January 25th 2003

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: Defence: Time for a reality check

EDITORIAL: The flight from fatherhood

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Iraq another divisive issue for the ALP

IRAQ: The case against Saddam Hussein

STRAWS IN THE WIND: The hard questions

COMMENT: Abortion-cancer row continues

LETTERS: Mutual concerns

LETTERS: Dealing with Asia

LETTERS: Protecting the Australian way of life

LETTERS: Free trade

LETTERS: 'Dumbing down'

COMMENT: Sean Penn, Blue Heelers: the politics of celebrity

PROFILE: Why Belloc still matters

BOOKS: The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, by Keith Windschuttle

BOOKS: Culture of Life: Culture of Death, edited by Luke Gormally

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The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, by Keith Windschuttle

by Michael O'Rourke (reviewer)

News Weekly, January 25, 2003
What really happened in early Tasmania?

The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, Volume One: Van Diemen's Land 1803-1847
By Keith Windschuttle

Macleay Press

Historian Keith Windschuttle has created a great deal of heat in the opinion columns and the letters pages of the broadsheet newspapers. The basic reason is that he attacks the academic pride of the left-liberal historians Henry Reynolds and Lyndall Ryan, authors respectively of The Other Side of the Frontier (1981) and The Aboriginal Tasmanians (also 1981). They are cast as the "orthodox school".

Windschuttle finds that Reynolds and Ryan have vastly overstated their case, and misunderstood the causes of violence. But he is not content simply to correct the record. In a prologue called "The Final Solution Down Under" he criticises the extravagant statements about "genocide" and policies of "extermination" made by Lyndall Ryan, the journalist Philip Knightley and others.

Orthodox Opinion: That there definitely was an orthodoxy needing to be criticised can be readily confirmed. If one looks, for example, at a standard, general book by an outsider, the Frenchman Robert Lacour-Gayet, one reads that "... wholesale slaughter had [before 1830] taken the place of a policy on the problem [i.e., race relations in Tasmania]. It has been estimated that, of the 3,000 to 7,000 Aborigines who inhabited the island in 1804, no more than 300 remained by 1830 (p.162, emphasis added)".

Lacour-Gayet's Concise History of Australia, French edition 1973, was published by Penguin in 1976, fully 20 years before John Howard became Prime Minister.

Size of the Aboriginal Population: The main source for estimating the original size of the Aboriginal population of Van Diemen's Land (renamed Tasmania in 1855) is the diaries and other writings of the so-called "Conciliator", George Augustsus Robinson. He was appointed (quite late: in 1830) to make contact with and "conciliate" the remaining 'wild' tribes.

Wherever he went on his treks around Van Diemen's Land, Robinson questioned the Aboriginal members of his party and those he encountered along the way about the names of the local tribes or bands (including those already extinct in 1830).

Drawing on this work, the historian Brian Plomley and the archaeologist Rhys Jones have proposed that originally Van Diemen's Land had a population of about 4,000 Aborigines. Windschuttle argues that Plomley and Jones counted too many bands or tribes and they failed to account for many observations of some very small bands. A better total, he thinks, is 2,000 people, or about 50 bands with an average of about 40 members.

It is widely agreed that by 1831 the surviving Aboriginal population was only about 350 people. Thus the population was reduced after 27 years of colonisation (1804-31) by about 80%.

But, what were the causes? Was it "bullets or bacteria" (as Windscuttle poses the question)?

Declining Fertility: The imported disease gonorrhea, although it was rarely fatal or even likely to cause a marked deterioration in health, effectively inhibited pregnancy and child-bearing. Gonorrhoea was spread by casual relations between white workers and Aboriginal women. Also some Aboriginal women were seized, or perhaps "lured", by white men as their concubines (for Windschuttle thinks that the Aboriginal women may well have preferred life with rough white men to life with their own even rougher males).

As a result, many Aboriginal men could not find marriage partners. Those women who were available were often unable to bear children. So the number of babies being born fell below the rate needed to replace the number of adults dying or being killed.

Imported Diseases: On the Australian mainland, it is known that there were several smallpox pandemics that devastated the Aboriginal populations of the south-east (see Judy Campbell's Invisible Invaders: Smallpox and Other Diseases in Aboriginal Australia 1780-1880, Melbourne University Press, 2002).

But apparently smallpox never reached Tasmania. In Van Diemen's Land, it appears that respiratory diseases were a major source of Aboriginal deaths. Colds, influenza and pneumonia, although usually not fatal among the whites, affected the Aborigines seriously, killing (probably) hundreds of people over the quarter-century from 1804 to 1829. (Some strains of influenza will kill people of any race: more people died from the world-wide flu pandemic of 1918-19 than from the fighting during World War One.)

Feuding between Bands: Windschuttle also proposes that continued fighting between Aboriginal groups was a major cause of Aboriginal deaths.

By itself, of course, Aboriginal feuding would not have affected the size of the population, but, as noted, fertility was declining due to venereal diseases and other factors. More adults were dying than babies were being born.

Guns and Spears: Each contemporary report claiming that a British workman or soldier killed an Aborigine or an Aborigine killed a colonist is considered. Windschuttle assesses all the claims for their reliability, classifying them as "plausible" or "implausible", sometimes "highly implausible". He concludes that the total of plausible killings was 118 Aborigines during 1803-34: equivalent to about four per year. On the other side, Aborigines killed 187 whites. This included (in 27 years) just a single soldier.

The worst year for white deaths was 1828. In that year Aborigines killed 40 settlers or their convict servants, which is to say, about three per month. To put this into perspective, the British colonial population increased from 5,000 to 24,000 during the 1820s. The year 1828 also saw the single most bloody incident, when a detachment of soldiers from the 40th Regiment shot 10 Aborigines.

In other words, if a "massacre" means more than 10 people killed in one incident, then there were no massacres in Tasmania.


Windschuttle goes on to ask "Were the Aborigines fighting a guerilla war, or were their attacks merely aimed at plunder?" and "How many of the opinion-makers among the colonial population believed that extirpation was the best policy?"

Aboriginal attacks, he argues, were motivated not by any aim of driving out the whites but by a desire to acquire flour, sugar, tea and blankets, or by revenge.

If some of the leading land-holders did eventually advocate a policy of extirpation, they came to this position very late.

Equally, some rejected the idea of extirpation. The colonial authorities refused such a policy.

Indeed the authorities tried strenuously to prevent bloodshed, and (Windschuttle explains) one of their main motives was a sincere belief in the principles of Evangelical Protestantism. This is perhaps the most interesting theme in the book.

Conclusion: The importance of this book is to show that, before we decide whether one part of the Australian people should apologise to another portion of the Australian people, we need to be clear about what happened in history, and how and why it happened.

Regrettably, the leading historians have been very loose in their reading of the colonial documents. As a result, instead of seeing race relations in Van Diemen's Land as a tragedy, some have misread it as a conspiracy amounting to genocide.

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