Historical error versus historical invention
A reply to Stuart Macintyre and Patricia Grimshaw on The Fabrication of Aboriginal History
Australian Historical Studies
No. 124, October 2004
In his response to The Fabrication of Aboriginal History in the May edition of this journal, Stuart Macintyre acknowledges some of my book's claims about the historiography of race relations in Tasmania are plausible. He notes I have found historians have provided inadequate or non-existent evidence, they have relied on dubious second and third-hand accounts, they have confused names and places, and have exaggerated and misinterpreted the sources. "I am persuaded," Macintyre writes, "that some of these claims are justified".
Nonetheless, he does not discuss the particular points he finds proven nor how their inadequacies might affect the received interpretation of Aboriginal history. Rather than accept my claim of concerted invention, he suggests all historians are fallible and make mistakes. Macintyre says that even when he has checked his own work he has found that "every tenth quote has lost a phrase, and every tenth reference has conflated the source or specified the wrong page". Ten per cent seems to me an extraordinarily high error rate, unacceptable in most professions, but I don't want to dispute this disclosure. In fact, given the errors Macintyre makes in discussing my own work, his confession is credible.
Macintyre says the tally of Tasmanian Aboriginal killings in Fabrication must be inadequate since it is based on an earlier survey by Brian Plomley, which did not attempt an exhaustive count. However, my own survey was not "based on" that of Plomley. I explained my method clearly. I did my own independent archival research, which included checking all Plomley's claims, the same as I checked those of Lyndall Ryan, Henry Reynolds, Lloyd Robson and others. The outcome, however, was that Plomley's results were similar to mine: the credible evidence suggests the Aboriginal death toll was comparatively low and that many more settlers died by violence than Aborigines.
Macintyre also reports me saying that since the Aborigines had no word for land, they had no notion of territory. This is the error of "nominalism", he claims. The error, however, is Macintyre's. Patricia Grimshaw makes the same mistake. My argument is that the Aborigines did have a notion of territory but not of the exclusive use of that territory. That is, they had no concept of trespass to explain their violence against the colonists. My overall case against the "guerrilla warfare" thesis of Reynolds and Ryan is primarily based not on Aboriginal words but on their deeds. At the end of this argument I said it was an additional fact, and a telling one, that they had no expression corresponding to the English term "land", which does contain the notion of sanctions against trespass.
Both Macintyre and Grimshaw are also wrong to attribute to me the view that the colonial authorities "were incapable of wanton violence because they were 'Christians to whom the killing of the innocent would have been abhorrent.'" [emphasis added] My argument is that Christianity was a limiting factor on the killing of Aborigines -- a "powerful constraint" -- not one that rendered killing impossible. The law also acted as a similar constraint, since the wanton killing of Aborigines was not only illegal but a crime carrying the death penalty. Other historians of Tasmania dispute their effectiveness but they embed the same assumption of religious, moral and legal constraints in their own claims about unrecorded killings. These constraints were the reason they believe Tasmanian settlers must have covered up their deeds. Contrary to Grimshaw's insinuation, colonial Tasmania was in no way comparable to Nazi Germany, where the state was run by an atheist regime with a racist ideology that positively sanctioned the murder of Jews and other races.
The major point at issue, however, is the status of those errors I found in the work of other Tasmanian historians. Given that empirical history based on archival research is a data-heavy practice where some mistakes are inevitable, when does error go beyond what might be acceptable and become a systematic distortion of the truth? I do not have any formula for deciding this and can only present an inventory of examples that seem inherently unlikely to have been mistakes.
Obviously, it is easy for a researcher to wrongly transcribe a statement found in an archive. But in most cases, a misspelling or even the omission of a word would not distort the original text. Sometimes a simple slip -- especially transcribing "not" for "now" -- could actually reverse the meaning of a statement. Even here, though, the researcher could plausibly plead error rather than wilful misrepresentation.
In discussing one of the key documents of early Tasmanian history, the final report by Lieutenant-Governor George Arthur about the infamous Black Line of 1830, Henry Reynolds wrote in his book Frontier: "he argued that such was the insecurity of the settlers that he feared 'a general decline in the prosperity' and the 'eventual extirpation of the Colony'." Arthur's actual words, however, were: "a great decline in the prosperity of the colony, and the eventual extirpation of the aboriginal race itself." Arthur's concerns were not about the survival of the colony but of the Aborigines.
While anyone would excuse Reynolds for mistranscribing "great" as "general", it is impossible to understand how "extirpation of the aboriginal race itself" could innocently turn into "extirpation of the colony". Reynolds has admitted he was wrong. "It's a bad mistake," he told a Sydney Morning Herald journalist when presented with this example from my book. "I obviously didn't know it existed, far from it that I had done it deliberately to distort the story." 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. Moreover, Reynolds has used the Aboriginal threat to Van Diemen's Land to claim other colonial capitals were similarly at risk: "many pioneer towns -- including Perth and Brisbane -- were to experience moments of equal anxiety during the half century after 1830." In other words, far from being a mistake, the thesis about the "extirpation of the colony" is one Reynolds supports strongly. In all the words that have been spilled in the history wars in recent years, not one academic historian has thought fit to reprimand Reynolds for distorting this evidence nor called upon him to withdraw the conclusions he has made from it.
In The Aboriginal Tasmanians, Lyndall Ryan cites the Hobart Town Courier as one of the sources for her claim that fourteen Aborigines were killed by colonists at Pitt Water in November 1826. That newspaper, however, did not begin publication until October 1827. Fabrication records two other examples where Ryan cites editions of the same newspaper published in November 1826 and July 1827. This would be a comparatively harmless mistake if the other two newspapers that were published at the time, the Hobart Town Gazette and the Colonial Times, had recorded the incident, but they did not. In fact, none of the three references Ryan provides for this incident mention any Aborigines being killed at Pitt Water in 1826 or any other time. One of them was a report by the local police magistrate, James Gordon. Fabrication pointed out there was nothing at the archival location in Ryan's footnote to support the claim. Nor was there any report by Gordon anywhere else in the Tasmanian archives that mentioned such an incident.
Ryan has since replied in Robert Manne's anthology Whitewash that the Gordon reference is actually in the archive file where she cited it, but her original reference had mistakenly given the wrong date. In Manne's book, she quotes from it. However, this passage is about the capture of the bushranger Black Tom and his party, a well-known and much-discussed event at the time. Nowhere does it mention the actual point of contention, the claim that fourteen Aborigines were killed at Pitt Water. So, again, this is an example not of an acceptable mistake but of a distortion of the archival evidence.
Fabrication records a considerable number of other examples in the work of Ryan and Lloyd Robson where the claims in the history are not matched by the sources in the archives. Without listing them all, the most unambiguous examples are as follows.
Fabrication argues Ryan's claim that 100 Aborigines and 20 British were killed between 1804 and 1810 is unsupported by her own evidence. Her original source, the diary of Reverend Robert Knopwood, recorded only four Aborigines and two British killed in this period. In Whitewash, Ryan defends this reference but says a footnote at the end of the next paragraph should also have been added to reach the required number. The following paragraph in Aboriginal Tasmanians is entirely about kangaroo hunting by the early settlers. Its sole footnote contains four references, all of them to sources that discuss kangaroo hunting. Ryan now claims that two of these sources, reports in 1809 and 1810 by John Oxley, verify her claim. I have checked Oxley's reports and nowhere do they mention that 100 Aborigines or 20 Europeans were killed. Ryan now says she "deduced" her figures from two brief comments by Oxley about conflict between kangaroo hunters and Aborigines. However, Oxley made no attempt himself nor gave no one else any grounds to quantify a total on either side. Ryan invented the figure. Indeed, she admitted as much in an interview on the Channel Nine program Sunday. Journalist Helen Dalley asked: "So, in a sense, it is fair enough for [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."
Ryan originally claimed the Port Dalrymple Aborigines were massacred in 1827 at Norfolk Plains by a "vigilante group" of stock-keepers. Fabrication showed that none of the archival references in her footnotes supported this assertion. Ryan now claims as her evidence the following statement by one of the Land Commissioners: "Mysterious Murders have also been committed in this recess [a piece of Crown Land], and have hitherto remain undetected". I saw this sentence when I originally checked Ryan's footnotes but discounted it for obvious reasons. This nebulous statement gives no indication whether the victims were black or white, or whether the murderers themselves were black or white. It gives no date and does not mention vigilante stock-keepers.
Ryan defends herself in Whitewash by claiming two other references that she "neglected" to include had allowed her to "surmise" that a massacre had taken place. However, on her own account, these references record military and police patrols searching for Aborigines, not vigilante groups of stockmen. Neither report discussed either of the patrols killing any Aborigines. Ryan now says she is justified in her conclusion that a massacre took place because "no reports of the actual personnel of the parties sent out by Police Magistrate Smith have ever been found". Once again, the complete lack of evidence for any killings by vigilante stockmen at this place and time cannot be passed off as error. At best, the claim is unwarranted speculation; at worst, invention.
Ryan originally claimed that between November 1828 and November 1830 roving parties killed sixty Aborigines. This assertion has since been repeated several times in the international historical literature about Tasmania. Fabrication pointed out that this claim was not supported by any of the three references she footnoted. The recorded death toll of the roving parties was actually two. The governor at the time and most subsequent authors regarded the roving parties as completely ineffectual. Even Henry Reynolds agreed that the roving parties fruitlessly pursued the Aborigines.
Ryan has since replied that she was referring not just to what Lieutenant-Governor Arthur officially designated as roving parties, which were groups of five to ten convicts headed by a police constable and guided by black trackers. Even though "roving party" was an official term of the period and no other historian has ever thought it ambiguous, Ryan now claims her usage referred not only to these civilian parties but also to military patrols by British troops, which did kill more Aborigines. In Whitewash, she now writes: "I applied the term 'roving parties' to include all the different kinds of military and paramilitary forces that were sent out on the orders of the police magistrates to track down Aborigines between 1 November 1828 and 31 January 1831."
This rationale is patently untrue. In Aboriginal Tasmanians she defined the term as follows: "Each roving party was led by a constable of the field police and consisted of an Aboriginal guide and four or five assigned servants [convicts] with a knowledge of the bush." She named their commander, Thomas Anstey, who was police magistrate at Oatlands. She described their operations and said they were the precursors of the Native Police forces on the mainland. Nowhere did her original book mention that military patrols or troops might be regarded as roving parties. Again, this cannot be a case of error. The death toll of sixty that Ryan attributes to the roving parties has no basis.
Lloyd Robson, author of the 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. 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 never went anywhere near Oyster Bay.
Robson and four other authors repeat a story that seventy Aborigines were killed in a battle with the 40th Regiment near Campbell Town in 1828. The story was told to the colonial government inquiry chaired by Archdeacon William Broughton in 1830. However, all neglect to say that a local merchant later told the same inquiry that after hearing the story he went on the following day to the site with a corporal but could find no bodies or blood, only three dead dogs. "To tell you the truth," the corporal then confessed, "we did not kill any of them. We had been out for a long time and had done nothing."
Both Lloyd Robson and Lyndall Ryan claim settlers killed Aborigines by offering them poisoned flour. Their sole source for this is a diary entry by George Augustus Robinson in which he recorded a conversation between a superintendent of the Van Diemen's Land Company and his convict shepherds after these men asked him for some poison. He asked them why they wanted it:
They said: "Oh sir, we will poison the natives' dogs". Mr R took it away with him, their object, he said, being to poison the natives by putting it in their flour &c.
This is the only evidence either Robson or Ryan offers for this claim. It was nothing more than the superintendent's interpretation of what was, at most, an ambiguous statement of what his convict shepherds might do, not anything they actually had done.
Ryan's account of the abduction of Aboriginal children by settlers is replete with so much misinformation it is impossible to excuse it as error. In 1810, she claims, Lieutenant-Governor David Collins warned settlers against kidnapping Aboriginal children. However, there is no evidence Collins ever gave such a warning. None of Collins' orders in 1810, or any other reference cited by Ryan about the abduction of children, support her claim. Ryan cites the Derwent Star of 29 January 1810 as one of her sources. However, according to the Mitchell Library, that edition of the newspaper is not held by any library and has been missing since the nineteenth century. Ryan claims that in 1819, Lieutenant-Governor William Sorell issued an order about the abducted children. "Sorell ordered that all Aboriginal children living with settlers must be sent to the charge of the chaplain, Robert Knopwood, in Hobart and placed in the Orphan School." However, the proclamation Ryan cites merely ordered that magistrates and constables were to "take an account" of native children living with settlers and report the details to the Colonial Secretary. There was no Orphan School in Hobart in 1819 or at any time during Sorell's administration. The first such institution in the colony, the King's Orphan School, was not opened until 1828 and Reverend Knopwood was never involved in running it.
Macintyre and Grimshaw both refuse to accept the comparatively low Aboriginal death toll I found in Tasmania. Neither of them, however, appears concerned about the quality of the evidence in the death tolls compiled by the historians I am criticising. In An Indelible Stain? Henry Reynolds writes: "There is hard evidence of a decline from perhaps 1500 indigenous Tasmanians at the beginning of the Black War in 1824, to about 350 in 1831." Whatever anyone thinks about this evidence, it cannot accurately be described as "hard". In his earlier work Fate of a Free People, Reynolds had put the total killed after 1824 as between 150 and 250. Even more cavalier claims are made by Ryan. In Aboriginal Tasmanians, she asserts that 280 Aborigines were "recorded shot" and that unrecorded killings would bring the total to 700 killed. Nowhere does she provide any source or sources for these tallies. At another point she writes:
Even if only half the stories Robinson heard were true, then it is possible to account for seven hundred shot. This is about three-quarters of the Aboriginal population in the settled districts.
However, anyone who checks this latter source, the diaries of George Augustus Robinson, will not find anything like 700 Aborigines shot, let alone the 1400 she implies. Even if all Robinson's stories were true, the highest total of Aborigines killed by colonists would be 188.
The responses to Fabrication by Macintyre and Grimshaw try to score a point from the considerable publicity the book has attracted. They put this down to my one-time employment as a journalist and lecturer in journalism and media studies, which they contrast to the alleged inability of academic historians to play the media game. They do not mention the greater volume of hostile media publicity the book has had from themselves and their colleagues, but let that pass. One thing I did learn as a journalist was a respect for evidence. Journalists and their evidence are publicly accountable immediately their work is published. Perhaps this was why, when I began to investigate the work of the historians of Aboriginal Australia, I was stunned to find how frequent were their breaches of the normal canons of evidence. The degree of misinformation in the work of these authors -- even if their colleagues want to excuse it all as error -- would be unacceptable in any other profession, and certainly unacceptable in journalism. The responses to my findings by Macintyre, Grimshaw and the others who have entered this debate have yet to acknowledge this. They have preferred to explain away my complaints as a difference of political ideology or moral values. They have yet to respond adequately to the charge that the credibility of the historians of Aboriginal Australia has been undermined by the quantity of their breaches of acceptable historical practice.
1. Keith Windschuttle, The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, Volume One: Van Diemen's Land 1803-1847, Macleay Press, Sydney, 2002, p 363
2. Windschuttle, Fabrication, pp 103-11
3. Windschuttle, Fabrication, p 360
4. Henry Reynolds, Frontier: Aborigines, Settlers and the Land, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1996, p 29
5. Arthur, Memorandum, Sorell Camp, 20 November 1830, British Parliamentary Papers, Colonies, Australia, 4, Irish University Press, Shannon, p 244
6. Sydney Morning Herald, 28 November 2002
7. Henry Reynolds, 'The Black War: A new look at an old story', The 1984 Eldershaw Memorial Lecture, Tasmanian Historical Research Association Papers and Proceedings, 31, 4, December 1984, p 5
8. Lyndall Ryan, The Aboriginal Tasmanians, Allen and Unwin, 2nd edn., 1996, p 92
9. Windschuttle, Fabrication, pp 136, 138, 141
10. Windschuttle, Fabrication, pp 134-7
11. Lyndall Ryan, "Who is the Fabricator?", in Robert Manne (ed.) Whitewash: On Keith Windschuttle's Fabrication of Aboriginal History, Schwartz Publishing, Melbourne, 2003
12. Ryan, "Who is the Fabricator?" p 235
13. Sunday, 25 May 2003
14. Ryan, Aboriginal Tasmanians, p 92
15. Windschuttle, Fabrication, pp 139-43
16. Ryan, "Who is the Fabricator?" p 238
17. Ryan, "Who is the Fabricator?" pp 238-9
18. Windschuttle, Fabrication, pp 149-58, 166
19. Henry Reynolds, Fate of a Free People, Penguin, Ringwood, 1995, pp 70-1, 78
20. Ryan, "Who is the Fabricator?", p 250
21. Ryan, Aboriginal Tasmanians, p 101
22. Lloyd Robson, A History of Tasmania, Volume One, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1983, p 50
23. E. R. Prettyman, "James Hobbs", Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, A-H, pp 442-3
24. Windschuttle, Fabrication, pp 144-6
25. Windschuttle, Fabrication, pp 146-9
26. Ryan, Aboriginal Tasmanians, p139; Robson, History of Tasmania, Volume One, p 226
27. Windschuttle, Fabrication, pp 273-4
28. Ryan, Aboriginal Tasmanians, p 78
29. Windschuttle, Fabrication, p 54
30. Ryan, Aboriginal Tasmanians, p 79
31. Windschuttle, Fabrication, p 56
32. Henry Reynolds, An Indelible Stain? Viking, Ringwood, 2001, p 71
33. Reynolds, Fate of a Free People, pp 81-2
34. Ryan, Aboriginal Tasmanians, p 352
35. Windschuttle, Fabrication, p 285