History, Lies and Imagination

It is true that there is more than one "truth" to be discerned in any historical account, and there are always shades of grey. But there should be no misunderstanding of what Keith Windschuttle in his recent writings has been saying. He is not just contesting interpretations of what happened to Aborigines in the past, but is pointing to something much more serious, the deliberate falsification of our history.

His latest book, The Fabrication of Aboriginal History (Macleay Press), is about just that. It is in fact only the first volume of a projected three volume work, and deals with early Tasmanian history only. The volumes to come will deal with Eastern Australia, the Northern Territory and West Australia. Why did he choose such an apparently narrow initial approach? In fact in articles published in Quadrant and elsewhere he has covered a wider canvas. But Tasmania is the place where some historians have made the reputations which back up the work they have done subsequently, and it is of Tasmania that genocide, complete or perhaps only nearly complete, is most frequently alleged. (The original allegations of genocide, the disappearance of the Aboriginal Tasmanians, were revised when the need to find some basis for land rights claims emerged. It remains doubtful whether the tenuous connections of present day claimants with the original Tasmanians are sufficient basis. The shakiness of these claims is only underlined by the bitter opposition to DNA testing of those claiming to be of Aboriginal descent.)

There is no disagreement that Aborigines suffered sorely as a result of white settlement  especially from diseases to which they had no immunity, and from the disruption of their traditional lives and customs. All Australians owe them a debt which can never be fully repaid. But Windschuttle's thesis is not that nothing bad happened, but that so much historians have claimed to have happened, by way of massacres and murders of Aborigines, simply did not happen. There were indeed some massacres. But why fabricate the evidence?

And this is what Windschuttle proves has happened, over and over again. Typically one of the historians whom he criticises will write a passage describing the horrors of a particular occasion at a particular place and time, and as a good academic will provide footnotes pointing to the places where evidence of this can be found. But what if the footnotes lead nowhere, and the sources cited do not even mention an alleged incident, and no other evidence of any kind is available? In these cases it is pretty clear that the historians are not writing history but fiction.

They pretend it is history, and many honest people believe them, so they have had enormous influence on our attitudes to our own history. But are they really, deliberately faking it, or are they making honest mistakes? This is something which can only be determined by detailed examination of the sources of their evidence, and this is what Windschuttle has set out to do. It is a pretty appalling indictment of many of those who have purported to tell the truth about our sorry past. He cites one passage from Lyndall Ryan's book, Aboriginal Tasmanians, which has been described by the doyen of the school, Henry Reynolds, as "by far the best and most scholarly work on the Tasmanian Aborigines in the twentieth century". This describes a massacre in May 1827, where Aborigines kill a kangaroo hunter in reprisal for shootings of Aborigines, then burn down a house because its owner's stockmen had seized Aboriginal women, kill several other whites, and then in retaliation a white vigilante group is formed and massacres many Aborigines (Windschuttle, p. 139). She gives three sources.

Unfortunately, none of the sources supports her story, and there is simply no evidence of reprisals, motives or reasons on either side, or even of any massacre. This is fiction. Nor is it an isolated instance of this technique of writing "history". This cannot be a matter of occasional slips or errors of haste. It is about the construction of a version of Australian history which is simply not supported by the evidence cited, very often non-existent itself. This cannot be dismissed with post-modernist twaddle about differing truths, shades of grey or whatever. The real mystery is what the various writers who have used this kind of methodology have thought they were doing. One can only speculate  perhaps they thought they were righting past wrongs perpetrated against Aborigines, perhaps they were seeking personal advancement and the applause of their contemporaries, perhaps they hoped to change present policy by re-writing past history. They certainly have changed policy.

It would be nice to be able to dismiss Windschuttle's case as superficial, ill-established or springing from antagonism to Aborigines. But none of this is true. There is a serious case to be answered. And none of the replies, dismissals, ad hominem attacks, or supposed explanations has been in the least satisfactory. It is possible to address peripheral issues in Windschuttle's writings  for example, whether it is a sufficient defense to charges of white murder to point to the religious underpinnings of colonial administrators. This is an important matter, often forgotten, but most of the incidents of brutality, true or false, by the nature of things would have taken place on the fringes of settlement, far from central authority. Moreover, many of the whites involved were uneducated, often criminals or little better than criminals, not much influenced by religion or civilisation  and certainly in some areas the Irish had much to answer for. Marginal settlers fighting for survival in a harsh environment are rarely respectful of the rights of indigenous peoples, and often enough inclined to violence, rape and sometimes murder.

There is room also for questioning some of his remarks about Aboriginal behaviour and attitudes to land, property and resources generally from the anthropological point of view. Competent anthropologists who are not themselves ideologues have made some telling criticisms. Unfortunately anthropology in general has been brought into disrepute by the willingness of many to embrace the crude ideologies of post-colonialism, "orientalism", and the race-class-gender blinkers of contemporary social sciences and humanities. Anthropologists are wont to treat historical evidence cavalierly, and to invent ex post justifications for whatever they claim on behalf of the unfortunate peoples whose cause they so patronisingly embrace. There is a whole industry of vulgarisation of Aboriginal art and tradition, romanticising of the original inhabitants as noble savages living in a Garden of Eden, and falsification of evidence. Perhaps the grossest defense of this kind of thing is the allegation that there are such things as new, emerging traditions which grow organically out of the past and therefore have as much authenticity as the elaborate belief systems which the first settlers encountered. The inventions surrounding Coronation Hill or Hindmarsh Island are typical. This "new tradition" is as phoney as the device of "new customary law" invented by international lawyers who are engaged in empire building. While concern and sympathy for the people whom they have studied for years is desirable and praiseworthy in anthropologists it should not permit them, qua independent scientists purporting to intellectual honesty, to indulge in falsification or exaggeration to support the claims put forward by the political leaders of their "clients".

Peripheral issues apart, so far the direct replies to Windschuttle have been weak in the extreme. For the most part they boil down to the most vulgar form of post-modernism. The main defense has been twofold: first, there can be more than one version of history, and, second, there is a role for imagination in the writing of history. There is of course a third line, which involves denigration of Windschuttle's standing and background as an historian. This is purely an argument from authority, an argument which is fatally blemished by the degeneracy of the universities humanities departments which purport to bestow authority on their products. (Michael Wilding's recent rather heavy handed satire, Academia Nuts, is a cry of despair rather than an analysis, but all too accurate.) The academics' willing collaboration in the destruction or suppression of information and materials relating to Aboriginal history, at the behest of indigenous political leaders, is briefly described in the epilogue to The Fabrication.

The clearest expression of the "many versions" line was by Professor Lyndall Ryan, who has still not published a substantial rebuttal of Windschuttle's charges. But the issue is not the trivial one that there will always be differing interpretations of the past, and that new interpretations and analyses will from time to time emerge, but one of simple fact. It is not interpretation to rely on facts which do not exist, but imagination. To assert that something did happen requires evidence  it is not a matter of interpretation. It would be more justifiable to begin from agreed facts, or at least from evidence in the archives (and elsewhere if it can be found, and is reliable  as stories told as oral history but often enough derived from historians in the first place are often not) and construct an interpretation on that basis. Clear distinction needs to be drawn between evidence and interpretation, especially when it becomes speculation of the type exemplified in the classic worthless biographies in which phrases like "Bloggs must have thought..." abound, and almost imperceptibly slide into being treated as fact. Or somebody is supposed to have had a sexual relationship on the basis that there is no evidence against it.

The second line of defense which has been so far advanced is one that tries to pretend that history can be written as an imaginative exercise regardless of challengeable "facts". That is, that our academic historians (and their journalistic epigones) are engaged in the business of writing historical romances, though without the bodice-ripping; in effect they are speculating about what might have happened and then presenting the result as if it were history. Of course it is not. There is of course a legitimate process of historical imagination, or the imaginative engagement of the historian with the past. What is not legitimate is to make this part of contemporary politics. That, as Orwell realised, too often involves the construction, and reconstruction, of the past for contemporary political purposes. It becomes all too clear that much of this debate is about political power. Not on the part of the so-called Conservatives  what is conservative about challenging dominant paradigms of history, or insisting on standard canons of evidence?  but on the part of those who see themselves as engaged in an historic struggle to insist that all history must be interpreted through a "progressive" lens, and is about the long struggle towards the enlightened views of the present day propagandists. This is what Attwood and Foster are on about in their introduction to the National Museum of Australia's book Frontier Conflict: the Australian Experience, essentially the proceedings of a conference intended to do over Windschuttle, when they talk about "a sense of moral engagement with the past in the present", and twist R.G.Collingwood's reflections on the historical imagination to their purposes: "Without such imagination, our perceptions are blinkered, our vision narrow. With it, we can stretch our horizons, enabling us to perceive the past through the eyes of all its peoples." All?  This is pure nonsense. What of course they really mean is that their imagination can enable them to perceive the past of all peoples as culminating in their silly little discourses about colonialism, etc.

There is of course point in moral engagement in the past so long as it is not simply a matter of proving how morally superior in every way the present day historian is to the people of the past. No one now would defend slavery in any circumstances. but it is an historical fact and it is both pointless and absurd to spend one's time denouncing the slave holders of the past as if they could have acted very differently, or as if the present can somehow compensate the descendants of the slaves for the wrongs done to their ancestors, especially if it is claimed that the slave trade had nothing to do with the wars and injustices of the countries whence the slaves came. The history of the world up to the 20th century was one of invasions, conquests, settlement by force, population movements and population absorptions. Human history is not a pretty story. If anything, under the influence of movements which wished to reform humanity, the history of the 20th century was even worse. It is difficult to see what the point of moral engagement which does not take account of the sins of the engagés might be. Equally, it is pointless to pretend that history could have been anything other than it has been  although it is worth speculating about how much worse off the Aborigines would have been if their colonisers had been any of the rivals of Britain, the gentlest of all colonial powers. The possibility of not being exposed to European settlers was simply not on the menu. The Aborigines suffered, as every other people has suffered from time to time in the course of world history.

That we owe a duty to Aborigines and their descendants today is not at issue. It has nothing to do with Left or Right, with conservatism or progressivism. But to those who would make it an issue and pretend that one side is good, the other bad, is really a shabby confession of determination to retain control of the writing of history for their own political purposes. The tone of the attacks on Windschuttle make this all too clear. They are not concerned about the welfare of present-day Aborigines, but about preserving the position which has been built up over the last thirty years or so. They are the keepers of the progressive flame, and to it they have subordinated the Aborigines in history and in person.

Padraic McGuinness . Quadrant  editorial . March .  2003

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