Accessibility Tools

  • Content scaling 100%
  • Font size 100%
  • Line height 100%
  • Letter spacing 100%

Gillian Dooley reviews "In the Name of the Law" by Robert Foster

by
December 2007–January 2008, no. 297

In the Name of the Law: William Willshire and the Policing of the Australian Frontier by Amanda Nettelbeck and Robert Foster

Wakefield, $29.95 pb, 227 pp

Gillian Dooley reviews "In the Name of the Law" by Robert Foster

by
December 2007–January 2008, no. 297

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.

Gillian Dooley reviews 'In the Name of the Law' by Robert Foster

In the Name of the Law: William Willshire and the Policing of the Australian Frontier

by Amanda Nettelbeck and Robert Foster

Wakefield, $29.95 pb, 227 pp

Leave a comment

If you are an ABR subscriber, you will need to sign in to post a comment.

If you have forgotten your sign in details, or if you receive an error message when trying to submit your comment, please email your comment (and the name of the article to which it relates) to ABR Comments. We will review your comment and, subject to approval, we will post it under your name.

Please note that all comments must be approved by ABR and comply with our Terms & Conditions.