This paper deals with aspects of early encounters (1839-65) between the Kurnai tribe of Gippsland and the white invaders who settled there. It examines how the settlers justified their massacre of Gippsland Aborigines and the secrecy surrounding the killings. In this context the following will be discussed: the role of Angus McMillan, the Scottish Highlander who eventually became known as the 'founder' of Gippsland; the extent of Aboriginal resistance to settlement; the myth of the captive white woman; the Warrigal Creek massacre; and the manipulation and continuing denial of these histories.
This paper is based largely on the work of Peter Gardner, Don Watson, and a first-hand account of a massacre included in Amelia Angoves's mt. nugong no.22: poems and stories.
Killing the Kurnai
The colony's penchant for recording such information allows for an empirical analysis of the tragedy of the white invasion. The statistics are a starting point.
Gardner argues that the normal explanations for the disastrous decline in populations were "disease, displacement, alcohol, tribal warfare and massacre." He writes: "Until recently little emphasis was placed on massacres." (3) According to Don Watson, Tyers similarly "always maintained that it was internecine war, disease, and the indiscriminate brutality of the native police which accounted for the drastic decline in the Kurnai population." (4) Watson claims that "Tyers was disingenuous" and his "reports to La Trobe concealed more than they revealed." (5) There seems little doubt that some tribal warfare did take place, "largely precipitated by the breaking down of traditional barriers to communication". And disease introduced by the white intruders also played a part. "But," writes Watson, "it is equally certain that a substantial proportion of the original population was slaughtered by whites." (6)
All accounts written during the 1840s included in Gardner's and Watson's work reveal that the Kurnai resisted the European settlement of Gippsland by spearing sheep and cattle and sometimes attacking homes and murdering individual travellers and shepherds. Gardner contends that the Gippsland Aborigines were more fierce than other Port Phillip Aborigines and that they resisted violently, in some areas up to 1850. (7) The white response to this (apart from compiling detailed lists of the number of stock killed) was to murder and hunt the Kurnai until their numbers dwindled.
Henry Meyrick, who arrived in Gippsland in 1846, wrote:
Ian Clarke's work reveals that a similar view prevailed in western Victoria. The following is from the dairy of a squatter, Niel Black.
Although no further excuse than the breaking of a sheep's legs was necessary to incite the settlers to murder, certain incidents during the 1840s pointedly illustrate Watson's statement that "An act of rebellion was an act of suicide." (12) In 1843 the Port Albert Aborigines killed Ronald Macalister, the nephew of one of the most eminent settlers in the district, Lachlan Macalister, which resulted in the Warrigal Creek massacre. And from 1840 until 1847 it was a perceived act of rebellion, that of stealing a white woman, that lead to the Kurnai being hunted. A decade later Tyers wrote: "My firm opinion is, and it was the opinion of Mr La Trobe, that there never was a white woman among the blacks." (13)
The myth of captive the white woman
In his book Our Founding Murdering Father Gardner discusses the role of Angus McMillan in the affair of the supposed capture of a white woman by the Kurnai.
In 1845 "Homo" wrote a poem which appeared in the Melbourne Argus.
The hypocrisy of the settlers is astounding. While they were outraged and became murderous at the thought of a "rank scented black" holding a white woman against her will, they were raping the native women. And when they eventually brought white women to the district to "provide proof of civilization" (21) in the 1850s, they treated them, on the whole, appallingly. In 1859 John Pettit wrote of the "fairer kind":
The myth of the captive white woman lead to numerous unofficial search parties between 1840 and 1846, many of which resulted in Aborigines being murdered. While there appears to be little primary evidence of these expeditions, there was much publicity surrounding the private expedition led by C L J de Villiers and James Warman, and the government supported "official" expedition mounted by McMillan, Tyers and the native police; both of which set out in 1846. (24) Warman's party believed they were close to finding an Aboriginal man named Bunjeleene, who was supposed to by holding the white woman, near Lake King and the Tambo and Nicholson rivers. In December they reached the mouth of the river and "found what they took to be evidence of a massacre." (25) Watson writes that:
Interest in the captive white woman eventually petered out after McMillan claimed in 1847 that he had seen the body of a murdered white female at Eagle Point where Dr Arbuckle was again on hand to provide certainty at the autopsy.
For seven years a myth provided the settlers of Gippsland with what they believed was an excuse or even an obligation to shoot natives. Tyers himself, who never really believed in the woman's existence, estimated that at least 50 Kurnai had been killed in hunts for the woman. (28) The settlers, who had an interest in degrading and killing the Gippsland Aborigines, had tried to disguise their hypocrisy and racism and greed as chivalry.
The Warrigal Creek massacre
In July 1843 Ronald Macalister, nephew of Lachlan Macalister, was killed by natives near Port Albert. Lachlan Macalister was the man who had employed Angus McMillan to search out land in Gippsland and he was one of the most prominent settlers. There is debate over why Macalister was killed. It is possible that his murder was in retaliation for an injustice which either he, or some of the men from his station, committed against the local Aborigines. When George Robinson, the so-called Protector of Aborigines, was told of Macalister's death by McMillan and Tom Macalister, he wrote that there had been an "unprovoked murder" of a white man, and the blacks "as might have been expected were completely dispersed." (29) He later reported that:
The 'dispersal' of the natives occurred after "every Scotchman who had a horse and gun gathered" (31) and formed what became known as the Highland Brigade. It is probable that McMillan himself was the leader of this party. (32) An account by "Gippslander" of the following massacre was published in the Gap magazine in 1925.
However because of the secrecy surrounding the murders at the time, and because the history has been manipulated and continually denied, the events of Warrigal Creek are relatively unknown and are only now becoming accepted.
Calling it nothing at all
It has been illustrated above how Robinson was prepared to re-write history in his report on the Warrigal Creek massacre. However perhaps more telling is the absence of any incriminating detail in the notes and reports of Tyers, who, as a settler of Gippsland himself, knew the true extent of the killings. Watson writes that "at no point in his accounts of contact with the Gippsland Aborigines, over more than a decade, did he name a single white in specific connection with the death of a black . . . he wrote with great care." (36)
Watson reveals that in 1844 Tyers was told of a punitive raid after some cattle had been speared. Tyers wrote: "Mr McMillan and other pursed them and came up with them on the Ranges - Blacks poised their spears - party fired - not known if any blacks were killed. Number of blacks said to be 200." (37) On a separate occasion in 1844 Tyers joined McMillan and some other settlers, including Edwin Hobson and John King, in pursuing natives after some of King's and Macalister's cattle had been speared. He writes:
Bushy Park was McMillan's station in Gippsland and Watson writes that: "The 'defence' of Bushy Park [in 1840-41] was a massacre and everyone must have known it when the Crowns Land Commission arrived." (42) Similar sentiments can be found in Caroline Dawson's 1867 account of her interview with a Mr Parsons who claimed to have been involved in a massacre. After describing the manner in which he and the others caught and shot the natives, Parsons says:
While there are innumerable instances where McMillan was involved in hunting and shooting Gippsland Aborigines - so many that Gardner titled one of his chapters on McMillan in Our Founding Murdering Father "The butcher of Gippsland" - he is most often thought of as the heroic 'discoverer' of the district. It is perverse that in many false histories he is described as a benefactor of the Aborigines.
This re-writing of history - which allowed the Gippsland Guardian to say that McMillan's "station at Bushy Park might well be called the Benevolent Asylum of Gippsland" (44) - occurred after many of the surviving Kurnai came to the stations, including Bushy Park, in late 1849 or 1850. (45) Gardner acknowledges that McMillan was probably more generous in providing basic supplies to the Aborigines than many of his fellow squatters. But the only reason the Kurnai were at Bushy Park camp was because McMillan and his like had previosly all but wiped them out. Gardner says that in return for handing out mutton and other supplies, McMillan "obtained a large, if in many cases unreliable, workforce." He writes that because of the gold rush labour was scarce and expensive, so that McMillan's handouts "may have been quite a bargain." (46)
In a further display of the settlers' attempts to re-write their history, Angus McMillan was appointed an "Honorary Correspondent" of the Central Board for the Protection of Aborigines, on 30 August 1860. The irony could not have been lost on the Gippsland Aborigines.
At the end of her 1867 account Caroline Dawson writes: "Now my book will be out soon, published by a respectable house in London. It is unfortunate that they thought my visit to Karbungarah and my interview with Parsons too gruesome a story, and therefore unsuitable for inclusion in my frontier tales." (47) More than a hundred year after a "respectable" publishing house in London continued the legacy of silence surrounding the Gippsland massacres, Gardner has found that people still don't want to know. He believes this is because recognition of the events "upsets profoundly the balance and perspective of current histories." (48) A review of Gardner's Our Founding Murdering Father notes that the "work will be unacceptable to many who would prefer to bury the past . . .". In introducing the book Gardner writes: "It is disappointing that some historians refuse to accept the overwhelming evidence . . .". He continues: "The title has been chosen to be deliberately provocative . . . it is critical because most of the work that has appeared on McMillan has been shallow, and almost sycophantic in its praise and admiration of its subject . . .". He believes that it is important to tell "the darker side of the effects of what is euphemistically called white settlement." (49)
Evidence that secrecy still surrounds the killing of the Kurnai is provided by Gardner's requests to access the diaries of Dr Ewing, which are held privately. He was refused in 1980 and again in 1986. He believes, however, that "unless the documents are destroyed" (50), the truth will eventually surface.
In a preface to the 1988
edition of Through Foreign Eyes, Albert Mullett, one of the elders
of the East Gippsland Aboriginal community, writes:
One point we can stress is that the Aboriginal race did not pass away as many people think. In spite of what happened, we survived . . . What they didn't know was that many [Kurnai] had escaped up into the hill country to the north and east of Gippsland and that there were Aboriginal communities up there that the Europeans didn't know about, communities that survived right through to this century . . . Gippsland has traditionally had a high proportion of the Aborigines living in Victoria and still does. The events described in this book couldn't stop that. (51)
People might not want to know the truth about the Kurnai of Gippsland, but they are being told.
1. Don Watson, Caledonia
Australis: Scottish highlanders on the frontier of Australia (Sydney:
William Collins, 1984) 183.
2. Peter Gardner, Through Foreign Eyes: European perceptions of the Kurnai tribes of Gippsland (Churchill: Centre for Gippsland Studies, 1988) 35.
3. Peter Gardner, Gippsland Massacres: the destruction of the Kurnai tribe 1800-1860 (Ensay, 1983) 23.
4. Watson, 163.
5. Ibid., 164.
6. Ibid., 164.
7. Gardner, Gippsland Massacres, 23.
8. Henry Meyrick, quoted in Watson, 170.
9. Ibid., 170.
10. Niel Black, quoted in Ian Clarke, Scars in the Landscape: a register of massacre sites in western Victoria 1803-1859 (Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies: 1995)
11. Watson, 179.
12. Ibid., 169.
13. Charles Tyers, quoted in Watson, 178.
14. Peter Gardner, Our Founding Murdering Father: Angus McMillan and the Kurnai tribe of Gippsland 1939-1865 (Ensay, 1987) 50.
15. Angus McMillan, quoted in Watson, 161.
16. Ibid., 162.
17. Ibid., 162.
18. Gardner, Our Founding Murdering Farther, 49.
19. Homo, quoted in Watson, 163.
20. Gardner, Our Founding Murdering Farther, 53.
21. Watson, 154.
22. John Pettit, quoted in Watson, 155.
23. Watson, 156.
24. Ibid., 173.
25. Ibid., 175.
26. Ibid., 175.
27. Ibid., 175.
28. Ibid., 178.
29. George Robinson, quoted in Watson, 168.
30. Robinson, quoted in Gardner, Through Foreign Eyes, 44.
31. Watson, 166.
32. Gardner, Gippsland Massacres, 47; Gardner, Our Founding Murdering Father, 38; Watson, 167.
33. Gippslander, quoted in Gardner, Gippsland Massacres, 47.
34. Gardner, Our Founding Murdering Farther, 36.
35. Watson, 166.
36. Ibid., 164.
37. Tyers, quoted in Watson, 164.
38. Ibid., 164-165.
39. Watson, 165.
40. Ibid., 149.
41. Gardner, Gippsland Massacres, 23.
42. Watson, 164.
43. Parsons, quoted in Caroline Dawson, "The sugar bowl" (1867), mt nugong no.22: poems and stories by Amelia Angove (Ensay: Ngarak Press, 1992) 23-24. There is a remarkable similarity between Parsons' account and that of the "participant", which Gardner discusses in Gippsland Massacres, 92-94. Gardner argues that the "participant's" first-hand account is of a Western District massacre involving the Whyte brothers of Konongwootong, present day Coleraine.
44. Gippsland Guardian, quoted in Watson, 187.
45. Gardner, Our Founding Murdering Father, 57.
46. Ibid., 58.
47. Caroline Dawson, "The sugar bowl", mt nugong no.22, 24.
48. Gardner, Gippsland Massacres, 51.
49. Gardner, Our Founding Murdering Father, 5.
50. Ibid., 53.
51. Albert Mullett, quoted in Gardner, Through Foreign Eyes.