Non-fiction – hardcover; William Collins; 224 pages; 2016. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
Cal Flyn’s Thicker Than Water is a remarkable — and readable — travelogue-cum-historical-biography about her great-great-great uncle, Angus McMillan, a Scotsman who fled the Highland Clearances and emigrated to Australia in 1837.
McMillan, a proud and pious man, was regarded as the “Father of Gippsland’, having opened up the rugged south-east of what is now the state of Victoria — and where, I must point out, I am from, hence my interest in the book.
Up until quite recently, history has been kind to McMillan. He has plaques and cairns recording his achievements, streets are named after him, the rural education centre in my home town is called the McMillan campus. His entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography describes him as “courageous, strong and generous, with a great love for his adopted country”, a man who “took a sympathetic interest in the welfare of the Aborigines”.
But McMillan lead another less honourable life that history has failed to record. He was a murderer — a mass murderer — responsible for the deaths of hundreds of aboriginals massacred at places now largely known by horrible names, such as Slaughterhouse Gully, Butchers Creek and Skull Creek. Unsurprisingly, he has also come to be known as the “Butcher of Gippsland”.
A journey into the heart of darkness
Thicker Than Water is not a standard biography of a historical figure. Flyn writes in an engaging way by taking us on her journey — both figuratively and literally — to discover the story behind her ancestor and his achievements. To her credit, she does not shy away from the harsh realities of what she unearths along the way.
Indeed, her initial pride in McMillan’s discovery of Gippsland is soon usurped by a growing sense of unease when she stumbles upon a 2005 news story:
A Scottish pioneer revered as one of Australia’s foremost explorers faces being erased from maps amid accusations that he was responsible for the cold-blooded murder of hundreds of aborigines.
She later learns that the Gunai people, who had inhabited Gippsland for 20,000 years, were decimated by McMillan and his “Highland Brigade”. At the end of a decade-long “war of attrition”, there were just 126 Gunai left, down from about 1,800.
Flyn, shocked and ashamed by these appalling acts (it is believed there were more than a dozen massacres all up), feels the need to atone for her ancestor’s sins. And so she packs in her newspaper job, bids farewell to her boyfriend, and heads Down Under to meet with local historians and Gunai elders in a bid to put things right.
Atoning for past sins
The narrative follows Flyn’s travels from the Highlands to Australia, weaving in excerpts from McMillan’s own diaries and including facts and snippets about him that she unearths along the way. Through this deftly woven narrative that mixes personal reflection with detective-like journalistic research, she’s able to build up a fascinating portrait of a man — hardworking and civic-minded, but also prone to bitterness and jealousy, especially with his rival, the Polish explorer Pawel Strzelecki, who, from my own childhood was always held in higher regard than McMillan.
What results is a highly entertaining narrative that feels more like a novel than a dull biography. (Some of the passages describing her travels into the Gippsland bush are full of beautiful, descriptive language about the plants and landscapes she encounters; I’d like to see Flyn tackle a nature book next, I think it’d be brilliant.)
But Thicker Than Water also feels like a deeply personal story, for on almost every page you can feel Flyn’s own moral compass going slightly haywire: how on earth can she ever come to terms with McMillan’s horrendous deeds knowing that she’s related to him? Her shame and anguish over this is palpable. The book does present an interesting dilemma, for at what point do you atone for the sins of your ancestors? And what happens if they committed something so atrocious and so appalling that it turns your stomach to think about? Is it really your responsibility to apologise?
I’m not sure Flyn found any answers — perhaps because there aren’t any. Apologies are fleeting acts; they do not address the ongoing inequality that so many indigenous people face on a day-to-day basis. But in giving voice to McMillan’s extraordinary history, she has at least helped to paint a more truthful picture of the man that history has for so long lauded. And in telling that story the door opens to allow similar ones to be recorded that have not yet been told.
Unfortunately, I can’t include Thicker Than Water in my #ReadingAustralia2016 project because the author is Scottish. But the story is so focused on Australian history and so revealing of an aspect that has, for too long, been ignored or rarely spoken about that I couldn’t resist reading it.
Please note it hasn’t been published in the US or Canada, but secondhand copies are widely available.