My history thesis still stands
September 1 2003
The first volume of The Fabrication of Aboriginal History makes three main points: there was no genocide in Tasmania; there was no frontier warfare; and academic historians have grossly exaggerated and in some cases invented the conflict between Aborigines and colonists that did occur.
White guilt for genocide remains a live political issue. Aboriginal activist Michael Mansell told the Hobart Mercury last month that to commemorate the imminent bicentenary of British settlement in Tasmania would be like celebrating the arrival of the Nazis. That Tasmania recorded the one clear case of genocide in the British Empire is widely accepted internationally.
In Robert Manne's new anthology Whitewash, Martin Krygier and Robert van Krieken absolve academic historians of responsibility for the way that journalists and others have used their work. But historians did the primary research and it is from their findings that activists draw comparisons between colonial Australia and Nazi Germany.
None of the authors in Manne's book address the empirical evidence for genocide. Henry Reynolds had previously claimed, falsely, that Tasmanian settlers demanded the extermination of the Aborigines. Lyndall Ryan had claimed that three-quarters of the Aboriginal population in the settled districts were deliberately killed. She said even if only half the stories in the diaries of George Augustus Robinson were true, they amounted to 700 Aborigines shot dead. I pointed out that anyone who does a count from the diary entries will come to a total of only 188, and many are dubious cases. Ryan's total is a complete fabrication. Manne's book evades this easily disproved falsehood.
Whitewash is supposed to be the place where Reynolds and Ryan answer my major charges against them. Their complete silence over genocide and extermination is telling. The principal advocates have walked away from the topic, unwilling to defend it. I take this to mean the thesis there was no genocide in Tasmania is now proven by default.
Some essays in Manne's book do defend the frontier warfare thesis but ignore the major points I made against it. Lyndall Ryan originally claimed the "Black War" began in 1824 when the Big River tribe launched patriotic attacks on the invaders. I pointed out that assaults on whites from 1824-7 were actually made by a small gang of detribalized Aborigines who were either from Sydney or had grown up since infancy in white households. They were bushrangers who happened to be black. Only romantic leftism could interpret them as guerilla warriors defending Aboriginal territory.
Instead, Reynolds focuses on my case that the Aborigines did not have a word for land. He completely distorts what I wrote. My point was not primarily about Aboriginal language, but about Aboriginal behaviour. I demonstrated the Tasmanian Aborigines did not act as if they demanded exclusive usage of land. They had no sanctions against trespass. They certainly identified themselves with and regularly foraged in particular territories, known as their "country", which I openly acknowledge. But none of them confined themselves to these regions, nor did they deter other Aborigines or British settlers from them. And anyway, none of the vocabularies - and, contrary to Reynolds, I read them all - record an Aboriginal term corresponding to the English word "land".
Manne's book also fails to address my disclosure that Reynolds had altered the wording of a statement by Lieutenant-Governor Arthur to make it appear that Aboriginal "guerilla warfare" threatened Hobart. Reynolds was forced to publicly admit he was wrong but has yet to actually withdraw the case he made. As editor, Manne should have insisted that Reynolds retract not just the offending words but the entire argument. He fails to do so.
My book listed seventeen cases where Lyndall Ryan had either fabricated evidence or invented archival sources that did not exist, plus another seven cases where she grossly exaggerated statistics. In Whitewash, she responds to twelve of the former and two of the latter. None of them properly answer my charges. She now claims two reports by John Oxley, which she had mistakenly omitted to cite, support her contention that 100 Aborigines were killed between 1803 and 1810. But neither of Oxley's documents mention 100 dead or advance any other figure.
Ryan now says her claim that a vigilante group of stockmen massacred the Port Dalrymple tribe at Norfolk Plains in 1827 is supported by the following passage in the journals of the Land Commissioners: "mysterious Murders have also been committed in this recess [a piece of Crown Land], and have hitherto remain undetected". 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 vigilantes. Ryan's interpretation remains pure invention.
On other serious issues, Ryan now defends herself with "I surmised" and "I deduced", without offering any credible evidence. On her bogus claim that stockmen of the Van Diemen's Land Company gave Aborigines poisoned flour, she remains completely silent.
In short, none of the three major theses of my book are seriously challenged by Whitewash. Conceived as a definitive reply and a defence of the orthodox story of genocide and warfare, Manne's book fails to deliver.
Instead of a response to the evidence, Manne tries to shift the debate to politics and morality by claiming my views undermine reconciliation. However, I cannot see how a story about violence and warfare between blacks and whites, if untrue, assists reconciliation at all. What good does it do Aborigines to tell them the settlers wanted to exterminate them, when they never did?
Indeed, many Aboriginal people themselves now recognise this. I have been invited to attend a ceremony on September 12, which the Liah Pootah community will conduct with other residents of Hobart to commemorate the bicentenary of the British arrival in 1803. Like all current descendants of the Tasmanian Aborigines, the Liah Pootah people are also descendants of the British settlers. Their ceremony will acknowledge both sides of their heritage.
Compare this to the consequences of the Reynolds, Ryan and Manne version of Australian history. Its message is that the British arrival was like an invasion by the Nazis. This interpretation does not foster reconciliation, it only fans hostility and hatred. It is not only historically untrue. It is also racially divisive and politically inept.
[This is an edited version of the opening remarks made by Keith Windschuttle in a debate with Robert Manne at the Melbourne Writers Festival on August 27 2003. An expanded version of these remarks is published in Quadrant, October 2003]