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October 2007 Issue
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Retelling our violent Colonial history


In their latest book, University of Adelaide researchers Associate Professor Amanda Nettelbeck and Dr Robert Foster bring to life a history of frontier conflict and violence in 1880s Central Australia.

In the Name of the Law tells the story of Mounted Constable William Willshire who was Commander of Native Police in Central Australia and was notorious for the unchecked violence of his patrols throughout the 1880s. He was eventually tried in 1891 for the murder of two Aboriginal men.

This book is the authors' second joint exploration of frontier conflict and how Australian Colonial history sits within today's social memory. Their first book, Fatal Collisions: the South Australian Frontier and the Violence of Memory, written with Rick Hosking from Flinders University, was published by Wakefield Press in 2001.

Willshire proved to be fertile ground for an interdisciplinary study (Associate Professor Nettelbeck is in the Discipline of English and Dr Foster, the Discipline of History).

"The book is focused on the one hand around the history of these extraordinary events - his violent policing of the frontier, his control of the Native Police," Dr Foster said. "The other side is that Willshire himself wrote about what he did in a series of small pamphlets. Some of his writing has more the quality of 19th century imperial romance adventure novels."

"His story emerges at a time when the frontier was becoming the subject of pioneer legend and reminiscence," said Associate Professor Nettelbeck. "He was able to live out a myth in the making."

Dr Foster said Willshire, in his writings, quoted and saw himself as a Rider Haggard, King Solomon's Mines adventure hero.

"This Australian frontier is already being romanticised in many ways, but he's actually living it out. It's a very interesting interplay of art imitating life and life imitating art which is made all the more dramatic by the fact that what he's doing is serious - people are dying, he's shooting them," Dr Foster said.

The Nettelbeck/Foster collaboration on the nature of frontier conflict and its place in social memory has continued with an Australian Research Council (ARC) linkage grant with the South Australian Museum, now in its last year.

A third book they are starting to write will move away from the case study approach towards an empirical analysis of the South and Central Australian frontiers: the levels of violence, how many people died, the circumstances involved. It will then look at how the memory of conflict has survived and the extent to which it has been mythologised.

Associate Professor Nettelbeck and Dr Foster will talk about their book at an author event on Thursday 25 October at 6.30pm in the Ira Raymond Room, Barr Smith Library. Please book by emailing or call (08) 8303 4064 by 23 October. A gold coin donation is invited.

In the Name of the Law is published by Wakefield Press and is available via the publisher's website or local bookshops.

Story by Robyn Mills

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Mounted Constable William Willshire (second from left) photographed with members of the Native Police at Port Augusta, 1888
Photo courtesy of the South Australian Museum

Mounted Constable William Willshire (second from left) photographed with members of the Native Police at Port Augusta, 1888
Photo courtesy of the South Australian Museum

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