I published this article in April 2002 on the original Alpine News web site. It attracted considerable interest, including a call from researchers producing a BBC documentary for Scottish Television. It seems topical in 2008 given the “sorry” debate.
Angus McMillan no saint nor devil
The Age reported on Saturday (April 27, 2002) that a group of do-gooders in Warragul want to change the name of the federal electorate of McMillan. Apparently it’s because Angus McMillan, who explored much of Gippsland in the 1840s, was unkind to Aborigines.
I grew up in Traralgon, where a cairn at the town’s eastern entrance marks the passing of McMillan on his way to Port Albert. He was the first white settler and opened up the district to agriculture. I’ve read local history, including the moving “Kurnai of Gippsland”, which traces the sad plight of Aborigines in the region.
There’s no doubt that McMillan was involved in the killing of some blacks, and he wasn’t the best “protector of Aborigines” going around either. But to use the cliche, he was “a man of his times”. He can’t be judged by today’s standards.
John Howard and Geoffrey Blainey have spoken about the “black armband view” of Australian history and how there’s a modern tendency to reflect with shame on our early settlement.
I believe you have to consider history in its proper context. The lifestyle for most white people in 1850 wasn’t exactly affluent by today’s standards. There was widespread poverty, not much respect for civil rights and little welfare support. If you were Catholic in the United Kingdom you had even fewer rights than most other people.
The convicts were treated most brutally. The Scots were displaced from their Highlands and the New World beckoned.
The Scotsmen who settled Gippsland with McMillan spoke Gaelic and saw an opportunity to redeem their stolen lands in a new continent. It’s ironic they dispossessed another people to obtain this land, but that’s what happened.
The Aborigines had rights under the law, but in Gippsland at that time there was no law. The settlers were entering virgin country, as they saw it, before the surveyors, town planners and machinery of government. They had to survive against the elements and hostile Aborigines.
When I reflect on history I like to apply the test of asking myself what I would have done in the same circumstances.
For example, if I’d been a soldier in the army of Alexander the Great, would I have felt guilty about looting and pillaging my way through Asia Minor? Not a chance; it would have been one of the perks.
If I’d been a Private in the German Army of 1940, would I have taken orders to kill Jews? I like to think that I wouldn’t have, but who’s to say … upbringing, peer group and other pressures would come to bear. At worst, if I had followed orders, I hope my conscience would never have forgiven me.
Going back to the bush frontier of 1840 it’s more clear cut. The political and religious leaders of that time saw Aborigines as a primitive people who could not be elevated to civilised society. It was believed they were inferior. A settler trying to earn his way would most certainly have regarded the lives of his cattle as more precious than those of the blacks. He would have lived in fear of reprisals, thinking it’s “them or me”. They were fighting a type of war.
McMillan was pragmatic and a survivor. He did what he thought was best and right. His conscience, and those of the people around him, would not have pricked at the loss of Aboriginal lives. That’s wrong by today’s standards, but few would have held that view in 1840.
McMillan deserves to be remembered as the pioneer that he was; a trailblazer who opened up fertile country to settlement.
The Aborigines who lost their lives and land also deserve to be remembered, as they are in many place names, and perhaps through the future erection of a suitable monument.
But wiping McMillan’s name from history is not appropriate.