In the Name of the Law: William Willshire and the Policing of the Australian Frontier
Wakefield, $29.95 pb, 227 pp
William Willshire was Officer in Charge of the Native Police in Central Australia from 1884 to 1891, when he was charged with the murder of two Aborigines. He was acquitted, but was regarded by his superiors from then on as something of a liability, ending his career in an uneventful posting in Cowell on the Yorke Peninsula. He wrote three books about his life as an outback hero, glorifying himself as an anthropologist and sentimental champion of the people he had policed with ignorant brutality.
Nettelbeck and Foster allow Willshire to condemn himself by his own words and actions. He was not unusual, of course. As they point out, ‘Some of the worst violence on the Central Australian frontier coincided with Willshire’s tenure as Officer in Charge of the Native Police, but to explain that violence with reference to Willshire alone, as a consequence of his personality, would be a mistake. Willshire was an aberrant personality, egotistical and narcissistic, but these traits better explain the extraordinary nature of the record he left to posterity, than the actions he undertook as a Mounted Constable,’ which ‘had the tacit approval of [his] superiors and were in accord with a well-established frontier tradition.’
It is not known how many Aborigines were killed on this frontier during this period. Contemporary records say about forty-four, but ‘a broader range of evidence suggests a figure closer to 650’. His colleagues were equally violent, but Willshire’s literary activities mean that it is his career which is now being examined and adjudged, with ample justification, as criminal and appalling – though Nettelbeck and Foster are admirably measured, and thus effective, in their expressions of abhorrence: the quoted passage is unusually strong.