The Passing of the Frontier, and its Persistence

The Sunday Territorian for January 12, 2009 carried this brief notice, under the headline, “Street signs named after Alice cop removed.”

ALICE Springs’ most controversial street has lost its name.

The poles at either end of the street named after central Australian policeman William Willshire have been removed, leaving two half-metre deep holes in the ground.

Willshire St has been the subject of public debate since documentary maker Rachel Perkins called for the street to be renamed in an episode of her series on Aboriginal history, The First Australians.

Some historians have accused the frontier policeman of murdering Aboriginal people.

Willshire was tried for the murder of two Aboriginal men in 1891 and found not guilty.

Willshire St resident Gordon Fawcett, who bought his house in 1973, said removal of the street signs was “a bit sad”.

He said he had followed the recent controversy over Willshire.

He said the name should remain because Willshire St was a part of the town’s heritage. Its naming reflected the values of the era.

Mr Fawcett said: “If Willshire had been found guilty of murder I wouldn’t support the street being named after him.

“But of course if he had been found guilty the street wouldn’t have been named after him in the first place.”

Alice Springs Town Council was unaware the street signs had been removed when contacted by The Centralian Advocate.

Those who want to know the full story of William Willshire, whether their curiosity was piqued by the Territorian or by Rachel Perkins, will be amply rewarded by Amanda Nettelbeck and Robert Foster’s excellent history, In the Name of the Law: William Wilshire and the policing of the Australian frontier (Wakefield Press, 2007). The book was shortlisted for the Chief Minister’s NT History Book Award in 2008, ultimately losing out, with no shame attached, to Philip Jones’s also quite excellent Ochre and Rust (another entry from Wakefield Press).

I don’t remember when I first encountered the story of Willshire and his Centralian reign of terror: like many pioneer stories, it has passed into misty folklore absorbed unknowingly, partially, and dimly. It is briefly and vividly retold in the introductory essay, “Cowle of Illamurta,” inFrom the Frontier: Outback Letters to Baldwin Spencer by John Mulvaney, et al. (Allen & Unwin, 2000). The bare story as reported there includes nearly a decade of largely unsupervised patrolling of the cattle stations to the west of Alice Springs, “dispersal” of an unknown number of Aboriginal people, and Willshire’s eventual arrest by Frank Gillen for the murder of two native men at Tempe Downs. Taken down to Adelaide for trial, Willshire was ultimately found not guilty, but his general intransigence, his reputation for aggressive action, and his persistent refusal to document his actions led to his transfer to the Victoria River region in the north. Unable to pursue his program of pacification to the same effect in the stony and soggy Top End, Willshire applied for transfer back to South Australia, where he lived out his days in a series of postings to small country towns.

Nettelbeck and Foster’s book tells this story in far greater detail, of course, but also with far greater nuance. While in the end they do not hesitate to expose the cruelty of Willshire’s ambition and his ability to exploit Aboriginal men for their murderous ability with a shotgun and Aboriginal women for their sexual services, they are also able to see Willshire as a man of his times. His will to power was fed by the praise and support of the pastoralists who were engaged in taking the Central Australian lands for their own. His failure to follow proper police procedure was tolerated by his superiors until it could no longer be ignored in the face of changing urban attitudes. Willshire sustained his own self-image as the heir to the great mid-century explorers like John McDouall Stuart by publishing a series of books that had pretensions to serious anthropology, dashing adventure narratives, and best-selling romances of exploration and danger amongst savage cannibals and “dusky maidens.” But his brutality and self-righteousness led to his downfall.

Three things distinguish Nettelbeck and Foster’s treatment of this story. The first of these is their even-handed conduct of the examination of the evidence. They have an ability to present the narrative in a fashion that is objective and yet at the same time reveals the varying attitudes of the pastoralists, the police, the missionaries, and even the Aboriginal people involved. Accustomed as I am to reading accounts of the violence of the nineteenth-century frontier that espouse a clear perspective, that take sides in the “history wars,” I was at first a bit flummoxed in my attempt to discern a point of view. But the dispassionate presentation of facts gives a clarity to the conflict. And in the end, especially as Willshire’s arrogance and sense of grievance escalate, the authors’ point of view become clear: Willshire was a man who stepped over almost every bound.

The authors also offer a dispassionate analysis of the other major battle on the frontier: that between the pastoralists and their police allies on the one hand and the missionaries on the other. Each side had its vocation, be it the opening of the frontier or the salvation of souls. Both factions faced enormous difficulties and both sides were guilty of inhumanity in the pursuit of their goals. Neither cared much for the aspirations or the needs of Indigenous occupants of the interior who were simply and tragically caught in the crossfire of colonial and religious ambitions.

The second surprising and delightful aspect of this history is the use that the authors make of Willshire’s publications about his adventures and “investigations” into Aboriginal culture. Between 1888, when Willshire was still unchallenged on the frontier, and 1896, when his career was in tatters, Willshire published The Aborigines of Central Australia,Thrilling Tales of Real Life in the Wilds of Australia, and Land of the Dawning: being facts gleaned from cannibals in the Australian Stone Age (the last dealing with his time in the Top End). The titles themselves reveal something of Willshire’s self-image and intent in each volume, ranging from proto-anthropologist, to latter-day explorer, and finally reflective commentator. The first of these titles is available in a digitized format from the University of Adelaide Library (follow the link) but all are otherwise quite rare these days. The authors have provided a valuable service in summarizing the contents of the books. Beyond that, they have added piquancy to the portrait of Willshire. He gets to speak eloquently, if damningly, for himself; at the same time Nettelbeck and Foster place his efforts in both historical and literary contexts. As a counterpoint to the objective historical narrative of In the Name of the Law‘s early chapters, the analysis of Willshire’s literary pretensions forms a delightful and edifying psychological portrait.

The third and final contribution Nettelbeck and Foster offer is a look beyond Willshire and the late nineteenth-century frontier. First of all, they position Willshire himself at the end of an era. He was a man whose outlook was forged both by heroic tales of Inland exploration, and by a mid-century view of the hostile frontier. But by the time he reached his maturity and was operating his patrols, both the age of exploration and the age of the “untamed savage” were largely past. The Overland Telegraph had cut through the heart of Australia almost twenty years earlier. And the Aboriginal inhabitants of the lands surrounding Alice Springs were becoming integrated into the pastoral economy. At the moment Willshire was arrested by Frank Gillen in 1891, most pastoralists looked upon the Indigenous population more as a vital and even essential source of labor than as a threat to their livelihoods and their stock. By the time he was in a position to realize his ambitions, Willshire was already an anachronism.

The final pages of In the Name of the Law carry the story into the twentieth century, from the brutal legacy of pastoral revenge at Coniston, through Willshire’s iconic status in Alice Springs, where as the Territorian‘s news story indicates, he is still regarded as both a hero and a disgrace, up to his reincarnation as the model for the Mounted Constable in Rolf de Heer’s 2002 film The Tracker. The extensive bibliography extends from contemporaneous primary and Parliamentary sources through the latest historical scholarship. All together, Nettelbeck and Foster have produced a highly readable and equally scholarly examination of an individual whose life reflected a period of significant change on the frontier, and yet whose legacy remains alive even today.

I referred above to John Mulvaney’s From the Frontier: Outback Letters to Baldwin Spencer. Although the letters from Mounted Constable Ernest Cowle and telegraph operator Patrick “Pado” Byrne contained in this superb collection date from 1894 onwards, and thus after the time when Willshire was active on the frontier around Alice Springs, they nonetheless have much to offer in their first person accounts of the times and the challenges faced by men in the Outback at the turn of the twentieth century. Cowle, whose brief included duties similar to Willshire’s, is particularly illuminating on the hardships of life at the edges of settled country.By chance, I happened to pick up In the Name of the Law after finishing a new biography of John McDouall Stuart, the man who gave his life over to charting the passage from Adelaide to Darwin that enabled the construction of the Overland Telegraph and the settling of much of Central Australia. Mr Stuart’s Track: the forgotten life of Australia’s greatest explorer (Pan Macmillan Australia, 2006) is another eminently readable history, a sympathetic biography, and rip-snorting adventure in the bargain. Like From the Frontier, it provides interesting and valuable insights into the conditions that surrounded Willshire’s career as well as a portrait of a man whom Willshire must have earnestly admired.

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