorities used locally-recruited police in all of the places where England held power during the 19th century. Local police forces were often particularly feared due to the thoroughness with which they carried out tasks.

In Queensland, Aborigines were often recruited from the southern states so that there would be no conflict of interest when it came to carrying out their savage duties.

Abuses included rape and kidnapping of children for domestic use and sexual slavery. Both Aboriginal recruits and White inspectors were complicit in these crimes.

The corps was issued with state-of-the-art weapons and trained in their use. They were not shy about employing them. Native Police also operated in South Australia (which included, at that time, the Northern Territory) and Western Australia. In Tasmania, the carnage led to the extinction of the Aboriginal occupants of the island.

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