The construction of Aboriginal history: fact or fiction?

Keith Windschuttle
in debate with Henry Reynolds
University of New South Wales Speakers' Forum
May 29, 2003

In her book The Aboriginal Tasmanians Lyndall Ryan claims that British colonists killed 100 Aborigines in Van Diemen's Land between 1804 and 1808. Last weekend, on Channel Nine's program Sunday, Ryan confessed she didn't have any evidence for the figure. I had pointed out that the source her book quoted, the diary of the colony's chaplain Robert Knopwood, only recorded four Aboriginal deaths. Ryan, however, claimed that footnote was a mistake and her real source was a report by the explorer John Oxley in 1810. But if you look up Oxley's report, there is no mention in it anywhere of 100 Aborigines being killed. Pressed on the issue by journalist Helen Dalley, Ryan said: "I think by the way Oxley wrote that he seemed to think there had been a great loss of life from the Aborigines." Helen Dalley then asked: "So, in a sense, it is fair enough for [Keith Windschuttle] to say that you did make up figures? You're telling me you made an estimated guess." Ryan replied: "Historians are always making up figures."

Like everything else Ryan has said on this subject, however, this statement was not true either. All historians do not make up figures. To do so is a corruption of their profession. Historians must have evidence for their claims. And if they can't produce evidence they shouldn't produce figures. Ryan would have been more accurate if she had said: the historians of Aboriginal Australia are always making up figures. That statement would have been true. And today, I am sharing the platform with one of the most creative practitioners of the art.

Henry Reynolds claims in his book The Other Side of the Frontier that 10,000 Aborigines were killed in Queensland before federation. The source he provides is an article of his own called "The Unrecorded Battlefields of Queensland", which he wrote in 1978. But if you look up the article you find something very strange. It is not about Aboriginal deaths at all. It is a tally of the number of whites killed by Aborigines. Nowhere does it mention an Aboriginal death toll of 10,000. Reynolds gave a false citation for his evidence.

For most of my adult life I was a true believer of this story. I had never done any archival research in the field but nonetheless used the principal historical works of Henry Reynolds, Lyndall Ryan, Charles Rowley and others in lectures I gave in university courses in Australian history and Australian social policy. I used to tell students that the record of the British in Australia was worse than the Spaniards in America. However, in 2000 I was asked to review a book by Perth journalist Rod Moran about the infamous Forrest River Massacre in the Kimberley in 1926. Moran convinced me that there had been no massacre at Forrest River. There were no eyewitnesses and no bodies found. The charred remains of bones at first thought to be of Aborigines shot and cremated turned out to belong to kangaroos and wallabies. So-called "massacre sites" were nothing but old Aboriginal camp sites. A list of Aborigines gone missing from the local mission, and suspected to have been murdered, turned out to be a fake, concocted by the white clergyman running the mission. Many of those on his list were recorded alive and well years later.

On reading this I decided to investigate the overall story I had long accepted by checking the footnotes of the principal authors.

In the three years since then I have found a similar degree of misrepresentation, deceit and outright fabrication. The project began in Tasmania, or Van Diemen's Land as it was known until 1855, about which I originally expected to write a single chapter. However, in going back to the archives to check what happened there, I found such a wealth of material, including some of the most hair-raising breaches of historical practice imaginable, that Van Diemen's Land has become the subject of the first of what will eventually be a three-volume series entitled The Fabrication of Aboriginal History.

There are two central claims made by historians of Aboriginal Australia: first, the actions by the colonists amounted to genocide; second, the actions by the Aborigines were guerilla tactics that amounted to frontier warfare.

Lyndall Ryan claims that in Tasmania the Aborigines were subject to "a conscious policy of genocide". Rhys Jones in his film The Last Tasmanian labels it "a holocaust of European savagery". However, at a conference a week and a half ago in Launceston, one of the senior figures of Australian historiography, Geoffrey Bolton, who is no supporter of mine, nonetheless said historians should stop using the term "genocide" in Australian history because the evidence is not there to support the charge. So, a little bit of progress has been made in the debate over genocide.

On the question of frontier warfare, however, the orthodoxy refuses to budge. So let us examine some of its major claims.

Lyndall Ryan says the so-called "Black War" of Tasmania began in the winter of 1824 with the Big River tribe launching patriotic attacks on the invaders. However, the assaults on whites that winter were 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 infancy 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.

From 1828 to 1830, tribal Aborigines emulated these predecessors by raiding white households, assaulting and killing their occupants and stealing their contents. Among the most aggressive of them was the Port Davey band. George Augustus Robinson had information from the Aborigines themselves that the Port Davey band was the most active in murdering and robbing white settlers in 1829. However, no one had taken their land or disturbed their hunting grounds. Indeed, they had no hunting grounds. They lived almost entirely on the rocky shoreline of Tasmania's south and south-west coasts, living off shellfish and seals. There was no white settlement in their area in 1829 and, in fact, there is still none, even today. The hinterland is mountainous, barren and equally useless for hunting, farming or grazing. The Port Davey band crossed the island to assault, rob and murder white settlers on the east coast. They had no patriotic or territorial motives for their actions. Neither Reynolds nor Ryan, however, mention this group's activities. To do so would spoil their frontier warfare thesis.

Henry Reynolds claims 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 claims that Arthur inaugurated the "Black Line" in 1830 because "he feared 'a general decline in the prosperity' and the 'eventual extirpation of the colony'". Reynolds presents 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 my book, 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. That would be a silly thing to say." However, six days later, after journalists sent Reynolds the page in his book Frontier where he did quote Arthur saying exactly that, he finally conceded 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."

Indeed they are and indeed they do, but the so-called mistakes made by the historians of Aboriginal Tasmania have set a standard for error that is unlikely to be surpassed. Let me give some more examples.

Ryan claims that frontier warfare in Tasmania's northern districts in 1827 included: a massacre of Port Dalrymple Aborigines by a vigilante group of stockmen at Norfolk Plains; the killing of a kangaroo hunter in reprisal for him shooting Aboriginal men; the burning of a settler's house because his stockmen had seized Aboriginal women; the spearing of three other stockmen and clubbing of one to death at Western Lagoon. But if you check her footnotes in the archives you find that not one of the five sources she cites mentions any of these events.

Between 1828 and 1830, according to Ryan, "roving parties" of police constables and convicts killed 60 Aborigines. Not one of the three references she cites mentions any Aborigines being killed, let alone 60. The governor at the time and most subsequent authors, including Henry Reynolds, regarded the roving parties as completely ineffectual.

Lloyd Robson claims the settler James Hobbs in 1815 witnessed Aborigines killing 300 sheep at Oyster Bay and the next day the 48th Regiment killed 22 Aborigines in retribution. However, it would have been difficult for Hobbs to have witnessed this in 1815 because at the time he was living in India. Moreover, the first sheep did not arrive at Oyster Bay until 1821 and in 1815 the 48th Regiment was on garrison duty in County Cork, Ireland.

I could go on giving examples like this all day.

The whole case is not just a fabrication, it is a romantic fantasy derived from academic admiration of the anti-colonial struggles in South-East Asia in the 1960s, when its authors imbibed the heady political spirit of the day. The truth is that in Tasmania more than a century before, there was nothing on the Aborigines' side that resembled frontier warfare, patriotic struggle or systematic resistance of any kind.

It was a similar story on the white side of the frontier. The infamous Tasmanian "Black Line" of 1830 is now described by Reynolds as an act of "ethnic cleansing" and it is commonly regarded as an attempt to capture or exterminate all the Aborigines. However, its true purpose was to remove from the settled districts only two of the nine tribes on the island to uninhabited country from where they could no longer assault white households. The lieutenant-governor specifically ordered that five of the other seven tribes be left alone.

The so-called "Black War" turns out to have been a minor crime wave by two Europeanised black bushrangers, followed by an outbreak of robbery, assault and murder by tribal Aborigines. All the evidence at the time, on both the white and black sides of the frontier, was that their principal objective was to acquire flour, sugar, tea and bedding, objects that to them were European luxury goods. We have several statements to that effect from the Aborigines themselves.

Unlike Lyndall Ryan, Reynolds does not himself support the idea that the colonial authorities had a conscious policy of genocide against the Aborigines. Instead, Reynolds's thesis is that it was the settlers who wanted to exterminate them. He claims that throughout the 1820s, the free settlers spoke about and advocated extirpation or extermination. However, even on the evidence he provides himself, only a handful of settlers ever advocated anything like this. They spoke of it not in the 1820s but only in the immediate aftermath of Aboriginal killings of whites in 1830 and 1831.

In 1830, a government inquiry into Aboriginal affairs conducted a questionnaire survey of the leading settlers to determine their attitudes. It was possibly the first questionnaire survey ever conducted in Australia. Reynolds knows this survey existed because he has quoted selections from the settlers' answers in at least two of his books. However, he has never mentioned the survey's existence in anything he has written. Why not? Well, obviously, if his readers knew there had been a survey they would want to know the results, that is, all the results not just a handful of selected quotations. I examine the full results in my book. They show that in 1830, at the height of Aboriginal violence, very few of the settlers were calling for the extermination of the Aborigines. There were fourteen respondents. Seven of them still wanted to pursue a policy of conciliation towards the Aborigines. Five of them were against violence but wanted to remove the Aborigines to a secure location, such as a peninsula or island. Only two of them seriously advocated exterminating the Aborigines.

The full historical record, not the selective and deceptive version provided by Reynolds, shows the prospect of extermination divided the settlers deeply, was always rejected by government and was never acted upon.

In the entire period from 1803 when the colonists first arrived in Tasmania, to 1834 when all but one family of Aborigines had been removed to Flinders Island, my calculation is that the British were responsible for killing only 120 of the original inhabitants, mostly in self defence or in hot pursuit of Aborigines who had just assaulted white households. In these incidents, the Aborigines killed 187 colonists. In all of Europe's colonial encounters with the New Worlds of the Americas and the Pacific, the colony of Van Diemen's Land was probably the site where the least indigenous blood of all was deliberately shed.

Why, then, have the historians of Tasmania told this story about genocide, frontier warfare and widespread bloodshed. I suggest several of the reasons in my book: to make Australian history, which would otherwise be dull and uneventful, seem more dramatic than it really was; to flatter their own vanity as saviours of the Aborigines; to assume the moral high ground and to pretend their views make them morally unimpeachable; in some cases to pursue a traditional Marxist agenda or to indulge in interest group politics of gender, race and class. But the greatest influence on them has been not so much a commitment to any specific political program but the notion that emerged in the 1960s that history itself is "inescapably political". This is a phrase Reynolds used in 1981 in the introduction to his book The Other Side of the Frontier. Without this concept, there might have been less licence taken with historical evidence and a greater sense of the historian's responsibility to respect the truth. The argument that all history is politicised, that it is impossible for the historian to shed his political interests and prejudices, and that those who believed they could do so are only deluding themselves, has become the most corrupting influence of all. It has turned the traditional role of the historian, to stand outside his contemporary society in order to seek the truth about the past, on its head. It has allowed historians to write from an overtly partisan position and to justify this both to themselves and to anyone who dared challenge them.

In contrast, the proper role of the historian is to try to stand above politics, difficult though this always will be. Historians should assume a public responsibility to report their evidence fully and accurately, to cite their sources honestly, and to adopt as objective a stand as possible. To pretend that acceptable interpretations can be drawn from false or non-existent or deceptively selective evidence is to abandon the pursuit of historical truth altogether. Historians who do so betray their professional duty to preserve the integrity of the discipline of history itself.

For the past thirty years, the left-wing historians who have dominated Aboriginal history have created a paradigm they all have shared. The concept of a paradigm, as I'm sure everyone here knows, derives from the history of science and from Thomas Kuhn's notion that, for most of the time, scientific inquiry remains confined within a common set of assumptions about how to investigate a field and what the researcher expects to find. The NSW Premier, Bob Carr, recently said some unkind words about the use of the term "paradigm" by academic media analysts. He said those who used the term, were speaking "contentious ideological claptrap". In media and communication studies, I am sure he is absolutely right.

But in real academic disciplines like science and history, a paradigm remains a useful concept. Kuhn observed that the history of inquiry is often punctuated by "paradigm shifts", which occur because researchers eventually produce too many anomalies and inconsistencies that question the dominant perspective. If there are enough of these findings, they produce a crisis in the field. Some researchers then abandon the dominant paradigm for a better one, but others, usually older investigators, cling doggedly to the now, outworn stereotype.

Aboriginal history is not anywhere near the paradigm shift stage yet. But the early signs are ominous. The anomalies are piling up. The architects of the dominant mindset have been forced to concede crucial ground. They are still clinging at all costs to the old stereotype. They have failed to defend their territory with evidence and have had to resort to personal abuse of their critics, even resorting to changing the words of their critics, just like they have changed the words of the documents on the historical record.

Let me finish by sketching what an alternative paradigm might look like. It would find that a great many Aborigines willingly accommodated themselves to the transformation that occurred after 1788. Many Aborigines were drawn to, fascinated with, and became part of the new society. Many others, however, were subject to a policy that kept them segregated from the white population. The officials who initiated this strategy claimed it was to protect them from white violence. However, the worst crime Australia committed against the Aborigines was not violence but this very policy of separating and interning them on missions and reserves. Those who did this are still celebrated by historians today as great humanitarians.

An alternative paradigm would see these so-called humanitarians as people who wanted the jobs and the government funding to run institutions for Aborigines. It would see them as people who invented many of the early stories about white violence towards Aborigines to serve their own interests. Some were missionaries like Lancelot Threlkeld who couldn't raise a congregation through his own efforts, so he turned to the government to force Aborigines into his care. Some were like George Augustus Robinson who ran the protectorates in Tasmania and Victoria, which made him the modern-day equivalent of a multimillionaire, while watching his Aboriginal charges die before his eyes. Some were like Archibald Meston, a bankrupt newspaper editor, who restored his fortunes through his control of Aboriginal reserves in Queensland, and who provided the model for the Commonwealth reserves that persisted until the second half of the 20th century. These reserves did more to debilitate Aboriginal society and culture than any other single political instrument. Others were like Ernest Gribble, the missionary who fabricated the evidence for the Forrest River Massacre in 1926 and who, throughout the 1930s, 40s and 50s was religious superintendent of Palm Island in Queensland. Palm Island was a virtual concentration camp for Aborigines. It was the most notorious, authoritarian, racist institution ever established in this country.

This alternative paradigm will also find that these same white people, who made long careers and a lot of money out of the Aborigines, are treated by today's academic historians as heroes. Threlkeld, Robinson and Gribble are described in Henry Reynolds's book This Whispering in Our Hearts, as great humanitarians. Reynolds uses their example because they claimed there was a lot of violence against Aborigines, a claim they grossly exaggerated in order to further their own interests of jobs and money. Today, academic historians quote their claims as if they were true, and make no critical examination of the agenda behind their stories. In fact, they actively suppress this agenda. If you read This Whispering in Our Hearts, you will find Reynolds makes no mention at all of the fact that Ernest Gribble spent most of his adult life running Palm Island. Reynolds knows this information would undermine his view of Gribble as a friend of the Aborigines, so he withholds it from his readers.

An alternative paradigm would find that many of those who have posed as the Aborigines' friends, including the academic historians who have written about them for the past thirty years, have been nothing of the kind. Through their support for the policies of segregation and through their efforts to undermine the integration of Aborigines into mainstream society, they have actually been the Aborigines' worst enemies.