Face to face with bloody legacy of my fore­fa­ther

An­ces­tor com­mit­ted geno­cide against Abo­rig­ines

Scottish Daily Mail - - The Great Celebrrity House Price Slump - by Cal Flyn

IN 2011 I was on hol­i­day with my mother in Skye, the place where she grew up. We were road-trip­ping, walk­ing in the hills and stop­ping at sites of fam­ily sig­nif­i­cance: my un­cle’s croft, the court­house where my fa­ther and my grand­fa­ther worked and the site of her fam­ily home.

In Portree we took shel­ter from the rain in the ar­chive cen­tre. It was hold­ing an ex­hi­bi­tion on the is­land’s di­as­pora, and it was there that I learned some­thing about my her­itage that stopped me in my tracks.

Amongst the curl­ing regis­ters and mono­chrome images of kilted High­landers in their brave new worlds – Amer­ica, Canada, Africa, In­dia, Aus­tralia, New Zealand – I came upon a por­trait of a severelook­ing man with strong fea­tures and a white chin­strap beard. An­gus McMil­lan, read the la­bel, an ex­plorer in early Aus­tralia, dis­cov­erer of a re­gion called Gipp­s­land, near mod­ern-day Mel­bourne.

Be­side the por­trait, a copy of an old, hand-drawn map of the land he pi­o­neered was pinned to the board. The la­bels were en­chant­ing: ‘Snake Is­land’, ‘Mount Use­ful’, ‘Shoal La­goon’.

‘An­gus McMil­lan!’ said Mum. ‘He’s a rel­a­tive of ours… I re­mem­ber my fa­ther telling us about him when we were chil­dren. He was very proud of it. There are whole ar­eas named af­ter him, I think.’

McMil­lan was my great-great grand­fa­ther’s brother. Un­til this dis­cov­ery I had never un­der­stood the ap­peal of fam­ily his­tory, the draw for all those anoraks por­ing over their blood­lines in the back rooms of li­braries. But the idea of hav­ing this swash­buck­ling re­la­tion was a source of fas­ci­na­tion.

I looked him up in The Aus­tralian Dic­tio­nary of Bi­og­ra­phy: ‘An­gus McMil­lan (1810–1865), ex­plorer and pi­o­neer pas­toral­ist… McMil­lan 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. Soon af­ter, I stum­bled upon a copy of Ken Cox’s florid ha­giog­ra­phy, An­gus McMil­lan: Pathfinder and I pored over it, un­der­lin­ing the most flat­ter­ing pas­sages.

My ap­petite for in­for­ma­tion was lim­it­less and there was plenty to find. But one too many searches brought me fi­nally to 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 cold­blooded murder of hun­dreds of abo­rig­ines.’

I read the sen­tence again and felt a grad­ual un­spool­ing in­side me. The next para­graph ham­mered the point home: ‘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 1843 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.’

I had stum­bled upon a dark se­cret. Far from the ro­mance of fam­ily folk­lore, An­gus McMil­lan ap­peared to be a dark char­ac­ter re­spon­si­ble for some truly ter­ri­ble deeds. And more than that: over re­cent years, his name has come to sym­bol­ise some of the very worst ex­cesses of Aus­tralia’s vi­o­lent colo­nial past.

This dis­cov­ery deeply un­set­tled me. By al­low­ing my­self to bask in the re­flected glory of his achieve­ments, by in­dulging my­self with mus­ings upon the heroic traits we must share, I had opened my­self to the idea that our con­nec­tion was mean­ing­ful, and now I found my­self trou­bled and oddly shame­ful.

My con­fused re­ac­tion re­minded me of a con­cept I’d once stum­bled across in a book: ‘in­ter­gen­er­a­tional guilt’. It de­picted a gen­er­a­tion of Ger­mans who felt a pro­found feel­ing of guilt and re­morse for their na­tion’s role in the Holo­caust, though they had not yet been born when it took place. They have a word for it in Ger­many: Erb­schuld. Sin that tran­scends gen­er­a­tions.

At the time I had flicked through the pages with dis­in­ter­ested cu­rios­ity, but now I rolled back through their rea­son­ing. I couldn’t help but won­der: what re­spon­si­bil­ity for our an­ces­tors’ ac­tions have we each un­wit­tingly taken on?

What of the Abo­rig­i­nal group McMil­lan had vic­timised, I won­dered. What hap­pened, and what were the con­se­quences? What state were they in now? And what should I do now that I knew?

I thought it over for a long time. Fi­nally, I packed my bag and set off for the other side of the world. I had to find out. There in per­son, in Gipp­s­land, Aus­tralia, I soon be­gan to piece to­gether what had re­ally hap­pened.

Peter Gard­ner, a lo­cal his­to­rian, has de­voted many years to un­cov­er­ing what he called the ‘Black War’ of Gipp­s­land – the un­of­fi­cial state of war be­tween the Euro­pean set­tlers and the in­dige­nous Gu­nai (some­times ‘Gu­naikur­nai’) through­out the 1840s and into the 1850s, dur­ing which time the Gu­nai pop­u­la­tion was estimated to have dived by more than 90 per cent, from 1,800 (at least) to barely more than 100. I went to visit him at his home in Bairns­dale, where he made me a cof­fee be­fore dis­ap­pear­ing into a back room and reap­peared hold­ing a stack of his books.

Af­ter strug­gling to find a pub­lisher for what was, at first, a con­tro­ver­sial re­vi­sion­ist his­tory, he had printed them him­self. The top­most ti­tle gave me a start: Our Found­ing Mur­der­ing Fa­ther. Un­der­neath was a pic­ture of McMil­lan, hand in hand with two black men, one of whom seemed to be hold­ing a spear.

The books were foren­sic, pam­phlet-like: tubthump­ing polemic, care­fully ar­gued and backed with ev­i­dence fil­leted from early set­tlers’ di­aries and let­ters. His main sources – the cast of char­ac­ters in a murky pas­toral drama – were out­lined with deftly drawn char­ac­ter sketches.

The mas­sacres them­selves were neatly dis­sected: dates, lo­ca­tions, names of known par­tic­i­pants, estimated death tolls. As­terisks marked the most likely spots on inky hand-drawn maps.

The worst in­stance, by a long way, was the clash de­scribed in that re­port I’d stum­bled upon: the War­ri­gal Creek mas­sacre, one of the blood­i­est episodes on the very bloody Aus­tralian fron­tier. In all, any­where be­tween 80 and 200 Gu­nai peo­ple were slaugh­tered that day, wip­ing out in a sin­gle as­sault a sub­stan­tial por­tion of the south­ern Bra­towooloong clan.

And, lead­ing from the front, at the heart of it all, An­gus McMil­lan. The Butcher of Gipp­s­land. My great-great-great un­cle. I came away chilled and un­happy. Es­sen­tially, Gard­ner’s books were a char­ac­ter as­sas­si­na­tion. Ev­ery one of McMil­lan’s achieve­ments, so lauded in the an­nals of Gipp­s­land, had been called into doubt. Our Found­ing Mur­der­ing Fa­ther. I re­peated the phrase in my mind, again and again.

‘It’s quite some­thing to meet a de­scen­dant.’ Ricky Mul­lett had come to see me on his lunch­break. He worked for the Gu­naikur­nai Land and Wa­ters Abo­rig­i­nal Cor­po­ra­tion (Glawac),

a body set up to take own­er­ship of what was once the Gu­nai home­lands.

Since 1992, when the land­mark Mabo rul­ing struck down the ba­sis of the orig­i­nal Bri­tish claim to the Aus­tralian land­mass, Abo­rig­i­nal groups that can demon­strate an un­bro­ken con­nec­tion to their home coun­try since coloni­sa­tion can lodge a claim to have their ‘na­tive ti­tle’ to the land recog­nised.

The Gu­nai were ac­cepted by the courts to be the tra­di­tional own­ers of more than 8,500 square miles of Gipp­s­land, al­most a fifth of all the state of Vic­to­ria’s Crown land, in 2010; they were also awarded a set­tle­ment worth around £6mil­lion and joint con­trol of ten na­tional parks and re­serves in the area – recog­ni­tion of the harm done to their peo­ple, although much of the dam­age is ir­repara­ble.

I shook the prof­fered hand, laughed to cover up my 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.

‘I should re­ally be buy­ing you lunch,’ I told him, ‘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 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 that 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.

What Mul­lett said was true. There was no de­fence. Over the past months I had been build­ing up a pic­ture of life on the fron­tier: the con­di­tions that al­lowed these atroc­i­ties to take place. The lack of gov­ern­ment, the lack of pro­tec­tion for those set­tling in out­ly­ing re­gions, the ha­tred and de­rang­ing fear of the ‘hos­tile blacks’, the band­ing to­gether of the set­tlers like broth­ers.

McMil­lan was no devil in dis­guise; I had read his di­aries, and found him a nor­mal, vul­ner­a­ble man full of love for his fam­ily and hope for the fu­ture. In his jour­nal on the voy­age from Scot­land to Aus­tralia, he had writ­ten res­o­lu­tions for his new life in the New World. One read: ‘I re­solve I shall live as I shall wish I had done when I come to die.’

Was this how hoped he would come to be re­mem­bered? I doubted it. And yet, he had com­mit­ted ter­ri­ble crimes. Of that I had no doubt.

This find­ing was the one that trou­bled me the most. If some­one like McMil­lan, the pi­ous, Eey­ore-ish young man I had come to know through his jour­nals, could turn mass mur­derer in the few years be­tween ar­riv­ing in Syd­ney in 1838 and the War­ri­gal Creek mas­sacre in 1843, could any­one be ca­pa­ble of the same? Could I? The Gu­nai too believed in Erb­schuld, or at least a vari­ant of it, Mul­lett said. They thought that the of­fences of an in­di­vid­ual could bring a curse upon his re­la­tions: break­ing the laws of the com­mu­nity would bring bad for­tune upon the whole fam­ily over many years and in un­pre­dictable ways.

McMil­lan’s im­me­di­ate fam­ily were in­deed af­flicted by in­cred­i­ble bad for­tune, long af­ter his death. He died aged only 54, in­ca­pac­i­tated by rheuma­tism in a down-at-heel road­house, leav­ing his wife Christina and two chil­dren al­most pen­ni­less. A few years later, Christina be­came un­hinged by a ‘painful melan­cho­lia’, and threw her­self into a river.

Their el­der son, Ewen, in 1826 was burnt ‘be­yond recog­ni­tion’ while clear­ing a gorge of bram­bles. He was left in tremen­dous pain, hav­ing been burned in­ter­nally, his limbs ‘burnt to the bone’, and died five years later, leav­ing only An­gus Jr who prospected for gold ‘with­out suc­cess for the re­main­der of his life’, dy­ing in 1836, from a long ill­ness.

Was it curse, karma or coin­ci­dence that struck the McMil­lans down? In the end, I sup­pose, it doesn’t mat­ter: they are dead, and – touch wood, touch wood – the curse, if there was one, does not seem to have ex­tended to my own gen­er­a­tion, or my par­ents’.

But to me it is not thoughts of gen­er­a­tional curses that keep me awake at night, but ques­tions of re­spon­si­bil­ity. So many of our po­lit­i­cal con­ver­sa­tions in today’s Bri­tain seem to cir­cle around these is­sues of col­lec­tive colo­nial guilt, and there is no clear an­swer.

But per­haps a use­ful ex­er­cise is to as­sume that yes, it can, and to act ac­cord­ingly. Do no evil; and if you have in­her­ited guilt, do what you can to make it right.

Thicker Than Wa­ter: His­tory, Se­crets and Guilt: A Mem­oir by Cal Flyn is pub­lished by Wil­liam Collins on June 2, £16.99

‘Geno­cide’: An­gus McMil­lan

Chill­ing dis­cov­ery: Cal Flynn, the great-great-great niece of An­gus McMil­lan, ‘Butcher of Gipp­s­land’

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