Category Archives: Australian history

‘Me Write Myself’ by Leonie Stevens


2017, 331 p.

It’s not often that I close up a history book with a “Well done!”, but I did with Leonie Stevens’ beautifully written Me Write Myself. Right from its quietly restrained front cover, through to its ending which rounds off and yet expands and invites further conversation, this is a exquisitely crafted book.  It works on so many levels: as narrative, as critique and as history.

Stevens mounts her argument right from the subtitle on the cover:  ‘The Free Aboriginal Inhabitants of Van Diemen’s Land at Wybalenna’.  “Wybalenna?” you may ask. It’s more commonly known as Flinders Island, most often characterized as the doomed settlement off the coast of Tasmania, where the remnants of the Tasmanian Aboriginal tribes were shunted to be forgotten in silence by colonists and colonial officials alike, in the 1830s and 1840s.  And “free inhabitants?” Wasn’t this a form of concentration camp, on the way to what was seen to be an inevitable extinction? In Stevens’ hands, we see that  these are not victims but “free aboriginal inhabitants” and not silent, even though historians may silenced them, often while bemoaning their fate.

Flinders Island, for a place so small, has attracted the attention of historians, right from James Bonwick in 1870 through to Henry Reynolds.  The publication in 1987 of N.J.B. Plomley’s gigantic Weep in Silence,  with its 1034 pages, might have been thought to have exhausted all there is to say on Wybalenna. Not so.

Stevens starts her book in a crowded, metaphorical baggage-room where we ‘check-in’ our assumptions, narratives and language.  First there’s the question of names, often Europeanized and of slippery orthography. Then there’s scientific racism, underpinning the rationale of colonialism and assuaging guilt, and seeping through much of the historiography of Wybalenna, right up to recent writing, which sees it as a narrative of tragic and helpless death. Then there’s the question of credibility of sources and this is where Stevens steps right up. She takes historian Ann Laura Stoler’s term “the hierarchy of credibility” and turns it upside down to give priority to the VDL texts over European texts.  This is where Stevens’ approach is new.  She depicts the texts relating to Wybalenna as a pyramid.  The deluge of government reports, memoirs, newspaper reports and journals from which other historians have drawn their work form the large base of the triangle. Up from them are the texts recorded by Europeans where VDL First Nations people ‘speak’ as their words are transcribed and collected. Right at the apex are the texts written by VDL First Nations people themselves: texts that have been largely sidelined by historians and dismissed as ventriloquistic curiosities, parroting the views of white chaplains and superintendents, and of little worth in themselves. By placing them at the top of the hierarchy of credibility, “the VDL word takes on an urgency and new level of insight, revealing a more nuanced, personal, human story.”(p. xxx)  Finally, the metaphorical baggage-room is full of historians, especially white historians, who have either “made such fervent use of the extinction myth” or “fetishised frontier violence under the guise of critiquing it.” (p.xxxi). Stevens is only too aware that she is “a white 21st century mainland writer studying VDL history” and she is “mindful of her position on the metaphorical dance card” (p. xxxii)

This history, on which we now embark, is one constructed, wherever possible, from VDL sources. The mantra will be We do not need yet another European history of VDL people. It is the simplest way of keeping the baggage in check. ( p.xliii)

The organization of the book is basically chronological, but the VDL texts lend a thematic approach. The first two chapters set the scene, with the short Chapter 1 placing VDL within the 45,000+ years of pre-contact history, and briefly sketching the Black War of 1830 and its aftermath. Chapter 2 deals with the establishment of Wybalenna and its place within the wider humanitarian response across the empire. From this point on, the chapters become longer, focussing around the texts generated by the free inhabitants of Wybalenna.

Chapter 3 ‘The Promise of Wybalenna’ draws on hand-written newspaper The Flinders Island Chronicle, written between September 1836 and December 1837 by two teenaged boys, Walter George Arthur and Thomas Brune, who had received a brief education at the Orphan School outside Hobart, before returning to Wybalenna.  The forty-two editions and drafts of the Chronicle have only been partially published, and generally dismissed by historians as an obvious and clumsy attempt at Christian indoctrination and control. But, as Stevens shows

In fact, the Chronicle is much more than a mouthpiece for the Commandant. Those editions dominated by religious indoctrination actually contain a great deal of information, if effort is invested in peeling back the layers of meaning. (p. xxxvii)

We learn from these two boys, falling over each other to publish their own separate edition of the ‘weekly’ paper (which often appeared more often than weekly) that the Commandant was never really in ‘control’ of the settlement, most particularly the women. Wybalenna was part of archipelago of islands visited by sealers and whalers, and news and rumour swirled around amongst officials, convicts, traders and the free aboriginal inhabitants. We see the ‘Protector’ and Superintendent, George Augustus Robinson carefully painting house numbers on the doors of the cottages, in anticipation of a visit from Governor Franklin which turns out to be a fleeting affair. We see games being played, deaths being mourned, changes in relationships.

Chapter 4 draws on the school room examinations and written and spoken sermons generated as part of the Christianizing mission. In them, Stevens finds insights into language diversity, the persistence of ritual and the balancing of original and introduced spiritual beliefs. (p. xxxix).  She has to work harder here, as the texts are so heavily overlaid with the interpretations of Christianity that are being used as a form of control: keep your house clean, the insubordination of the women, the promise of God’s good country.  It is during this chapter that Stevens integrates the journey across Bass Strait to Melbourne in 1841 undertaken by George Augustus Robinson and the ‘family’ he took with him,  including the two former newspaper writers, Walter George Arthur and Thomas Brune. Two of the group are noted for being the first men hanged in Melbourne – Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheener.  I’ve read much about them in my own work on Port Phillip, but they always seemed (and were) men out of place, a disembodied group brought into the colony and then sent away again. Through the picture that Stevens has built up of Wybalenna, we see this ‘family’ and their importance, and why Robinson chose them, in particular, to take across to Port Phillip. They become distinct people, not just the ‘VDL Blacks’.

One of the things that I like most about Steven’s approach is that Wybalenna changes, in response to the people living there and those appointed there. It’s not a passive, inert place. Events unfold, relationships form and breakdown, alliances shift. In Chapter 5, the revolving door administration since Superintendent Robinson’s departure throws up Doctor Henry Jeanneret as new Superintendent, a ‘problematic individual’ who is dismissed, challenges his dismissal back in England, then is reappointed to Wybalenna again.

It is the dissatisfaction with Jeanneret’s reappointment, and desire to shift to a different model of living, that leads the Wyballena inhabitants – most particularly through Walter George Arthur- to write again in Chapter 6. This time they adopt the petitioning and epistolary form of colonial bureaucratese, as they write to the Governor on the Tasmanian mainland, making their complaints against Jeanneret, and asking the Queen’s intervention.  The authorship and authenticity of the letters was challenged by Jeanneret at the time, leading to the appointment of a one-man commission of inquiry which itself generated its own paper trail. The way that later historians, most particularly Plomley in Weep in Silence, have dealt with these letters, reflects the ‘taking sides’ amongst the white characters that historians are wont to do.

This assessment, naturally, gives no credit whatsoever to VDL activism or agency, besides Walter Arthur. Weep in Silence is essentially a European history, about Europeans running a European settlement, with a few inconsequential VDL faces thrown in (p. 321)

Through her careful reading, Stevens embodies these “inconsequential VDL faces” into living, active, resisting people. Naming is important, and the footnotes at the bottom of the page give a small biography for each one so that Wybalenna is literally ‘peopled’. How blessed she has been as an author, too, with a publisher that respects footnotes on the page (and not squirrelled away at the back of the book), letting the historian acknowledge sources and accuracy right then and there.

This is an absolutely beautifully written book. Stevens engages and challenges other historians, but more with urgency and invitation to share, rather than oneupmanship.  The chapters are long (possibly a little too long?), but the narrative flows, capturing shift and change.  It moves, as Wybalenna moves. This is academic history written with head and heart, and with eyes and ears open.  I hope and expect to see it shortlisted for history and non-fiction prizes over the next year. Read it.

Source: Purchased from Readings

My rating: 10.

aww2017-badge I have linked this to the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017


Colonial Frontier Massacres in Eastern Australia 1788-1872

The University of Newcastle has a fantastic new site showing colonial massacres on the frontier in Eastern Australia. You can access it at

The map shows the approximate location of massacres of both indigenous people and settlers in the eastern states. As the creators explain in the introduction, their criteria for a massacre is six people.  Why six? To lose six people (or 20%) from a  ‘hearth’ group of twenty people renders that group vulnerable to further attack and diminishes their ability to hunt for food, reproduce and carry out their ceremonial obligations. The data is drawn from a range of sources including newspapers, parliamentary reports, the memoirs and correspondence of settlers, missionaries and Protectors, and oral and visual Aboriginal accounts.  The reliability of the source is rated with a star system.

The site makes quite clear that it is a work in progress, and subject to change through ongoing research.  Fascinating, and sobering.

‘Living with the Locals’ by John Maynard and Victoria Haskins


2016, 223 p plus notes

Living with the Locals: Early Europeans’ Experience of Indigenous Life by John Maynard and Victoria Haskins, NLA publishing, Canberra, 2016

One of the few Australian expressions to make it into Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable is the saying “You’ve got Buckley’s” -a little Australianism that I myself use quite frequently to mean “you’ve got no chance”.  Although its origin probably lies in a reference to the Buckleys and Nunn department store (“you’ve got Buckley’s chance or Nunn (non)”), for Melburnians it has another layer of meaning . William Buckley was a tall escaped convict who emerged from the bush, startling the early settlers of Melbourne, having lived with the  Wathaurong people for thirty-two years after escaping from the short-lived convict settlement at Sorrento in 1803.  He was not, however, the only white person to be accepted into an indigenous group, as John Maynard and Victoria Haskins show in this book. The information that these Europeans brought back into white society when they were ‘discovered’ or ‘saved’ can, read sensitively, provide a different perspective on pre-invasion or invasion-era indigenous life to counter the settler or missionary narratives which then (and to a large extent, now) largely framed knowledge of indigenous practices.

Our main focus and concern has been on trying to recapture what living with the locals was really like for these European individuals. The fact is that, in the main, they were treated with great kindness, compassion and care by their Indigenous hosts.  And therein lies a great tragedy of the Australian historical experience.  The wild white men and women were witness to the beauty and richness of Indigenous culture in this country that no other outsiders would ever see.  For us, these men and women are our eyes into another world on the cusp on an incredible upheaval. (p. 8)

The fold-out front cover of the book serves both as map and chapter outline as it plots the examples discussed in each chapter against the coastline of eastern Australia.  Early white settlements clung to the edge of the continent, with the sea the main source of communication and commerce.  The chapters of this book proceed chronologically, and the first two examples deal with Sydney and Melbourne.  All the other examples, however, are plotted from Brisbane northwards, where the Great Barrier Reef spelled the end of many ships and where the ‘frontier’ was shifting inexorably up the coast.

Of course, the authors could only deal with those Europeans who actually returned. Maynard and Haskins occasionally mention that the tribes were aware of other Europeans who were among them, or sometimes the escapee/survivors themselves report catching sight of them, but they do not break into the European historiography at all.  Maynard and Haskins only draw on the cases where there is sufficient  written documentation or oral testimony- flawed and incomplete though it may be- but there could be countless other similar scenarios that went unreported or even unknown. Continue reading

Contesting Australian History: A Festschrift for Marilyn Lake


Strictly speaking, a  ‘festschrift‘ is a book of essays written by colleagues and students that is presented to an honorable person, generally an academic, during their lifetime. Well in this case, the collection of essays may come later in the form of a special edition of History Australia, because the main event here was a two-day celebration of Marilyn Lake’s career and writing at the beautiful 1888 building at the University of Melbourne. What a line-up! Even though I’ve only read a few of Lake’s works, and she wouldn’t recognize me at all, I couldn’t resist hearing such eminent historians responding to the wide range of issues upon which Marilyn Lake has written, held over two days in my own home town!

Marilyn Lake is an Australian historian whose work has spanned the homefront response to WWI (both at the time and recently), feminism and gender, and the White Australia Policy. Her book Drawing the Global Colour Line, co-written with Henry Reynolds, is a major contribution to transnational history internationally and here in Australia. She is a fearless public intellectual, most notably after the Age published an abridged version of the public lecture ‘The Myth of ANZAC’ that she delivered in 2009.  In the bitter and highly personalized response to her book, one angry male writer asked her “What have you ever done for Australia?” Well, this festschrift was a resounding answer – even if he wasn’t there to hear it.

Different speakers took various approaches to the festschrift task.  Some spoke about Marilyn herself and their own relationship with her.  Others engaged with her main academic interests and publications. Some spoke about their own research, and Marilyn’s influence on their own work. Others paid tribute to her as public historian, course convenor, research partner and supervisor. Continue reading

‘Skin Deep: Settler impressions of Aboriginal women’ by Liz Conor


375 p & notes, 2016

On the first page of the introduction to this book, there is a picture of a young aboriginal woman, staring directly at the camera.  It comes from a book by Alice Duncan-Kemp called Where Strange Paths Go Down, published in 1964 and written in the tradition of Mrs Aeneas Gunn, Daisy Bates or Mary Durack.   Liz Conor, the author of Skin Deep does not know who the young girl is, despite searching for almost a decade for clues to her identity in order to repatriate the woman in the image to her descendants and to seek their permission and cultural clearance.  Conor uses her image nonetheless, and in this- as in much of the material in this book- she is conscious that in historicizing and interrogating the use of settler impressions of aboriginal women, she is also resuscitating tropes and assertions that might best be forgotten. As she says:

Focusing at times on unnamed women, that is, women already subjected to this very appropriation, creates a dilemma: should such images be left outside the historical account, when they have played a significant role in shaping ongoing imaginings of Aboriginal women? (p35)

She decides to proceed, however, after consulting with women in several communities in Queensland, South Australia and Victoria. The book does not concentrate on photographs alone: there are lithographs, cartoons and prose descriptions as well, often twisted with racism and misogyny and deeply offensive.  She warns readers that the material will be found repugnant, and it is.

The book starts with the earliest descriptions and depictions of Aboriginal women by the first European explorers who, deeply imbued with Enlightenment thinking, categorized Aboriginal people as either ‘noble savages’ or ‘native belles’. Images were engraved, reproduced and co-opted again and again through the new print medium. This chapter lays the basis for the central argument of the book:

…that colonial racism and gender relations hinge in particular ways and depended on the facility of print to reiterate and thereby entrench meaning as truth. (p. 38)

The second chapter reiterates this argument in a different way through the ‘bride capture’ trope, whereby white men could conveniently overlook their own sexual atrocities to deplore what they described as the kidnapping and enslavement of aboriginal women by aboriginal men.  Just as with the lithographs described in Chapter One, these assertions were repeated again and again by explorers, protectors and anthropologists. It took some time for a degree of nuance to emerge, whereby the women could be seen as not just victims but participants in a tightly regulated pre-elopement  marriage ritualized performance. What was left largely unsaid was the perilous position of Aboriginal women on the white/black frontier where white men accused of violence towards Aboriginal women were exonerated, or able to deflect blame onto the native police.

A similar process of repetition attached to the trope of infanticide and infant cannibalism explored in Chapter 3, although this is a more complex area. Unlike the bride capture assertion, which was spelled out in lurid detail, claims of infanticide and infant cannibalism were not actually witnessed by white writers, but drawn from Aboriginal testimony.  Weight does have to be given to some  writers on infanticide and cannibalism who had ongoing and generally trusted contact with their Aboriginal informants. However, it is very possible that in the midst of complex inter-tribal indigenous politics, informants to a trusted white settler or ethnographer were disparaging other tribes by accusing them of cannibalism, to distinguish them from their own tribe (which did not indulge in such practices). At the same time, too, white mothers were sometimes charged with committing infanticide, and it is possible that the  atrocity of cannibalism was  added to differentiate white and aboriginal female criminality.

These initial three chapters reinforce the power of repetition in embedding a particular impression of Aboriginal women into the settler and metropolitan consciousness, even when there was little or conflicting evidence. Print culture in particular facilitated this easy re-use and reproduction.  However, as a reader, while I know that the whole point that she is emphasizing is that repetition was a powerful tool, the chapters felt rather repetitious themselves. There is a chronological progress through the reports and depictions that she describes, but because they themselves were derivative and recursive, it felt as if you were reading the same thing again and again, without little new knowledge or insight being gained.  Her research is exhaustive here (and indeed, at the end of the book she exclaims that there are reams of such material), but it is exhausting reading as well.

So it was with some relief that from Chapter 4 onwards, she takes up a slightly different approach by following through the depictions of Aboriginal womanhood from domestic servant to sexual partner to old woman.  Chapter 4 ‘Footfall over Thresholds’ explores the descriptions of Aboriginal women’s gait, either as a sashaying, silent, dignified ‘native belle’ or as a  ‘felt-footed house lubra’ (p.261).  Certainly, Conor has been able to identify and reproduce many pictures of thresholds, with the white woman on one side of the doorstep, and the disheveled or sneaky  black woman on the other, and her point about the depiction of large flat feet is well-made with several derogatory cartoons found in twentieth-century ‘humorous’ publications like the Bulletin or Aussie.

In Chapter 5 she takes as an illustrative episode the moral panic that was provoked in 1936 over the prostitution of Aboriginal women and girls to Japanese pearlers, with accusations that they were being pimped by Aboriginal men.  This was a double outrage: not only did it reference the ‘bride capture’ trope of Chapter 2 but these were Japanese pearlers (i.e. non-white; increasingly suspect) who were pillaging Australia’s fisheries and natural resources in the leadup to World War II. Again, indigenous women were seen to be passive against the power of their men, without agency. It was only with the contribution of Aboriginal men to the defence of the Australian coastline during the war that they were reinstated as defenders, rather than purveyors, of their women.  Within the deluge of newsprint prompted by the prostitution scandal,the suggestive term ‘black velvet’ (a reference to Aboriginal women’s genitalia) was never used to describe the attraction of Aboriginal women to the Japanese.  Instead it was a coded phrase for white man/aboriginal women sexual relations. I was rather startled to learn that ‘Black Velvet’ was the original name for Xavier Herbert’s Capricornia.

However, there is nothing titillating or alluring about Chapter 6 ”Absolute frights’: appearance and elders.’  It was as if newcomers felt compelled to record and publish their disgust at the appearance of elderly, emaciated Aboriginal women, and they did- with derision and at length. This chapter really is offensive, and is well placed at the end of the book, after the reader has already been exposed to less offensive (but no less corrosive) nineteenth and early twentieth century commentary.

This book has been written for an academic audience and UWA publishing have not stinted on scholarly conventions and tools.  There are lengthy footnotes, a full bibliography and a good index which includes references to historians.  What luxury it is to be able to look up a historian’s name in the bibliography instead of having to track back through footnotes to find the original reference!  The book does draw heavily on theoretical work, and I really appreciated that Conor was not forced (in the cause of ‘attracting a general readership’) to strip out all references to other historians with the vague term “some historians say….” but was able to name the historian, and quote directly from her/him.  It’s a form of academic sociability: because Conor has been able to quote and summarize the key findings of other historians, you know the argument that she is embedding her work within. You’ve read that work too, or if you haven’t then it distills the argument so that you can see how Conor has integrated it into her own work. It’s an academic pleasure that is so often being withheld from us in the cross-over between academic and ‘popular’ history.

It sometimes happens that the argument of a book becomes known by a sort of  short-hand reference.  For example, you only have to say ‘Blainey’ and you think either ‘distance’ or ‘black-arm band’; you say ‘Reynolds’ and you think ‘frontier’. I think that Conor’s work here will spring to mind as a short-hand reference to the abhorrent and self-perpetuating use of imagery, especially in relation to indigenous women.

I finished reading this book in a week when Bill Leak published a cartoon in the Australian not too far removed from the late19th-mid 20th century cartoons reproduced in these books. ( In The Conversation, there’s a good article about the cartoon, which I will not dignify with reproducing or linking in this blog). In the face of Leak’s repetition of past injustices (and not-so past, in view of the Don Dale video) the last paragraph of Conor’s book, which encapsulates her argument, comes to life:

Construing Aboriginal women as infertile, infanticidal, infirm and thereby as embodying their people’s terminus, rather than generation, was an alibi for the violence they endured on the frontier and in its aftermath and through the interventions of state administrations.  The recursion of these effacing yet exposed constructs of Aboriginal women was advanced through print and its syndications on a global scale.  Once aware of how such racial distortions become entrenched, a renewed impetus to resist them at every iteration ought to become part of a nationwide apology and commitment to recognizing the dignity of Aboriginal women.  By extension, whenever and wherever we hear a misrepresentation advanced in public about a people that contrives to mark them off with exaggerated disparity or disregard, we need to call it out then and there. (p. 370)




I have linked this review to the Australian Women Writer’s site.


Further reading: You might be interested in this article that Liz Conor wrote in New Matilda that draws on the book.  The article, as with the book itself, warns of the offensive content.


‘Fractured Families’ by Tanya Evans


Tanya Evans Fractured Families: Life on the Margins of Colonial New South Wales,

2015, 252 p & notes

When I picture a ‘Benevolent Asylum’, I have a mental picture of  greyness, thick walls, lancet windows and forbidding ecclesiastical air. It came as surprise, then, when I found this image (below) from the 1840-1850s which did not appear quite as funereal as the name of the institution suggests.


Sydney Benevolent Asylum Artist disputed c. 1840-1850, State Library of New South Wales

The Sydney Benevolent Asylum was Australia’s first (and oldest surviving) charity, founded in 1813, with the avowed intention NOT to operate like the Poor Laws back in England.  The Poor Laws in 1813 were still based on the old parish system, where the indigent and needy were shuttled back to their parish of origin, to be supported grudgingly by the parish. There were workhouses, but the truly punitive workhouses of our Dickens-tinged consciousness arose out of the Poor Law Reform of 1834, some twenty years after the establishment of the Sydney institution. Unlike in England, there was an acceptance that the State “was responsible for moulding the structural circumstances of the poor in early New South Wales” and without a tradition of elite obligation to the poor, it could be said that New South Wales was ‘born modern’.

Continue reading

‘Caledonia Australis’ by Don Watson


1984, republished  1997 (this review) and 2009. 255 p. & notes.

Actually, I hadn’t intended reading this Don Watson book at all.  I was reading the first chapter of his more recent, award-winning book The Bush and found myself reminded that before Watson was a Monthly correspondent, a commentator on public discourse or Paul Keating’s speechwriter, he was a historian.  His book Caledonia Australis was already on my bookshelves, and having recently had the experience of reading two books from the edges of a historian’s career as I did with Michael McKernan (see here and here), I decided to put the more recent book aside in order to return to Watson’s earlier book.  After all, I reasoned, it would do a disservice to the earlier book to read it after the larger, more mature work, honed by over thirty years of writing.  My assumptions were unfounded. I haven’t yet returned to The Bush but Watson’s Caledonia Australis,  a more consciously historical work, stands proudly on its own two feet.  Watson was a damned good writer in 1984, just as he’s a damned good writer in 2016.

We see in this 1984 book the subtlety that Watson would later display in his exploration of Paul Keating in his Portrait of a Bleeding Heart.  It does not have the trappings of an academic text: it does not have footnotes or an index and its reference list is only loosely tied to the chapters.  It does, however, make a strong historical argument which has maintained its currency- has indeed become stronger- since its initial publication in 1984 and reissue in both 1997 and again in 2009.

The first part of Watson’s book is not about Australia at all, but instead the Scottish Highlands.  I’d heard of the Highlands clearances, but I’d assumed that people were shifted directly from their Highland ancestral homes onto ships to the New World as part of a global diaspora.  But, as Watson points out, there was an in-between period where Highlanders were forced onto the coastal edges where they were forced to work in kelp-harvesting. Kelp was prized as an industrial additive for the soap, linen and glass industries and had become lucrative when imports of Spanish barilla (a salt-tolerant plant) were heavily taxed during the 1790s.   The shifting of the Highlanders to the coast and the attempted suppression of the language and culture of this ‘backward’ people was seen as an ‘improvement’ measure that, fortuitously for the large lords, freed up the land for the importation of sheep. When the duties on barilla and salt were reduced in the 1820s, the kelp market collapsed, and it was at this juncture that the ‘improvers’, especially on the isles of Skye and Mull,  looked to emigration and particularly the large, clan-based Scottish emigration schemes in Canada and Australia.

And so, by Chapter 4, we have ‘Highlanders at Large- the Kurnai at Home’. Both by an accident of timing and also as a result of clan networks, Scottish settlers explored and appropriated the lands of the Kurnai people of what we now know as Gippsland but which  Scottish explorer Angus McMillan christened ‘Caledonia Australis’.   Across the seas come the Highlanders, a clan-based culture, where the land was the basis of their identity, where history and legend were passed through song and dance, where the supernatural world co-existed with the natural one. And here in Chapter 4 they meet the Kurnai with a parallel culture, with similar qualities to their own:   clan-based, with land as the basis of their identity, history and legend passed through song and dance, with a co-existent supernatural and natural world. There was, however, no recognition of these affinities. Charged with their Calvinistic faith, the former Highlanders dispossessed the Kurnai, turning over their land to sheep just as had happened to them in Scotland.

In the second half of the book Watson hones in on Angus McMillan,  who has been lionized as one of the pioneers of Gippsland in both myth and physical memorials. McMillan is, in effect, the Highlander in Caledonia Australis writ large.


Angus McMillan Wikipedia

Watson traces the rivalry between McMillan and the driven, publicity-conscious professional explorer Strzelecki in their competing claims to have ‘discovered’ Gippsland. The Highland temperament manifested itself in both exploration and frontier settlement behaviour.  Clan connections and a shared sense of righteousness drove the Scots settlers into their dogged but ultimately fruitless search for the White Woman of Gippsland. Their prickliness, pride and sense of mission had a much darker side as well.

Watson writes:

There were three types of squatters on the Australian frontier: those who thought that their right to the land was qualified by an obligation to treat the Aboriginal inhabitants with kindness; those who believed that their right was conditional only on extermination; and those who combined murder with kindness. (p. 223)

The squatters of Gippsland, Watson writes, were fickle and dangerous and McMillan exemplifies this third type of squatter. McMillan

-half steering his way, half being blown-arrived in the new province and from that moment seemed to embody every paradox the frontier could throw up: making its history and being made by it, writing its story and engineering its secrets, living through all manner of triumph and torment and leaving a legend which put his life beyond our reach, ending up a cliche, a block of stone (p. xix)

When the nephew of his patron Captain Macalister was killed by Aborigines, McMillan was most probably responsible for drawing together the ‘Highland Brigade’ of his neighbours and retainers who, bent on revenge, massacred between 60 and 150 Indigenous Australians at the Warrigal Creek massacre, and beyond.  Yet, this same man was also lauded for his “sympathetic interest” in indigenous people and became in the last years of his life the Aborigines’ protector.  Murder and kindness: a chilling combination.

In his introduction to the 1997 edition of this book, Watson writes that his original intent in writing this book was

to give a more sympathetic portrait of the pioneers than any I had ever encountered.  I wanted to give them blood as well as bones; religion, motives, choices, memories, identity, ancestors, an inheritance of their own (p.xxvii)

This doesn’t sound like the aspirations of a historian whose work, through this book,  became associated with those derided by the New Right as promoting ‘black armband history’. We know, from Watson’s later work on the deadening effect of managerial language and ‘Weasel Words’ that he is impatient and dismissive of ‘political correctness’. But, he argues, “It can hardly hurt a mature society to know that its founders were capable of evil as well as good.  An immature society can only benefit”(p. xxvi)

Hence the importance of McMillan:

The harder we look at McMillan the more we see the patterns of our collective experience and the elements of our contemporary dilemma.  The harder we look at him the more signs we see of the kindness and brutality, self interest and charity, memory and amnesia, decency and hypocrisy that has characterised public and private dealings with Aboriginal Australia from the beginning to the present day.  And the harder we look at the society McMillan came from the more we see how the dispossessed everywhere tend to follow the same path to material and spiritual poverty: in the nineteenth century the Australian Aborigines were not the only ones to be first cast as dangerous and unruly savages, and then left stranded between pity and contempt- and then thrown still further adrift from humanity by Social Darwinism. (p. xxviii)

No: this process had engulfed Highlander society, which in turn subjected the Kurnai people to the same fate.  The last words of Caledonia Australis are “..the irony was lost”. Irony, at its most powerful, does not need a spotlight or announcement, but emerges quietly and insistently out of the material itself.  Just as it does in this book.