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Restarting the History Wars: a decade of silence

September 22nd, 2013

Since it appears that the Abbott government intends to restart the History Wars, I thought I would point out that the leading warrior on Abbott’s side of the debate has now been AWOL for more than ten years. Nothing much has changed recently, so I’ll just repost (most of) my remarks from my last post on this topic, in April.

Long-term followers of this dispute will recall that, back in 2002, Windschuttle made quite a splash with The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, Volume One, Van Diemen’s Land, 1803-1847, which attempted a revisionist account of the tragic history of the Tasmanian Aborigines. He didn’t achieve much except to point out some sloppy footnoting in a fairly obscure recent history[1]. The main interest in the book was as an appetiser for the succeeding volumes, on Queensland and Western Australia, promised to appear on an annual schedule. Here, Windschuttle promised to refute the work of Henry Reynolds and others, who painted the frontier as a scene of prolonged violent warfare between the indigenous inhabitants and the white settlers who sought, successfully in the end, to displace and subdue them.

Year followed year, and promise followed promise, but Volumes 2 and 3 didn’t appear. Finally, in 2009, Volume 3 was published. Not only was there no Volume 2, but the new Volume 3 bore no resemblance to the book originally promised for 2004. Instead, it was a critique of the Stolen Generations report and the film Rabbit Proof Fence. Windschuttle said that this volume had been published “out of order”, and that the missing volumes 2 and 4 would appear “later”.

Even by Windschuttle’s standards, this is bizarre. The Stolen Generations debate refers almost entirely to the 20th century, so this volume, on his reasoning ought to come after the others, and be numbered as Volume 4.

It’s silly enough to see self-satisfied climate “sceptics” who can’t even calculate a standard error, but have convinced themselves they are smarter than professional scientists. But surely even the editor of a literary magazine ought to be able to count to three.

Of course, Windschuttle’s problems with the integers are trivial. His real offence was to attack scholars like Henry Reynolds on the basis of promised evidence he has been unable to deliver. It’s more than a decade since Windschuttle started this stuff and, to the best of my knowledge, he hasn’t published anything since then showing a single error in Reynolds’ work on the Queensland frontier, or that of the other historians he accused of fabrication. His “Sydney Line” website hasn’t been updated for years. If he has produced anything more substantial than opinion pieces, since the forgettable Volume 3, I haven’t been able to find it.

It’s pretty clear who is spinning the fabrications here. In the language of the tech sector, Windschuttle is a seller of vaporware.

fn1. The Tasmanian history Windschuttle wants to deny wasn’t invented by leftwing historians in the 1970s. It was the standard account in the very conservative version of history I was taught in primary school, based on the tragic and undeniable fact that a people who had lived in a harsh environment for thousands of years were wiped out almost completely in a couple of generations by a combination of disease, conflict and starvation.

  1. Donald Oats
    September 22nd, 2013 at 14:05 | #1

    The correct term is “rewrittenist” history. This time, however, they have to re-write the national apology made by the then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, and smooth it out of existence. If Mr Windschuttle (sorry: I revised it from Dr to Mr—it is a mere single letter change to the whole title) gives this task a go, I look forward to seeing which number the encompassing volume is assigned.

  2. Prof George Parsons
    September 22nd, 2013 at 16:57 | #2

    Australian historians have always been bad at quantification but most can count to four. KW is weak in both interpretation and in quantification,so we are better off without the volumes 2 and 4.A first year Stats student could dispose of the method[sic of the Tasmanian volume in a few minutes.

  3. Felix Alexander
    September 22nd, 2013 at 18:11 | #3

    Regarding your footnote…

    War of the World, H. G. Wells, 1898. A story in which the British get their own back from minds as far above ours as ours are above the beasts that perish. It’s little more subtle than a brick, and in the first chapter observes that “the Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years”. You can tell this was written in the last years of the nineteenth century, and not in the 1970s, because he can’t bring himself to call the exterminated Tasmanians “humans” or (according to his 19th century conventions) “men”—despite using that very word for his octopus-like Martian invaders.

  4. Jim Rose
    September 22nd, 2013 at 18:41 | #4

    John, I sat on the student representative council with a Tasmanian aboriginal. He was from the Maynard family.

    Michael Mansell was both a loud activist and a highly pragmatic representative for his aboriginal clients when working as a solicitor. As I recall, Michael Mansell was born on the Cape Barren Island aboriginal reserve.

    Schedule 1 of Cape Barren Island Reserve Act 1912 listed the names of the Tasmanian aboriginals to whom the law applied regarding land and hunting. Many of these were maynards and mansells.

  5. John Quiggin
    September 22nd, 2013 at 18:59 | #5

    @Jim Rose

    You posted this last time. Your point is?

  6. September 22nd, 2013 at 20:03 | #6

    Pr Q said:


    Of course, Windschuttle’s problems with the integers are trivial. His real offence was to attack scholars like Henry Reynolds on the basis of promised evidence he has been unable to deliver. It’s more than a decade since Windschuttle started this stuff and, to the best of my knowledge, he hasn’t published anything since then showing a single error in Reynolds’ work on the Queensland frontier, or that of the other historians he accused of fabrication.

    Before “restarting the History Wars” it might be a good idea to find out which side actually holds the high ground and which side has crawled back into their bunkers.

    Windschuttles key point was to challenge the Black Armband history claim that colonial Australians launched a genocidal attack on indigenous inhabitants. This December 2002 ABC report on Windschuttle book draws this point out:


    MARK COLVIN: A Sydney historian is trying to overturn the conventional thinking on what’s been is widely-accepted as one of the darkest moments in Australian history, the genocide of Tasmanian Aborigines.

    In a book launched this week, Keith Windschuttle argues that the genocide was a myth, which began as a vendetta against Van Diemen Land’s Governor George Arthur, and has been perpetuated by historians ever since.

    The frontline battle, so to speak, of the History Wars was waged over the question of whether pre-Federation indigenous policy was similar in kind, if not degree, with the Nazi policy towards Jews etc. That is whether “terra nullis” in theory was followed by “terra nullis” in practice. Otherwise the headline grabbing “genocide” claim has to be scaled back to mere “frontier skirmishes”, and wheres the fun in that?

    And on this key point, Windschuttle has more or less comprehensively rolled back the Cultural Lefts front line, a decisive victory making further publication the equivalent of making the rubble bounce. The critical “one single error” he identified was conceded by none other than Henry Reynolds, the Lefts highest ranking History Wars officer. Windschuttles “real offence” in the History Wars against could not have been so heinous if his supposed victim concedes his main point.


    Historian Henry Reynolds agrees the term “genocide” may not be appropriate to describe the plight of Tasmanian Aborigines; but apart from that, he agrees with little else of Keith Windschuttle’s latest work.

    PETER MCCUTCHEON: Keith Windschuttle notes that the Indigenous rates of death before and after the declaration of martial law in 1828 remained constant. He said the British, with single shot muscats, simply didn’t have the technology, or knowledge, of the bush to commit widespread murder.

    HENRY REYNOLDS: Well, both of those are true. Um, they didn’t, they didn’t, they weren’t able to ever find, or very rarely, to get large numbers of Aborigines in one place so they could sort of shoot them at a large scale, but nonetheless, there was constant conflict throughout the settled districts of Tasmania over a long period of time, and in that period, over that period of time, a lot of people got killed.

    I mean, and that’s scarcely surprising.

    PETER MCCUTCHEON: Keith Windschuttle says most of the reported massacres reported in Tasmania have been myth piled upon myth; he cites a case, for example, where Aborigines were supposedly murdered for killing sheep at Oyster Bay, yet there were no sheep in the area at the time; do you accept he’s been able to find some holes in what were widely accepted stories?

    HENRY REYNOLDS: Oh, without a doubt. I mean, in such, when we’re talking about events of such a long time ago, and contentious, and events of conflict, there are stories which accentuate and exaggerate the numbers killed, but on the other hand, there were clearly a lot of killing that wasn’t reported, that didn’t get into the newspapers, that people didn’t write to the Government about. You can’t argue that it all runs in one direction.

    Reynolds last point is no more than the sort of common sense that conservatives have been making in the Culture Wars for more than a generation.

    More generally, over the past decade or so the Left has been comprehensively thrashed on its most ambitious Culture War claims on race, religion, gender & indigenous history, not just by competent scholars but also by the Man in the Street. The political effect of this is obvious, a continuing series of electoral defeats for the Left in the EU and now Australia again in a period when it should be cleaning up.

    Might this not be a good time for Left wing scholars to reappraise their ideological strategy before they do any more damage, both professionally and politically, to the progressive cause? Just askin’.

  7. September 22nd, 2013 at 20:37 | #7

    “You let one of them go but that’s nothing new. Every now and then a little victim’s spared because she smiled, ’cause he’s got freckles. ‘Cause they begged. And that’s how you live with yourself. That’s how you slaughter millions. Because once in awhile—on a whim, if the wind’s in the right direction—you happen to be kind.”

  8. John Quiggin
    September 22nd, 2013 at 21:16 | #8

    Jack, nothing more on this topic, please

  9. Ikonoclast
    September 23rd, 2013 at 07:42 | #9

    We (people of European descent) invaded their continent and took all their lands. There was much conflict in the process. That is indisputable. Considering the facts that we had effectively endless streams of reinforcements (immigrants), better weapons and diseases the indiginous population had never faced, it is obvious we did most of the killing.

    Near where I live (Cash’s Crossing), an aboriginal bush path went from Brisbane and Enoggera* via Cash’s crossing to Caboolture (place of the Carpet snake) and on to the Bunya mountains. Now there are just suburbs around Cash’s Crossing. So something has changed. Land equals food and a place to rest your head for all people. Nobody gives that up without a fight. When the fight is so unequal and the frontier little policed then genocide and displacement occur in practice whether it is official policy or no.

    *Note. “Euoggera. The name is a corruption of Yau’ar-nga’ri, meaning literally, sing-play, or song and dance, referring to a corroboree ground.” – Wikipedia. Plenty of our suburb and town names tell us we took the land off the aboriginals. It is not “black-armband” to say this. It is fact.

  10. rog
    September 23rd, 2013 at 08:10 | #10

    @Ikonoclast You can look on NLA website and read the diaries of early explorers, like Mitchell. Invariably they either were guided or followed aboriginal tracks (songlines). These songlines were aboriginal travelling & trading routes and followed waterholes, which were also good for European stockmen. Small towns grew along the stock routes and road builders improved the going so many of our modern highways tend to follow these songlines. Without the aboriginals the early explorers would have failed.

  11. September 23rd, 2013 at 08:41 | #11

    I hope it’s ok to comment about someone you’ve asked to stop talking ProfQ, but I could’nt let this one go from Jack s @ 6:

    “[t]he British, with single shot muscats, simply didn’t have the technology … to commit widespread murder.”

    Well they certainly wouldn’t have, because muscats are grapes.

    This error looks to have come from the ABC, but I’d say j s’s argument is much the same calibre

  12. September 23rd, 2013 at 08:41 | #12

    Pun intended

  13. Will
    September 23rd, 2013 at 10:04 | #13

    From Wiki:

    While a precise definition [of genocide] varies among genocide scholars, a legal definition is found in the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (CPPCG). Article 2 of this convention defines genocide as “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life, calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; [and] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

    Genocide extends to more crimes than mass murder and spans the full spectrum of all acts which make concerted efforts to destroy a cultural/ethnic group. It is patently obvious that the treatment of Aborigines counts as genocide by the definition above and any notion that it is otherwise is laughable.

  14. Tim Macknay
    September 23rd, 2013 at 11:48 | #14

    @Will

    It is patently obvious that the treatment of Aborigines counts as genocide by the definition above and any notion that it is otherwise is laughable.

    Without wanting to diminish the gravity of what occurred, it isn’t laughable. The fact that the Genocide Convention itself dates from 1948, and that the concept of genocide as a crime only dates from the end of WWII, tends to support the view that it is anachronistic to refer to policies and practices from the 19th century, or even the early 20th century, as “genocide”, notwithstanding how morally reprehensible they were. Of course, if such practices occurred today, there is no doubt they would be regarded as genocide.

    The “genocide” controversy in this context originated from claims that the “stolen generations” policy of child removal amounted to genocide, under the Convention definition, the basis being that the policy justification for the removal was to “breed out the colour” (cf the infamous E.O. Neville of Western Australia). That justification would clearly bring the policy within the Convention definition had the Convention existed at the time that policy was in vogue. But the Convention did not exist. By the time the Convention was in force, the old racism-based justifications for child removal had been swept away, more-or-less by the same wave of revulsion over the holocaust that increasingly brought eugenics-style policies into disrepute everywhere, and which also brought the Convention itself into being.

    Child removal continued postwar, of course, but with the justification of child welfare, rather than racist eugenics. There’s still plenty of scope to condemn the postwar policies of course, for being racist and often damaging to the people affected, notwithstanding the justification. It’s very difficult, though, to characterise them as genocidal.

    In my view, characterising those policies as genocide handed truckloads of rhetorical ammunition to the conservative culture warriors.

  15. Sancho
    September 23rd, 2013 at 11:52 | #15

    Frankly, this conversation is too focused on documented data and historical facts.

    Windschuttle’s work was never intended to pass expert scrutiny, but to give right-wing political tragics an excuse for callousness toward Australia’s indigenous population.

    David Barton serves a similar function in the US. No one ever went broke doing it.

  16. ChrisH
    September 23rd, 2013 at 14:53 | #16

    @Tim Macknay
    Alas: the assertion that child removal after World War II was on the justification of child welfare can’t stand. Yes, there was reference to child welfare: but only in the sense that being taken away from Aboriginals was supposed to be (self evidently) an improvement to welfare for Aboriginal and part-Aboriginal children.

    Have a look at the evidence in the South Australian litigation.

    The welfare system proper, its processes, its administrators, its temporary and long-term accommodation, its placements, were all firmly excluded from Aboriginals.

    And the basis of removal was completely different for Aboriginal children. (Well, at least well up to the 1960s; after that the evidence in the litigation doesn’t disclose.)

    Not characterising those policies as genocide hands ‘truckloads of rhetorical ammunition to the conservative culture warriors’. And not characterising those policies as genocide is, bluntly, wrong.

    It’s no better to say that what was done before the 1948 convention or before the end of WWII was not genocide for lack of the convention. Apply this thinking to touchstones of history: the genocide against the Jews of Europe, and the genocide against the Armenians where Ottoman and then Turkish rule ran. These were genocide, though the international community had yet to express abhorrence: and Hitler’s aphorism (‘Who now remembers the Armenians?’) shows how well the genocidal understood what they were doing.

  17. September 23rd, 2013 at 16:37 | #17

    Hopefully, one of the many treats in store for us will be yet another rerun of Hendo’s stoush with Mann from 1963 or whenever it was.

    I look forward to it.

  18. Tim Macknay
    September 23rd, 2013 at 18:27 | #18

    Not characterising those policies as genocide hands ‘truckloads of rhetorical ammunition to the conservative culture warriors’.

    I disagree, obviously. I think the genocide claims were more-or-less the launch pad for the revisionist counter push in the 1990s.

    Have a look at the evidence in the South Australian litigation.

    Do you mean the Trevorrow case? I’ve read a little bit about it, and what I have read didn’t appear to bear too much on the “genocide” debate. But I will do as you suggest.

    And not characterising those policies as genocide is, bluntly, wrong.

    I don’t accept that it’s that straightforward. I think that whether or not the policies should be regarded as genocide is something on which reasonable people can disagree. To some extent it depends on whether the term genocide is being used in a sociological, legal, or other sense. But IMHO there’s a reasonable basis to argue that characterising the child removal policies was genocide in a legal sense, based on the 1948 Convention definition, is anachronistic.

    It’s no better to say that what was done before the 1948 convention or before the end of WWII was not genocide for lack of the convention. Apply this thinking to touchstones of history: the genocide against the Jews of Europe, and the genocide against the Armenians where Ottoman and then Turkish rule ran. These were genocide, though the international community had yet to express abhorrence: and Hitler’s aphorism (‘Who now remembers the Armenians?’) shows how well the genocidal understood what they were doing.

    Of course, the Nazi holocaust was the archetypal genocide, giving rise to the term itself and the Convention. But unlike the holocaust and the Armenian genocide, the child removal policies actually depend on the 1948 Convention definition for their categorisation as genocide, because they (obviously) didn’t involve mass murder.

    I’m not really interested in getting to a prolonged debate about this, BTW. I recognise that many people consider that the child removal policies can and should be called genocide, and I understand and have some sympathy for the motives for doing so, although I disagree with it, at least with regard to the 1948 Convention definition. But I don’t really expect to change anyone’s minds about it.

  19. Doug
    September 23rd, 2013 at 19:45 | #19

    Henry Reynolds has continued his work – most recently The Forgotten Wars which I spotted in a bookshop recently. The rolling back of Australian historical amnesia continues.

  20. September 23rd, 2013 at 20:34 | #20

    John Pilger has a new film which will be broadcast on ITV on 17 December called “Utopia”.

    Utopia is both an epic portrayal of the oldest continuous human culture and an investigation into a suppressed colonial past and rapacious present.

    He describes the treatment of our First Nations people as Apartheid.

  21. alfred venison
    September 23rd, 2013 at 20:54 | #21

    Felix Alexander

    wells was a student t.h. huxley at london college.

    huxley was famously one of the “jamaica committee”, a coalition of victorian politicians, scientists, writers, and abolitionists who attempted, unsuccessfully as it transpired, to indict the ex-governor of jamaica, edward john eyre, for abuse of power & murder in his brutal suppression of the moreton bay uprising in June 1868.

    i have studied both huxley & wells extensively at university and my view is that it is consistent with what is known of wells’ convictions to read that extract as ironically critical of the settlers and not as the personal attitude of a student of huxley.

    and when did you last read “war of the worlds”? he calls the invaders “martians” throughout. -a.v.

  22. James Wimberley
    September 24th, 2013 at 06:46 | #22

    I´m intrigued by Jack Strocchi´s ¨single shot muscats.¨ These are the tiny bottles made from late-harvest grapes with noble rot?
    His comment counts as ignoble rot.

  23. Luke Elford
    September 24th, 2013 at 12:38 | #23

    @Tim Macknay

    Tim Macknay, you want to argue that child removal policies aimed at “breeding out” a racial group cannot be considered genocidal in the legal sense where they occurred before the introduction of the UN genocide convention in 1948. The obvious corollary, as ChrisH has already pointed out, is that the Holocaust was also not genocidal in the legal sense, because it also pre-dated the convention. Apparently, you cannot bring yourself to state outright that (although it involved crimes against humanity) the Holocaust was not genocide according to your preferred meaning of the term.

    So instead you switch meanings, even though you’ve already identified the different senses in which the term is used as a key source of confusion and disagreement, and argue that it is the “archetypal genocide” because it gave rise to the UN convention and the term “genocide” itself. But: 1) it still pre-dates the convention, the litmus test you use for judging Australia’s treatment of Aborigines; 2) much of it occurred before the invention of the term “genocide” in 1943, so it is just as “anachronistic” to refer to much of what the Nazis did as “genocide” as it is to describe Australian policies aimed at having Aborigines as a group “die out” as “genocide”; 3) in addition to the Holocaust, a range of historical atrocities, including colonial genocides by European nations, inspired Raphael Lemkin’s coining of the term “genocide”; 4) Lemkin had been campaigning for international recognition of the crime of “barbarity”, which included attempting to exterminate ethnic groups, from as early as 1933, making these efforts contemporaneous with Australian policies aimed at doing just that.

    The idea that classifying Australia’s treatment of Aborigines as genocidal somehow relies on the UN convention in a way that classifying the Holocaust or Armenian atrocities as genocidal does not is untrue. Their description as genocidal relies on the commonly understood definition of the term as applying to all systematic attempts to eliminate an ethnic, racial or religious group; moreover, this understanding of the term has pedigree in its original description by Lemkin, who stressed that it applied to more than mass murder.

  24. September 24th, 2013 at 13:08 | #24

    Now let me see if I’ve got this legal stuff straight. If at the end of the last glacial period a marsh dwelling ancestor of mine clubbed another marsh dweller called Og to death, that’s not legally murder? But if a Dutchman today staved in another Dutchman’s skull with a tire iron it would legally count as murder? Well, that’s a simply fasinating bit of information. If only Og’s spouse and children could somehow be informed of the fact that Og hadn’t legally been murdered. I am sure they would all feel much better about the fact that his broken skulled body now lies lifeless in the fen.

  25. Tim Macknay
    September 25th, 2013 at 16:18 | #25

    Re-posting my comment caught in perma-mod:

    @Luke Elford
    On reflection, you’re correct that referring to the N@z! holocaust as genocide in the legal sense was anachronistic. The prosecution of the N@z!s who perpetrated the holocaust was also anachronistic, as the crimes for which they were tried were invented after the fact. Few feel that their fate was unjust, though.

    You’re also correct that, in the broader sense of the word, the early 20th century child removal policies can arguably be termed genocide, as can the Tasmanian “black war” of the early 19th century and no doubt many other formal and informal policies from the 19th Century. Despite that, I think it would be very difficult to successfully prosecute any surviving officials responsible for the child removal policies, as courts would be unlikely to convict retrospectively.

    In light of the comments on this thread I’ve tried to examine why I have difficulty with the claim that the child removal policies are genocide, considering I’m in general agreement with the moral arguments. I think it’s because, when considering this issue, I have tended to approach it through the narrow lens of “how would you secure a conviction”. The legal anachronism seems to me an insurmountable obstacle to that. But I agree that in the broader sense, the child removal policies can be thought of as genocide.

    @Ronald Brak
    I don’t think you understood my point. Admittedly it was an obscure legal one.

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