Our black history: the Kurnai of Gippsland
Julian Drape - November 1998


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

It was too often murder for the whites to call it war, which is why they called it nothing at all and preferred to forget than to contemplate treaties. (1) Gippsland was pronounced a district on 13 September 1843. While there is debate over who 'discovered' the region it is accepted that both Angus McMillan and Paul Edmund de Strzelecki had explored much of the land by 1841. (George MacKillop had travelled to Omeo as early as 1835 and squatters had occupied runs near the headwaters of the Tambo River to the south of the Great Divide as early as 1837.) McMillan came over the ranges and eventually reached Port Albert while Strzelecki traversed west from the Macalister River to Western Port and then Melbourne. When Gippsland was pronounced a district Charles James Tyers was appointed Crown Lands Commissioner. In his annual report of 1843 he estimated that there were 1800 members of the Gippsland tribe. In his 1857 report to Governor Charles Joseph La Trobe he estimated that were 96 surviving members. Peter Gardner has noted that George Augustus Robinson, the so-called Protector of Aborigines, wrote that Tyers' original estimate for the total population of the Kurnai was 3000. He argues that even using Tyers' revised and most conservative figures "there is still the need to account for the deaths of 1500 people in less than twenty years." (2)

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:

No wild beast of the forest was ever hunted down with such unsparing perseverance as they are. Men, women, and children are shot whenever they can be met with. Some excuse might be found for shooting the men by those who are daily getting their cattle speared, but what they can urge in their excuse who shoot the women and children I cannot conceive. I have protested against it at every station I have been in Gippsland, but these things are kept very secret as the penalty would certainly be hanging. (8) While Meyrick appears sympathetic to the Kurnai's cause he goes on to say that while he would not shoot them in groups, "if I caught a black actually killing my sheep, I would shot him with as little remorse as I would a wild dog". (9)

Ian Clarke's work reveals that a similar view prevailed in western Victoria. The following is from the dairy of a squatter, Niel Black.

The best way [to procure a run] is to go outside and take up a new run, provided the conscience of the party is sufficiently seared to enable him without remorse to slaughter natives left and right. It is universally and distinctly understood that the chances are very small indeed of a person taking up a new run being able to maintain possession of his place and property without having recourse to such means - sometimes by wholesale . . . (9 December 1839) (10) Watson does not fail to recognise the irony that the Kurnai "resisted the white invasion to the extent that they had put fear in the heart of [one of the districts' most successful squatters] . . . but in the end white society judged them as it did the rest of the Australian Aborigines, to have given in without a fight." (11) The secrecy surrounding the massacre of Gippsland Aborigines has allowed two myths to endure: that the 'founders' of Gippsland were honourable gentleman; and that the native population gave in without a fight.

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.

From the first sighting to the final 'autopsy' McMillan led, provoked, pushed, guided and influenced the course of events . . . At best McMillan can be seen in the light of these events as a fanatic - misguided in his beliefs, and more than slightly dishonest in his methods. At worst he can be considered a rogue of some stature . . . his popularity was originally, in large part, directly attributable to his brutal and violent suppression of the original inhabitants of the region. (14) On 28 December 1840 McMillan had a letter published in the Sydney Herald which detailed what McMillan and his party had seen after they "came upon a camp of twenty-five black natives, chiefly women, who all ran away on our near approach, leaving everything they had behind them except some of their spears." (15) McMillan lists all of the possessions his party found - including "one pewter two gallon measure, one ditto handbasin, one large tin camp kettle, two children's copy books, one bible printed in Edinburgh, June 1938, one set of the National Loan Fund regulations . . ." - and then writes: Enclosed in three kangaroo skin bags we found the dead body of a male child about two years old, which Dr Arbuckle carefully examined professionally, and discovered beyond doubt its being of European parents; parts of the skin were perfectly white, not being in the least discoloured. We observed the men with shipped spears driving before them the women, one of whom we noticed constantly looking behind her, at us, a circumstance which did not strike us much at the time, but on examining the marks and figures about the largest of the native huts we were immediately impressed with the belief that the unfortunate female is a European - a captive of these ruthless savages . . . we have no doubt whatever but a dreadful massacre of Europeans, men, women and children, has been perpetrated by the aborigines in the immediate vicinity of the spot . . . (16) There was no evidence of a "massacre of Europeans" - McMillan himself wrote that they left "without being enabled to throw more light on this melancholy catastrophe" (17) - but the idea of a white woman being held captive by "ruthless savages" eventually lead to the "brutal hunting (with [by 1846] the overt support of the Government) of the Kurnai people." (18)

In 1845 "Homo" wrote a poem which appeared in the Melbourne Argus.

Unhappiest of the fairer kind;
who know the misery of thy mind
Exposed to insults worse than death
Compell'd to breathe the pois'nous breath
Of a rank scented black;
To yield to his abhorr'd embrace,
To kiss his staring, ugly, face
And listen to his clack. (19)
At this time in Gippsland there were few European women and many of the settlers raped the native women. Venereal disease had been spread among the Aborigines and was a contributing factor in the decline of the Kurnai population. Both Gardner and Watson note that many of the so-called prominent settlers of the district had the disease. They point to the diaries of Dr Ewing, who charged 10 pounds per treatment. (20)

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":

They engage as servants and get spliced very soon afterwards. I know some few instances, where men have lagged out in their best, walked into the Depot and after looking around upon the fair damsels enquire if 'any of you young women [who] want a husband will take me' - sometimes the labourer deputes his employer to choose one. As soon as the ceremony is over everyone gets mortal, or in other words groggy, often there is no accounting for what may take place. (22) Angus McMillan had Christina MacNaughton - who probably landed at Port Albert in 1852 - work as his housekeeper and bear him two children before marrying her in 1861. (23)

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:

Warman found one body with three gunshot wounds and a fractured skull on the banks of the river and eight more bodies in an Aboriginal camp nearby. He and de Villiers also freed two Aborigines who had been handcuffed together and left to stager about the bush. (26) Warman and de Villiers told Tyers of this massacre. It was thought to be the result of the official expedition, who had reported only some hand-to-hand combat in the area. Tyers instructed the official part to withdraw and, according to Watson, "estimated that fourteen Snowy River blacks had been killed by the native police." (27)

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:

Subsequently (when over the dividing range) I learnt by accident that some depraved white men had in a fit of drunkenness shot and killed some friendly natives. Mr McAllister [sic] being the first European met after the perpetration of the revolting barbarity was in accordance with their usages murdered. (30) In Robinson's account he conceals, or, as Watson says, suppresses, what he must have known of the massacre which followed Macalister's murder. He states not that the natives were killed, but that they were "completely dispersed".

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.

The brigade coming up to the blacks camped around the waterhole at Warrigal Creek surrounded them and fired into them, killing a great number, some escaped into the scrub, others jumped into the waterhole, and, as fast as they put their heads up for breath, they were shot until the water was red with blood . . . I knew two blacks, who, though wounded came out of that hole alive. One was a boy at the time about 12 or 14 years old. He was hit in the eye by a slug, captured by the whites, and made to lead the brigade from one camp to another. (33) Gardner believes that this account is "completely reliable" and that the identity of "Gippslander" can be confirmed as William Hoddniott, who was born in 1858 at Sunville, the run next to Warrigal Creek, and who died in 1942 at Bairnsdale. (34) "Gippslander" estimated that between 100 and 150 were killed in the massacre and Watson argues that it "may have been the biggest single massacre on the Australian frontier . . .". (35)

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:

. . . came upon them at 10 o'clock . . . It was my wish to endeavour to take some of these prisoners to be dealt with, and in accordance thereto I issued orders to both the Border Police and the Blacks not to fire except in self-defence, but to rush upon them and take them by surprise. When approaching the scrub however . . . one of the party fired and was followed by the whole. Not seeing the Blacks myself as a consequence of the thickness of the scrub between us, I was for a moment at a loss to know whether my orders had been disobeyed or if spears had been thrown. From inquires I subsequently made I could only learn that a native had been seen brandishing a spear, but wether with the intention of throwing it was uncertain. The natives being taken by surprise fled through the scrub, leaving everything behind them. (38) Watson notes that Tyers made a detailed list of the items left behind, but "when there were respectable settlers involved, he was never able to ascertain the number of blacks killed, or say what was done with the bodies, even in the parties he personally supervised. He did not say there were no deaths. He simply did not mention the subject." (39) In a blatant example of the law serving the interests of a certain class rather than 'justice', the two squatters who had accompanied McMillan and Tyers, Hobson and King, were in fact magistrates. When the Court of Petty Sessions had been established at Alberton the prominent gentlemen of the district had been appointed to assist Tyers in his duties. (40) Those settlers who had the ability to do something about the massacres were, on many occasions, the settlers who had committed the atrocities: naturally they were the most silent. Gardner has argued that another factor which ensured that most of the Gippsland massacres remained secret was the prosecution and hanging of the men who murdered and burnt 28 Aborigines at Myall Creek in 1838. (41)

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:

They rotted in the piles where we left 'em and soon became 'eaps o' bones. Shot all over the mountains they was, and worse over the top and Mount Buffalo, and Gippsland as well. As I said nothin' happened f' a few years and then the chief protector o' the blacks came by, Robertson I think 'is name was, and there was a big panic by the big wigs an' others involved. Well, they cleaned up all the piles bar two in time. Death Valley was well 'idden and the other pile was at Tongio. 'Oh that' said the squatters when the top guvment man asked, 'was the remains of a big fight amongst the blackfellows of Omeo and Gippsland.' He believed the lie and we all laughed 'cause we had never seen any piles o' bones like it when we first come 'ere. Then nothin' much happened till th' gold rushes started. Then about ten year ago the chemist in town stuck a dozen skulls in 'is window an' caused a stir. We all knew they come from th' valley o' the' dead but no-one said much tho' everyone knew. (43) A lie was told to Robinson and he failed to look further because it was easier continue the myth: it was less confronting to explain the deaths as a result of tribal warfare. Everyone knew the truth, including the so-called Protector of Aborigines, and they remained silent together.

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.