No Slander in Exposing Cultural Brutality
December 29 2003
In December last year a group of demonstrators stood in Elizabeth Street, Sydney, outside the book launch of The Fabrication of Aboriginal History holding up signs denouncing the author as racist.
They were employees of the SBS indigenous affairs unit and readily admitted none had read the book. Instead, their protest was sparked by an article on this page where I said the Tasmanian Aborigines had died out not primarily from white violence but from imported diseases and because "they had traded and prostituted their women to such an extent that they lost the ability to reproduce themselves".
It was this last phrase they found most offensive. SBS journalist Julie Nimmo said it made her "sick to the pit of my stomach".
In the twelve months since then, some of my fiercest critics have nonetheless admitted that the book's chief target -- the manipulation and misuse of evidence by white historians -- has suffered some direct hits.
My most persistent detractor, Whitewash editor Robert Manne, conceded: "There is no doubt that in his work of demolition he delivers some powerful blows". In History Wars, Stuart Macintyre said of my footnote checking: "This is by far the most damaging of his criticisms, as he finds some of the sources do not support what the historians reported, while others do not even exist."
However, the book's main purpose was always overshadowed in critics' eyes by its unsympathetic portrayal of the way of life of the Tasmanian Aborigines, especially of the relations between the sexes that so disturbed the SBS staffers.
Macintyre condemned the book's "complete lack of compassion", Manne its "pitilessness" Martin Krygier its "denigrating moralism" and James Boyce its "slander" of Aboriginal culture.
Some claimed Fabrication's account of indigenous society was empirically deficient. Boyce recently wrote (The Australian, November 24) that I failed to consult the "only" documentary sources available, the accounts by the French and British explorers.
Boyce can't have read the whole book, or even checked the index, because it does cite this very evidence. Chapter Ten quotes verbatim the French explorer Francois Péron on the brutality of Aboriginal men and reports a secondary source quoting another French visitor, Labillardière.
Were Boyce more familiar with the ethnographic literature, moreover, he would know the most telling evidence comes not from explorers but the Aborigines themselves.
On the frequently murderous level of violence Tasmanian men heaped on their women, Fabrication cites the words and deeds of the Aboriginal males Woorrady, Montpeliatter, Mannalargenna and Nappelarteyer, and the females Tencotemainner, Truganini and Walyer. These were all recorded in the diaries of George Augustus Robinson, by far the best source on Tasmanian indigenous society.
Just as inaccurately, Inga Clendinnen claimed Fabrication relied uncritically on government sources. "Poor old Keith Windschuttle thinks that if it's an official record you believe it," she told this newspaper (October 4-5) when launching Dancing with Strangers, her own book on race relations in early Sydney.
Had Clendinnen actually read my book she would have seen that claim was ludicrous. She would have also found a wide range of non-government sources that paint indigenous society in the same dark hues she draws herself.
How violent, Clendinnen asks, were Aboriginal men toward their women? "Very", she answers. "What the newcomers saw as remarkable --what I would think would be remarkable anywhere --were the blows Australian men publicly, casually, dealt their women for trivial offences, and their ready resort to weapons. Their women were, literally, browbeaten."
Another critic, the Tasmanian academic Shayne Breen, who labels Fabrication a "character assassination", nonetheless admits that Aboriginal women were traded to whites, as I recorded. "There is some evidence that Aboriginal men, especially along the northern and south-eastern coastlines, used women as trading commodities," Breen writes. "Some of this trading was culturally sanctioned, some of it was not. Sometimes women willingly participated, sometimes they did not."
The point of repeating these words here is not simply to demonstrate that the factual basis of my alleged slander of Aboriginal culture is conceded by the very people who make the charge. It is also to demonstrate how selective is their critique and how politicised their judgment.
A Clendinnen or a Breen who accepts the orthodox view of colonisation as British invasion and Aboriginal resistance can admit the cruelty of pre-contact indigenous culture and yet not sicken any stomachs. But when I make the same point within a historical model of Aboriginal accommodation to a comparatively nonviolent British settlement, I am pitiless.
One cause that provoked me into this debate was the attempt to elevate Aborigines to a position beyond criticism. Because they were obviously the most disadvantaged people in Australia, many academics sought to bolster Aboriginal esteem by giving them dispensation from the critical apparatus that applied to everyone else.
Aboriginal claims were to be believed as a matter of right. Their oral history was true because they said it was. Traditional society was idyllic. Anyone who said otherwise was to be vilified.
The nadir of this practice was the Bringing Them Home report, which reproduced a great many Aboriginal assertions about the forced removal of children, without calling any evidence from those who did the removing or even cross-examining the indigenous witnesses.
Neither history nor social policy can be done properly under such strictures. To uncritically accept whatever claims Aborigines make is to fail to treat them as equal human beings. It is condescending, patronising, indeed racist.
Aboriginal people are made from the same crooked timber as the rest of us. It is no slander to identify cultural practices they should leave behind. Perpetuating a romantic view of hunter-gatherer society, which historically was just as bloody and brutish in Australia as on every other continent, does not serve reconciliation, which must eventually mean some kind of integration into modern, mainstream life.
The fabrication of history serves the interests of no one, except those white and black political and academic activists who have lived off its misrepresentations for far too long.