Caledonia Australis and the Sydney
Show & Tell Prize 2007
THE ACTING PRESIDENTIAL bottle of wine won by John Newland at the December 2007 Show & Tell meeting (and being presented to him in the accompanying photo) happens to have an interesting connection with a couple of books in my possession. The label tells us that the bottle in question was a 2001 Mount Macleod Pinot Noir, almost an echo of the “Auld Alliance” between Scotland and France by the sound of
it. Clearly the pinot noir is a French grape variety, but what has this Mount Macleod to do with Scotland? Well, the label tells us that too in the following
Inspired by a landscape that reminded him of his beloved Scotland, explorer and squatter Angus McMillan was so moved by his first view of eastern Victoria from Mount Macleod in 1839, that he ‘…named it at the moment Caledonia Australis[’]. Caledonia, an old name for Scotland, and Australis, meaning southern[,] is the region now known as Gippsland. […]
The text—not expressed very well in the final sentence quoted—goes on to praise the soil, “terroir”, of the area and the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay wines it produces. As it happens, I have two books that relate somewhat to this wine blurb.
The first of these is actually titled Caledonia Australis, with the subtitle Scottish highlanders on the frontier of Australia. It was written by the academic historian Don Watson, a Gippslander of Scottish descent, and published in Sydney by Collins in 1984.
Watson gives a detailed background on the life of the Scottish Highlanders in ther original home and discusses the circumstances that led to their migrating to Australia. Probably chief among these were the the Highland clearances of the late 18th and first half of the 19th century, i.e. the forced clearance of the indigenous Gaelic speakers from their ancestral lands by their anglicised chiefs in order to make way in particular for the grazing of sheep.
One Highlander who comes in for particular and fairly sustained discussion is the Angus McMillan (1810–1865) mentioned on the label. He is introduced by Watson as “a Highlander whose life spanned the years in which the British completed the colonization of both his homeland and Australia” (p.83).
Watson introduces McMillan in his fifth chapter, “Calvinists and Cannibals”, as one of the fourteen children of Ewen McMillan, “an educated Protestant of limited but relatively secure means”, and his wife Marion (nee MacLeod). Ewen had moved in or before 1803 from the Scottish mainland to the MacLeod estates on the Isle of Skye, where Angus was born on 14 August 1810. Watson, citing some other source, refers to Ewen as a “tacksman” (p.84), a position which he elsewhere defines as one that
traditionally combined “the roles of proprietor, gentleman and military lieutenant” and involved subletting “the clan’s land to the people […]” (p.5).
In the 1820s the family moved from Calvinist Skye to the Outer Hebrides island of Barra, a Catholic island, whose traditional owner had converted to Protestantism, though his people hadn’t. As these northern isles were at the time Gaelic-speaking Angus grew up a native speaker of this indigenous Scottish language. He left Barra in late 1837 and made his way to Glasgow and then left there on board the barque Minerva, arriving in Sydney in January 1838.
There is a gap in the record of McMillan’s life for the next twelve months, but in February 1839 he is found in the south of the colony of New South Wales, down toward what is today the border with Victoria, and soon turns up as the employee of another Highlander, the Skyeman Lachlan Macalister, a military man and landowner of well-to-do means who had been in Australia since 1817. Indeed, Watson says: “McMillan played tacksman to Macalister’s laird […]” (p.109).
It was very much on Macalister’s behalf that McMillan undertook his early explorations, and one of the earliest, if not the first, made in the company of an Aboriginal evidently named Jemmy by the local Scots, saw him reach the area of the mountain that he named Mount MacLeod, presumably after his mother’s clan. It was on this same journey that McMillan saw and named the area Caledonia Australis but, contrary to what is on the above label, Watson gives the date as mid-January 1840, not1839, (p.111) and in his quotation from McMillan himself about the naming,
McMillan merely refers to “a hill […], from the top of which […]” (p.112) and not to Mount Macleod.
In exploring this part of Australia McMillan was much in competition with a Pole, the self-styled Count Paul Edmund de Strzelecki (1797–1873), who was not really a count, but was later in life knighted by the British monarch. He is, of course, best remembered today in Australia chiefly as the man who named its highest mountain after one of his own countrymen, Mount Kosciuszko, as it is now officially and correctly spelt in place of the previous “Kosciusko” used in my two books. However, although himself indulging in this bit of toponymic patriotism, on an expedition of May 1840 where he renamed a number of features already named by the Scots,
he deprived McMillan of his bit, as Watson points out:
It was in his report to the Governor [Gipps], however, that he committed his greatest offence to the Scots. ‘On account of the cheering prospects which this country holds out to future settlers, and which it was my lot to discover, I took the
liberty of naming it in honour of his excellency the Governor, Gipps Land.’ This
shrewd but prosaic title stuck and McMillan’s ‘Caledonia Australia’ […] slipped
away from all but a few minds (p.127f.).
It was on that early journey of exploration that McMillan encountered the Aboriginal people known as the Kurnai. McMillan’s explorations were intended to open up new pastures for stock grazing. But this involved the taking over of Aboriginal land, something the Aborigines understandably resisted, often by the killing of white incomers and their animals. The whites with their superior weaponry fought back, and there were certainly massacres perpetrated on Kurnai groups. One cause célèbre involved the claim in a letter published in the Sydney Herald on 28 December 1840 from an “Augustus McMillan of Gippsland or South Caledonia” that—inter alia—
he had seen what looked like a white woman being forced to accompany a retreating group of Aborigines. This rather vague observation was subsequently, around 1846, pumped up by others into a certainty and a reason to hunt the blacks down. In the 1840s McMillan was involved in punitive raids on Aborigines accused of spearing cattle. But there seems to be some ambiguity in what Watson says about just what role McMillan played in the genocide that led to the rapid decline of the Kurnai people and
which he goes into in his Chapter 8, “Removing Another Race” (p.161–183).
At one point in his assessment of McMillan’s generous nature in his final chapter, “Civilization at Last”, Watson says of McMillan: “[…] it remains that he was one of the very few Europeans in the fifties who took a philanthropic interest in the Aborigines” (p.190f.). However, towards the beginning of that same chapter we read, possibly about the year 1861:
When two other blacks were imprisoned at Narre Warren, it was Angus McMillan
who gained pardons for them. In a photograph taken after their release, McMillan, in his corduroy suit, sits between the two of them holding the hand of one firmly in his. He gazes at the camera in defiance of the irony that the man who had led the rout of their civilization was posing as their benefactor” (p.186, my italics).
It is this same photograph that is on the cover of the other relevant book that I possess, and that book’s very title reveals immediately what the author thought of McMillan. It is the second edition of PD Gardner’s Our founding murdering father: Angus Macmillan and the Kurnai tribe of Gippsland 1839-1865 (Ensay, Vic.: Ngarak Press,1990), its first edition having appeared in 1987, so three years after Watson’s book. If the book’s title were not enough to show that Gardner’s is going to be condemnatory of McMillan, then the titles of the first two chapters would be: “Chapter I Founder or Fraud 1839-40”, “Chapter II Butcher of Gippsland 1840-7”, of which latter chapter Part Two is titled “The McMillan Massacres” and Part Three “The
White Woman Affair”, which was, as mentioned above, based on a letter written by McMillan to the Sydney Herald.
Gardner, who had lived in the Gippsland area for just under two decades when the book was published, is no academic historian in the way Watson is, and is said on p.115 to have, for most of his time there, been “studying the history of the Kurnai people” and to have produced a “Kurnai ‘trilogy’”, which is presumably made up of the present book and the two listed on the verso of the title page: Gippsland Massacres and Through Foreign Eyes.
The biographical information about him on p.115 is accompanied by a photograph of him next to one of the many Gippsland memorials to McMillan (“ANGUS McMILLAN / EXPLORER PASSED HERE / SEPT. 8. 1839.”), many of whose claims to fame he disputes. The book is well documented from primary and secondary sources and provided with quite copious references in its notes and with a reasonable index. It could, however, have done with some solid editing, for not only are there divergences from Watson in the spelling of names, but there are also many misprints and/or misspellings and other errors, e.g. ithmus for isthmus (p.12), stimied for
stymied (p.17), these criterion for these criteria (p.17f.), to mention just a few.
To get the focus back finally onto our wine label, Gardner’s one passing mention of Mount McLeod (sic) has nothing to say about its naming by McMillan, but we have two references to Caledonia Australis, one implicit:
“Eventually all the names McMillan conferred on the rivers, lakes and mountains were given priority over Strzelecki’s, except that of the name of the province itself” (p.11), and one explicit:
Generally speaking historians have tended to recognise the priority of McMillan,
and posterity has left us with all the names that McMillan conferred on the countryside except one— Strzelecki’s Gipps Land instead of McMillan’s ‘Caledonia Australis’ (p.21).
And with that we complete our look at three pieces of Australiana: two books and a wine bottle label.