Cal Flyn The Australian 23 April 2016
The massacre at Warrigal Creek was one of the bloodiest episodes on the very bloody Australian frontier. In all, somewhere between 80 and 200 Gunai people were slaughtered that day in July 1843, wiping out in a single assault a substantial portion of the southern Bratowooloong clan. The leader of the Highland Brigade, Angus McMillan, was a Scot who had fled the horror of the Highland Clearances, during which thousands of his countrymen were forced from their land to make way for sheep, only to re-enact brutal clearances of his own upon this new land: Gippsland, the south-eastern corner of Australia. McMillan was a tough, pious and lonely man. A man who had struggled through miles of unknown territory, built new homes with bare hands, met tribes who had never seen or even known of white skin. He was a man who cut tracks, felled trees, shot strangers dead.
He was the “Butcher of Gippsland”. He was my great-great-great uncle.
I’ve spent the past decade scrambling for footholds and handholds, pulling myself ever onward, ever upwards. Shift, move, adjust, and shift again. It was only when my bough began to bend, and creak under my own weight, that it occurred to me to think: How did I get here? Where did I come from? Who is behind me?
('Thicker than Water' HarperCollins, $29.99)
Home for me is the Scottish Highlands and, on a two-week break from my job in London, I returned for a jaunt with my mother around the haunts of her youth. From our home on the Black Isle we headed west, through the green pastures of the east coast and up into the bleak heather moors that characterise the north and west, skirting the lochs that split the country along its weakest fault. We talked about family, her family – all these vivid characters to whom I am bound inextricably but have never met, the people who define so much of my identity.
The island of Skye, off Scotland’s west coast, is central to my family’s history. It’s where my mother grew up and where her father’s family were from, and it’s also where my parents met, when my father came to work for my maternal grandfather. We drove around, stopping at sites of family significance. In the main town, Portree, we were drawn to a poster promising an exhibition on the Skye diaspora. The exhibition in the town’s archive centre was small – photocopied documents pinned up on blue felt display boards, old photos of kilted Highlanders in their brave new worlds: America, Canada, Africa, India. I was enchanted by a copy of an old hand-drawn map, a segment of coastline blown up on the photocopier to cover an A3 sheet. The information tag read: “Robert Dixon’s map of Gippsland, Australia, showing the stations occupied by the squatters, 1845 ... The detailed insert shows the Macalister River, named by explorer Angus McMillan…”
There was a monochrome portrait of the explorer stapled to the board alongside: a sober, severe-looking man with strong features and a white chinstrap beard. He wore a tweed three-piece and cravat, and looked off into the middle distance from under heavy brows. “Angus McMillan,” came Mum’s voice from behind me. “He’s a relative of ours. I remember my father telling us about him when we were children. He was very proud of it. Angus was an explorer in Australia when it was first being settled. There are whole areas named after him. You’ll have to ask your uncle Myles, he’ll know more about it.”
Until this moment I’d never understood the appeal of family history, the draw for all those anoraks poring over their bloodlines in the back rooms of libraries. I wasn’t sure why it excited me so much to learn of this swashbuckling relative.
I called my uncle Myles, who lives in London. He did know more about the family explorer. “He discovered a region in Australia and opened it up for the British. The area he discovered was called Gippsland, after Sir George Gipps, the governor then. You might have to go and find out all about it.”
More research was needed and it started promisingly, with the entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography: “Angus McMillan (1810-1865), explorer and pastoralist… pioneered Gippsland and spent the rest of his life contributing to its welfare… He died while extending the boundaries of the province he had discovered. Although he received little wealth from Gippsland, his journals and letters and those of his contemporaries reveal him as courageous, strong and generous, with a great love for his adopted country.”
I read the entry with a thrill of pride, printed it out and basked in the reflected glory. Soon after, I stumbled upon a second-hand copy of Ken Cox’s florid hagiography, Angus McMillan: Pathfinder (“the story of one man’s battle against natural obstacles”), and I pored over it like a gospel, underlining the most flattering passages.
My appetite for information was limitless and there was plenty to find. But soon enough I made an uncomfortable discovery. It started with a single, sobering sentence in a news report dated 2005: “A Scottish pioneer revered as one of Australia’s foremost explorers faces being erased from maps amid accusations that he was responsible for the cold-blooded murder of hundreds of aborigines.” I skimmed it quickly, with an odd dropping sensation. “The aborigines are calling for the electoral district of McMillan in the southern state of Victoria to be renamed out of respect for the men, women and children they say were slaughtered by Angus McMillan and his ‘Highland Brigade’ in the massacre of Warrigal Creek. The massacre was one of several attributed to McMillan, originally from Glenbrittle, Skye, and his band of Scottish settlers, who… are accused of carrying out a genocidal campaign against the aborigines for a decade.”
“Oh,” I thought. Just: “Oh.” Not sadness or disappointment or the trundling, wondering, what-does-this-mean? All of that came later. I was simply stopped short. I opened up the search bar again and began to type. “Angus McMillan,” I started, then paused to assemble my thoughts. As I hesitated, a list of search suggestions popped up unbidden from Google: Angus McMillan Gippsland. Angus McMillan explorer. Angus McMillan massacres.
I clicked the third option, with a thrill of anxiety. Soon I had drawn up a list of dates and places and sketchy details of what, I learned, have become known as the Gippsland Massacres. The place names alone invoked a chill.
1840-41, Nuntin: Angus McMillan and his men kill unknown numbers of Gunai people in skirmishes during “the defence of Bushy Park”.
1840, Boney Point: During one such skirmish, “a large number of blacks” are pursued and shot down at the confluence of Perry and Avon rivers by McMillan’s men.
1841, Butchers Creek: McMillan’s stockmen chase and shoot down “a party of blacks” at a headland to the north of Bancroft Bay.
1842, Skull Creek: Unknown number are shot down west of Lindenow in reprisal for the deaths of two white shepherds.
1843, Warrigal Creek: More than 80 (as many as 200) shot down by Angus McMillan and his men following the death of Ronald Macalister.
I’d stumbled upon a dark secret. Far from the romance of our family folklore, Angus McMillan appeared to be responsible for some truly terrible deeds. And more than that: over recent years, his name has come to symbolise the very worst of Australia’s violent colonial past.
I returned to London determined to put the whole sorry business out of my mind. But I couldn’t forget what had been, for me, a momentous discovery. From my reading I had been presented with two characters: McMillan the hero – the hard-working, generous Scot honoured with plaques, portraits and cairns; and McMillan the villain – a bloodthirsty tyrant who rampaged through the bush, cutting down unarmed women and children. But what was the truth?
I struck upon the idea of travelling to Australia to retrace his journey, as closely as I could, in search of the answer.
“It’s quite something to meet a descendant,” said Ricky Mullett, a cultural officer from the Gunaikurnai Land and Waters Aboriginal Corporation in Bairnsdale, who’d come to meet me on his lunch break. I shook his hand and laughed to cover up my sudden rush of awkwardness. “Great-great-great niece, actually. Not a direct descendant.”
There was a short pause while he seemed to be deciding whether or not to laugh. Then he led me across to a café, where he bought me lunch in a courtyard under trailing vines. “I should really be buying you lunch,” I said, “for taking time to meet me.”
His gaze crossed mine like a sword. “You’re a guest in my country. We, the Gunai people, are your hosts.”
“Thank you,” I said. “But it’s a strange situation.”
He inclined his head. “Yes. Well. I don’t really like to talk about any of this any more. I’ve had enough of it. But you did keep calling, and… I believe in what you’re doing. I think it’s important.”
“Thank you,” I said again.
“This trip must have been confronting for you.”
Confronting: a word Australians use when discussing anything that deals with unsettling – often race-related – issues head-on.
“Confronting… Yes, it’s been that, I suppose.”
Too flippant. He looked at me a little oddly. “You know what happened? That your ancestor and his men slaughtered my people? I say ‘slaughtered’ on purpose, because that’s what they did.”
I nodded mutely.
“You know the stories? You know the official death toll is only a fraction of the true total? It was inhuman, what they did to my people. Killed them. Massacred them. Tortured them. Raped them. Murdered them. Your relative… he decimated my people. And he got away with it.”
His eyes were shining. I felt him watching me for a response, but I didn’t have one. I just nodded to show that I understood, and agreed. Sunlight streamed cleanly between the vine leaves, dappling his face and the table. A waitress stopped by to deliver him his milkshake, bringing a touch of the banal to the intense negotiations we seemed to be thrashing out. “Now,” he continued, relenting, “I don’t hold any personal grudge against you or your family.”
“Why not?” I blew out my cheeks. “Don’t we owe you something?”
“Owe what? Who’s ‘we’?”
“I don’t know. Me? The Australian descendants? More land? Private land? Land that’s still in the hands of the old squatting families? Rule their original claims invalid?”
He shook his head, shutting his eyes as he did so. I already knew why. Native title legislation was divisive enough when only Crown land was handed over, and in limited form. I kept on. “How about efforts to reconcile within the community? I heard that there are groups that…”
“Reconciliation,” he scoffed. “Reconciliation is a myth. The only reconciliation I believe in happens one on one. That’s what we’re doing now.” He gestured to the table, hands opening gracefully, conductor to orchestra.
“Speaking to each other on a level. One on one. And this – me and you, sitting together at a table – this is very symbolic. Isn’t it?”
We sat talking for three hours. We discussed what I’d learned on this trip, the experiences he’d had, the problems that seemed so intractable, the past that seemed so irreversible. On the way out, we stopped to pay the bill. Ricky knew the waitress well, and paused to introduce me. “This is Cal Flyn,” he announced. “Her great-great-great uncle was Angus McMillan.”
“Ah yeah?” She smiled at me encouragingly.
“Her relative was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of my people, the Gunaikurnai people. She’s come here all the way across the world, at great cost and personal discomfort. And emotional discomfort.”
The waitress nodded, smile fixed in place, not sure of the appropriate response.
“Tomorrow we’re going to go on a tour of massacre sites together,” Ricky added.
There was a pause. “Well,” she said finally. “You enjoy that. Bye now.’’
McMillan in a photo used on a “Souvenir of Gippsland Centenary”. Picture: State Library of Victoria
Box’s Creek is a sheltered inlet that cuts into the hillside behind a limestone bluff beside Lake King. It is deep and shielded from even the wildest of the winds that roar in off Bass Strait, so it has become a firm favourite among the yachties who frequent the upmarket seaside village of Metung. It’s a beautiful spot. Although it is debatable, perhaps, whether it would be quite so popular as a holiday destination had it retained its original name, Butcher’s Creek.
“Can you see it?” asked Ricky. I aligned my gaze with his outstretched finger.
“Yes, I think so.”
“McMillan’s men chased them all the way from Bushy Park, trapped them up on that bluff, and shot them down into the water. Crowds of them. Are you all right with this?” Ricky studied my face, looking for shock or squeamishness. But I was only grim now, my teeth gritted, exhausted by the scale of it all. The endlessness of the horror that kept emerging from under every stone.
One more stop. The top of a red limestone cliff. Eagle Point, it was called. It offered an unparalleled vista of the Gippsland low country, stretching out before us, golden and rippling in the breeze, illuminated with the gold leaf of the evening sun. “Beautiful!” I gasped.
“Beautiful country… yes. But stained.”
I’d never even heard of this massacre, but the story had been passed down in Ricky’s family. It was the worst one yet. Here, the fleeing Gunai were herded together like cattle and forced from the clifftop, he said. Men, women and children. Think of the hysteria, the crush, the desperation, as feet scrabbled for purchase and hands grasped for handholds. Men stood on the opposite bank of the river below, shooting any survivors. The bodies all washed out to sea.
“It was your people who did this. But of course, the same happened to them. It was in their make-up, in their past as a people. The same that’s in your make-up, in your mother’s make-up.”
I scowled, thinking, Don’t bring my mother into this. Although, I realised, I’d done that myself already, in pursuing my great theory of intergenerational guilt. But Ricky must have seen my rebellious expression, because he tried to defuse the tension: “Not that I have bad feeling towards you. Or your mother. We won’t forget, but we don’t bear a grudge.” A pause, before he wondered out loud, “But what is your motivation for all this? What question are you hoping to answer?”
My thoughts had crystallised now. “I suppose what I really want is to understand how a person can do these things. Evil things. Because Angus McMillan was not evil. I’ve read his diaries. He seems like a normal guy. A bit like me in many ways.” Ricky raised his eyebrows disbelievingly.
“So, if you think he’s like you – and part of him is in you, in your blood – you want to understand what it would take to turn you into a mass murderer?”
There was a long pause. “Yes,” I admitted.
He shook his head at my folly. “You won’t understand. You’ll never understand.”
But I didn’t believe him.
Edited extract from Thicker than Water by Cal Flyn (HarperCollins, $29.99)
Some images and captions included by Sovereign Union
Gippsland Massacres: the Destruction of the Kurnai Tribes, 1800–1860, Peter Gardner, Ngarak Press, Ensay, Victoria, 1993