Unless they have taken a course in history in recent decades, most Australians would be surprised to learn they inhabit one of the world's most shamefully racist countries. The historical consensus today is that the White Australia Policy -- a series of restrictions on non-white immigrants dating from the gold rushes of the 1850s, culminating in the Commonwealth's Immigration Restriction Bill of 1901 -- made this country the moral equivalent of South Africa under apartheid. Some historians even label Australia at Federation one of the 'herrenvolk democracies'. 'Herrenvolk' is the German term for 'master race', so those historians who use it are making a direct comparison between Australian attitudes and the racial nationalism of Nazi Germany.
Moreover, the White Australia Policy purportedly lives on today. At an academic history conference in December 2001, the near-unanimous opinion was that John Howard's border protection measures against people smugglers ensured his election victory that year by tapping into deeply-embedded sentiments of 'blood and race'. 'One hundred years after the passage of the Immigration Restriction Act,' quipped conference speaker, Sean Brawley of the University of New South Wales, 'earlier reports of the demise of the White Australia Policy were premature.'
Other prominent historians who support this interpretation include Henry Reynolds who claims the 1901 Bill represented 'the messianic pursuit of racial purity'. Andrew Markus, Richard Broome, Richard White and others allege the dominant racial concept in nineteenth century Australia was Social Darwinism, the most brutal of all the theories about race that emerged in that era.
Now, this thesis arose on the radical fringe of Australian historiography in the 1960s. In university life, the 1960s was the great radical decade, when student protests, demonstrations and occupations over the war in Vietnam rocked campuses and radicalized, among others, the then younger generation of upcoming historians. Today, forty years later, those young people are now the professors and heads of history departments. They decide who gets appointed to universities, who gets funded to do research, and what line they will be permitted to take. Today, their views have become mainstream and university and high school teachers repeat them largely unchallenged.
However, anyone who comes from the outside and looks at their case with a sceptical eye, will find it sadly wanting. Indeed, their case has become so exaggerated it defies credibility. In their enthusiasm to enshrine the radicalism of their youth, these authors now write history that misreads their culture and misunderstands their past. As far as the White Australia Policy is concerned, a far more plausible scenario can be made. Today, I will summarise this alternative case from the book I wrote last year, The White Australia Policy:
From 1788 onwards, the Australian colonies were never mono-racial, they were always multi-racial. As well as Aborigines, many non-white people from across the British Empire walked the streets of the early colonies. From the outset, Sydney had highly visible populations of Maoris, Tahitians, Hawaiians, Indians, Ceylonese, American negroes, West Indians, and Africans from Cape Town and Mauritius. At least 1000 of the convicts sent to Australia before 1850 were not white. From the 1850s to the 1890s, Chinese immigrants constituted the second biggest foreign-born population in Australia, exceeded only by those born in the British Isles.
In the nineteenth century, the principal objections to non-white immigrants came from trade unions and labour movement politicians. They objected to Chinese immigrants not primarily because of their race but because many were 'coolies', that is, indentured labourers recruited in their home country at wages a fraction of Australian market rates, which left them an impoverished underclass. They also objected to the Melanesian islanders employed as coolies on Queensland sugar plantations, which paid them six pounds a year at a time when an unskilled white labourer in Sydney or Melbourne could earn six pounds a fortnight. The union campaign against coolie labour was at the time a progressive movement to extend the freedom and dignity of labour, in the same mould as the campaign to end black slavery and convict transportation.
Apart from two incidents on the goldfields in 1857 and 1861, there was no serious mob violence in Australia perpetrated by whites against non-whites. In both of the goldfields cases, colonial governments defended the Chinese victims, compensated them for their losses and took action against the white perpetrators. By far the most violent race riots in Australian history took place in the early twentieth century when on three separate occasions the Japanese population of Broome took up arms against the Koepangers or Timorese, with fatalities on both sides. Elsewhere in northern Australia, there were substantial Asian populations in the nineteenth century, but no serious incidents of racial violence.
The Melanesian labourers who came from the New Hebrides and the Solomon Islands to work in Queensland's early sugar industry were not kidnapped, as some Sixties activists still claim, and were never slaves. The familiar story of Kanaka 'blackbirding' is a myth. Nonetheless, the Commonwealth's decision to deport the majority of Pacific Islanders between 1904 and 1908 was a genuine injustice to a largely assimilated population.
From the 1900s until World War II, the main focus of the White Australia Policy shifted from China to Japan. Over this period, Japan was an aggressively nationalist and rapidly expanding imperial power in East and Southeast Asia, which had established population enclaves in Broome and on Australian territory in Torres Strait. Australian concerns about Japanese imperial ambitions were far from the neurotic anxiety mocked by today's historians. They constituted a sober recognition of the strategic realities of the Asia-Pacific region post-1905.
The greatest enthusiasts for White Australia, and the genuine racists of the time, were the members of the late nineteenth century republican Left, especially its writers, artists and other intellectuals. Their strongest opponents were traditional liberals, the purported reactionaries of their era who supported free enterprise against the growing power of the state.
Social Darwinism, rather than being a widely-accepted theory as claimed by historians, was something few Australians at the time had even heard of. Its adherents were a small group of intellectuals at the extremes of opinion. In the 1880s, they were the followers of the theories of political economy of Herbert Spencer. In the 1910s and 1920s, the theory was most strongly advocated by members of the Victorian Socialist Party.
Modern historians have seriously misrepresented the debate in the Commonwealth Parliament over the 1901 Immigration Restriction Bill. Henry Reynolds says it represented 'the messianic pursuit of racial purity'. Of the parliamentarians of 1901, Reynolds writes:
Most of them were convinced of the imperative need for a homogeneous nation. Their prescription for reaching that end was pervaded with ideas of race and blood. They talked over and over about the dangers of pollution and contamination. The discourse was biological rather than sociological. Any amount of alien and inferior blood was too much.
Gavin Jones of the Australian National University asserts: 'Most speeches in the debate on the Immigration Restriction Act demonstrated this racial pride and arrogance.' Neville Meaney of the University of Sydney writes: 'When the Commonwealth Government placed before parliament as its first major piece of legislation an Immigration Restriction bill there was not one voice raised against the principle of racial discrimination.' Now, it is certainly true that some parliamentarians did speak in racist terms. Labour leader Chris Watson and Protectionist Prime Minister Edmund Barton both made overtly racist arguments, and their words are often quoted today. However, what historians who discuss this debate never tell you is that most politicians voted for other reasons entirely. Here are some of the statements in the 1901 debate that our historians do not report:
Bruce Smith, Free Trade party, said:
The foundation of the bill is racial prejudice
the whole thing is a bogy, a scarecrow. I venture to say that a large part of the scare is founded upon a desire to make political capital by appealing to some of the worst instincts of the more credulous of the people.
James Fowler, Labour party, said of the people of India:
Many of these peoples are at least our equal in all that goes to make up morality, or even intellectual or physical qualities. We should not, therefore, argue this question upon such grounds.
William Higgs, Labour party, said:
No one who has paid any attention to the question of the coloured races will attempt for one moment to despise either the Japanese or the Chinese.
Sir John Downer, Protectionist party, said:
This is not an urgent matter in practical politics at the present moment. It is merely a political cry for the purposes of gaining kudos
I do not anticipate or fear any intermixture of races from any Asiatics who may come here.
Edward Pulsford, Free Trade party said:
I look upon the whole of the inhabitants of Asia as my friends. I am perfectly willing that they should be called my friends, and I hope so long as God gives me breath that I shall have the courage to stand up for what I consider to be right for them.
James Macfarlane, Free Trade party, said:
I do not approve of this Bill, which is against the traditions of the British Empire. It is evident that it is very objectionable to the British Government because it takes cognizance of race, colour and country of origin.
Edward Harney, Free Trade party, said:
I am not prepared to admit, and certainly I am not disposed to base any arguments on the admission, that the Asiatic peoples are inferior to us in any respect, morally, intellectually, or physically. But admitting their equality, even their superiority, I still say that we should keep them out.
Despite all this -- and read my book to find many more comments like them --university historians make the false claim there was 'not one voice raised against the principle of racial discrimination' and that the majority of speakers were 'pervaded with ideas of race and blood'.
The truth about the majority opinion in the parliament was expressed by Donald Cameron, a member for Tasmania. In the 1901 debate he said:
It appears that two thirds of the honourable members of this House really object to the Chinese, not so much on the ground of the possible contamination of the white race, as because they fear that if they are allowed to come into Australia the rate of wages will go down.
I think that this was the most accurate estimate of parliamentary opinion of the day. It is significant that not one of the historians of race in Australia have ever quoted it before.
Apart from the impact of large-scale foreign immigration on wages, the other major fear of most politicians was that the creation of a racially-based, political underclass, living on very low wages, which meant they could only afford sub-standard housing, food and clothing, would undermine the egalitarian society which most democratically-minded people wanted Australia to be.
So, the White Australia Policy was introduced largely for economic and cultural reasons, not primarily because of racial prejudice.
Some of the parliamentarians did speak in terms of 'inferior races', but it is important to understand this in their terms in their times, not ours today. Most of them subscribed to a theory of historical stages, which they derived from the writers of the eighteenth century Scottish Enlightenment. This theory held that humanity evolved through four stages of history: hunting and gathering; pastoralism; agricultural society; and modern urban, industrial society. The term 'inferior races' was used by the inhabitants of the last of these stages to refer to those people who languished in the first three. In eighteenth century Scotland, for instance, the inhabitants of the lowland cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow referred to the Scottish highlanders as an inferior race because they were still trapped in the pastoral stage of historical development.
The stages theory, then, is a historical approach, not a biological theory. It believes that people inhabiting earlier stages could lift themselves up and progress to higher stages, as, for example, the Japanese people did so clearly in the second half of the nineteenth century. On the other hand, biological theories of race, such as Social Darwinism, held that some people were condemned forever by their genetic inheritance to be inferior. In 1901, Australians argued that the inferiority of some societies and cultures derived from the stage of history they occupied and was changeable, rather than grounded in biology and permanent.
In Germany, and some other countries of continental Europe, however, biological theories of race became predominant in the late nineteenth century. The German version of Social Darwinism held that some races, in particular the Aryan or German race, were destined to conquer and destroy others, a view that culminated in Adolf Hitler's Final Solution.
In Australia, no one of any consequence held this kind of racial nationalism. No political party ever adopted it. Instead, Australian identity was based primarily on politics. In 1901 Australians regarded themselves primarily as democrats, indeed the most democratic country in the world, who were engaged in the great task of nation building. Australians owed their loyalties not to their race but to the political institutions they were in the process of creating for themselves.
At the time, Australians also owed their loyalty to the British Empire, which specifically rejected the notion of hierarchies of race. In the 1890s, the British government refused demands by the colony of Queensland to restrict immigration on grounds of country of origin. British officials said that Queen Victoria, who reigned over an empire containing many different races, could never be persuaded to approve a bill that discriminated in such a way.
Because Australian political identity was based on civic patriotism rather than racial nationalism, the White Australia Policy could be readily discarded once the political decision was made. Immigration restrictions were gradually liberalised, starting with the Menzies government in the mid-1950s and completed by the Whitlam government, with Coalition support, in 1975. Ending the policy required no cultural crisis and was accomplished by liberal politicians -- that is, small 'l' liberals -- from both sides of parliament, whose values were similar to those of the 1901 bill's original critics. The proof that Australia wore the policy lightly was the ease with which it discarded it.
Overall, the White Australia Policy had aspects that were both reactionary and progressive, discriminatory and humane. But its history shows no deep-seated racism has ever lurked permanently at the core of Australia culture.
Apart from the Immigration Restriction Bill of 1901, the other great claim the historians of the 1960s have made about race in Australia is in their allegations about Aboriginal genocide and frontier warfare.
For most of my adult life, I was a true believer in this story. I had never done any archival research in the field but nonetheless used the principal historical works of Henry Reynolds, Lyndall Ryan, Charles Rowley and others in lectures I gave in university courses in Australian history and Australian social policy. I used to tell students that the record of the British in Australia was worse than the Spaniards in America. 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 were no eyewitnesses and no bodies found. The charred remains of bones at first thought to be of Aborigines shot and cremated turned out on 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.
Before long, I found one of the biggest single inventions in all Australian historiography. It was made by Henry Reynolds in his book The Other Side of the Frontier. He claimed that, before Federation in 1901, a total of 10,000 Aborigines had been killed by white settlers in Queensland. The source he provided as evidence of this was an article of his own called 'The Unrecorded Battlefields of Queensland', which he wrote in 1978. But if you look up the article you find 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. Reynolds invented this figure and then gave a false citation to disguise what he had done.
In the writings of other historians of Aboriginal Australia, 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 has become the subject of the first of what will eventually be a three-volume series entitled The Fabrication of Aboriginal History.
There are two central claims made by historians of Aboriginal Australia: first, the actions by the colonists amounted to genocide; second, the actions by the Aborigines were guerilla tactics that amounted to frontier warfare.
Lyndall Ryan in her book The Aboriginal Tasmanians claims that in Tasmania the Aborigines were subject to 'a conscious policy of genocide'. Rhys Jones in The Last Tasmanian labels it 'a holocaust of European savagery'. However, at a conference in 2003 at the University of Tasmania, one of the senior figures of Australian historiography, Geoffrey Bolton, who is no supporter of mine, nonetheless said historians should stop using the term 'genocide' in Australian history because the evidence is not there to support the charge. So, a little bit of progress has been made in the debate over genocide.
On the question of frontier warfare, however, the orthodoxy refuses to budge. So let us examine some of its major claims.
Lyndall Ryan says the so-called 'Black War' of Tasmania began in the winter of 1824 with the Big River tribe launching patriotic attacks on the invaders. However, the assaults on whites that winter were made by a small gang of detribalized blacks led by a man named Musquito, who was not defending his tribal lands. He was an Aborigine originally from Sydney who had worked in Hobart for ten years before becoming a bushranger. He had no Tasmanian tribal lands to defend. Musquito's successor as leader of the gang was Black Tom, a young man who, again, was not a tribal Aborigine. He had Tasmanian Aboriginal parents, but had been reared since infancy in the white middle class household of Thomas Birch, a Hobart merchant. Until his capture in 1827, he was Tasmania's leading bushranger but, as with Musquito, his actions cannot be interpreted as patriotic defence of tribal Aboriginal territory.
From 1828 to 1830, tribal Aborigines emulated these predecessors by raiding white households, assaulting and killing their occupants and stealing their contents. The man who knew the Aborigines best, George Augustus Robinson, said he had information from the Aborigines themselves that a group known as the Port Davey band was the most active in murdering and robbing white settlers in 1829. However, no one had taken the Port Davey band's land or disturbed their hunting grounds. Indeed, they had no hunting grounds. They lived almost entirely on the rocky shoreline of Tasmania's south and south-west coasts, living off shellfish and seals. There was no white settlement in their area in 1829 and, in fact, there is still none, even today. The hinterland is mountainous, barren and equally useless for hunting, farming or grazing. The Port Davey band crossed the island to assault, rob and murder white settlers on the east coast. They had no patriotic or territorial motives for their actions. Neither Reynolds nor Ryan, however, mention this group's activities. To do so would spoil their frontier warfare thesis.
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 '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. Reynolds altered his words. When confronted by journalists of the Sydney Morning Herald with this charge from my book, Reynolds replied: 'I've never said that. That's quite, quite misleading. How could the Aborigines destroy the colony?
Nowhere did I suggest that Arthur thought they could wipe out the colony. That would be a silly thing to say.' However, six days later, after journalists sent Reynolds the page in his book Frontier where he did quote Arthur saying exactly that, he finally conceded what he had done. He said: 'It's a bad mistake. I obviously didn't know it existed, far from it that I had done it deliberately to distort the story
All historians are fallible and make mistakes.'
Indeed they are and indeed they do, but the so-called mistakes made by the historians of Aboriginal Tasmania have set a standard for error that is unlikely to be surpassed. Let me give some more examples.
Lyndall Ryan cites the Hobart Town Courier as a source for several stories about atrocities against Aborigines in 1826. However, that newspaper did not begin publication until October 1827 and the other two newspapers of the day made no mention of these alleged killings.
Ryan claims that frontier warfare in Tasmania's northern districts in 1827 included: a massacre of Port Dalrymple Aborigines by a vigilante group of stockmen at Norfolk Plains; the killing of a kangaroo hunter in reprisal for him shooting Aboriginal men; the burning of a settler's house because his stockmen had seized Aboriginal women; the spearing of three other stockmen and clubbing of one to death at Western Lagoon. But if you check her footnotes in the archives you find that not one of the five sources she cites mentions any of these events.
Between 1828 and 1830, according to Ryan, 'roving parties' of police constables and convicts killed 60 Aborigines. Not one of the three references she cites mentions any Aborigines being killed, let alone 60. The governor at the time and most subsequent authors, including Henry Reynolds, regarded the roving parties as completely ineffectual.
Lloyd Robson 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 there is no evidence the 48th Regiment ever went anywhere near Oyster Bay.
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. 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.
It was a similar story on the white side of the frontier. The infamous Tasmanian 'Black Line' of 1830 is now described by Reynolds as an act of 'ethnic cleansing' and it is commonly regarded as an attempt to capture or exterminate all the Aborigines. However, its true purpose was to remove from the settled districts only two of the nine tribes on the island to uninhabited country from where they could no longer assault white households. The lieutenant-governor specifically ordered that five of the other seven tribes be left alone.
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 several statements to that effect from the Aborigines themselves.
In the entire period from 1803 when the colonists first arrived in Tasmania, to 1834 when all but one family of Aborigines had been removed to Flinders Island, my calculation is that the British were responsible for killing only 121 of the original inhabitants, mostly in self defence or in hot pursuit of Aborigines who had just assaulted white households. In these incidents, the Aborigines killed 187 colonists. In all of Europe's colonial encounters with the New Worlds of the Americas and the Pacific, the colony of Van Diemen's Land was probably the site where the least indigenous blood of all was deliberately shed.
Why, then, have the historians of Tasmania told this story about genocide, frontier warfare and widespread bloodshed. I suggest several of the reasons in my book: to make Australian history, which would otherwise be dull and uneventful, seem more dramatic than it really was; to assume the moral high ground and flatter their own vanity as defenders of the Aborigines; in some cases to pursue a traditional Marxist agenda or to indulge in interest group politics of gender, race and class. But the greatest influence on them has been not so much a commitment to any specific political program but the notion that emerged in the 1960s that history itself is 'inescapably political'. This is a phrase Reynolds used in 1981 in the introduction to his book The Other Side of the Frontier. Without this concept, there might have been less licence taken with historical evidence and a greater sense of the historian's responsibility to respect the truth. The argument that all history is politicised, that it is impossible for the historian to shed his political interests and prejudices, and that those who believed they could do so are only deluding themselves, 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 and to justify this both to themselves and to anyone who dares challenge them.
In contrast, the proper role of the historian is to try to stand above politics, difficult though this always will be. Historians should assume a public responsibility to report their evidence fully and accurately, to cite their sources honestly, and to adopt as objective a stand as possible. To pretend that acceptable interpretations can be drawn from false or non-existent or deceptively selective evidence is to abandon the pursuit of historical truth altogether.