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.
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.
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.