Not far from where I live is a place known as Butchers Creek. On all the tourist maps and information, it appears with the name, Boxes Creek.
A massacre took place here in 1841. Today, not only is the lush gully bereft of a single marker, but there is seemingly a consensus to rename, erase and in some cases, deny this event. Should this matter? What does the lack of memorial say about Gippslanders? Can our region reconcile its history with the future we should aspire?
The massacre is part of the widespread killing that the white, mainly British, ‘settlers’ undertook. The people murdered at Butchers Creek were Kurnai (Gunnai) people. I must acknowledge them as the traditional owners of the land we know as East Gippsland, and pay my respects to them, and to elders past and present. In writing this, I must also acknowledge my own position as a white woman.
Butchers Creek is a beautiful quiet place, with tall never-been-logged gums and rainforest. The creek meets the lake in a narrow inlet off Bancroft Bay, tucked away from the great silvery expanse of Lake King. There are private moorings with shiny pleasure boats docked, belonging to the cluster of luxury holiday homes. These homes are usually empty, save maybe a few weeks at Christmas. “Melbourne” or “holiday” people. It’s easy to end up there accidentally, due to the confusion around Butchers and Boxes Creek being the same place. My first visit was accidental and I was horrified once it clicked. Many of the locals refer to Butchers Creek, yet none of the visitor information addresses this issue, in fact, a staff member at the official tourist office denied the massacre took place.
Leaving the event without commemoration does not acknowledge suffering, but paves the way for idyllic ignorance for visitors. To move on, there must be an honest acceptance of history. Though the killing was not formally recorded, the name lives on. Names do matter. Locals and MP Russell Broadbent are pushing to change the name of his seat of McMillan, because of questions over massacres. Similarly, Korumburra Secondary College renamed a schoolhouse previously known as McMillan.
The Krowathunkoolong Keeping Place, in Bairnsdale, tells the story of Butchers Creek and other massacres. Speaking with Rob Hudson there, he says; “A lot of people that come through here know and especially the locals they know of areas…that’s why with the names and Butchers Creek…with names changed…people can’t find it”.
Acknowledgement is key and therefore marking the site in some way seems like a strong step forward. Rob says though he is not surprised at the vandalism that has occurred at other commemorative places, it is a concern and one reason that some within the Kurnai community would prefer the Butchers Creek site unmarked. Graffiti and forceful damage of plaques at Aboriginal massacre sites are not uncommon across Australia.
Rob Hudson says “I’m leaning towards…that it should be marked…because when I was growing up, we knew that’s what the white people did. That’s what the whitefellas did when they come to this area. And I got that from my grandparents, my parents. My mum’s black and my dad’s white so I got it from both.” He adds, “…it does need to be acknowledged with a plaque of some sort. Because people think ‘it never happened’, and it did.”
Writer and historian Peter Gardner agrees that while some details are unknown, the massacre did happen. “There is some question about exactly where on the creek the massacre was, so I sort of use the arm, where the house used to be over the water as the most likely site… it’s the sort of place where I thought that the people would hide and the place where they’d get trapped…the general location is correct.”
The tourism website, metung.com, beckons people here for its outstanding beauty. It glows with outdoorsy ideas, including bushwalks. With a basic awareness of local history, it’s staggering to read that the first bushwalk listed is; “Nearby Boxes Creek [sic] has a lovely walking track along its banks. Watch out for the resident sea eagles and kingfishers as you walk along.” When questioned over how appropriate it is to advise a bushwalk to a known massacre site, there was no response. Peter Gardner sees this blind spot as ignorance but is not surprised. “If it’s put into the ‘bad news’ bracket, it doesn’t suit people promoting the tourist stuff…they are possibly mistaken because it would interest history buffs”. He adds, “Most of the people I’ve spoken to in Metung are still aware of the Butchers Creek name. Boxes Creek has become the ‘official’ name and I’ve got no idea how that came about.”
When I asked if the local tourism office could help with the Aboriginal history of the area, “No. I don’t. There’s not a lot around.” The Keeping Place is a half-hour drive away. As I leave with directions to a spot a stones-throw from the massacre site I’m told, “Have fun, enjoy it.” “Yeah, you wouldn’t have found Butchers Creek at all. Anywhere.”
While local tourism might not wish to provide information on the massacre, distorting the facts to ‘outsiders’ is questionable, to say the least. It seems knowledge of the harsh history will continue despite ‘official’ naming and tourism airbrushing. What does this say about us in Gippsland? The name matters as due to lack of historical recording from the ‘victors’, it is otherwise erased. Using one name, Butchers Creek, and not another, takes a stance against the silence over mass murders. It acknowledges the past is painful.
Peter Gardner has witnessed a slow uphill battle in regards to this part of history and is today a little more pragmatic. As for Butchers Creek? “The fact that the two names exist side by side is a positive reminder… that it doesn’t get submerged, it just gets stronger so eventually, the name may be changed anyway.”
When the two histories intersect it can create pain but ultimately forges a stronger shared story. At the Keeping Place, Rob is teaching the painful history day after day, but he remains hopeful, with Gippsland school kids visiting and learning more with every visit, “The future always brings out the truth. You know, our kids, our next generation, are going to know so much.”
If you’re interested in learning more about this challenging topic, we recommend visiting the Bataluk Cultural Trail and the Keeping Place. The Guardian published a piece on the University of Newcastle’s Map of Australian Colonial Massacres. Scottish journalist, Cal Flyn, has written an excellent book, Thicker than Water, after learning that her great-great-great-uncle was Angus McMillan. Read links to her work here and here.