Jesuit Publications Publishing ServicesEventsContactSearchPrivacy
Jesuit Publications Eureka Street Current Issue
Current Issue
About
Subscriptions
Advertising
Previous Issues
Links
Nav Bar

The following text comprises the opening remarks made by Keith Windschuttle in debate with Robert Manne, at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival, August 27 2003. These remarks are reproduced with the permission of Keith Windschuttle.

The first volume of The Fabrication of Aboriginal History makes three main points. First, there was no genocide in Tasmania. Second, there was nothing that deserved the label of frontier warfare either. Third, those historians who have claimed there was either genocide or frontier warfare, especially Henry Reynolds, Lyndall Ryan and Lloyd Robson, have misinterpreted and grossly exaggerated the conflict between Aborigines and colonists that did occur and, in a number of cases, have invented their evidence.

The claim that the Aborigines of Tasmania suffered genocide is today widely accepted throughout Australia. The Tasmanian Aboriginal activist, Michael Mansell, told the Hobart Mercury last month that to commemorate the imminent bicentenary of British settlement in Tasmania would be like celebrating the arrival of the Nazis. Thanks to the international success of Robert Hughes’s book The Fatal Shore, the claim that Tasmania was the site of the one clear case of genocide in the British Empire is also widely accepted internationally. Hughes’s verdict was based largely on Lyndall Ryan’s book The Aboriginal Tasmanians and her claim that the indigenous people were the victims of ‘a conscious policy of genocide’.

Robert Manne’s anthology Whitewash does not address the empirical evidence for genocide. In her essay in this collection, Lyndall Ryan does not attempt to defend her original claim. Nor does Henry Reynolds defend his version of the topic. Reynolds has always said that the government did not intend genocide against the Aborigines, hence there was no conscious policy at work. However, Reynolds’s thesis is that it was the Tasmanian settlers who wanted to exterminate the Aborigines. He claims they supported this demand throughout the 1820s and early 1830s.

In Fabrication, the longest chapter is devoted to disproving this claim. I show that none of Reynolds’s sources have any settler demanding extermination in the 1820s. I show that the colonial press largely worked to discourage the idea. I even show there was a questionnaire survey of leading Tasmanian settlers conducted in 1830 to determine their attitudes on this very issue. Reynolds knew this survey existed but kept it from his readers in case they wanted to know the survey’s results, that is, all the results, not just a handful of carefully selected quotations. The full historical record, not the selective and deceptive version provided by Reynolds, shows that even at the height of Aboriginal violence in 1830, very few settlers entertained such a notion. The prospect of extermination divided the settlers deeply, was always rejected by government and was never acted upon.

In Whitewash, Reynolds does not defend his views on either genocide or extermination. Yet this is supposed to be the place in which he and Ryan answer my major charges against them. This is very telling. I take their complete silence on this issue as an admission that their earlier claims are unsustainable.

In The Aboriginal Tasmanians, Ryan claimed that even if only half the stories in the diaries of George Augustus Robinson were true, they amounted to 700 Aborigines shot dead. That is, the diaries actually contain stories of a total of 1400 shot dead. ‘This is,’ Ryan claims, ‘about three-quarters of the Aboriginal population in the settled districts.’ But anyone who actually reads the diaries and does his own count will come to a total of about 188, and many are dubious cases. Ryan’s original claim is a complete fabrication. Any editor who was doing his job properly should have insisted she reply to such a charge. But in Manne’s book there is not even a mention of this issue—no concession, no withdrawal of this easily disproved falsehood.

In Fabrication, I now put the number of Aborigines who died violently between 1803 and 1834 at 120. I provide a table where I list every incident, the date, place and circumstances under which it occurred plus a reference to the source concerned. This figure is not absolute or final. In fact, I invite readers to provide me with any references or evidence to show if there are incidents I missed or need reassessing. If any evidence that is at all plausible comes in I will update the table on my website and in future editions of the book.

However, there are three major claims about Aboriginal killings in Whitewash that no one need take the trouble to send me because I’ve already checked them out.

First, Lyndall Ryan claims that in July 1827 a party pursuing the Aboriginal killers of a stockman at the Western Marshes left 60 blacks dead or wounded. She has taken this report, without acknowledging it, from Shayne Breen’s 2001 book on northern Tasmania, which cited a newspaper story. But if you trace the story back to its source in the archives it refers to an event where a party led by Corporal Shiners of the 40th Regiment and four stockmen pursued the Aborigines. At nightfall they got to within forty yards of the Aboriginal camp before the dogs detected them. They got off three shots and only wounded one man. In other words, the press report was a wildly exaggerated rumour. The idea that five whites armed only with single shot muskets could kill sixty blacks in this dense forest is logistically impossible. Ryan is still repeating the most implausible frontier stories. She has no interest in the truth, only in beating up the Aboriginal death toll as high as possible.

Second, Cassandra Pybus chastises me for not having taken into account, among other things, the diary of James George where he claims that the 40th Regiment killed ‘two score’ or 40 Aborigines in November 1828. Well, I’m sorry but I know George’s work well. It is called a diary but was actually a memoir written many years after the events. I’ve traced that story back to its source and it is actually listed in Fabrication on page 389. Pybus, as usual, has got the date wrong. The incident that George described took place in April 1827 and was written up in the Colonial Times. Those who were there at the time did not say two score of blacks were killed, only twenty dogs. The following week, the same report continued, there was a conflict in which the participants said ‘a few’ Aborigines were killed, which is what I recorded, since I prefer to take the word of eyewitnesses on the spot rather than the frontier tales and memoirs of old men.

Third, both James Boyce and Ian McFarlane quote a diary entry in 1828 by Rosalie Hare in which she claimed the master of the Van Diemen’s Land Company’s ship Fanny and some stockmen killed 12 Aborigines at Cape Grim. But both of them omit to tell their readers about the text that accompanies that diary entry. Rosalie Hare was the 19-year-old wife of a ship’s captain who visited the Van Diemen’s Land Company’s headquarters at Circular Head where she did record that information. But Ida Lee, the editor of the published version of the diary that Boyce and McFarlane use as their source, annotated the entry saying it was obvious she had got this issue confused with the other, major incident at Cape Grim where either six Aborigines (according to Edward Curr) or thirty Aborigines (according to George Augustus Robinson) certainly were killed. Moreover, I pointed out to McFarlane at a conference at Launceston in May that a company dispatch described the Fanny incident where there was an attempt to kill Aborigines but the guns would not go off. McFarlane now reproduces that dispatch but Boyce appears ignorant of it. So Hare’s diary entry is seriously undermined by two quite separate pieces of information, which is why this incident does not appear in my table. But both Boyce and McFarlane are quite happy to use this incident. If it adds to the death toll, into Manne’s book it goes, with no thought of making a critical analysis of the quality of the evidence.

My total of 120 Aborigines who died violently at white hands between 1803 and 1834 is, as Mark Finnane’s essay in Manne’s book correctly says, 6 per cent of the pre-contact Aboriginal population, which I calculated at 2000. It is true, as Finnane says, that in relative terms this is a high figure for violent deaths. But it is equally true that in absolute terms it is a very small figure, probably the smallest indigenous death toll of any colony established by Europeans in the last five centuries. Moreover, we are talking about what is supposed to have been Australia’s worst-case scenario—supposedly the one clear case of genocide in the British Empire.

Compare this to the impact of Spanish imperialism on the indigenous people of Mexico. In 1521, during the siege of Tenochtitlan, the Spanish conquistadors and their native Mexican allies killed 100,000 Aztecs in less than three months. Of these, no less than 40,000 were killed in the siege’s last few days. In Tasmania, 120 people were recorded killed over more than thirty years. The idea that the British in Tasmania were in the same league as the Spanish in Mexico is simply absurd.

Robert Manne argues the Tasmanian death toll must have been much higher than my figure of 120 since many Aboriginal deaths went unrecorded. In Tasmania, however, the thesis about an unrecorded death toll is more implausible here than anywhere else. After martial law was declared in 1828, the shooting of hostile Aborigines by soldiers and police officers became legal and all of them had a positive incentive to report any casualties they caused. Hence, the period at the height of conflict between blacks and whites on the island was the time when the recorded death toll was most likely to be accurate.

As a general point, if historians want to claim that something actually did happen they have to produce evidence that it did. If they don’t have evidence, they should admit they simply don’t know. To make claims without evidence, especially about Aboriginal deaths, is no more than political point scoring.

The thesis about unrecorded frontier deaths now endorsed by Australian academic historians is empirically and logically absurd. The absence of evidence about killings is taken as evidence of a cover-up, hence the absence of evidence of killings itself becomes evidence that many Aborigines actually were killed.

Despite all the sound and fury raised by this debate between last November and tonight, we have actually made some progress. The case for genocide in Tasmania has not been sustained. Indeed, its principal advocates have walked away from the topic, unwilling to defend it. So, my first thesis, there was no genocide in Tasmania, I now take as proven.

The question of frontier warfare is in a similar position. Several of the essays in Manne’s book do address this issue but, again, they largely ignore the major points I originally made against it. In Aboriginal Tasmanians, Ryan says the so-called ‘Black War’ began in the winter of 1824 with the Big River tribe launching patriotic attacks on the invaders. However, in Fabrication I pointed out that the assaults on whites that winter were actually made by a small gang of detribalized blacks led by a man named Musquito, who was not defending his tribal lands. He was an Aborigine originally from Sydney who had worked in Hobart for ten years before becoming a bushranger. He had no Tasmanian tribal lands to defend. Musquito’s successor as leader of the gang was Black Tom, a young man who, again, was not a tribal Aborigine. He had Tasmanian Aboriginal parents, but had been reared since early childhood in the white middle class household of Thomas Birch, a Hobart merchant. Until his capture in 1827, he was Tasmania’s leading bushranger but, as with Musquito, his actions cannot be interpreted as patriotic defence of tribal Aboriginal territory.

In Whitewash, Ryan makes no attempt to dispute these facts. Another of Manne’s authors actually concedes the point but engages in some terminological goalpost shifting. James Boyce now calls the three years 1824, 25 and 26, when most assaults on whites were made by these black bushrangers, a period of ‘comparatively small-scale violence’. So he agrees that the notorious Black War, which Reynolds once claimed was the greatest internal threat that Australia ever had, did not begin in 1824 after all. This admission represents a little progress too.

In his earlier books, Henry Reynolds claimed that the reason the Aborigines began the Black War was because they found fences barring their path across traditional territory and because the whites had killed so much of their game they were left to starve. In Fabrication, I showed that Tasmanian pastoral lands at the time were unfenced and that, as the Aboriginal population declined from disease in the 1820s, the quantity of native game rapidly increased. Moreover, the settlers augmented the Aboriginal food supply by providing them with dogs to hunt kangaroos plus a plentiful supply of beef and lamb on the hoof. Apart from some speculations by James Boyce, unaccompanied by evidence of any Aborigines actually starving, no one in Manne’s book, and certainly not Reynolds, even attempts to answer these points. So, I can only conclude that what were once regarded as two of the main causes of the Black War have been conceded by Whitewash as false by default.

I have also argued that Reynolds’s case about Aboriginal guerilla warfare was unsustainable. Guerilla warfare takes place when small groups of warriors attack the troops of the enemy, usually in surreptitious attacks and lightning raids. I pointed out that in Tasmania, the Aborigines never attacked British troops or armed parties of police or settlers. In the whole of Tasmanian history, only one trooper was ever killed by Aborigines. No one has ever shown that the Aborigines used military methods or had military objectives. In Fate of a Free People, Reynolds claimed that Lieutenant-Governor Arthur recognized from his experience in the Spanish War against Napoleon that the Aborigines were using the tactic of guerilla warfare, in which small bands attacked the troops of their enemy. However, during his military career Arthur never served in Spain. If you read the full text of the statement Reynolds cites, you find Arthur was talking not about troops coming under attack by guerillas but of Aborigines robbing and assaulting unarmed shepherds on remote outstations. Reynolds edited out that part of the statement that disagreed with his thesis.

Reynolds’s essay in Whitewash fails to respond to these charges. Indeed, he avoids them completely in order to focus on my argument that the Aborigines did not have a word for land. He thinks my aim is to undermine land rights and to reintroduce the concept of terra nullius. Reynolds claims that by showing that the Aborigines did have a word for land, the central thesis of my book collapses. But he completely misinterprets what I wrote.

My argument about Aboriginal concepts of land is based not on their words but on their deeds. It is not primarily argument about Aboriginal language at all, but about Aboriginal behaviour. I demonstrated the Tasmanian Aborigines did not act as if they demanded the exclusive usage of land. They had no concept of trespass. They certainly did identify themselves with and regularly hunted and foraged on particular territories, as I acknowledge quite openly. They had sentimental attachments to these territories. But they did not confine themselves to these territories nor did they deter others Aborigines from entering their own territory. On a seasonal basis each year, the Oyster Bay tribe foraged from the east coast right across to the Western highlands, well into Big River tribe country. The Big River tribe from the midlands was regularly seen on the northern, southern and eastern coasts of the island. There is some ethnographic evidence about the sources of conflict among the tribes. The main cause of inter-tribal violence was competition for women. There are no records of conflict over territory. For the first twenty years of white settlement there were no Aboriginal objections to the British presence in Hobart and Launceston. This was in marked contrast to the British arrival at the same time in the islands of the Pacific where the fiercely territorial Polynesian tribes of New Zealand, Tahiti and Tonga fought them off immediately.

The fact that the Tasmanian Aborigines did not respond in the same way is not to say they didn’t love their country or they were thereby deficient as human beings. They simply had a different culture. They obviously felt very possessive about the fruits of the land, especially the game, which they often seized from white settlers in the early years of the settlement. But there is simply no evidence that they felt the same about the land itself. And what is more, even Reynolds concedes that I am right to say that none of the vocabularies—including Plomley’s Word List, which Reynolds falsely claims I have not read—record a term corresponding to the English word for land.

My point in all of this has not been made to undermine land rights or to advocate terra nullius, an anachronistic term that was never used in colonial Australia anyway. My book does not even discuss land rights. I am arguing against Reynolds’s explanation for the Aboriginal violence from 1827 to 1831. That violence cannot be attributed to a guerilla war in defence of land over which the Aborigines demanded exclusive possession.

In other words, the Tasmanian Aborigines did not respond to the British as if they were invaders or dispossessors. I should emphasise that this is an argument about Tasmania and not about the mainland, which I have not fully investigated in relation to these issues.

Reynolds originally claimed that Lieutenant-Governor Arthur inaugurated the ‘Black Line’ in 1830 because ‘he feared "a general decline in the prosperity" and the "eventual extirpation of the colony"’. He presented that last phrase as a verbatim quotation from Arthur. However, Arthur never said this. Reynolds altered his words. When confronted by journalists of the Sydney Morning Herald with this charge from Fabrication, Reynolds replied: ‘I’ve never said that. That’s quite, quite misleading. How could the Aborigines destroy the colony? … Nowhere did I suggest that Arthur thought they could wipe out the colony.’ However, six days later, after journalists sent Reynolds the page in his book Frontier where he did quote Arthur saying exactly that, he finally agreed what he had done. He said: ‘It’s a bad mistake. I obviously didn’t know it existed, far from it that I had done it deliberately to distort the story … All historians are fallible and make mistakes.’

However, anyone who reads the offending page in his book Frontier will struggle to understand how it could be merely a mistake. In the same paragraph there are five other truncated quotations that appear to support the same false claim that the colonial authorities thought the Aborigines threatened the very survival of the colony. Indeed, Reynolds claims such fears were common throughout Australia. He writes: ‘many pioneer towns—including Perth and Brisbane—were to experience moments of equal anxiety during the half century after 1830.’

Whitewash discusses none of this. Reynolds has already publicly admitted he was wrong but he has yet to actually withdraw the main point he was making, that is, Aboriginal guerilla warfare was so fierce that it threatened the very existence of several British settlements in Australia. A historian who changes the words of one of his sources to suit his argument is guilty of serious malpractice. Yet, to date, no other historian of Aboriginal Australia has reprimanded Reynolds for doing this. Instead, I am the bad guy for having pointed out what he has done. If Manne had taken his role as editor seriously, he would have insisted that Reynolds respond and withdraw not just the offending words but the entire argument. Instead, Whitewash leaves Reynolds’s case intact.

Anyone outside the confines of our universities will rightly regard such behaviour as scandalous. They should feel the same about the dissembling response in Lyndall Ryan’s essay in this book.

All the major charges Fabrication originally made against Ryan—seventeen of evidence falsification and invention plus another seven of gross exaggeration of statistics—still stand.

Ryan concedes my point that she was wrong when she claimed Rev Robert Knopwood’s diaries said 100 Aborigines and 20 British were probably killed between 1804 and 1810. However, in Whitewash she claims her original footnote was cut short and that it should have been supplemented by two reports by John Oxley in 1810. I have checked Oxley’s reports and nowhere does he mention that 100 Aborigines were killed or anything that would suggest such a number. Nor does he mention European deaths. Ryan now says she ‘deduced’ her figures from Oxley’s reports. But nothing he said provides grounds for a quantification of this kind. Had Robert Manne acted as a proper editor, he would have insisted Ryan withdraw this bogus claim and apologise to her readers for deceiving them.

Both Ryan and Lloyd Robson originally claimed that stock-keepers of the Van Diemen’s Land Company gave Aborigines poisoned flour. I pointed out that the source both used did not say any Aborigines were ever given flour. Rather than withdrawing yet another bogus claim, Ryan simply avoids any discussion of the issue at all. Again, Manne failed to insist that she respond to this charge.

I will examine all of Ryan’s claims with fully referenced documentation, plus those of the other authors in Whitewash, in a book I am currently preparing that replies to all my critics and discusses several broader issues about the methodological practices and professional ethics of Australian historians.

Even at this point, however, it is clear the three major claims originally made in Fabrication —no genocide, no frontier warfare, invention of the facts by academic historians—are not seriously challenged by Whitewash. Indeed, my major claims are either studiously avoided or seriously misrepresented.

The current debate about Aboriginal history is not a moral debate but an empirical one. It is about what really happened in the past. I am afraid that, on this score, Whitewash is not a success. I find nothing in it that would require me to change any of my major arguments. Manne’s book, conceived as a definitive reply and a defence of the orthodox story of genocide and warfare, fails to deliver. Its principal result is to establish the truth of my original three theses.

Let me finish by talking about reconciliation, which Manne claims my book tries to undermine. I cannot see how a story about violence and warfare between blacks and whites, if it is untrue, can help reconciliation at all. What good does it do Aboriginal people to tell them the whites wanted to exterminate them, when they never did? What good does it do Aboriginal people to tell them they were a conquered people, when they never were?

There are many Aboriginal people today who actually support my case, especially in Tasmania. I have been invited to attend a ceremony on September 12 which the Liah Pootah people will conduct jointly with other residents of Hobart to commemorate the bicentenary of the first British settlement in Tasmania at Risdon Cove in 1803. These descendants of the Aborigines are commemorating the British arrival because, like all Tasmanian Aboriginal people, they are also descendants of the British settlers. They are celebrating both sides of their heritage. Compare this with the contribution towards reconciliation made by the Henry Reynolds and Lyndall Ryan version of Australia history. The message Aboriginal people have taken from their books is that the British arrival was comparable to an invasion by the Nazis. The Reynolds and Ryan story, which Robert Manne’s book tries to perpetuate, does not foster reconciliation, it only fans racial hostility and hatred. It is not only historically untrue. It is also racially divisive and politically inept.

Email us about this article

   
Nav Bar - - - - - - -
 

 

current issue | about | subscriptions | advertising | previous issues | links

Reproduction of material from any Jesuit Publications pages
without written prior permission is strictly prohibited.
Copyright 2002 Jesuit Publications
PO Box 553 Richmond VIC 3121 Australia
Tel +61 3 9427 7311, Fax +61 3 9428 4450