Steve Kinnane launches Every Mother's Son is Guilty by Chris Owen

Australian history Chris Owen Indigenous studies Steve Kinnane


Steve Kinnane, Adjunct Research Fellow at the Nulungu Research Institute, launched Every Mother's Son is Guilty: Policing the Kimberley Frontier of Western Australia 1882-1905 by Chris Owen on Thursday 17 November 2016. 


I would like to acknowledge the Whadjuk Noongar Traditional Owners of Walyalup where we are meeting tonight to Launch Chris Owen’s definitive, authoritative, exhaustively researched and ground breaking work, EVERY MOTHER’S SON IS GUILTY: Policing in the Kimberley Frontier of Western Australia 1882 – 1905.

I think Chris asked me to launch this impressive work because, well, we’re mates. We’re also colleagues and Chris knows how much I value the work that he has done in the collaborative, but also often times, combative landscape that is Aboriginal history in Western Australia, and indeed the nation.

I think Chris also asked me because I’ve spent a bit of time in the archives myself, tracking this history, and being a Miriwoong Marda-Marda from the East Kimberley, tracking some of the very policemen, pastoralists, countrymen and women that Chris as tracked, so much more diligently than I ever could. Here I would like to echo Senator Patrick Dodson’s wonderful preface to Chris’ book, in thanking Chris, as a Kimberley man, for the service that he has done in facing up to this incredibly rich, powerful, hidden, complex, harrowing and challenging history with such honesty, skill and humility


It could also be for the fact that my own family, through my grandmother, Jessi Argyle, who was taken from her country in the East Kimberley with a group of Countrymen chained at the neck in just the manner that Chris has described in great detail within this book, that he asked me to speak tonight.

Regardless of the reason, it is an honour and a privilege to have been asked to speak to Chris’s long and important work, so, thank you Chris.


Only today, Chris’ partner, Gretta, posted a congratulatory Facebook message stating that Chris had been working on this book as his PhD since before they met! And over those long years, he has been working full-time, has carved out a career as a notable historian, has written and co-written numerous chapters and papers, another award-winning book, and, he and Gretta have grown up their twin daughters; all in the middle of the making of this book! That is dedication that we are all the richer for Chris having hung in there.


Every Mother’s Son is Guilty is a compelling history. While focused on the Kimberley Region of Western Australia, its evidence and analysis deals with intrinsic lessons of the colonial frontier in this country and will be of vital interest to readers of Australian history, Indigenous studies, frontier relations, colonialism, political economy of the frontier, policing, and frontier criminal justice. The narrative is expertly structured to provide readers with the context and frameworks through which to experience this very complex and confronting history, and deftly moves between the wider historical context, politics and culture of the period, as well as the personal narratives of the individual players, in particular the Police.


While focused on the Kimberley Region of Western Australia, the wider national and international foundations provide the context for the unfolding impacts for Indigenous peoples of the Kimberley, and beyond. It has Prime Ministers History Prize written all over it.


Anna Haebich has written of ‘Fever in the Archives’ and Elfie Shiosaki of the archives as sites of reconciliation and historical social justice, as much as sites of contested historical analysis.


Through the use of many carefully chosen case examples based on rigorous historical research and analysis, Chris draws the reader into the narrative through a considered and balanced interpretation of the accounts and actions of the Police (primarily through primary Police reports).   The individual aspirations, tensions and conflicting realities of the other key actors; Indigenous peoples, pastoralists, politicians, magistrates, missionaries and other settlers, are similarly reanimated from the archives.


The descriptions of the treatment of Kimberley countrymen and women is harrowing to read, but is an essential element of this history revealed through newly uncovered evidence and balanced, considered analysis. The voices of Aboriginal witnesses, through archival and secondary sources, are appropriately and subtly woven, while keeping the focus on the Police at the heart of this story. Indigenous views permeate the book richly and are given equal weight to the archival record.


This is expertly written historical analysis that has delivered a significant contribution to Australian and frontier histories as part of the new canon of historians turning their gaze, and the Nations’ interest, to Australia’s colonial foundations. Through Chris’ analysis, we are able to understand this complex and rich history, and in doing so, the very real impacts of these actions on the lives of Aboriginal peoples of the Kimberley, with occasional comparison with other parts of Northern Australia. Chris has done an incredible justice to this history, and to the memories of those who lived it; Indigenous and non-Indigenous.  And in doing so, offered us the mature path to reclaiming and reanimating our shared histories - not one that shouts of a march of progress, but one that reveals our humanity within the phases of systemically imposed narratives that it is histories role to question and interrogate.


Frontier histories have come to prominence in recent years following national historical debates regarding the interpretation of settler and Indigenous relations and conflicts. This debate; often referred to as the History Wars, has focused a wider readerships’ attention on the interpretation of evidence of frontier experiences as much as the narratives of the key groups and individuals of the time.


Every Mother’s Son is Guilty investigates the Kimberley Frontier from an entirely new perspective. Through an examination of the foundations of policing within the British Empire and the subsequent construction of the Western Australian Police Force and its activities in the Kimberley Region, Chris has created a unique standpoint from which to understand the complexities of these frontier conflicts.


Within this regional focus, he has also provided one of the most concise examinations of the History Wars I have read to date.  


Chris, of course, has ‘form’, as a Kimberley copper would likely not have said, but a Kimberley Marda-marda might imagine coming from their mouths, with respect to writing significant history. This ‘form’ exists as his track record in publishing historical research in scholarly journals, and of course, his award winning collaborative work; ‘It’s still in my heart, this is my country’ The Single Noongar Claim History, Owen, C. and Host, J., UWA Press, 2009.


This work was awarded the 2010 Human Rights Medals and Awards for Literature (non-fiction), and the 2010 Margaret Medcalf Award. Few would have thought that history of a native title claim could achieve such awards and reach a wide audience, and yet it was successful in doing so because of the rigour, the respect and the plain hard work and serious questioning that is Chris’ approach to his craft.


This work forms part of a new field of Australian history that revels in the complexity of our past from a generation of Australian historians who have had increasing access to new evidence that has enabled new interpretations of the Nation’s past.


This history crosses many boundaries from the vantage point of the evidence created by the Police who were actors, observers and servants of significant and powerful elites. It provides a very significant contribution that will be valued by a wide readership and is also valuable as a significant contribution to Australian historiography. And very importantly, it shines a light on the foundation of the many intergenerational traumas that Aboriginal communities are experiencing, and have been working for over a century to transform.


I commend this work, and congratulate Chris in carrying through to create something unique that will stand the test of time.

 Every Mother's Son is Guilty cover image

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