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Windschuttle and error

December 19th, 2002

Keith Windschuttle has made a lot of play of errors and wrong interpretations by his opponents and the title of his book The Fabrication of Aboriginal History makes it clear that any such errors and misinterpretations can arise only from ‘fabrication’ that is, academic fraud. He clearly has found some serious errors in Lyndall Ryan’s work, and has managed to discover one misattributed quotation by Henry Reynolds. His other line of criticism is semantic, attacking the use of words like ‘genocide’ and ‘guerilla warfare’, derived from European history, to describe what happened in Australia.

In only a few days, I’ve heard at least as many errors and misinterpretations from Windschuttle and his supporters as he’s managed to discover in years of painstaking work. First, there’s this statement reported by Miranda Devine

It told how Australia’s academic historians have “failed their public responsibility to tell the truth”, said Claudio Veliz, Boston University emeritus professor of history, who launched the book. The truth, he said, is that: “This is the first major nation in the history of the world to have secured full independence and sovereignty without killing anyone.”

This isn’t true even as regards Europeans. Veliz has apparently never heard of the Eureka Stockade and the Castle Hill rebellion, and obviously Windschuttle didn’t enlighten him. More importantly, even on Windschuttle’s own account of Tasmania, substantial numbers of Aborigines were killed in clashes with settlers and soldiers, so this claim must have some sort of postmodernist interpretation in which ‘killed’ doesn’t mean ‘killed’ but something else like ‘killed unlawfully’. Veliz’s claim that ‘no-one was killed’ is far more egregiously wrong that Lyndall Ryan’s suggestion that the Tasmanian Aborigines were victims of genocide – after all, nearly all of them died in a very short period. (Another possibility is that Veliz is talking about Federation – but if so, there’s no possible sense in which progressive historians have failed in their responsibility to tell the truth. In fact, as Donald Horne observed, it’s the conservatives like Howard who prefer the blood-soaked Anzac myth to the boring story of a peaceful referendum. In any case, this has nothing to do with Reynolds and Ryan).

Next, there’s Windschuttle’s statement quoted by Robert Manne, that the Tasmanians became extinct because ‘they prostituted their women’. Leaving aside the nasty racism of this, Manne correctly points out that prostitution is a concept that makes sense only in a money economy. Its application to a tribal society is considerably less justifiable than Reynolds’ suggestion that such societies could practise ‘guerilla warfare’. And there’s the implication that sexual relations between whites and Aborigines were invariably voluntary. For Windschuttle, rape didn’t happen if there weren’t any police reports.

Then there’s his performance on Australia Talks Back, which you can listen to here. Among the contradictions and errors:

Windschuttle initially suggests that the fabrication of Aboriginal history is the work of radicals in the last thirty years. But by the end of the program he’s claiming that fabrication started in the 1830s and has been going on ever since.

Windschuttle claims that the British were uniquely sensitive colonists, as witness the fact that Indian tribes fought for them against the French. He didn’t mention the French and Indian War, the American component of the Seven Years War. Although some Indian tribes fought for the British, at least as many supported the French.

A caller who had done extensive research on Fiji and New Zealand in the 19th century asked him why, if Australian treatment of Aborigines was so good, Europeans in Fiji and NZ saw it as a model of what not to do. Windschuttle gave a non-answer to the question, either because he misunderstood it or because he had no answer. Since for Windschuttle, there is no such thing as innocent error, I’m counting this as a fabrication.

That’s five errors I’ve noted in my spare time in the course of a single week. I’m sure there must be more. People who live in glass houses …

Update I mentioned this previously, but I’ll note again that David Morgan has lots of good stuff on this topic.

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