‘Every Mother’s Son Is Guilty’: Policing the Kimberley frontier of Western Australia 1882 – 1905 – Review

‘Every Mother’s Son Is Guilty’: Policing the Kimberley frontier of Western Australia 1882 – 1905 – Review

Chris owen cover_

It’s not often you can judge a book by its cover but in this case you can. The picture of around 100 Kimberley men chained at the neck in Wyndham, imprisoned for ‘unlawful possession of beef’, after being convicted of killing the introduced cattle on the enormous pastoral stations of the Kimberley, tells a powerful story.  Indeed, judging by the online reaction to the photo on social media (having been viewed some 2.9 million times to date) the vast majority of the non-Aboriginal population had no idea this even occurred let alone being standard colonial practice well into the 20th century.

Author and historian Chris Owen is well regarded for his meticulous research with state archival records, his first book having won a national Human Rights Award. Owen carefully lays out the evidence from the available historical records from 1882 when police were established in the Kimberley until 1905 when an infamous Royal Commission chaired by Dr Walter Roth took place; there is also an abundance of additional detail covered in over a 130 pages of footnotes.  The book’s title comes from a police officer’s evidence to Roth; the officer was effectively saying Aboriginal people were guilty of everything. Their behaviour was criminalised.

This book covers a major expansionist phase of the West Australian colonial enterprise that commenced in the Swan River Colony in 1829.  Owen ably demonstrates that the way the criminal law was applied to Aboriginal people remained confused from 1829 into the 1960s. He also details the confusion around lines of authority; for example the Commissioner of Police would order ‘dispersals’ (or shootings) of Aboriginal people from Perth following deputations from pastoralists. Owen notes how most of the recommendations of the Roth report were ignored; for example, chains remained in use until 1956.

Owen outlines how leading West Australian politicians like John Forrest knew all this was going on and did nothing.  The remoteness of the Kimberley from Perth meant there were few disinterested observers. The need to develop the Kimberley to gain revenue from pastoral rents was the priority.

A number of things were happening simultaneously: people were being apprehended (stolen), land was being seized (stolen), Aboriginal people were being stripped of their space (their place/country) and pastoralists were inserting themselves and their enterprise into that space. With resistance, killings became inevitable. The narrative of the land had changed forever.  There is a density of effects at play, far beyond notions of expansion alone. The spatial displacement led to the narrative of the other, the criminal; while the ambitions of the land hungry pastoralists created a new narrative of the pioneer. The police becoming the enforcers of that narrative. Colonised Aboriginal people became the (free) labour source on all the stations.

A pastoralist “ordered a group off his station and was astonished when they ‘ordered me off’ their land” (p. 209).  This volume covers such accounts of resistance, the well-documented story of Jandamarra is addressed, but he clearly was not the only resistance warrior.  Owen draws the threads of resistance together and notes concerns aired in parliament about guerrilla warfare and potential hostilities (p. 204).  There is a national reluctance in Australia to frame frontier conflicts as war, and yet whole exercise more like a military operation than a civil one (p. 327). In fact, as early as 1888 it was recorded there was a “danger of the police forgetting they are a civil not military body.” (p. 202).

This is a book about conflict on a major scale.  The inherent conflict for police was between protecting pastoralists and their commercial interests versus protecting the rights of Aboriginal people.  There was an inherent tension for the pastoralist too, in that while many would be happy “when kangaroo and natives disappear” (p. 266), they also needed Aboriginal labour to make successful businesses of their pastoral holdings and investment.  There is also strong evidence of the alignment of business interests and political power, with key pastoralists also being leading politicians who had a more than significant influence on police operations and resources.  This volume shines a light on a murky history than some Western Australian pioneering families would rather ignore.

Australia in 1880s was known as the leader in social innovation in the developed world; however, the question of Aboriginal labour is a contested space.  Aboriginal people wanted to stay on country and Owen deals with this extensively. So what do we call forced labour with rations, but without wages?  Blackbirding, indentured service, indentured labour; are all terms that have been used to avoid the harsh reality of the term ‘slavery’. Australia remains uncomfortable using the word slavery in relation to its own history. However, the realities of these words have always been much the same; unpaid labour, unsafe working conditions, exploitation and abuse.  No matter what you call it, the forced labour of people for no money, with only basic rations is slavery by any meaningful definition. Again, Owen treats this topic with great care.  Prominent citizens in Perth named the issue as slavery and it was reported both here and overseas.  While the controversy continued Aboriginal people, including ones who did not sign the indenture were still liable to be imprisoned if they disobeyed pastoralists’ orders or absconded (p. 283).

The killing of Aboriginal people by pastoralists, their employees and police is widespread during the period and it is well documented throughout the volume.  Perhaps the quote about Sergeant Lavery is the most telling in that he was “the wrong type of officer for the times… in February 1893 he was disciplined for not shooting Aboriginal people” (p. 339).  Bush patrols, and bush work became the most contentious aspect of policing.  From the late 1880s onwards they became extremely dangerous with bush patrols effectively being hunting parties (p. 181).

Owen demonstrates powerfully the drastic consequences of self-government for Aboriginal people.  The hardening of political attitudes, freed of the earlier restraint of being a crown colony answerable to the London based Colonial Office, resulted in this period seeing an escalation of police patrols and elimination of resistance to dispossession and invasion of country by cattle and pastoralists.  The policing of Aboriginal people changed from one of protection under law to one of punishment and control. The subsequent violence of colonial settlement and the associated policing and criminal justice system that developed, often of questionable legality, was what Royal Commissioner Roth termed a ‘brutal and outrageous’ state of affairs. And yet, “subsequent governments were reluctant to introduce any measure that would loosen the control over Aboriginal people, even when the report had shown them to be illegal” (p.421).

Extensive documentation by the police themselves of the killings that occurred in bush patrols makes this volume an important account of Australian colonisation.  Owen settles any remaining controversy about the meaning of the word ‘dispersal’ as a police tactic (pp145-146, p.232, p.318, p.325 p.339 p. 350).

Owen’s volume outlines a recurring theme of confusion about who exactly was responsible for the welfare of Aboriginal throughout the period.  With a grey area as neither protected citizens, nor adversaries who could be conquered by force.  Owen argues this lack of legal status only re-enforced their marginalisation (p. 427).

In 1833 Noongar leader Midgegooroo was illegally executed by firing squad, without trial of hearing, in the Swan River Colony (p. 72). The illegality of Midgegooroo’s execution laid the groundwork for what that unfolded fifty years later in the Kimberley.  Intimidation became normative, the Police Commissioner Philips in 1888 wrote: “if the natives continue to give trouble and of this there is little doubt a severe example must be made of some of them and in such a manner as to have a lasting a salutary effect on them” (p. 211).

The ‘History Wars’ main field of battle was the bitter and still unresolved cultural struggle over the nature of the Indigenous dispossession and the place it should assume in Australian self-understanding.  This volume deals with this extensively.  In this review I have touched on three themes: resistance and conflict, labour and slavery, and killings for both extermination and example.  While not wanting to revisit debates about ‘genocide’ in Australia, the intent and outcome was clearly “genocidal”.  Aboriginal people in Australia have had a long history of being terrorized by white colonialism.  We cannot allow ourselves to forget that the terrible treatment of Aboriginal people in the “social laboratory of the world” was a primary contributing source for the wealth and privilege of Australian society.  The Australian history that Aboriginal people have known is not an attractive one.

Owen notes the subtle complexities of the role of police in the displacement of Aboriginal people and the complete absence of anything resembling policy (humanitarian or otherwise) about what exactly were Aboriginal people to do as their country was colonised.  Policing the Kimberley in the period under review was a fundamental change of space and power. Europeans were willing to leave their homes to establish a new enterprise; while Aboriginal people were unwillingly displaced from their lands. It is not easy to express the full reality of displacement as it is an articulation of a loss from within the displacement itself. The change needs to be considered through concepts of space, place, identity land and culture.  Owen gives a thorough overview of the change that was implemented and its impact on the future.  This volume will make a major contribution to the new Australian historiography and it is a most important reference in understanding the vexed matter of Aboriginal relationships with police in Australia.

‘Every Mother’s Son Is Guilty’ Policing the Kimberley frontier of Western Australia 1882 – 1905

Chris Owen, UWA Publishing, 2016.

ISBN 9781742586687

Stephen Hall
Stephen Hall
Lives in Perth, Western Australia.

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