Thicker Than Water by Cal Flyn

stanro's review against another edition

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Thicker Than Water by Cal Flyn confronts the author with a bloody piece of Australian history - and it is a piece of her own family’s history. It takes the form of a Gippsland (southeast Australia) pioneer, Angus McMillan, who massacred native people in his chosen patch, having left his native Scotland during the “clearings.” This comprises the opening chapter. 

Then, there’s what Flyn makes of it, now including it in a family history of which she’d been proud and secure all her life. This looks to me like it will be very interesting. 

Being audio, the narrator can make a big difference. My immediate reaction to her gentle Scottish-accented voice is that I’m a bit put off.  Thankfully, I adjust soon enough, and when she reads pieces in Gaelic, a Hebridean tongue, I’m particularly pleased to have her narration. 

Around 2014 it seems, Flyn comes to Australia to trace her relative’s footsteps. And she researches widely and deeply. One piece she found that caught me up, abruptly, was this from 1839:

“One correspondent from Port Phillip, the large bay where Melbourne had been founded four years previously, reported: ‘The blacks have killed forty head of cattle belonging to Mr. Faithfull, and thirty six sheep of Colonel White’s since you left. You may expect to hear shortly of some wild work taking place here, the blacks are so continually encamping near us.’ The dark allusion to ‘wild work’ was in fact a euphemism for what might, in modern terminology, be described as an ethnic cleansing,” Flyn continued.   

She refers to the Myall Creek massacre (unrelated to McMillan though he was doubtless aware of it), the only episode of the frontier wars where the massacring whites were tried and executed for their actions. 

I’ve read a few things about the frontier wars. Flyn, a journalist before she came to follow her ancestor’s path, brings the reader a number of reports of early settler life and frontier battles I’ve not heard of before. She also gives life to the Gunnai tribes and their beliefs and practices. She’s thorough and it’s chilling. Clearly it is far more chilling for Flyn, who after interviewing Peter Gardner, the author of the book that brought to attention the hidden history of massacres in the Gippsland region, and confronting her ancestor’s horrendous culpability in many of them, describes how disturbingly all this affects her dreams. 

She also calmly returns to Australian frontier history, sketching out the applicability of the term “genocide” to what occurred - slaughter, separation of children from their families and death by disease. She states that it applies. She then goes further.

“An alternative usage, more applicable to the (Gippsland-located) mission station and the assimilation processes from the 1860s onwards, is one best understood as ‘cultural genocide’ – that is, the systematic destruction of the language, practices and customs that make a group distinct. The burning of cultural artefacts and the banning of tribal languages and ceremonies would seem to put Ramahyuck squarely in this camp.”

Personally, some years ago when I first heard the application of the term to Australia, I could not disengage my thinking from “Genocide” is “Holocaust.” It took me some time to accept the applicability of “genocide” to Australian history. And not just 19th century history but, at least in some aspects, our recent and current activities. 


pettypierrot's review

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adventurous informative tense slow-paced


ehwhitty's review

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challenging dark informative reflective sad tense slow-paced


langoustine's review

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challenging dark informative slow-paced