October 6th 2001

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY - War on terrorism: where it leaves Australia

TESTIMONIAL: Colin Teese: Why Do I Read News Weekly?

ECONOMY: Terror weakens a softening market

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Close election still likely

QUEENSLAND: Good news for Golden Circle

WESTERN AUSTRALIA: Marriage devalued in WA 'reforms'

MEDIA: Moral equivalence and the ABC

STRAWS: Back to the state of nature? / 57 varieties of racism / Galahs 0, Kiwis 3

Letter: Lessons from the horror

Letter: Drugs report

UNITED STATES: The global war on terrorism: the risk of going wrong

HISTORY: Evidence still lacking for massacre claims

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: Railway Infrastructure: history shows it can be done

FEMINISM: Orwell comes to the hardware store

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Evidence still lacking for massacre claims

by Jeffry Babb

News Weekly, October 6, 2001

The role of conflict in the period at and immediately after first contact between the Aborigines and white settlers and its influence of the question of Aboriginal sovereignty was recently discussed by historian Keith Windschuttle.

Addressing the Samuel Griffith Society annual conference in Melbourne on September 1, he argued that little documentary or eyewitness evidence exists, and, in some cases, the first reports of massacres of Aboriginal people came decades after the supposed events:

"The idea that Aborigines, either in Tasmania or on the mainland, were patriots engaged in a valiant defence of their territory against the firepower of British imperialism did not originate in Australia history. It is a piece of ideology derived from the anti-colonial movements of Asia and Africa in the 1950s and 60s.

"It has nothing to do with the mentality of tribal hunter-gatherers of the late eighteenth and early 19th Century.

"In other words, the underlying inspiration for modern Aboriginal politics, the notion of resistance to white invasion, does not derive from traditional Aboriginal culture either. It is the continuation of the radical politics of the Sixties by other means."

Proponents of land rights declare that the doctrine to establish land ownership in Australia presumed it was "empty land" with no inhabitants. This is plainly a twisting of the truth.

The concept of terra nullius - the basis of land tenure in Australia - revolves around the fact that there was no competent authority to deal with in establishing land tenure.

In other countries settled by the British the colonisers made treaties with the native populations, and the ownership of existing land was respected. In the case of New Zealand, the Treaty of Waitangi set out the relationship between the colonial government and the Maori people. This treaty is a legal document that can be enforced at law - which it was, not so long ago.

In the case of Fiji, the native Fijians still hold in excess of 80 per cent of the land, even though economic power rests mainly with the ethnic Indians, who now comprise just under half of the population.

In the case of Australia and New Zealand, the native reaction to the colonists has been used as evidence of land ownership. The Maoris were the only indigenous people not to be defeated by the British and the Treaty of Waitangi was a peace agreement between the two sides.

The battle between the British and the Maoris was an extension of the endemic warfare that existed between the various tribes in New Zealand, which was regulated by agreed rules of warfare. No one seriously disputes that the Maoris fought the British and also fought amongst themselves.

In Australia, the assumption is made that the Aborigines were Noble Savages - peaceful hunter gatherers living in harmony with the land and each other - until they launched guerilla warfare in defence of their land - the assumption being that they were defending their territory.

However, this assumption can be challenged on two levels: first, that the disputes between the British and the Aborigines were over "country"; and second that the Aborigines, pre-contact, lived peacefully side by side.

Both these assumptions are false. In his pioneering work The Triumph of the Nomads, published in the 1970s, Professor Geoffrey Blainey examined the history of conflict between Aboriginal tribes. From the evidence presented, Blainey shows that warfare was endemic and lasted in remoter parts of Australia into the 1920s.

Bloody conflicts

Assuming that the population of Aboriginal Australia pre-white settlement was around the (generally accepted) figure of 300,000, Blainey comes to the conclusion that in comparison, the numbers of Aboriginals killed in clan warfare were on the scale of the bloodiest battles of World War I.

Blainey says that deaths were caused by a large numbers of factors and that the conflict was not simply ritualistic and limited, but resulted in numerous bloody murders.

Thus, no reason exists to assume that the Aboriginal attacks on whites were over land or of a different kind from their traditional inter-tribal warfare. There is simply no hard evidence to justify this assumption.

As for Aboriginal claims of genocide by white settlers, the evidence is that the Aboriginal way of life was hard, and they much preferred the settlers' tea, flour and blankets to the life of the nomad. In other words, the Aborigines sought out the settlers.

  • Jeff Babb

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