Historical Truth, Postmodern Theory and the Fabrication of Aboriginal History
Lecture to Higher Schoool Certificate History Extension conference
Tom Mann Theatre, Sydney, 26 May 2010
History is an intellectual discipline that goes back to the ancient Greeks. The first real historian, Thucydides, did a remarkable thing. He set out to distance himself from his own political system and to write a work that examined critically what happened to Greece in the Peloponnesian Wars. He not only told of his own side's virtues and victories but of its mistakes and disasters. Thucydides also distanced himself from his own culture and religion. Instead of the mythical tales that all previous human societies had used to affirm their place in the cosmos, he faced the fact that the Greek oracles could not foretell their future and that the Greek gods could not ensure their fortunes. Thucydides, decided that to learn about the course of human affairs, he would not consult sacred texts or prophets or the sanctioned scribes of the era. Rather, he would go out and either witness events himself or compile evidence only from those, he said, "of whom I made the most careful enquiry", and then draw conclusions that his evidence would support. In short, what was remarkable about Thucydides, and those who followed him, was that they made a clean break with myths and legends. Instead, they defined history as the pursuit of truth about the past.
The ability to stand outside your own political system and your own culture, to criticise your own society and to pursue the truth, is something we today take so much for granted that it is almost part of the air we breath. Without it, our idea of freedom of expression would not exist. We should recognise, however, that this is a distinctly Western phenomenon, that is, it is part of the cultural heritage of those countries — Europe, the Americas and Australasia — that have evolved out of Ancient Greece, Rome and Christianity. This idea was never produced by either Confucian or Hindu culture. Under Islam it had a brief life in the fourteenth century but was never heard of again. Rather than take the idea of history for granted, we should regard it as a rare and precious legacy that is our job to nurture and to pass on to future generations.
For most of the last two thousand years, the essence of history has continued to be that it should try to discover the truth. Over this time, of course, many historians have been exposed as mistaken, opinionated, and often completely wrong, but until comparatively recently their critics felt obliged to show they were wrong about real things, that their claims about the past were different to what had actually happened. In other words, the critics still operated on the assumption that the truth was within their grasp.
Today, these assumptions are widely questioned, even among some people employed as historians themselves. Many theorists of postmodernism, or of cultural studies, which is another name for the same thing, assert that it is impossible to tell the truth about the past or to use history to produce knowledge in any objective sense at all. We can only see the past through the perspective of our own culture. Let me summarise the prevailing assumptions:
1. Truth is not an absolute concept but a relative one. Different cultures and even different political positions each have their own truths.
2. History cannot give us any knowledge in an absolute sense. Different ages reinterpret the past for their own purposes.
3. We do not have access to any such thing as a real world. What we think of as reality is a construct of our own minds, our language and our culture.
4. The meaning of any text is in the eye of the interpreter. People of different ethnic, sexual and cultural backgrounds will read historical evidence their own way, and that way will be different to people from other perspectives.
5. History is thus not fundamentally different to myth or to fiction. When historians look at past cultures they cannot be objective, nor can they escape from the cocoon of their own politics or culture. What historians see in the past are their own values and interests reflected back at them. One of the original gurus of the postmodernist movement, the American historical theorist, Hayden White, author of Metahistory , tells us we should "recognise historical narratives as what they most manifestly are: verbal fictions, the contents of which are more invented than found".
I want to argue today that all these ideas are a big mistake.
Let me start with the postmodernist theory about the relativism of historical truth, I'll quote one of its advocates, the former Professor of History at the Australian National University, Anne Curthoys. She is the co-author with her husband John Docker of the book Is History Fiction? Their book argues that the ancient Greek author Herodotus was the first historian. Now, it is true that Herodotus wrote before my candidate for first real historian, Thucydides, and Herodotus did call his work “history”. However, the work of Herodotus was couched within an earlier story-telling tradition of battle narratives, travellers' tales, myths, legends and fables about miracles and monsters in other lands, without any rigorous attempt to separate fact from fiction. Curthoys once justified this on the grounds that the pursuit of truth itself was an impossible dream: She wrote:
Many academics in the humanities and social sciences … now reject … the notion that one can objectively know the facts. The processes of knowing, and the production of an object that is known, are seen as intertwined. Many take this even further, and argue that knowledge is entirely an effect of power, that we can no longer have any concept of truth at all.
There are two things wrong with this view. First, if we can no longer have any concept of truth, that is, if there are no truths, then the statement “there are no truths” cannot itself be true. It is an obvious self-contradiction. Second, this is a silly thing to say because we have very good knowledge not only about some things that happened in history but of tens of thousands, perhaps even millions of things. For instance, we know all the names of all the leaders of all the nations for at least the past two hundred years and most of the leaders for many centuries before that as well. We know for certain the historical fact that John Howard was elected Prime Minister of Australia in 1996 and that John Curtin was Australia 's Prime Minister for most of World War II.
That such facts exist is itself quite enough to dispel any attempt to impose a blanket scepticism on the whole of the field. Or take the following proposition: The Viet Minh defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Every term in this proposition -- the names of the two protagonists, the concept of military defeat, the name of the place, the date the event occurred -- is a construct of language and culture. Yet the proposition is true. What's more, it is true in a culturally objective sense. There is nothing relative about it. It is a proposition that is equally true in French culture and Vietnamese culture, or in any other culture on the planet. Moreover, this is a very important proposition. Because the event it describes actually occurred, it affected the subsequent history of the whole of South East Asia . The lives of the inhabitants of the countries of the region would not be as they are today if this proposition were untrue. Vietnam would probably not have a communist government today; Cambodia would not have suffered the mass homicide inflicted by Pol Pot. Anyone with the slightest familiarity with the world he or she inhabits can immediately think of dozens of historical facts with the same status, that are just as objectively true and just as substantial in their consequences.
Moreover, facts with this degree of certainty are by no means confined to events within living memory but go back to the medieval and ancient worlds, and even well beyond antiquity. That the Turks conquered Constantinople in 1453, that the ancient Greeks wrote poetry and philosophy, and that human beings have inhabited Australia for at least 40,000 years, are all facts that one would have to be either highly ignorant, or decidedly perverse, to want to question. Of course many of the details surrounding or supporting these facts may not themselves be finally known. We may not know all the tactics or armaments the North Vietnamese General Giap used when he surrounded the French forces at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, but incompleteness in our accounts of his victory does not affect the fact that we know it occurred.
Let me now deal with the other big issue I mentioned, the notion that all history is politicised, that it is impossible for the historian to shed his political interests and prejudices. This 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. It has led them to make things up and to justify this to themselves on the grounds that it is all for a good cause. Australia 's best-known author of Aboriginal history, Henry Reynolds, has written: “history should not only be relevant but politically utilitarian, … it should aim to right old injustices, to discriminate in favour of the oppressed, to actively rally to the cause of liberation.”
This notion originated in the Nineteen Sixties. It was originally developed in order to "open up" scholarship so that all those voices that were allegedly excluded by traditional history could be heard. The authors of the American high school history standards tell us their version of history will open the field to women, blacks and ethnic minorities, who "have suffered discrimination, exploitation, and hostility but have overcome passivity and resignation to challenge their exploiters, fight for legal rights, resist and cross racial boundaries". One of their supporters, Keith Jenkins, editor of The Postmodern History Reader , says this approach means the end of traditional history:
Such demystification can thus "free up" historians to tell many equally legitimate stories from various viewpoints, with umpteen voices, emplotments and types of synthesis. It is in this sense that we can interpret the past ‘anyway we like' And it is this conclusion which signals to many (normal) historians the end of their kind of history.
On this issue, I agree that the last sentence of Jenkins does follow, except that, unlike him, I do not welcome it. It is, ironically, self-defeating for the political aims of the postmodernists themselves. The advocates of this idea are happy to legitimise a multiplicity of voices as long as they all belong to radical interest groups of which they approve: feminists, ethnics, blacks, gays and the like. However, it is not difficult to see that the politicisation of history undermines the aims of these interest groups themselves. By abandoning truth and objectivity, they unwittingly validate political positions they might find less congenial, such as those of white supremacists, ethnic cleansers, homophobes and misogynists. It means that those who deny the Holocaust of World War II, like the English historian David Irving or President Armadinajad of Iran, are entitled to their opinion and cannot be proven wrong, no matter how much evidence there is that the Holocaust did occur. The result is cultural relativism in which the beliefs and prejudices of any culture, no matter how bizarre or anti-humanist, are given their own integrity.
This position not only nullifies its own political goals but is also fatal to the pursuit of history itself. If all history is political then all perspectives are legitimate. Nothing can ever be resolved and opposing sides are reduced to talking past one another or calling each other names. Genuine historical debate comes to an end.
Let me make my own position clear. I am not arguing against writing the history of women, or blacks, or any other group that a historian wants to define as oppressed. You can legitimately do this, by all means, using the tools of traditional history. What I do mean is that, if you pursue this objective, you have to conform to the traditional criteria of proof used by the discipline. You have to investigate all the evidence, not simply cherry pick a small amount that points in the direction you want. You have to be able to put your work into the public arena where other scholars can scrutinise it and criticise it for both its logic and its evidence. If the subjects of your history genuinely are oppressed, then the historical evidence will establish this. In the long run, establishing the truth of your case through objective evidence, so that it is beyond doubt and cannot be dismissed as a piece of ideology, is the only way to serve the genuine interests of the people whose lives you are discussing.
Let me tell you about my own experience in all of this. For most of my adult life I was a true believer of the story of Australian frontier warfare, Aboriginal genocide and Stolen Generations. I had never done any archival research in the field but nonetheless used the principal historical works of Henry Reynolds, Lyndall Ryan, Peter Read and others in lectures I gave in university courses in Australian history and Australian social policy.
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 had never been any eyewitnesses and no bodies were ever found. The charred remains of bones at first thought to be of Aborigines shot and cremated turned out on later forensic examination not to be of human origin. They probably belonged 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. The very first thing I checked was something that I had mentioned for years in my lectures. In his book The Other Side of the Frontier , Henry Reynolds claimed that 10,000 Aborigines were killed in Queensland before federation. The source he provided was an article of his own called “The Unrecorded Battlefields of Queensland”, which he wrote in 1978 and was published in by James Cook University in Townsville and which few people, including me, had ever seen. But I looked up the article and found 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. In other words, Reynolds invented his figure and then gave a bogus citation to disguise what he had done.
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 became the subject of the first of what will eventually be the four volume series entitled The Fabrication of Aboriginal History.
There are two central claims made by historians of frontier warfare: first, the actions by the colonists amounted to genocide; second, the actions by the Aborigines were guerilla tactics that amounted to frontier warfare.
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 infamous “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. His actual words were “… the eventual extirpation of the Aboriginal race itself.” Arthur's concerns were not about the survival of the colony but of the Aborigines. He was worried that if Aboriginal robberies, assaults and murders continued, settler retaliation could eventually get out of hand. Reynolds actually changed the words of one of the most important documents in Tasmanian history. Until I exposed this, no historian had ever reported what he had done.
Lyndall Ryan cites the Hobart Town Courier as a source for several stories about atrocities against Aborigines in 1826. However, when I went to Tasmania to check this out I found the Hobart Town Courier did not begin publication until October 1827 and the other two newspapers of the day made no mention of these alleged killings.
Another academic historian, Lloyd Robson, author of the award-winning two-volume history of Tasmania, 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, when you check out the background of the characters in this little story you find some problems. It would have been difficult for James 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 the 48 th Regiment were unlikely to have killed any Aborigines in Van Diemen's Land in 1815 because at the time they were on garrison duty in County Cork , Ireland .
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 were young and when they absorbed the left-wing political spirit of the day. Reynolds claims accounts of the little violence that did occur “could have come from the manuals of guerrilla warfare that proliferated in the 1960s”. 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.
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 statements to that effect from the Aborigines themselves.
In the great debate over the Stolen Generations, for which Australia stands accused of genocide, the central point is the accusation that Aboriginal children were forcibly removed from their parents as young as possible for the immediate purpose of raising them separately from and ignorant of their culture and people, and for the ultimate purposes of suppressing any distinct Aboriginal culture, thereby ending the existence of the Aborigines as a distinct people. As the Australian National University historian Peter Read defined the accusation: “welfare officers, removing children solely because they were Aboriginal, intended and arranged that they should lose their Aboriginality, and that they never return home.” The SBS television series First Australians confidently declared: “Between 1910 and 1970 an estimated 50,000 Aboriginal children were removed from their families. Most were aged under five.”
My recent book on the Stolen Generations, which is Volume Three of my Aboriginal history series, examines, among many other things, the records of every child removed by the New South Wales Aborigines Protection Board between 1907 and 1932, when:
two-thirds removed were not as young as possible, and they were certainly not under five. They were teenagers, aged thirteen to nineteen. In these 25 years, only seven were babies
most of the teenagers were sent not to institutions but straight into the workforce as apprentices for four year in a job placement scheme that, at the time, was the same for white children in welfare institutions
the few children sent to the handful of institutions remained there only for months, not years, let alone their whole childhood
a clear majority returned to their families and communities
family visits to institutionalized children were not discouraged; instead the Aborigines Protection Board from 1919 onwards gave parents money and free rail tickets to travel to see them
child welfare policies and practices were not racist. They were the same for white children as they were for black.
In Western Australia , the overwhelming majority of children who went into Aboriginal institutions were not forcible removals but went there voluntarily with their parents to gain access to welfare. During the regime of the now notorious A.O. Neville from 1915 to 1940, the sole government welfare institution in the south of Western Australia, the Moore River Native Settlement seen in the film Rabbit-Proof Fence , received a total of only 252 unattached half-caste children, just ten a year, most of them neglected, abused or orphaned. In the Northern Territory, the two institutions for half-caste children in Darwin and Alice Springs were populated mainly by children between six and fifteen years sent by their parents from remote stations and communities to go to school. They were not stolen – their parents paid to send them there.
By the way, the film Rabbit-Proof Fence , which advertises itself as “a true story”, tells at least ten major untruths. One of them is about how the two girls finally got home. They did not cross the last stretch of desert on their own. If you read the book Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence by Molly's daughter, Doris Pilkington, you'll find they were actually brought home by a white cattle station contractor, riding on his camels. Of course, this conclusion wouldn't have given the film a dramatic ending, so the filmmakers simply made up their own.
The university historians of Aboriginal history are no better. The argument that all history is political has left them completely corrupted. They have 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. Historians who write from an overtly partisan position, those who use history “to actively rally to the cause of liberation”, have been seduced into making things up, and justifying this to themselves on the grounds that it is all for a good cause. But no cause is ever served by falsehood, because eventually someone will come along and expose you. Truth always comes out in the end, and, when it does, all those causes built on lies are discredited. The historians who were responsible end up doing a terrible disservice to those they imagined they were liberating.