A few days ago, in response to Alexander Downer’s laughable assertion that his family are a family of “nation builders”, I used some of the views of Sir Alick Downer and Sir John Downer to contrast them with the current IPA-inspired regressive views of Alexander and his daughter Georgina. The views of Sir Alick and Sir John were, for their time, quite progressive, especially with regard to women’s rights and deportees. However, several people pointed out to me that Sir John’s attitudes were only progressive for white people1. For aboriginal people, they were devastating.
Historian Tony Roberts argues there was a systematic slaughter of Aboriginals to facilitate the development of large pastoral leases, many of which form the basis of much of the wealth controlled by the rich in modern Australia. As Roberts states: “when you know who owned the stations on which Aboriginals were killed and the names of the politicians who knowingly allowed it to happen, you also know the ‘who’s who’ of colonial Australia … this is why some people still want this history to remain hidden”2.
One of the most notorious of those associated with the slaughter of Aboriginals was Police Inspector Paul Heinrich Matthias Foelsche2, although you would never know this when you read his 1972 biography3. In 1881, three drovers had been killed in some sort of exchange with local Aboriginals near the southwestern corner of the Gulf of Carpentaria, where dozens of Aboriginals had been killed at about the same time. Soon after Sir john Downer became Attorney General of the South Australian Government (which then had jurisdiction over what is now the Northern Territory), he received a letter (dated 2 July 1881) from Foelsche. The latter asked the government for immunity from prosecution for his men, so they might kill sufficient numbers of Aboriginals to teach them a severe lesson. He said he wanted to “inflict severe chastisement if the government will legalise it” and to “punish the guilty tribe without trying to arrest murderers”. There were dozens of massacres in the Gulf Country while Downer was attorney-general (1881-1884) and both premier and attorney-general (1885-1887), and in 1885, he ignored a detailed report tabled in parliament that warned Aboriginal people were facing extinction. Downer took no action against those involved in the 1884 massacres, despite some of the names of the alleged perpetrators being published in the Territory press4.
If this was what Alexander Downer meant by his family being nation-builders1, and if he accepts that these massacres were part of whatever it took to build the nation, then he is a poor excuse for a human being.
The city of Canberra has a suburb named Downer. It was named after Sir John Downer (1844-1915), who turned a blind eye to massacres of Aboriginals throughout his jurisdiction. Allowing massacres to occur, when you have the power to stop them, is being an accessory in the perpetration of the crime. The suburb needs to be renamed.
Very pleased to read your powerful piece about the Downer family, August 3, 2018. I certainly agree that the Canberra suburb named after Sir John Downer, who authorised or condoned countless massacres of Aboriginal people, should indeed be renamed.
Little has changed over the generations. When John Downer’s grandson was the Minister for Foreign Affairs in the Howard government in 2006, he refused to help David Hicks, the young Australian who was never proven guilty of any crime, yet Downer allowed him to be detained unlawfully, inhumanely, at Guantanamo Bay. Once again we saw no trace of humanity, no regard for justice, from a prominent member of the Downer family.
Thanks. This sort of stuff is too easily swept under the carpet. I am almost certain that if you quizzed Alexander Downer he would use phrases such as ‘it was a long time ago’ or ‘it was the times’. It is a disgrace.
Hi tony ? Hoping you may see this post as am keen to contact you about an exhibition I am preparing about Ludwig Leichhardt and the gulf country – email@example.com
I have contacted Tony directly and given him your correct e-mail address. Best of luck.
Thanks so much – my email is actually firstname.lastname@example.org
Really interested in your articles cheers Simon
Thanks. It was what I had to do to stop myself shouting at the television.
Alex Downer today 26thMay 2022 “ I don’t know much about these matters” speaking on ABC Q&A program..
Very last remarks made by him on why we should have an indigenous voice to parliament – what an entitled monster!
He knows his ancestors were murderous bastards. He just feigns ignorance.