Every Mother’s Son is Guilty, Chris Owen

Every Mothers Son is Guilty

The most shocking thing about the photo of Kimberley (WA) Aboriginal prisoners on the front cover of this book is that it was produced at the 1905 Western Australian Royal Commission “on the Condition of the Natives” as part of the Police’s defence!

Police from Wyndham, a port in the far north, would go out into the bush for weeks at a time arresting Aborigines who they thought were complicit in the killing of cattle. Without warrants, and often without complaints from the station owner concerned –

in a morning raid, where there may or may not have been shooting of people allegedly resisting arrest, known as ‘dispersal’, men, and at times, children as young as ten would be detained, arrested and charged with the criminal offence of cattle killing.

… the accused would be neck chained and chained together at a distance of just 61 cm [2 feet] apart.

Neck chaining was approved by Police Regulations for desperate prisoners, but was in fact not used down south, and was only used in the north for Blacks, where its use was almost universal. Witnesses too would be chained and all would be forced to walk up to 24 kms a day in tropical heat, for distances of up to 400 km to the provincial centres of Broome, Halls Creek and Wyndham (map). Overnight they were left chained, and were further chained around trees. On arrival, they would be chained to bolts in the floors of their gaols. Trial was by a local JP, who could be the offended property owner, or a senior policeman. Typically they were gaoled for three years, with or without whipping, during which time the chains were not removed

The neck chains used at Wyndham weighed 2.4 kgs [5 lb] and the links were so strong they could only be opened with “a hammer and chisel with the prisoner’s head on the blacksmith’s anvil”, a process that would take up to ten minutes.

Every Mother’s Son is Guilty (2016) arose out Owens’ PhD thesis into the history of policing in the Kimberley from 1882, when the first police stations were established, to 1905, which marks the release date of the findings of the Roth Royal Commision. I was alerted to it by blogger Kindness, who commented on another post (I’m sorry, I forgot to note which one). I have the book on intra-library loan, which is a mistake at this time, as I have too much to do for AWW Gen 3 Week to do it justice.

Roth apparently had limited time and resources – as is usual when governments only wish to give the appearance of making an investigation – and his report covers only the years 1901-04.

If he had examined reports from the earlier period he might have discovered a considerable body of evidence describing dubious policing and legal practices, extensive violence towards Aboriginal people and a colonial culture that not only tolerated this violence but one that often encouraged it.

As the cattle (and sheep) barons, in the 1880s, pushed into the West Kimberley from the south, and into the East Kimberley – eg. the Duracks – from the NT and Queensland where they already had a history of widespread murder to protect their properties, the people being displaced began to fight back. Referring to Wyndham in 1894, Premier John Forrest said, “A sort of warfare was going on there between the whites and the blacks.”

… Aboriginal groups were involved in conflict, utilising the enormous semicircle of ranges and hills along the Napier Range from Derby in the West Kimberley to Wyndham in the East Kimberley… Aboriginal people killed more Europeans in acts of resistance on Warwa, Nyikina, Unggarangi and Worowa country in the West and on Kadjerong country in the East than in the area in and around Bunuba country where [famous outlaw] Jandamarra was fighting.

Stories of those times, and particularly Mary Durack’s Kings in Grass Castles (1959),  gloss over the killings of Blacks, though her father admitted elsewhere that following the spearing of Big John Durack in 1886 “a lot of blacks were shot”.

In the Index the author lists 12 massacres, only one of which, Pinjarra, I have previously covered. And I also need to do a post on Jandamarra. I will do my best to get to them all during 2020.

Since I wrote the above, the closure of the Eyre Highway connecting Perth with the eastern states has given me more time than I expected so I have written another (very long) post based mostly on the material in this book, which I will put up after Australian Women Writers Gen3 Week which starts on Sunday.


Chris Owen, Every Mother’s Son is Guilty: Policing the Kimberley Frontier of Western Australia 1882 – 1905, UWAP, Perth, 2016

19 thoughts on “Every Mother’s Son is Guilty, Chris Owen

  1. My concentration on reading has been affected by current events, but I have finally finished the chunkster I started on New Year’s Day and will get cracking on the Devanney…


  2. I haven’t quite started but will this weekend!

    Good post Bill. We have been 10 Wyndham and Derby, and seen one of those prison trees to which indigenous men were chained. Horrendous – as is that photo on the cover as you say.


  3. Oh god, what an awful picture on the front, never mind the contents. It’s so important these things are not forgotten and are talked and written about. But horrible, horrible.

    Have been hoping you’re OK, of course we have all the misinformation and crap maps here so it’s hard to see what’s what. Presumably the highway is closed for fires/smoke?


    • Yes, that’s what I think. Truth before Reconciliation. And we have a government and an opposition full of weasel words about both.

      I loaded today in the hope that the highways into and out of Norseman (at the western end of the east west road) would be opened. It seems they have and I will find out for myself in a few hours.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I honestly never understood the obsession with protecting one’s property to the point of killing someone. There are a few situations I see in the U.S.: 1) someone is accidentally on your property for a few minutes, 2) someone is squatting on your property and won’t leave, and 3) someone is on your property taking resources (lumber, etc).

    In the States, people love to holler about how if someone sets ONE foot on their property, they’ll blast that person’s head off with a gun. And it happens. There are even cases of people getting shot by police entering their OWN homes because folks assume a black person couldn’t possibly own a nice home. It’s wild how I see videos from the U.K. of people accidentally going into the wrong home and sleeping off a night of heavy drinking to wake up and find the owners laughing at the folly and making the drunk breakfast. You’d be so dead in the U.S.

    Anyway, all this is to say that there is an obsession with property and controlling people in a way that I don’t think has ended; it just looks different.


    • There is a further complication in colonial situations and that is that both parties are absolutely certain that it is their property. The white settlers generally had local Aborigines continuing to live on the property and used shooting ie. murder, to discourage the taking of cattle.


      • Were First Nations people used as free farm labour or as cowboys? I get the impression from fiction that settlers kept pushing them back from all usable land so that they tended to live apart from each other. Many Aborigines were forced to live in reserves but they also lived on the edges of towns and on all the large outback properties.


    • Always pleased to hear from the author. It’s an excellent work and well-worth the time you put in (I have a daughter doing an endless PhD at UWA). We in the white majority rarely acknowledge the death and misery our prosperity is based on and until we do, until we acknowledge that it continues, the idea of ‘Reconciliation’ is meaningless.


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