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Windschuttle’s Whitewash

Robert Manne |  18 June 2006

This is the full text of the speech prepared for the debate with Keith Windschuttle at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival. It draws on some of the contributions found in Robert Manne’s (ed), Whitewash: On Keith Windschuttle’s Fabrication of Aboriginal History (Black Inc, 2003).

The first British troops and settlers arrived on Van Diemen’s Land almost exactly 200 years ago. At the time, it is thought by scholars, there were about 4000 to 5000 Indigenous people on the island. By the early 1830s the number of these people had been reduced to 200 or so. These survivors either surrendered or were captured and transported to Flinders Island. By the end of the 1870s not one of the ‘full blood’ Indigenous inhabitants, of a people who had lived on the island of Tasmania for perhaps 35,000 years, remained alive. Ever since the 1830s what had happened in Tasmania has been considered by civilised opinion as one of the most terrible tragedies in the history of British colonisation.

This is not Keith Windschuttle’s view. According to the dust jacket of his book The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, Volume One, Van Diemen’s Land 1803-1847, the British settlement of Australia was ‘the least violent of all Europe’s encounters with the New World’, while according to its concluding chapter, Van Diemen’s Land was ‘probably the site where the least indigenous blood of all was deliberately shed’. Between 1803 and the removal of the Aborigines to Flinders Island, 30 years later, Windschuttle continues, ‘the British were responsible for killing 118 of the original inhabitants—less than four deaths a year.’ In a different section of his book he claims that it is ‘clear’ that ‘the number of Aborigines killed by colonists was far fewer than the colonists who died at Aboriginal hands’. Windschuttle regards Aboriginal killings of the British as mere criminal acts: robbery and murder. He blames Aboriginal criminality, Aboriginal callousness towards their own women and the dysfunctionality of their society, as well as the introduction of European diseases, for the total collapse of Tasmanian Aboriginal society.

As is well known, Windschuttle’s book has been hailed by conservatives with overwhelming enthusiasm. Geoffrey Blainey described it as ‘one of the most important and devastating written on Australian history in recent decades’. Professor Claudio Veliz went further. He described Fabrication as ‘one of the most important books of our time’. My view is different. I regard Fabrication as one of the most implausible, ignorant and pitiless books about Australian history written for many years. I will begin to demonstrate why I hold this view by an examination of Windschuttle’s claim that in Van Diemen’s Land 118 Aborigines were killed by British settlers.

The figure of 118 Aboriginal deaths was calculated by Windschuttle using the research of the man generally regarded as the pre-eminent empirical scholar in the area of the Tasmanian Aborigines, Brian Plomley. In 1966 Plomley published the extensive diaries of the man responsible for the surrender of the Tasmanians, George Augustus Robinson. In 1992 he published a monograph on the Aboriginal attacks on British settlers in Tasmania. By combining the figures of some of those Aboriginal deaths in the Robinson diaries which, for reasons best known to himself, Windschuttle regards as plausible, with those records of Aboriginal deaths found in Plomley’s 1992 monograph, Windschuttle arrives at the figure of 118 deaths.

The first problem with this figure is that the scholar on whom Windschuttle relies, Plomley, made it clear in many of his writings that documentary records could be relied upon only with regard to British deaths at  Aboriginal hands and that, because so many Aboriginal deaths were not recorded, it was simply impossible to arrive at an even approximately accurate figure of British settler killings of  Aborigines. Plomley’s 1992 monograph is concerned exclusively with the record of Aboriginal attacks on British settlers and not with settler killings of Aborigines. In his charts he did not even include the evidence about British killings of Aborigines recorded in the Robinson diary he himself had spent many years editing. In Fabrication Windschuttle finds it ‘puzzling’ that Plomley himself never attempted to compile a list of Aborigines killed by the British. There simply is no puzzle here. Like virtually all other scholars, except Windschuttle, Plomley was aware, in general, that, as he put it in the introduction to his 1992 monograph, ‘the written record suffers from one particular defect: it is only concerned with attacks by
Aborigines on the settlers’ and not with British settler attacks on Aborigines, and that, in particular, an unknown and unknowable number of Aborigines had been killed by the so-called ‘borderers’—the stockkeepers in remote regions, the sealers, the timber-cutters and the escaped convicts, who had no reason to report their killings and good reason not to report them. Plomley knew that we would never know how many Aborigines were killed by the British.

There is a second reason why Windschuttle’s pseudo-precise figure is absurd. Let us assume for the sake of argument that every time a settler killed an Aborigine some documentary record came into existence and has been preserved. Even if this was the case no remotely accurate figure of Aboriginal deaths could be produced. As Henry Reynolds explains, the reason is straightforward. In violent encounters between the British and the Aborigines, while some Aborigines were killed on the spot, others were merely wounded. Henry Reynolds points out in his chapter in Whitewash that Robinson noticed ‘not an aboriginal’ on Flinders Island ‘but what bears marks of violence perpetrated upon them by the depraved whites. Some have musket balls now lodged in them … Some of the natives have slugs in their bodies …’.

There is obviously no way now of knowing the ratio of wounded to killed, and it is, of course, quite certain that a proportion of those not killed but wounded subsequently died of their wounds.

This is the second reason why the figure of 118 is absurd.

A third reason is this. If anyone imagines they are able to arrive at a plausible number of Tasmanian Aboriginal deaths it is obviously a requirement that they read whatever available published and unpublished sources exist. Windschuttle has not even remotely done this work. According to James Boyce, of the 30 books published on the subject of Van Diemen’s Land, in the years between 1803 and 1834, Windschuttle is aware of at most five of these works and has ‘directly cited’ from only three. Moreover he has consulted almost none of the unpublished diaries or collections of letters, which are available to scholars. Given his claim to certitude, this is unacceptable at best, scandalous at worst. Let one example suffice. There is a published diary of a woman who was in Van Diemen’s Land in the early days, Rosalie Hare. Because he has failed to consult it he does not know of an incident reported in her diary relevant to the subsequent massacre at Cape Grim, which occupies an entire chapter of
Fabrication. Here is the extract:

We have to lament that our own countrymen consider the massacre of people an honour. While we remained at Circular Head there were several accounts of considerable numbers of natives having been shot … The master of the Company’s Cutter, Fanny, assisted by four shepherds and his crew, surprised a party and killed 12.

There is a fourth reason to doubt Windschuttle’s figure of 118 dead. Even when Windschuttle is aware of relevant sources he often misrepresents what they reveal. Again one example must suffice. Following a violent incident that took place in Van Diemen’s Land in September 1829, John Batman wrote a report in which he told of having been informed by two Aborigines his party had captured that another ten were dead of their wounds or died shortly after. In his report Batman admitted to shooting his two prisoners. Windschuttle accepts this evidence. But in his text he dismisses the evidence of the ten wounded or dead. And in his Table where the 118 deaths are found, he even omits the two prisoners Batman admits to having shot.

Where there is a dispute about the number of deaths in a particular incident Windschuttle almost invariably accepts the lower figure. Concerning Risdon Cove, for example, Windschuttle accepts the evidence of two eyewitnesses, implicated in the killings, who claimed a very small death toll. He rejects the evidence of another eyewitness who, 27 years later, at the height of the Black War, when feeling against Aborigines was intense, told the Aborigines Committee that he had seen ‘a great many Natives’ being ‘slaughtered and wounded’. There is no obvious reason why this witness should have lied. In his death toll table, for Risdon Cove, a mere three deaths are recorded. And these are only listed as ‘plausible’. Why? As James Boyce points out, no-one in the past 200 years had doubted that some killing at Risdon Cove took place. As he also notes, in Windschuttle’s opinion there were only four killings of  Aborigines in the history of Van Diemen’s Land whose plausibility is rated as ‘high’.

Or take the case of Cape Grim in the north-west. Robinson was told by one of those responsible for the main massacre, Chamberlain, that 30 Aborigines had been slaughtered. A second man who admitted
responsibility, Gunshannon, was less forthcoming but did not dispute the figure of 30. On the other hand the Superintendent of the Van Diemen’s Land Company, Edward Curr, reported to his directors in London, ‘six dead … and several seriously wounded.’ Even though Curr’s directors doubted his account; even though his subordinate later implicated Curr in several Aboriginal massacres; even though Curr spoke of the necessity of a policy of extirpation and issued instructions to employees to shoot Aborigines on sight; even though Curr was thoroughly detested by his employees and by the Governors at Hobart, Windschuttle has no trouble in accepting his word. In his table six merely plausible killings at Cape Grim were recorded, with no mention of those even Curr had described as ‘severely wounded’.

Even this does not exhaust the problems with Windschuttle’s account of the Aboriginal death toll in Tasmania, which he claims was the lowest in the history of British colonisation. In Whitewash, Mark Finnane examines Windschuttle’s own figures—118 violent deaths among a base Indigenous population which, he claims, was 2000 in 1803. According to Windschuttle’s own figures the violent death rate of Aborigines in Tasmania in the late 1820s was 360 times the murder rate in contemporary New York. According, moreover, to Windschuttle’s own figures, if in the period between 1824 and 1831 as high a proportion of British settlers had died as Aborigines, there would have been 3200 deaths, not the 187 on record. If Aborigines had died at the same rate as the British settlers one would expect six deaths, not the 95 admitted by Windschuttle.

And not only that. Windschuttle entered this field of inquiry by pouring scorn on Henry Reynolds’ figure of 20,000 Aborigines killed during the entire course of the British settlement of Australia. If Windschuttle’s own figures for violent killings of Aborigines are extrapolated to Australia as a whole, and if it is assumed, as some scholars believe, that there were as many as 750,000 Aborigines alive at the time of European settlement, then the number of anticipated Aboriginal killings would be 44,000. The only way one could arrive at a figure as low as 20,000 violent deaths would be to assume an Indigenous population, at the moment of settlement, of 300,000 or less, a kind of figure most scholars abandoned 20 or 30 years ago.

One final point on death tolls. In recent days a conservative scholar, who is known for his scrupulousness,  H.A. Willis, has published the result of his own survey of just those sources Windschuttle claims to have consulted in order to arrive at his list of 118 deaths. On the basis of these sources Willis arrives at a figure of 188 violent Aboriginal deaths between 1803 and 1834 and of another 145 deaths which were ‘rumoured’ or which he regards as ‘doubtful’.

To summarise, thus far. Windschuttle’s 118 deaths is reliant almost entirely on the scholarship of Brian Plomley, who believed it impossible to calculate the number of violent deaths. It is based on the assumption that no Aborigines died of their wounds. The figure is reached without the examination of many published or unpublished records. Where there is a discrepancy between witnesses Windschuttle accepts the lower estimate. Even if his own figures are accepted, they suggest a violent death toll 360 times greater than the current murder rate in New York—and an Australia-wide death toll higher than Henry Reynolds’ estimate of 20,000. On the basis of Windschuttle’s own sources, a careful, even pedantic scholar has discovered an additional 70 certain deaths and an additional 145 either rumoured or doubtful.

Even Windschuttle cannot dispute that between 1803 and 1834 almost all Tasmanian Aborigines died. Why? According to Windschuttle the most important answer is introduced European disease, concerning which, he claims, evidence is clear. Regarding violent deaths Windschuttle demands evidence that might  convince a court of law. Regarding the impact of introduced disease his evidentiary standards slip. As James Boyce points out, in Fabrication he produces only one piece of evidence for the impact of disease prior to 1829, a conversation recorded by James Bonwick.

The impact of imported disease after the transportation of the Aborigines to Flinders Island is not controversial. However the relative importance, before that time, of deaths through shooting, malnutrition through the loss of access to traditional hunting grounds, and lack of immunity to new diseases, is far from obvious. Why the Aboriginal population of the north-west died out so rapidly, for example, where there were few free settlers, and where contact between employees of the Van Diemen’s Land Company and the Aborigines was small and often lethal for reasons unconnected to catching a cold is, as Ian McFarlane makes clear in Whitewash, a genuine historical problem. Windschuttle argues that ‘for some reason’ the Aboriginal women who went with the sealers did not succumb to disease. ‘For some reason’ is not, to put it mildly, a satisfactory way of brushing away a problem that threatens Windschuttle’s explanatory edifice.

If Windschuttle’s claims about violent deaths are implausible, even more so are his speculations about the motives of those Aborigines involved in the violent conflicts of the 1820s. According to him Aborigines did not attack British settlers because they resented the loss of their land and hoped to drive the British away. Lacking both ‘humanity’ and ‘compassion’ they behaved as common criminals—murdering with pleasure, simply because they could; robbing because they coveted British consumer goods. The Tasmanian Aborigines not only lacked nobility. They even felt no patriotism. According to his account, having wandered aimlessly over the island of Tasmania for 35,000 years, they had formed no attachment to any particular piece of land. All this is nonsensical.

The most important evidence Windschuttle advances for this last proposition is the fact that ‘None of the four vocabularies of Tasmanian Aboriginal language compiled in the nineteenth century, nor any of the lists of their phrases, sentences or songs, contained the word “land”’. Why the 19th century? As Henry
Reynolds points out in Whitewash, although in his bibliography Windschuttle cites nine works by Brian Plomley, he does not cite by far the most important Tasmanian dictionary, Plomley’s A Word List of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Language or any other dictionary of the 20th century. In Plomley’s Word List, while there are no entries under ‘land’, there are no fewer than 23 entries under ‘country’, the word Aborigines normally use when speaking about their own or others’ land. In Plomley’s Word List, three entries refer to ‘my country’; six have meanings connected to the question ‘Where is your country?’

Reynolds also quotes the words of a translated Tasmanian Aboriginal song. ‘When I returned to my country, I went hunting but did not catch any game.’

One of the contributors to Whitewash, Ian McFarlane, has provided me with additional evidence concerning the Tasmanian Aboriginal attachment to their lands. George Augustus Robinson was questioned by the Executive Council on February 23 1831. He told the Council that the Aborigines were ‘divided into various tribes under chiefs occupying various districts’. In Robinson’s diary, Weep in Silence, which Windschuttle claims to have read carefully, Robinson was informed about the reason for a clash between two tribes. ‘They [the Tarkiner] state that they and the Tommyginny have been at amity and at war alternately for a long period; that on this occasion the Tommyginny came to them on a visit and brought with them a quantity of red ochre which they refused, which was the ground of the quarrel …’. In order to induce the Aborigines to go to Flinders Island Robinson guaranteed that ‘as far as practicable they were … to occasionally visit their native districts’. He also recorded the grief of one of the Aborigines he was transporting to Flinders Island: ‘… When we were off Swan Island Manalargenna the chief gave evident signs of strong emotion. Here opposite to this island was his country …’. On the crucial question—of the lack of evidence concerning Aboriginal attachment to land—Windschuttle’s argument collapses at this point.

It also collapses, I believe, on the question of whether, during the 1820s, Aborigines were in fact behaving like criminals or defending their traditional lands and hunting grounds. As Henry Reynolds points out, the British settlers with the closest connection to the Indigenous Tasmanians all commented explicitly on their patriotism. Here is Roderick O’Connor, the Commissioner of Lands: ‘They were as tenacious of their hunting grounds as settlers of their farms.’ Here is William Darling, superintendent of Aboriginal settlements for two and a half years: ‘[It] must be obvious to every candid mind, that they are a brave and patriotic people’, who had ‘considered themselves as engaged in a justifiable war against the invaders of their country’. And here is George Augustus Robinson, who knew the Tasmanians better than any British settler: ‘Patriotism is a distinguishing trait of the Aboriginal character.’ Windschuttle provides no evidence from a contemporary who shared his strange view about the lack of Aboriginal connection to land. Recently in Launceston Windschuttle likened Aboriginal attacks on British settlers to ‘modern-day junkies raiding service stations for money’. At the end of the fierce Black War of the 1820s, Governor Arthur spoke, rather, of this ‘noble-minded race’. Who ought we to believe?

Windschuttle not only doubts Aboriginal attachment to land and Aboriginal patriotism, he even doubts the idea that they were involved in a war against the settlers. In order to maintain this he idiosyncratically restricts the concept of war to organised attacks on enemy troops. By his definition terrorist attacks on soft targets could not be regarded as war. He also ignores altogether the scores of occasions on which the British settlers and officials spoke of the ‘war’ in which they at least knew they were involved between 1824 and 1831. The Indigenous Tasmanians have left no accounts of how exactly they conceptualised what was taking place at this time. Yet, as Shayne Breen points out in Whitewash, in the north-central districts of Tasmania nine separate Aboriginal attacks on British settlers occurred in the space of a fortnight in November 1827. What is this if not the evidence of a war? When Governor Arthur was given his commission, he was instructed ‘to oppose force by force and to repel such aggressions in the same manner, as if they proceeded from subjects of an accredited state’. Windschuttle does not mention this instruction. Why?

The British Governor in Van Diemen’s Land, then, received instructions, if necessary, to fight a war. The British settlers in the second half of the 1820s believed they were involved in a war, ‘and that of the most atrocious kind’, as one of them put it. The Aborigines, at this time, mounted scores of attacks against the British settlers. And yet because he wants to denigrate the Aborigines as criminals rather than as patriots, Windschuttle, almost alone among historians, believes that there was no Black War.

Windschuttle thinks that Henry Reynolds’ characterisation of Aborigines, as involved in guerilla warfare, is nothing more than the Che Guevara romanticism of an erstwhile 1960s radical. Once more this is nonsensical. As Henry Reynolds shows, a key authority on the subject,  Walter Laqueur, regards guerilla warfare as one of the most ancient forms of military encounter. And, as he also shows, on several occasions during the 1820s, both the Aboriginal bands and the British roving parties were referred to by contemporaries as guerilla armies. There is nothing anachronistic about the idea of guerilla warfare in Tasmania in the 1820s.

It is really because he has no grasp of early Tasmanian society that Windschuttle is unable to understand what caused the 1820s war. As James Boyce shows in Whitewash, because Windschuttle does not know something as elementary as the difference between land ownership and land occupation, he thinks that by 1823 only a little over three per cent of the Tasmanian land was occupied at the time the Black War began. It is true that in 1823 only three per cent or so of the land was owned. But by that time probably four or five times that amount of land was occupied, by those who held annual leases, so-called tickets of occupation, or who simply grazed their flocks on Crown lands. Extraordinarily enough, of both these forms of land occupation Windschuttle is altogether unaware.

Much of Tasmania is mountainous or wilderness. By the time the war began a sizeable proportion of the valuable central plain of Tasmania was occupied by British settlers’ grazing stock. These were also the most important traditional Aboriginal hunting grounds. As almost all historians before Windschuttle understood, this is the basic cause of the War, not a ‘quasi-Marxist’ explanation, as Windschuttle preposterously claims.

Again because he has no understanding of the reality of life in early Tasmania, Windschuttle believes that most British hunting activity ceased after 1811, when in fact, as James Boyce shows, for several decades the settlers went on a veritable hunting spree, allowing Van Diemen’s Land to become a major exporter of kangaroo skins and other furs. As Boyce notes sardonically, if Windschuttle had read the early Van Diemen’s Land newspapers, beyond the indexed references to Aborigines, he might have noticed that in December 1819 the Hobart Town Gazette editorialised against the practice of the grazers of animals who ‘employ almost all their time in hunting, losing sight of their flocks for days together’.

And if, indeed, Windschuttle understood early Tasmanian society he would not, most egregiously of all, have assumed, as he does, that orders issued by the early Governors, in this case against the wanton killing of Aborigines, were almost automatically obeyed. On this question Windschuttle is caught in a hopeless contradiction. According to him in June 1813 not a single killing of an Aborigine had occurred in Van Diemen’s Land for five years. Yet in that very month the Governor issued an order to the settlers warning them against taking Aboriginal life. What is the explanation for this apparent gubernatorial slander of the settlers?

The most distressing feature of Windschuttle’s Fabrication is its vilification of the Tasmanian Aborigines. Some is almost comical—like his suggestion that the Aboriginal survival over 35,000 years or so was mainly a matter of good luck. Some is not amusing. Windschuttle accuses the Tasmanian Aboriginal men of treating their women brutally, by selling them into prostitution. The evidence about mistreatment of women comes almost exclusively from the time when Aboriginal society had already almost
altogether broken down. Windschuttle either has not read, or ignores, the evidence of  the French explorers who give a very different view.

According to James Boyce, the least sympathetic of the early French visitors to Van Diemen’s Land was Péron. Yet he wrote that the family life he had observed among the Indigenous people had touched him deeply. Moreover, as Péron makes clear, the efforts of the French to have sexual relations with the Aboriginal women were strongly rebuffed. In fact it seems almost certain that Windschuttle has not read Péron’s account of the Baudin visit. For if he had, why does he confuse the dates of the publication of the volumes for the years when the expedition took place?

There is, however, a far more serious point here. In an account which is supposedly sympathetic to the plight of  Aboriginal women, why does Windschuttle omit from his account of the reason for violent clashes the considerable evidence concerning British settler abduction  of Aboriginal women, clearly one of the most important of the grievances of the Tasmanian Aborigines?

Because Windschuttle has not followed contemporary scholarly debate, he repeats Plomley’s early view that Tasmanian Aborigines could not light fire, without realising that, on the basis of later argument and evidence, Plomley subsequently changed his mind. And because Windschuttle lacks understanding of the historical context, without the support of any evidence he claims that the Aborigines went ‘naked’ in winter even in the mountain regions, presumably because, as the most primitive people on earth, they had been unable to work out that animal furs might protect them from the cold. As James Boyce points out, in the 18th century ‘naked’ normally implied the lack of cover of the genitals. James Cook, for example, wrote of Van Diemen’s Land that ‘the females wore kangaroo skins tied over their shoulders and round their waist’ which ‘did not cover those parts which most nations conceal’. As Boyce rightly says, the idea of a people existing in such a climate for tens of thousands of years without working out that they might wear kangaroo skins is, to put the matter charitably, too ridiculous for words.

As Dirk Moses argues in the conclusion to Whitewash, the way Keith Windschuttle responds to criticism will reveal a great deal about whether Fabrication is merely a failed effort at historical revisionism or the first instalment of an authentic Australian historical denialism with regard to the dispossession of the Aborigines.

For my part I am not optimistic. In Whitewash Cathie Clement tells the story of how, on noticing an error Sir William Deane had made concerning a massacre of Aborigines at Mistake Creek (Sir William placed the incident in the 1930s; in fact it took place in 1915), Windschuttle went on the attack. One of the people who bore witness to the massacre was an Aboriginal woman, Peggy Patrick. As Peggy speaks not standard English but a local Kriol, when she was interviewed she spoke not of the loss of her grandmother and grandfather but of ‘mum mother and father and two brother, two sister’. Windschuttle thought at first that Peggy Patrick was referring to the killing of her mother and father, not to her grandmother and grandfather. He mocked her mercilessly on that account. How could she argue her mother was alive in 1915, and so on? Windschuttle has been informed since then, on very many occasions, of his error. He has refused to apologise. He has even repeated his mistake.

In Whitewash a statement of Peggy Patrick’s appears. She concludes by saying that in talking openly about what had happened to her family she had hoped that ‘black and white can be friend when we look at true thing together’. After her recent experience, she says, ‘Look like nothing change’. For my part I hope that this is not the case. Anyhow whether things have or have not changed—whether there will ever be a history which Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians might share—is what the debate between Keith Windschuttle and myself is finally about.

Robert Manne is Professor of Politics at La Trobe University.


Robert Manne


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