Face to face with bloody legacy of my forefather
Ancestor committed genocide against Aborigines
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’