David Marr long wanted to write a book of Australian colonial history.
A journey through the annals of a dark period of this country's history of slaughter and dispossession, coupled with Marr's own family story, has given the journalist and author a new sense of what the colonies were.
"They were just cesspits of crime. ... Petty crime, major crime, land theft and slaughter. It was a grubby business being an Australian colonist. Grubby, grubby business," he says.
In 2019, Marr's uncle asked him to find out what he could about his great-grandmother, Maud. It didn't take him long to find a photograph of Reginald Uhur, Maud's father - Marr's great-great-grandfather - in the uniform of the Native Police.
The force comprised of Aboriginal men commanded by white officers, tasked with protecting the white settlers and clearing out the land's first inhabitants. Reginald Uhr, Marr writes, was a "professional killer of Aborigines. Then I discovered his brother D'Arcy was also in the massacre business".
Native Police forces killed thousands. The true number is uncertain, obscured by time and archival gaps. They raided and murdered Aboriginal people with a stark brutality, supported by the squatters who had taken up vast tracts of land in Australia.
Marr says he knew he had to tell the story of his family's involvement. The result is a new book, Killing For Country: A Family Story. Marr says it is really three biographies: the businessman who brought them out to Australia, his great-great-great grandfather who lived on the frontier, and his two sons, the officers in the Native Police tasked with killing.
"I want to try to get in perspective that the shock and shame I experienced in 2019 led me to a door, and when I walked through that door there was a much bigger project there than simply putting it up my family; though I did do that," Marr says.
Across 60 years, about 1200 people served in the Native Police, 300 of whom were white. There are an awful lot of descendants left behind, Marr says.
"My view is that I'm not guilty," he says. "I didn't raise a rifle. I didn't gallop into a sleeping camp at dawn. ... I didn't do any of the things that the Native Police did," he says.
"But I am ashamed of what they did, and my shock and shame started me on this project. But it was not long before I realised that the discomfort I was feeling is only a detail in the national discomfort of this history - once you face this history - inevitably brings.
"I didn't write to exorcise some kind of personal embarrassment. ... I wanted to explain how it was that the colonies in eastern Australia set up this killer force that operated for 60 years. And I discovered that my family and its connections had a role every step of the way."
Marr says he does not reckon he could have written the book without discovering there were people, both in Australia and England, saying from the beginning that the massacre of Aboriginal people was wrong. There are politicians, church figures and journalists who emerge as opponents of the slaughter and violence.
"Australia was going to be colonised. There's no use fantasising another fate for this continent in which it was somehow not colonised," he says.
But it didn't have to be this way, with every acre taken, no treaties struck and violence too often the first response.
"I've written a lot about race and to my embarrassment, I never thought to myself, 'I wonder if my family had any role in the Frontier Wars?'," Marr says.
"Bits and pieces of my family have been in this country since the Second Fleet. They were not paying passengers on the Second Fleet, if you get my meaning. And they've been around in this country for as long as white settlement.
"Essentially, it never crossed my mind that I was in anything but a bubble of goody-goodies."
Marr says part of the shock he experienced when faced with the ugly reality of what his ancestors had done was because he had never thought his own family would have been involved.
"And it's a shock available, I think, to tens of thousands of Australians, if they paid a little attention to where their forebears were in the bush, in the 1860s, '70s and '80s in particular," he says.
Working alongside his partner Sebastian Tesoriero, an expert internet sleuth, Marr's book compiles the bloody story of the Native Police: of cover ups, massacres, and the actual quantity - acres by the million - of land taken.
Not everyone whose forebears were involved in the Frontier Wars has wanted to step through the door to understand and acknowledge the history, Marr says. We were different then, some have said.
Marr disagrees: "My view is people don't change, times do and times can excuse terrible things. But people don't change; greed and cruelty and goodness are the same in any generation."
He has a plan to stand up at book events and read out some of the names of the white officers who served in the Native Police. Does anyone in the audience recognise the names? Do they have cousins with these surnames?
"I think this stuff is hard to face, but we will be a much better country when we do face it. And my view is that not everybody can be expected to face this in any detail, but they can be expected to face the fundamental fact that this is a conquered country," he says.
"This is an inescapable, fundamental fact that obliges us to deal with our history and not pretend that it was Cook, sheep, gold, Glenrowan and Gallipoli. That's not Australian. That's not the story of Australia.
"The story of Australia is a long war of little engagements and terrible bloodshed."
Colonial history can seem both distant and yet terribly close to the present-day politics of this country. The bush-city divide, the influence and power of the big landholders, serving self-interest over any other interests.
Even badgering so-called city elites to shut up about wanting better treatment of Indigenous people - none of, Marr points out, it is new.
Marr says "that mode of ridiculing good people, which I had thought was modern, is as old as time in this country". It's all there, recorded in colonial newspapers, made word-search accessible on the National Library's Trove system.
"One of the things that has never really changed is tremendous national meanness when it comes to supporting Indigenous Australians," Marr says.
"At a time when almost all their land was being taken and almost nothing was being done for their welfare, there are [colonial-era] newspapers raging about the waste of public money because a little money goes to a mission station somewhere.
"And I hear in the referendum campaign whinging about the billions apparently wasted on Aborigines.
"It's clear in the 1840s, it's clear in the 2020s: it's the same national meanness."
Marr says he has been alert to the racist undertones in Australian political life since The Bulletin sent him to Cairns after the 1974 election to find out why voters had turned against Labor under the leadership of Gough Whitlam.
"The race hatred directed towards Gough spewed everywhere," he says.
"There was this hatred of blacks being privileged - and they used the word 'blacks', of course. That they were being privileged, that they did not deserve these privileges, that any money spent on them was wasted. It was a very uninhibited racism."
That story, which ran in the July 13, 1974 issue of the magazine, quoted Bill Fulton, the long-serving Labor member for Leichhardt whose margin shrank in '74, saying, "The government is not getting the Aboriginal problem over here very well. White people up here are hostile because they feel discriminated against.
"In Mossman ... there are two families living next door to one another. One's black and one's white. They both work in the mill at the same wage but the black fella gets $80 a week for sending his kids to the high school. It's easy to understand."
Marr couldn't find the two families, concluding they were probably an invention. That attitude was alive in the colonial era, it was alive half a century ago and the Voice referendum campaign has shown it to be alive now.
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It's an accident Killing For Country is being published in the final weeks of the referendum campaign. A foreseeable accident, but one nonetheless. Marr admits the book is two years late.
"If it were timed for the referendum debate, it would have been out six months ago. I am so sorry that it is only appearing in the last fortnight of this national reflection," he says.
The referendum is "toast". Marr says opponents have sought to humiliate Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and do not care what the campaign and result does to the country.
"It's done for, there's no way. I mean, what do we do as a country when we look around the ruins of this campaign? ... It's going to be awful.
"And in the course of that national reflection, I hope this book might be useful."
- Killing For Country: A Family Story is published by Black Inc on Tuesday.
- David Marr will be in conversation with Frank Bongiorno at a free ANU/Canberra Times Meet The Author event on Thursday, October 5. Register at anu.edu.au/events.