210. Rev George Cox and his ‘Notes on Gippsland History’ (2): versions of history and the question of race

Rev George Cox deserves recognition for his very earlier research on the history of (European) Gippsland. At the same time, while Cox definitely saw himself as a practising historian, he did not write any definitive history of either Gippsland or any specific location in Gippsland. Cox was more the researcher of history than the writer of history. It is critical to appreciate this different emphasis. Anyone reading the articles Cox published in the local paper from 1912 onwards was obviously extending and deepening their understanding of the history of Gippsland – outcomes Cox was obviously keen to promote – but their understanding was being formed in an episodic, piecemeal and even disjointed and contradictory manner. Cox never wrote his final, coherent, single history. Rather what he did was publish, on a regular basis, primary sources touching on several themes to do with Gippsland history which he then critiqued, with the intention of trying to uncover the historical truth. The period he covered stretched from the 1840s to the 1860s. Cox did provide considerable commentary and opinion along the way and he certainly did see himself as building the picture of the history of Gippsland, but there was no final history, for example in the style of Adams – From these beginnings: history of the Shire of Alberton (Victoria) – who, as we know, relied to a significant degree, on the articles Cox had written 80 years earlier.

Any assessment of Cox’s work has to focus on the sources he used. For Cox, it was all about uncovering primary resources – including those found in folk lore, and collective and personal memory – and matching them with what was already known of the history. There were often inconsistencies, contradictions, and different emphases encountered in the various sources and there had to be attempts to reconcile such tensions and make informed judgements. The other critical perspective was that, as Cox himself had argued, the history of Gippsland had been neglected. As already seen, Cox gave several reasons for this, including a general reluctance for locals to dwell on its earliest lawless period. The effect of this ‘neglect’ was that any sources Cox did present to his readers effectively served to tell the story for the first time. It was a case of Gippsland history being ‘discovered’ by Cox for his readers.

Cox himself described his central focus on primary sources. His very first article (Article 1, 31/1/1912) emphasised both the range of primary material he was trying to cover:

The sources of information are numerous, and of many kinds. Parliamentary reports, official correspondence, Road Board and Shire minute books, contemporary newspapers, Church minute books and reports, private correspondence, maps, legal documents and private diaries, have been generously placed at the disposal of the writer, and form the principal channels of information, such being supplemented by personal reminiscences of old residents, after careful enquiry.

It also presented the open-ended nature of his work and the potential limits of his approach:

But the writer is deeply conscious of two things, – first that he has by no means exhausted the storehouse of information, and secondly that he is not by any means possessed of such gifts as would preclude possibility of error. In connection then, with the first shortcoming, further sources of information will be most gratefully welcomed: and for the second criticism, and correction where needed, will be thankfully received.

This is very much a claim about ‘history in the making’ via a careful and sustained historical methodology. Overall, Cox saw his considerable effort as work-in-progress; but he saw this reality as a strength: history was being written, tested and refined through the dialectic. This was the proper function of a historical society. As noted, he also saw himself as providing research material for others who would follow.

At the same time, Cox obviously saw himself as offering more than critical insights on historiography. He definitely saw himself as ‘teaching’ the locals their (European) history. Moreover, he wanted them to understand, identify with and celebrate their history. For example, he took pride in the fact that his material was used at the local school for lessons associated with the celebration of events such as Discovery Day. As he stated (Article 26, 9/4/13):

Friday, April 18th. will be observed as Discovery day in State schools, therefore this and the succeeding article will be devoted to the subject of the early exploration of Gippsland.

Cox was also proud of the popularity his articles enjoyed and the fact that readers requested back copies. He made efforts to meet the demand. For example, he wrote the following introduction in one of his very early articles (Article 21, 20/11/12):

Before proceeding to the consideration of the subject matter of this paper a foreword about the paper itself may be advisable. In the first place, many requests have been received for back numbers of these papers which unfortunately cannot be supplied. But as special interest attaches to the subject of Count Strzelecki’s journey, it being included in the State school curriculum, and some additional matter of considerable interest has been received, it has been decided to republish portions of an article already in print, together with such additional matter. [The additional matter was material relating to the wreck of the Clonmel, in early January 1841.]

After the War was over and he had finished his service in the AIF, Cox resumed his series of articles and in Article 71, 25/11/21, he offered himself some degree of self-congratulation when he stated that his articles … have proved useful and have been recognised as a reliable authority by those engaged in historical study. He was keen to take up the work again and he committed to new material:

The compiler, since his discharge from military service, has had exceptional opportunities for research work in connection with the early discovery and settlement of the province, which will enable him to add considerably to the articles already published, and provide much new material as well.

Again, he pointed out the difficulties in reproducing earlier articles. He also indicated where such earlier material could be accessed:

Copies of all previous articles should be available for reference at several places locally, probably the Shire Hall and Mechanics’ Library, as well as the “Standard” office; while students further afield will find them in the Public Library and Historical Society’s Office, Melbourne, and the Mitchell Library, Sydney.

Cox’s attempts to generate interest in his work and have the locals, particularly the ‘pioneers’ who were still alive, engage in discussions and debate were successful. Cox definitely did focus the attention of his local community on its (European) history. In fact, there would have been few regional communities in Australia at that time who were as well served, in terms of their local history, as the Shire of Alberton. Moreover, this interest in local history – and, as noted earlier, Cox always saw his history as more than merely ‘local’ – was occurring at the very outbreak of WW1, the time when the new nation was preoccupied with its national identity or character.

As just the briefest example of Cox’s basic approach, consider the issue of exploration and what Cox saw as the competing claims associated with the vexed question of ‘Who discovered Gippsland?’ It was a question that preoccupied him. In fact, this very question first served as the title for an article in April, 1913 (Article 27) and the same question was still serving as the title of articles in 1922 (Article 80), 1923 (Article 81) and 1924 (Article 101).

The nature of the controversy related essentially to questions of motivation and transparency. On the one hand, there were dedicated ‘explorers’ who were either tasked by authorities, or took on the responsibility themselves, to chart ‘unknown’ territory and determine lines of travel or communication between the ‘known’ and ‘unknown’ districts. They had to ‘explore’ the coastline and ‘discover’ various overland routes. Count Strzelecki was the name most identified with such ‘exploration’. This group tended to write detailed accounts of their treks. On the other hand, there were opportunists – most commonly, squatters coming into Gippsland from NSW – who, in the pursuit of their own material interests, pushed into and exploited the same ‘unknown’ areas. But this second group did not necessarily want recognition, or, at least, not immediately. Their more self-interested motivation was to limit competition for the same new pastures. The name most associated with this second group was Angus McMillan. The efforts of this second group often went unrecorded, and often this was deliberate on their part. Of course, the major qualification in this particular ‘discovery’ controversy is that the areas were ‘unknown’ ‘un-mapped’ and ‘un-named’ only to Europeans. Indeed, there are numerous references in the various primary sources examined by Cox which highlighted how the Europeans relied on ‘blacks’ or ‘black fellows’ as guides and protectors in their travels in Gippsland.

Obviously, the theme of European discovery, exploration and occupation is tied absolutely to the critical theme of the dispossession and subjugation of the Indigenous population (Ganai/Kurnai). Yet this is not a theme covered by Cox. He touches on it, alludes to it, refers to it in passing but he does not present it as a critical historical theme in its own right. For Cox, this fundamental issue is more something that just happened, via a ‘natural’ process. It might have had some regrettable dimensions to it and there may well have been cruel excesses but, for Cox, the overall process to ensure a more productive and profitable use of the land, the establishment of settlements and towns, and the creation of a secure, civilised and God-fearing White community was both inevitable and justified. It was what ‘colonisation’ meant. Moreover, by the time that Cox was writing, the ‘foundation years’ and the ‘early days’ had well passed and there was little memory of and scant interest in them. In fact, certain frontier memories were repressed.

It is possible to see how Cox handled the issue of early contacts between the European ‘occupiers’ and the Indigenous population by looking closely at two episodes to which he was particularly drawn. The first was labelled the ‘White Woman of Gippsland’ and the second involved the death of Ronald Macalister and the subsequent massacre(s).

White Woman of Gippsland

In mid 1912, Cox wrote 2 articles on the White Woman of Gippsland. He was responding to several pieces which had appeared recently in The Mercury. The material covered … the oft repeated story of a white woman in the early days having lived in captivity amongst the blacks of Gippsland. Cox represented his work as an exercise in determining the real history in the romantic saga.

In his first article – Article 6, 22/5/12: The “White Woman” and other matters (1) – Cox gave the details of the essential narrative. The claim was that there had been a white, female survivor of a wreck on the Gippsland coastline in the early 1840s who had been captured by the ‘blacks’. Subsequently, over the next few years, there had been sightings of the woman by various European parties but none of these had been able to catch up to her captors and rescue her. There were variations on the basic story. One had the woman escaping her captors and making it all the way back to Sydney. Another had the ‘white woman’ as nothing more than a ship’s figurehead, painted white, which the local ‘blacks’ carried about with them.

At this point, Cox believed that, while the basic story made for ‘interesting reading’, it was ‘not exactly history’. He pointed to all the inconsistencies, contradictions and factual errors in the basic narrative and, finally, dismissed it. He came down on the side of the painted ship’s figurehead and concluded, She is dead – let us bury her.

But, clearly, the idea of a white woman being captured by and forced to live among the ‘blacks’ of Gippsland was a story bound to appeal to the public. It was one not easily dismissed.

A few weeks later, Cox had another article – Article 7, 5/6/12: The White Woman (2) – on the same topic. He began:

It was thought that when the last paper was written that this subject as disposed of, but it has since been disclosed that there are still some who believe in the story as fact. In the “Argus” of 25th May last an article appeared under the name of “Historicus” containing much valuable information not otherwise accessible. The writer being known to the compiler of these notes, permission was sought and readily granted for its reappearance in this form for the benefit of those who believe and for the interest of all others.

Cox reproduced the article from The Argus (25/5/12) in its entirety. The article focused on another key primary historical resource: Journal of an expedition which started from Melbourne on 6th March, 1847, in search of a white woman, supposed to be detained amongst the aboriginals of Gippsland. In fact, there were two expeditions – one in late 1846 and the other in early 1847 – and the journal Cox relied on was the account of the second expedition.

Again, the basic story outlined was that the woman survived a shipwreck and was captured by the ‘blacks’. She was seen by various parties and even left signs of her existence. It was a compelling narrative. As the writer of the piece, ‘Historicus’, explained, the Victorian community was deeply affected:

A white woman detained as a prisoner, or worse, amongst the savage natives of Gippsland, and she, poor soul, putting out signals of distress, hoping against hope that she may be released from her terrible captivity. This surely, was a circumstance demanding, not inquiry only, but prompt and energetic action. Thus it presented itself to the community of settlers who then formed the citizens of Melbourne.

Historicus then outlined how the two expeditions were conducted. No captured woman was found but, again, the explanation based round a ship’s figurehead came up. When the second expedition finally caught up with the ‘tribe’ reported to have been holding the ‘white woman’, the promised handover went as follows:

On the appointed day there was brought into the camp and handed over to the party a white woman indeed, but one carved in wood, and bearing a trident in her hand. The natives had long ago found on the beach the figurehead of the Britannia wreck, and had carried it about with them as the incarnation of one of their deities.

Then at the very end of his article, Cox reintroduced himself to say that yet another article had appeared in The Argus (20/7/12) and that after having read another primary historical resource referred to in this article – NSW Parliamentary Papers for 1846 – he was not sure that that there was not some truth to the basic claims. He was no longer definite that he was dealing with a ‘myth’. He concluded:

My attitude now is that of suspending judgement until a more favourable opportunity of fully discussing the matter.

Several years later Cox again returned to the white woman saga. In Article 70 (19/7/18) he referred to yet another story that had appeared in a magazine called Life in August 1913. The story was entitled, The Broken Honeymoon. An Extraordinary Tale of a White Woman among the Blacks. According to this story, a newly married woman had been abducted by ‘blacks’ from the Stockyard Creek gold diggings (Foster) in the 1860s. Rescuers tracked the woman to the ‘neighbourhood of the Gippsland lakes’ but then, at the point of her liberation, tragedy struck:

… the rescuers were doomed to disappointment, for while crossing one of the channels, when the police boat was not far distant, the woman stood up to appeal to them to hasten, and whether her movement upset the canoe or split the bark of which it was composed, the fact remains that it sank in view of the would-be rescuers, and the woman sank with it. A strong ebb tide was running, and the woman was not seen again.

After the article appeared, Cox wrote to the magazine and challenged the basis of the story. He claimed the story represented yet another version of the earlier 1840s saga. He pointed out that the gold diggings at Stockyard Creek dated from 1870 and so the time frame for the story had to be incorrect. Cox’s letter was published in the magazine. Then followed reply and counter reply between the author – George Hermann – and Cox over several editions. Cox insisted that while Hermann’s account was … a most interesting and romantic story it was not historically accurate. One of the claims Hermann had made was that the … white woman was being carried about by the Port Albert tribe. This was supposed to have been in the 1870s – Hermann did subsequently revise it back to the 1860s – but Cox argued, using primary sources, that by the 1870s there was effectively no ‘tribe’ left in the vicinity of Port Albert. Conversely, by another public set of data, in 1874 there were more than 1,000 settlers living … within a radius of ten miles of Port Albert. Moreover, Cox also argued that even as early as the 1850s the Indigenous population (Brataualang) had virtually disappeared from the local area.

The correspondence between Hermann and Cox appeared to run though to the end of 1913 when the magazine stopped publishing Cox’s letters. Cox’s criticism, based on primary sources, of Hermann’s story appeared valid. It represented credible historical argument which, of course, was what Cox claimed to practise. But Hermann was not impressed by such an approach. His attitude to the newly emerging historical societies and their historical craft was fairly negative. He had a more personal and open approach to history:

Historical Societies are properly precise and exact, but they must not fall into the error of holding that only tales which have been recorded in ancient records, chiefly official, can possibly be true. I wrote the tale with the intention of giving information which I possessed, and which I knew had not been recorded, and which was unknown to any but possibly two or three persons. Because it was unknown and unrecorded and strange, does not take way from its accuracy.

In the 100 years since Cox wrote on the topic, much more has been written on the ‘white woman of Gippsland’. For a background, see The La Trobe Journal, No 63 Autumn 1999, The Great “White Woman” Controversy. Interestingly, a good deal of the piece in the journal covers the tension between formal academic history and local history, particularly oral history which is passed down the generations. There are distinct shades of the very argument made by Hermann in 1913 in his defence of his ‘tale’. It is also important to note that historians today see the various versions of the ‘White Woman’ saga that circulated back in the mid 19C as having served as a general justification for intensified attacks on the Indigenous population.

What do we take from Cox’s interest in the White Woman? Why did he devote so much attention to the issue? One answer is that it provided a perfect example of all the critical boundaries between romance and reality, fiction and fact and myth and history. The role of the emerging historical societies and their backers, including Cox, was to write serious, fact-based history based on primary resources. The task was to uncover truth through research. Hearsay, folk lore, the tales of pioneers, collective memory – all of these could be considered and it was important to gather and record them; but there were definite limits and all these forms had to be tested against primary written sources. So, in a real sense, the various tales surrounding the white woman represented a natural and very rich focus for Cox and his methodology.

But I think it is reasonable to argue that there was another significant motive at play. Wittingly or otherwise, Cox was tapping into and giving voice to the deep-seated attitudes and fears of the first Europeans in Gippsland. His readers, over 100 years ago, would have been close enough in time to recognise those same attitudes and fears in their forebears. The occupation and settlement of Gippsland were still within collective memory. The story of the white woman served as a kind of essential fable. It sat at the edge of memory and represented the fear that from this strange and dangerous landscape, the original people – described as ‘blacks’ and ‘savages’ and completely ‘alien’ and ‘primitive’ – could reach out and exact some sort of vengeance by taking and abusing a ‘white woman’ who represented all that was ‘innocent’, ‘pure’ and ‘vulnerable’. Effectively, by dwelling on the story, Cox was rationalising the experiences and actions of the first generation of Gippslanders.

Death of Macalister and subsequent punitive expedition(s)

In Article 15 (25/9/12), under the heading, ‘Bloodshed’, Cox gave his first account of the death of Ronald Macalister. He stated that … the first murder of a white man by the blacks occurred early in 1842. His findings appear to have been based on recollections of local people.

Ronald Macalister was the nephew of Lachlan Macalister, a local squatter. Lachlan Macalister had land at … what is now Alberton East, south of the Brewery Road near the Tarra as a camping ground in connection with the shipping of cattle. On the land, there was a ‘bark hut’ which later became the home of Parson Bean.

Cox also described how there was a ‘party of blacks’ camped near Alberton and how when the men of the group were away hunting, stockmen of Macalister … in sheer wantonness, took a little blackboy from the camp and made a target of him. Cox then describes how when the men returned from hunting they … determined naturally on revenge. The nephew, Ronald Macalister was targeted:

Young Macalister riding from the hut at Alberton East to go through the bush to “Greenmount” had not proceeded far when he was set upon by two blacks and speared with ten spears, the body being badly mutilated.

Cox then explained the inevitable consequences:

This led to a punitive expedition on the part of the settlers, and a great massacre of the blacks followed.

Cox was keen to identify exactly where this massacre had taken place. He had three possibilities and he appealed to the local readers to come forward and provide more information. This was an excellent opportunity to involve the locals and draw on their folk memory:

No less than three different sites have been indicated as the scene of this massacre, viz Warrigal Creek, Gammon Creek, and Freshwater Creek. Between these the writer [Cox] is unable to determine. Perhaps there are some among the readers of these papers who can give the information. Those who escaped massacre were chased as far as Merriman’s Creek, and one who escaped death, in explanation to Mr. Lucas, stated he did so by ‘shaming dead’.

Mr. Lucas was one of the key sources for Cox’s account.

It is generally accepted today that all three locations mentioned saw killings, specifically in relation to punitive actions after Macalister’s death.

The first article on the killing and subsequent massacre created interest and response and so, not surprisingly, there was soon another article (Article 16, 15/10/12). Cox highlighted correspondence from the head teacher of Woodside State School, Mr W H Thomas. Thomas and a friend (Mr Lamb) gave details of a find they had made – ‘a quantity of human bones’ – buried in the sand on the beach near Warrigal Creek. The two men examined the skulls and concluded that the … remains were those of aboriginals. The men also noted that … all the skulls were fractured, a piece being broken away at the base of the skull, as though caused by a blow from a tomahawk. The men also noted that in conversation with a Mr Chas. Kuch, senior, they heard that there had been … a massacre of blacks in that neighbourhood. Unsurprisingly, they made the connection to … the massacre which took place in revenge for the murder of Ronald Macalister.

Cox then offered his opinion on the information provided by the men. First he argued that the remains pointed to ‘tribal warfare’. His view – naive and, arguably, convenient – was that Macalister’s men would have used firearms, and only firearms. Second, he was now fixed on the idea that the massacre had occurred at Freshwater Creek. This position appeared to be based on additional conversions he had had with the previously mentioned Mr Chas Lucas.

There was another article later the same month (Article 17, 30/10/12). Clearly, Cox’s articles on the topic were stirring interest, long-held memories and stories passed down the generations. This time there was different account of the reasons given for Macalister’s murder. It was clear that even though he reported it, Cox did not find the claim credible.

… the cause of the murder was, that when the blacks came too freely about the camps of the settlers and stockmen, and became a nuisance, the whites scattered about hot coals from their fires, and the blacks burnt their feet. The murder was in retaliation for this.

Also by this point, Cox had firmed on the idea that the massacre had not taken place at Freshwater Creek but at Warrigal Creek. His chief source for his change in position was a certain Mr Walpole. Cox quoted him:

I always understood that Warrigal Creek was the locality where the blacks were overtaken and killed. In fact, about 41 years ago [this would have made it round 1871, and 28 years after the massacre], when stockriding on the Warrigal run, I remember, close to the ’Sunville’ boundary gate, near Red Hill, there was a portion of a human skeleton, said to be the remains of one of the blacks killed. How much truth there was in the the report I am unable to say, but on the Red Hill the remains of several blacks have been uncovered by cattle scraping the sand way, and the action of the wind, etc..

Walpole then added:

As far back as I can remember there were all sorts of tales in connection with this killing business, and it seemed to me everyone was more or less ashamed of the affair.

Cox concluded his article by noting that given the ’natural reticence’, it was hardly surprising that it was proving so difficult to uncover exactly what had happened.

In September the following year (Article 33, 24/9/13), Cox again took up the investigation of Macalister’s murder. This time he quoted extensively from a story he had uncovered in the Port Philip Herald of the 29th July 1843. In the story, the claimed date of the killing is later than the one previously cited by Cox. Cox appeared to accept this revision – July 1843 is now accepted as the date – and he described the material he quoted as ‘more authentic information’:

Extract of a letter from Port Albert to a mercantile house in town [Melbourne], received by the ‘Jemima’ cutter, and dated the 20th instant: – “The blacks have commenced fresh outrages, and a few days since killed Mr. Kenneth (sic) Macalister, within half a mile of his station at Port Albert. He was on horseback at the time, and armed with a brace of pistols. This marks five persons murdered within little more than 12 months.”

The extract quoted by Cox did not offer any detail of the circumstances leading to the killing. Nor was there reference to any subsequent ‘punitive expedition’:

It is reported that Mr. Macalister was decoyed from his station by a party of blacks on pretext of having found a flock of sheep that had been missing, and that having got him to a spot favourable for their murderous purpose, they set upon him with their waddies, and despatched him under circumstances of the utmost barbarity.

The same extract decried the fact that the settlers were obliged to pay ‘licences and assessments’ but they received ’no protection from the Government’.

For his part, Cox corrected Macalister’s name – Ronald not Kenneth – and he noted that … other accounts of this murder state that he [Ronald Macalister] was speared.

There is one final article worth looking at. It was number 37a and it appeared on 6/2/14. Again, Cox quoted extensively from the Port Philip Patriot (21/9/1843) but the article itself came from the The Sydney Morning Herald of 6/9/43. Cox did not provide any commentary or criticism of the material presented. His readers read it, presumably, as a factual account; although the introduction did describe the statements to be ‘highly coloured’. The Indigenous population is described as the settlers’ ‘most bitter enemies’:

‘Crimes are as openly perpetrated as the sun at noonday. And such is the force of habit that since the departure of our police magistrate the public look upon these occurrences with indifference- as matters of course.’ For instance, Mr. Macalister was dragged off his horse and cruelly murdered in the township of Alberton, his head being so totally disfigured that his countenance could not be recognised amongst his most intimate friends (this outrage being committed) by these harmless, innocent denizens of the wilds of Gippsland, bearing the anomalous cognomen of Her Majesty’s most liege subjects (we give it as our gratuitous opinion, most bitter enemies). Nor is this the only instance of the sacrifice of Christian blood by these liege subjects. Since we last did ourselves the honor of addressing your Excellency, a servant in the employment of Mr. Foster, a settler here, was killed, his body mangled and some of its members carried off, making in all within the last eighteen or twenty months the number of five precious lives sacrificed at the shrine of the implacable savages, besides a variety of hairbreadth escapes by flood and field all gone down the stream of oblivion without one question asked or given on authority.

Cox did not pick it up, but the last reference in the quote appears to be a cryptic reference to some sort of ‘frontier justice’ at work, given that the authorities were not present. Indeed, the next section of the article goes on to describe a very lawless and dangerous frontier. Alberton, specifically, was full of ‘lawless villains’ and the ‘most lawless rogues’. Highway robbery was rife and the whole place was full of sly grog shops.

Cox does not use the Macalister death and subsequent killings as a lead-in to examine the whole question of frontier conflict. He does not, for example, focus on the immediate and background reasons for the killing of Macalister. Nor does he attempt to catalogue the various killings on the same frontier. Rather, he writes about the Macalister episode as a single, isolated event. For Cox, the effort is to uncover primary sources and, to the extent possible, have the readers contribute to the discussion. The focus is on the methodology rather than the critically important history that the methodology is uncovering. Moreover, there are concerns about the methodology itself. While it is true that Cox looked at a variety of primary sources, there are other sources that he did not use. A good example is George Dunderdale’s The Book of the Bush which had been published in 1890. Dunderdale included an account of Macalister’s death and the subsequent killings, but Cox did not refer to him.

One interesting note here is that Cox certainly knew of Dunderdale’s work. In fact, he had already criticised Dunderdale’s writing. He used Dunderdale’s work to demonstrate the difference between what he saw as the two extremes of ’romance’ and ‘history’. In Article 18 (8/11/12) both Cox and ‘A W Grieg, hon. sec. Historical Society of Victoria’ had used ‘historical facts’ to expose ‘untruthful statements in Dunderdale’s “Bush Tales”’. Admittedly, there were errors – dates, places, names – in Dunderdale’s work and his style did tend towards over-writing. At the same time, his detailed description of the bloodshed and savagery on the Gippsland frontier is impossible to ignore or gloss over. Consider, for example, the following account of the operation of Tyers’ ‘native police’:

There were now ladies as well as gentlemen in Gippsland, and one day the commissioner [Tyers] sailed away in his boat with a select party. After enjoying the scenery and the summer breezes for a few hours, he cast his eyes along the shore in search of some romantic spot on which to land. Dead wood and dry sticks were extremely scarce, as the blacks used all they could find at their numerous camps. He was at length so fortunate as to observe a brown pile of decayed branches, and he said, “I think we had better land over there; that deadwood will make a good fire”; and the boat was steered towards it. But when it neared the land the air was filled with a stench so horrible that Mr. Tyers at once put the boat about, and went away in another direction. Next day he visited the spot with his police, and he found that the dead wood covered a large pile of corpses of the natives shot by his own black troopers, and he directed them to make it a holocaust. (p 276)

The following is Dunderdale’s account of Macalister’s killing and the events that followed:

At this time the blacks had quite recovered from the fright occasioned by the discharge of the nine-pounder gun, and were again often seen from the huts at the Old Port. Donald Macalister was sent by his uncle, Lachlan Macalister, of Nuntin, to make arrangements for shipping some cattle and sheep. The day before their arrival Donald saw some blacks at a distance in the scrub, and without any provocation fired at them with an old Tower musket, charged with shot. The next day the drovers and shepherds arrived with the stock, and drove them over Glengarry’s bridge to a place between the Tarra and Albert rivers, called the Coal Hole, afterwards occupied by Parson Bean. There was no yard there, and the animals would require watching at night; so Donald decided to send them back to Glengarry’s yards. Then he and the drovers and shepherds would have a pleasant time; there would be songs and whisky, the piper would play, and the men and maids would dance. The arrangement suited everybody. The drovers started back with the cattle, Donald helped the shepherds to gather the sheep, and put them on the way, and then he rode after the cattle. The track led him past a grove of dense ti-tree, on the land now known as the Brewery Paddock, and about a hundred yards ahead a single blackfellow came out of the grove, and began capering about and waving a waddy. Donald pulled up his horse and looked at the black. He had a pair of pistols in the holsters of his saddle, but he did not draw them: there was no danger from a blackfellow a hundred yards off. But there was another behind him and much nearer, who came silently out of the ti-tree and thrust a spear through Donald’s neck. The horse galloped away towards Glengarry’s bridge.

When the drovers saw the riderless horse, they supposed that Macalister had been accidentally thrown, and they sent Friday to look for him. He found him dead. The blacks had done their work quickly. They had stripped Donald of everything but his trousers and boots, had mutilated him in their usual fashion, and had disappeared. A messenger was sent to old Macalister, and the young man was buried on the bank of the river near McClure’s grave. The new cemetery now contained three graves, the second being that of Tinker Ned, who shot himself accidentally when pulling out his gun from beneath a tarpaulin.

Lachlan Macalister had had a long experience in dealing with blackfellows and bushrangers; he had been a captain in the army, and an officer of the border police. The murder of his nephew gave him both a professional and a family interest in chastising the criminals, and he soon organised a party to look for them. It was, of course, impossible to identify any blackfellow concerned in the outrage, and therefore atonement must be made by the tribe. The blacks were found encamped near a waterhole at Gammon Creek, and those who were shot were thrown into it, to the number, it was said, of about sixty, men, women, and children; but this was probably an exaggeration. At any rate, the black who capered about to attract young Macalister’s attention escaped, and he often afterwards described and imitated the part he took in what he evidently considered a glorious act of revenge. The gun used by old Macalister was a double-barrelled Purdy, a beautiful and reliable weapon, which in its time had done great execution. (p224)

Clearly, in terms of a primary resource, Dunderdale’s account is a critical reference and one of which Cox would have been aware and could have included. In fact, Dunderdale did explicitly comment on the conflict on the frontier. For example, there was this insight of Tyers’ approach to the ‘troublesome blacks’:

The blacks were still troublesome, and I heard Mr.Tyers relate the measures taken by himself and his native police to suppress their irregularities. He was informed that some cattle had been speared, and he rode away with his force to investigate the complaint. He inspected the cattle killed or wounded, and then directed his black troopers to search for tracks, and this they did willingly and well. Traces of natives were soon discovered, and their probable hiding-place in the scrub was pointed out to Mr. Tyers. He therefore dismounted, and directing two of his black troopers armed with carbines to accompany him, he held a pistol in each hand and walked cautiously into the scrub. The two black troopers discharged their carbines. The commissioner had seen nothing to shoot at, but his blacks soon showed him two of the natives a few yards in front, both mortally wounded. Mr. Tyers sent a report of the affair to the Government, and that was the end of it. (p. 265)

There was also this revealing detail:

This manner of dealing with the native difficulty was adopted in the early days, and is still used under the name of “punitive expeditions.” That judge who prayed to heaven in his wig and robes of office, said that the aborigines were subjects of the Queen, and that it was a mercy to them to be under her protection. The mercy accorded to them was less than Jedburgh justice: they were shot first, and not even tried afterwards. …

The white men brought with them three blessings for the natives– rum, bullets, and blankets. The blankets were a free gift by the Government, and proved to the eyes of all men that our rule was kind and charitable. The country was rightfully ours; that was decided by the Supreme Court; we were not obliged to pay anything for it, but out of pure benignity we gave the lubras old gowns, and the black men old coats and trousers; the Government added an annual blanket, and thus we had good reason to feel virtuous.

When every blackfellow in South Gippsland, except old Darriman, was dead, Mr. Tyers explained his experience with the Government blankets. They were now no longer required, as Darriman could obtain plenty of old clothes from charitable white men. It had been the commissioner’s duty to give one blanket annually to each live native, and thus that garment became to him the Queen’s livery, and an emblem of civilisation; it raised the savage in the scale of humanity and encouraged him to take the first step in the march of progress. His second step was into the grave. The result of the gift of blankets was that the natives who received them ceased to clothe themselves with the skins of the kangaroo, the bear or opossum. The rugs which they had been used to make for themselves would keep out the rain, and in them they could pass the wettest night or day in their mia-mias, warm and dry. But the blankets we kindly gave them by way of saving our souls were manufactured for the colonial market, and would no more resist the rain than an old clothes-basket. The consequence was that when the weather was cold and wet, the blackfellow and his blanket were also cold and wet, and he began to shiver; inflammation attacked his lungs, and rheumatism his limbs, and he soon went to that land where neither blankets nor rugs are required. Mr. Tyers was of opinion that more blacks were killed by the blankets than by rum and bullets. (p 268)

Equally, there were other accounts of conflict on the frontier for example, G H Haydon’s Five Years Experience in Australia Felix (1846), that Cox could have used. Cox obviously knew of Haydon’s work because he used it in other of this articles. But Cox was not, as it were, pulling all the threads together. He was not attempting to highlight the theme of frontier conflict and the violent dispossession and subjugation of the Indigenous population. Rather, his series of articles was offering anecdotes: individual and self-contained stories about notable events from the past. Possibly, Cox sensed that there was a ‘dark past’ but he did not set out to expose it in any great detail or depth. Nor was there any attempt to explore the fundamentals of the conflict, nor hold anyone or any party responsible. It was more a case of ‘these things – some truly evil and wrong – happened in the past but there is no direct link between that past and our present’.

Of course, it can be argued that criticising Cox for issues that his approach, 100 years ago, failed to address, is at the very least problematic and presumptuous. However, the basic tension does highlight how history comes to be written and what people choose to draw from history.

Cox’s pioneering work in the local history of Gippsland 100 years ago is very important. He certainly deserves recognition for his efforts in setting up the first, regional sub-branch (‘centre’) of the (Royal) Historical Society of Victoria. The essential methodology he employed, with its focus on uncovering primary resources, assessing such resources against each other and incorporating memory – both personal and folk – as a historical resource, and recognising its limits, was ground breaking. His ability to popularise and promote the study of (local) history and his success in having the locals become involved were also very significant. He did the locals a sense of their history.

At the same time, it is essential to locate Cox within his own history. As indicated in numerous posts, he was a staunch Imperial Loyalist, arguably the most significant one in his community at the outbreak of War. He saw the strength of the British Empire as the high point in European history. And he saw the settlement and rapid and successful growth of Gippsland as a micro manifestation of the greatness of the same Empire. For Cox, ’settlement’ – in this instance, the settlement of Gippsland – brought prosperity, progress and civilisation. Occupation and settlement as features of ‘colonisation’, were natural and proven phenomena. The sacrifices and struggles of the ‘pioneers’ would sustain the future generations. Colonisation itself was a proven model of human improvement that ‘Great Britain’ – and other European powers – had employed on a world-wide basis. Essentially, the (white) European world claimed ownership of ’new’ land and proceeded to develop it for its own interests, pushing aside, marginalising and effectively eliminating the (non-white) Indigenous population. There could be violent and cruel side-effects as this process unfolded; but the process itself was natural and inevitable and the final – as opposed to interim- outcomes were overwhelmingly positive.

As a Christian minister, Cox additionally saw the ‘hand of God’ at work. Working from a strongly narrative lens, Cox was particularly interested in uncovering and describing the role played by the Church in the settlement of Gippsland. There was a strong emphasis on how the Church laboured in the young, raw and challenging environment of Gippsland. Coincidentally, at the time he started writing – just prior to WW1- many of the local churches were celebrating their 50th anniversaries. Several of his articles focused on these celebrations: For example, Article 24 (5/3/13) covered St. John’s at Port Albert and Article 34a (8/10/13) St. Luke’s at Alberton. For Cox, the Church had survived its infancy in Gippsland, thanks to the efforts of the first clerics – ministers like the famous ’bush parson’, Rev Willoughby Bean – and was embarking on its formative phase.

As the War progressed and the focus on ‘national character’ and ‘national identity’ intensified, Imperial Loyalists such as Cox crafted a strong relationship between the ‘pioneer’ and the ‘Anzac’. As already noted, the link was made repeatedly at local farewells for those who had enlisted.

Not surprisingly, Cox was not about to look to the history of Gippsland to call into question or critique the very theoretical supports that defined and shaped his world: the greatness of the British Empire, the strength of the Church in a new and challenging environment, the pursuit of the (unique) Australian character, and the White Australia Policy. Like everyone, he was a person of his times. Cox was an agent of the Lord, in the service of his flock, researching the European occupation, settlement and development of Gippsland, in a White Australia that was an integral component of the British Empire.

References

Cox, G  1990, Notes on Gippsland History, Vol 1- 6, ed. Adams J D, Port Albert Maritime Museum.

Dunderdale, G 1898, The Book of the Bush. Containing Many Truthful Sketches of the Early Colonial Life of Squatters, Whalers, Convicts, Diggers, and Others Who Left Their Native Land and Never Returned. Ward Lock, London.

Haydon, G H 1846,  Five years’ experience in Australia Felix, comprising A short account of its early settlement and its present position, with many particulars interesting to intending emigrants. Hamilton, Adams & Co., London
See Chapter VI, Narrative of a journey from Westernport to Gipp’s land, with extracts from the journal kept on the route.

For more contemporary research on the frontier clash in Gippsland, one readily accessible source is the website of Peter Gardner, historian from East Gippsland.

Another readily accessible source is the University of Newcastle’s site Colonial Frontier Massacres in Australia, 1788-1930 and its map of massacre sites.

1 thought on “210. Rev George Cox and his ‘Notes on Gippsland History’ (2): versions of history and the question of race

  1. Peter Gardner

    Phil, thanks for this insightful piece on George Cox which was forwarded to me by Linda Barraclough. I worked on Cox’s notebooks and ms in the SLV on and off through the 1970s. More recently I have done a brief assessment of Dunderdale and his historical accuracy that you may be interested in. See http://petergardner.info/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/George-Dunderdale-and-the-Kurnai.pdf There are a number of other Kurnai essays on the publications page of my website.

    Reply

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