It comes as no surprise to Rob Lowe Senior that south-west Victoria features prominently in a recently released map of the massacres of Aborigines that occurred during white settlement in eastern Australia.
Mr Lowe, a Peek Whurrong elder, knows many stories of local massacres that have been told to him by his forebears.
He said there were many more local massacres that were not recorded in the map released during NAIDOC Week earlier this month.
Among them is the one that his great grandmother escaped from near Illowa.
She was in a group of Aborigines that were offered porridge by white settlers. Suspicious of the gift, she walked on to camp near Dennington.
When others in the group, about six women and children, did not join her she walked back to discover their bodies.
It’s believed the porridge was laced with arsenic.
Mr Lowe’s great grandmother died in 1947 at the age of 67 and he believes the massacre she escaped probably happened in the late 1800s or early 1900s.
It is one of several that aren’t in the map that was put online by University of Newcastle researchers this month.
University of Newcastle historian, Professor Lyndall Ryan, who led the project, said most massacres took place in secret and were intended not to be discovered, so finding evidence was a major challenge.
Mr Lowe agrees and said he copped some criticism about a memorial opened in Port Fairy’s Railway Place in 2011 to the thousands of Aborigines that were massacred in the south-west.
While some argued there weren’t thousands of Aborigines in the area at the time, Mr Lowe said it was estimated there were 30,000 aborigines in the south-west in the early 1800s.
He said that number rapidly declined as Aborigines vainly fought to survive and battled settlers to get access to food sources.
Those that argue there is little record of massacres reaching into the thousands ignore the reality that those responsible for the killing were unlikely to record their deeds, he said.
But he has been told by his forebears of massacres where hundreds of Aborigines were rounded up and killed in one incident, such as one near the mouth of Yambuk lake in the 1800s.
Another story, which he heard from his grandparents, relates to a site among Warrnambool’s suburbs, the Warrnambool racecourse, which was previously a swamp and an Aboriginal hunting ground.
When squatters settled around what are now Brierly Reserve and the Warrnambool Community Gardens, they would hold “Sunday shoots” taking shots at Aborigines hunting in the swamp.
Mr Lowe said the squatters would gather on Sundays on the land now occupied by the Warrnambool Community Gardens, which overlooks the racecourse, and shoot at the Aborigines who had to flee down Russells Creek for cover.
The Community Gardens has acknowledged the site’s bloody history with a memorial seat and a sign that states the Maar nation was the original custodian of the land and that the gardens adjoins a significant place.
Mr Lowe said the seat, set among a garden of native plants, was well located.
“When you sit on it, you get a real spiritual feel because you know what went on behind you,” he said.
Another story Mr Lowe tells is of the Aboriginal families who plunged to their deaths after being forced to jump off the cliffs by white settlers at The Crags, on the coast between Port Fairy and Yambuk.
Near the turn off from the Princes Highway to The Crags is a well-maintained cross to George Watmore that states he was “speared by blacks 1842”.
Mr Lowe said he had been told Watmore had been speared after he refused to hand over food rations promised to local Aborigines.
He expects the slaughter of Aborigines in the area, including the death of about 200 at the Yambuk lake, was in retaliation for the sporadic attacks by Aborigines on shepherds and station hands, such as Watmore, and the livestock they managed.
“A lot of history books blame Aboriginal people for the loss of their lives,” Mr Lowe said.
“But they were trying to survive. They had to find food,” he said.
Mr Lowe said he still remained bewildered at the savagery that settlers inflicted on Aborigines in retaliatory attacks.
“Why was a family wiped out for spearing a sheep?” he asked.
Mr Lowe has taken many tours of local secondary students to The Crags and the George Watmore cross and said the disparity between the memorial for one man and the absence of any for hundreds of Aborigines killed nearby always hit home with them.
Among the local massacre sites that do have a memorial are the ones at Tarrone, north of Port Fairy, where Mr Lowe said three massacres took place.
He said he was impressed with the Orford community, north of Tarrone, that decided in recent years to acknowledge the massacres with a memorial, placing it outside the Orford Memorial Hall only metres away from the Orford war memorial.
Mr Lowe is pleased the memorials are not at the actual massacre sites but some distance away so the remains of the dead are not disturbed. He is also pleased that more was becoming known about the massacres but doubted it would convince many of the older white generation about the slaughter that had taken place.
“In their minds, they are set that Warrnambool was the perfect place (for settlement),” he said.
He has found the younger generation more receptive to his talks and said his tours did not focus only on the massacre sites. He also talks about how Aboriginal camp and ceremonial sites were used to give people an insight into Aboriginal culture.
“I make sure they know the history of this area,” Mr Lowe said.