Say it loud - I'm elitist and proud

Monday, December 16, 2002

BOLTON WEIGHS IN. Another review of Windschuttle's book The Fabrication of Aboriginal History (also without a link) by Geoffrey Bolton in the SMH, 14-15/12/02:

A number of writers, including some who should have known better, have inflated frontier death tolls well beyond safe evidence. Reynolds himself has cautioned against histories of race relations which assume "the worse, the better" [My italics.]

Windschuttle has worked the relevant archives diligently. This primary research is particularly important because, unlike most of continental Australia, Tasmania retains little indigenous oral history to provide a counter narrative to the conventional archival and printed sources. Rigorous in testing evidence, Windschuttle discards reports based on hearsay, exaggeration over time, and ignorance of local geography to reduce the number of Aborigines slain in Tasmanian frontier conflict between 1803 and 1834 to no more than 118. Over the same period 185 settlers and convicts are known to have perished at Aboriginal hands. These figures do not discredit Reynolds' contention that the Tasmanians suffered losses proportionately greater than Australians killed in the two world wars between 1914 and 1945, with similar trauma...

Lieutenant-Governor George Arthur, writing in 1828, thought that the encroachment of white people on their hunting grounds "exasperated" the Tasmanian Aborigines, and several historians have used the term "guerilla warfare" to describe the indigenous response to settler pressure. Windschuttle won't have it. The Aborigines cannot have been starving because kangaroos and other game were still plentiful in the 1830s. Therefore, as nomads with no concept of territorial ownership, they lacked motive or capacity for guerilla warfare.

This is one of his weakest arguments. Starvation is not necessary to produce resentment at intrusion into one's hunting grounds. Windschuttle himself cites examples of Aborigines destroying large numbers of sheep and cattle without using them for food. Blood was shed in contest for aboriginal land and that must be acknowledged...

Windschuttle's explanation [for the disappearance of the Tasmanians] is unflattering...Their helplessness in the face of contact was compounded by tribal conflict and the men's practice of prostituting their women to diseased whites. A reader who accepted all this might think that the Tasmanians hardly deserved to survive. Most scholars will find it hard to agree.

He concludes:
[Windschuttle] is probably Australia's most polemical historian since H.V. Evatt wrote Rum Rebellion...Because the stakes [regarding land rights] are high, the risk of distorted scholarship is great, both among those who seek redress for wrings committed against Aborigines and those who would deny them. I think that in several places Windschuttle goes too far, but he is right to invoke Sir Paul Hasluck, who wrote:

"There have been two colossal fictions in popular accounts of the treatment of the natives in Australia. One suggests that settlers habitually went about shooting down blacks; the other, framed as a counterblast, is that every settler treated natives with constant kindness. There is no evidence to support either statement."

Like the late Paul Hasluck - politician and Governor-General as well as historian - Geoffrey Bolton is a Western Australian. He's hardly a dreaded 'post-modernist' of the type Windschuttle loves to attack. Indeed, he has sometimes been bracketed with Hasluck as an exponent of the 'gentry school' of WA history. He wrote the volume of the Oxford History of Australia covering the post-World-War II period: it was appropriately called The Middle Way.

REYNOLDS STRIKES BACK in a review of Windschuttle's book The Fabrication of Aboriginal History in the Weekend Australian, 14-15/12/02. True to form, he's remarkably polite in response. There's no link available, but here are some highlights:

Windschuttle sees unity of purpose and ideology where it doesn't exist...

For all that, Windschuttle's work on Tasmania is far better researched than his previous articles about mainland Australia published in Quadrant. He successfully attacks some of the more outlandish stories about early Tasmania that are still widely circulated, more commonly overseas these days than in the country itself. He is neither the sole writer nor the first one to do this and such myths are probably impervious to academic attack. And for all the vigour used to unpick the interpretations of previous writers, the same process will now continue. His scholarship will be rigorously examined and fully exposed to view. And this will happen sooner rather than later. So for all the rancour occasioned by the debate, scholarship will be vivified.

It does not seem unreasonable to me to suggest that Windschuttle arrived at the front door of the Tasmanian archives with his mind made up, his thesis already formed. While he does not falsify facts, his use of the records is extremely selective...

He argues that assessment of the Aboriginal motives and behaviour lack credibility in the absence of direct indigenous voices. It is a good debating point. But once made, Windschuttle provides his own account of Aboriginal actions, which has even less support from the available indirect and circumstantial evidence...

Windschuttle's general conclusions...will delight and deeply offend; they are at one and the same time historiographical and intensely political...While written about Tasmania, they will be taken as having much wider relevance.

He sums up Windschuttle's conclusions:
The conflict cannot plausibly be characterised as warfare or guerilla warfare...The Aborigines were not patriots fighting for their land but were little better than burglars and murderers. They were criminal - no more, no less...

Their actions were not noble; in fact "they never rose beyond robbery, assault and murder"...

Much of the population loss was due to the fact that Aboriginal men sold off their women to white men, which was one consequence of conditions within an indigenous society that was "so internally dysfunctional".

The implications of all this are clear. If not drawn by Windschuttle, they will be by others. The black armbands can come off and go out with the rubbish. White Australia has no historically derived obligations to Aborigines. Land rights have no justification. Reconciliation is unnecessary. If anyone should say sorry for the past, it's the Aborigines, whose criminal ancestors behaved so badly towards the white pioneers.


MORE ON WHY HISTORY MATTERS. Richard White on how History in schools has become like spinach: you don't have it because you like it, you have it because it's good for you.

I did Richard's course Australia 1900-1945 in 1998 as part of my History MA: here's an essay I wrote for him. He then supervised my Dissertation.

He knows what he's talking about. Although the MA was good for me, it wasn't spinach-like - it was pure pleasure!

Sunday, December 15, 2002

KEITH WINDSCHUTTLE'S The Fabrication of Aboriginal History: Volume One, Van Diemen's Land 1803-1847 (Macleay Press) was launched in Sydney this week:

In the entire period from 1803 when the colonists first arrived, to 1834 when all but one family of Aborigines had been removed to Flinders Island, the British were responsible for killing only 118 of the original inhabitants.

I love the 'only'. As Reynolds points out in Fate of a Free People(1995) (p. 210), the overall frontier confict death toll on both sides in Tasmania during the years 1824-31 'falls somewhere between the Korean War with 323 [Australian] fatalities and the Vietnam War with 424'.

Cladio Veliz, launching Windschuttle's book, called European settlement in Australia 'a nun's picnic' compared with what went on elsewhere:
This is the first major nation in the history of the world to have secured full independence and sovereignty without killing anyone.
Wow: even Windschuttle doesn't claim that!

THE SRI Lankan cricket team were 'harassed and humiliated on their arrival at Brisbane airport on Wednesday night for their cricket tour of Australia' - or so claims Sri Lanka's state-run Daily News.

Sa'adi Thawfeeq concludes that the Sri Lankan team 'don't deserve this type of humiliation to play cricket in a nation ruled by convicts'.

Sri Lanka thus joins Britain and Malaysia as countries where Australians are clearly not covered by racial vilification laws.

What happened to the Sri Lankan team happens to anyone who is likely to bring soil into Australia. For example, all visitors are asked if they have visited a farm recently - if so, they must have cleaned their boots or shoes.