Review: ‘Killing Time’

‘No boy. These mob got no love in them.’ – Macow in The Kadaitcha Sung – A novel by Sam Watson Penguin Books (1990)

We post this excellent review by Raymond Evans about Libby Connors book Warrior. It would be interesting to compare Libby Connors account with The Kadaitcha Sung by Sam Watson. How was the warrior resistance subverted? What was the role of the native police? Watson gives a striking account in his book. Also note that the only recognition of the role played by Dunalli was given by an old country party Minister, Peter McKecknie, who served in the Bjelke-Peterson cabinet … No memorial was ever offered for the resistance by Dundalli by labor or liberal ministers. – Ian Curr 30 April 2022.

Killing time
Warrior: A Legendary Leader’s Dramatic Life and Violent Death on the Colonial Frontier
by Libby Connors (Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 2015, 268+xx pp, $32.99 pb).

How to deal with the arrival of strangers? It has long been a perennial Australian problem. Yet there is a fundamental difference between those who come peaceably with the intention of cooperative integration and those who arrive with a singular plan to usurp and overwhelm.

 The former ideally represents most modern migration scenarios, but the latter tendency describes a process of settler colonialism that seizes land, imposes an uncompromising new sovereignty and reacts to opposition from the host society with militant denigration, force and brutality. The making of ‘White Australia’, imposed as a rough palimpsest upon the consequent disintegration of Aboriginal Australia, reflects this latter process faithfully – for we now know that the several colonial experiments that overtook the Australian mainland were globally singular in their determination to recognise no prior form of land tenure and no sign whatever of a preceding or co-existing political sovereignty.

 The process of land seizure that occurred across eastern Australia from the 1830s onwards was, as James Boyce recently shows, one of the fastest, most uncontrolled and blatantly illegal property advances in white settler history. From Port Phillip in 1835 into the southern and central Queensland zone by 1849, the ‘power of a vested interest’ had allowed a mere 1019 audacious and single-minded squatters to grab almost 17.7 million hectares of territory – the stolen homelands of hundreds of thousands of Aboriginal peoples.

Given the breath-taking speed of this onward advance, where does this leave historians who attempt to assess the power and effectiveness of Aboriginal resistance to this veritable tsunami of white land-takers with their guns and poison, workers, sheep and cattle? In hindsight, it was an inevitably doomed resistance as Aboriginal lands were over-run with no compensation; Aboriginal sovereignty was utterly sidelined; and Aboriginal lives, in their vast majority, were surrendered to disease and violence.

 Superficially, it might be concluded that Indigenous resistance, though valiant and admirable, was over the long haul essentially inconsequential. In the colonial period, it failed to halt the land invasion. It failed to save Aboriginal lives. It failed to shake the white consensus that Aboriginal peoples were the most degraded beings on the planet. It failed to provide First Nations’ sovereignty with any legitimacy in a new polity. Yet, arguably, all this is understood only via hindsight. If one were an Aboriginal person or an incoming migrant, living between the 1830s and the 1850s, such outcomes would not be so indelibly imprinted.

 As Libby Connors persuasively shows, within a specific context of time and place, outcomes often appeared as murky and unsure as motivations. No-one knew clearly how it might turn out or even, with certainty, what might fully be happening. Aboriginal groups differed in their estimation of who the incomers were: Were they human or spirit? Were they temporary sojourners or permanent arrivals? Were they cooperative guests or dangerous usurpers? Might they serve as allies against rival groups or were they the ultimate enemies of all? It took quite some time for the position to clarify around a conclusion that those who had resisted were more percipient and realistic than those who had chosen to welcome, accommodate and even unite with the incomers. In the Moreton Bay, Wide Bay and Darling Downs regions of the 1840s, Aborigines adopted varying patterns of response. Their own relational struggles often gained precedence over the putative impact of the new arrivals who might hopefully be cast as allies in some local feud. Aboriginal First Nations could combine against blatant white transgression and atrocities, such as the mass poisoning at Kilcoy Station in early 1842, but they could also tolerate the non-Aboriginal presence if it was calculated to strengthen hegemony or provide some material largesse. In the meantime their true strength, based upon their landed power, was slipping away along with their prospects, livelihoods and lives.

 On the British/European side of the frontier, the outcome of the land struggle was also not immediately predictable. Into the 1850s white communities on the fringes of what remained northern New South Wales were substantially outnumbered by the Indigenous ‘others’, whose territories surrounded them. These latter inhabitants were taller, stronger and more environmentally and geographically savvy. Tactically and martially, they often appeared to have the upper hand, as new settlements such as the pastoral stations of the Downs, small farms, new commercial centres, such as Maryborough and Sandgate, and even the suburbs and outlying areas of Brisbane Town itself were often threatened and confronted with crippling thefts, random killings and chilling threats to drive out the white invaders wholesale. The new settlers were continually perplexed at the seeming paradox of Aboriginal reactions – at times friendly and welcoming, at others ferociously resistant.

 Alternating responses, based on fluctuating Aboriginal perceptions and misunderstood cultural traditions, led to the bitter conclusion that these were a treacherous, unpredictable and irredeemably savage people.

 For the whites, what would later be breezily conceived as a smooth fait accompli of colonial assumption had by no means been an easy transition, without serious sacrifice, as it had actually unfolded.

 Connor’s main biographical concern, the Dalla Aboriginal leader, Dundalli, stands at a pivotal point in this confusing struggle. He was, in the words of the judge, Sir Roger Therry, ‘the largest man I ever looked upon’, conveying both a sense of easy authority and a ‘formidable …

 ferocious strength’ (190). He was, one might say, the kind of person who steps forward as the times demand. As both lawman and battle leader, he acted as a ‘“kooringal” … charged with carrying out the instructions of the Bora Council’ (150). Though occasionally cooperative with settler enterprises, acting as both envoy and labourer, Dundalli increasingly adopted a resistance response, exacting pay-back for white excesses and assaults. Yet this is nevertheless a shadowy biography. There is insufficient documentary evidence on this personage to construct his life experiences intimately. Connors proceeds by intelligent inference and small clues to flesh out his life trajectory. We get to know him best late in the story, at the time of his arraignment and demise – in November 1854 for the murders of squatter Andrew Gregor (1846) and sawyer, William Boller (1847) – the latter as possible payback for a recent poisoning at Whitesides Station. Then we soberly encounter him again at his subsequent grisly execution. Even at these dramatic trials, however, the heavily ironed prisoner was forced to remain mute and was so sidelined in press reports ‘that he is barely visible in the courtroom’ (191). With the great warrior’s life so elusive, the title of this study may well have been pluralised, as so many worthy Aboriginal fighters are represented within it, albeit fleetingly.

 Connors works hard to understand perceptions and motivations on both sides of the frontier. Her principal achievement, however, is to enter sensitively into traditional Aboriginal life-ways and to perceive how Western colonialism was directly experienced by its targets. In championing such complex modes of reaction and resistance, she perhaps underplays the dramatic introduction of the Native Police into Queensland territories from 1849. By early November 1852, two years before Dundalli’s trial, the force had arrived in Brisbane itself and were drilled with carbines and sabres in the central Courthouse Square. Yet Connors’ account, with Dundalli as its focus, presents the early 1850s as a time of conciliation rather than one of deepening conflict. On several occasions (155, 165, 169, 172 and 175), the Native Police are mentioned fleetingly, without any explanation being given as to their nature, until we arrive eventually at page 177 and a short account. No attempt is made to speculate as to why or how young Aboriginal males became state troopers as there is to understand the way others became resistance fighters.

 From early 1915, an intimate history of early Queensland, purporting to be an eye-witness account and written by ‘A Survivor’, appeared weekly in the Brisbane Truth. In a description of Dundalli’s execution on 5 January 1855 (not used by Connors), this writer expands upon how the convicted man had ‘cried and wailed piteously’ when the executioner came to pinion him and that he was then ‘dragged and carried by main force’ to his public execution. Connors, by contrast, emphasises how Dundalli ‘bravely mounted the gallows unaided’ and then tells of his ‘self-possession’ as he earnestly addressed the outraged Jindooburri, watching from a distance. He instructed them to avenge his death against – in Survivor’s words – ‘those Brisbane Aboriginals and others who had been instrumental in capturing him’. The horribly bungled execution that followed was witnessed by crowds of men, women and children, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal alike, in front of what is now Brisbane’s General Post Office. Immediately afterwards, according to ‘Survivor’, white ‘sensation-mongers … betook themselves “down town” … along Queen Street … to view the new stone store, erected to the order of Mr. John Markwell, and the still more wonderful plate-glass windows which had been imported and placed in position in Mr. Benjamin Cribb’s emporium’.  All so redolent, of course, of the seemingly inexorable tide of white ‘progress’ now underway. Yet, as Connors goes on to show, the local struggle for hegemony and land control was by no means over with Dundalli’s death; and the violent frontier across the future capital city and its environs would remain an open one for perhaps another full decade of resistance and mayhem.

Raymond Evans
2022

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