Monday, June 21, 2004

Lies, Damned Lies, and History

For most of his adult life, Keith Windschuttle believed the story of Aboriginal genocide and frontier warfare in Australian history. And why shouldn't he? Principal works of Australian academic historians assured him it was so. "I used to tell students that the record of the British in Australia was worse than the Spaniards in America." Then, in 2000 he was asked to review a book by a journalist who claimed an infamous 1926 massacre of Aboriginals never happened. Windschuttle investigated, and he came away convinced. "There were no eyewitnesses and no bodies found. The charred remains of bones at first thought to be of Aborigines shot and cremated were shown by forensic examination not to be of human origin. They probably belonged to kangaroos and wallabies. So-called 'massacre sites' were nothing but old Aboriginal camp sites. A list of Aborigines gone missing from the local mission, and suspected to have been murdered, turned out to be a fake, concocted by the white clergyman running the mission. Many of those on his list were recorded alive and well years later."

In The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, he tells of confronting the historians who had lied to him, and others, for so long, for the sake of a social agenda.

In her book The Aboriginal Tasmanians Lyndall Ryan claims that British colonists killed 100 Aborigines in Van Diemen's Land between 1804 and 1808. Last year, on Channel Nine's program Sunday, Ryan confessed she didn't have any evidence for the figure. I had pointed out that the source her book quoted, the diary of the colony's chaplain Robert Knopwood, only recorded four Aboriginal deaths. Ryan, however, claimed that footnote was a mistake and her real source was a report by the explorer John Oxley in 1810. But if you look up Oxley's report, there is no mention in it anywhere of 100 Aborigines being killed. Pressed on the issue by journalist Helen Dalley, Ryan said: "I think by the way Oxley wrote that he seemed to think there had been a great loss of life from the Aborigines." Helen Dalley then asked: "So, in a sense, it is fair enough for [Keith Windschuttle] to say that you did make up figures? You're telling me you made an estimated guess." Ryan replied: "Historians are always making up figures."

Like everything else Ryan has said on this subject, however, this statement was not true either. All historians do not make up figures. To do so is a corruption of their profession. Historians must have evidence for their claims. And if they can't produce evidence they shouldn't produce figures. Ryan would have been more accurate if she had said: the historians of Aboriginal Australia are always making up figures. That statement would have been true.

The biggest single invention was made by Henry Reynolds in his book The Other Side of the Frontier. He claimed that 10,000 Aborigines were killed in Queensland before federation. The source he provides is an article of his own called "The Unrecorded Battlefields of Queensland," which he wrote in 1978. But if you look up the article you find something very strange. It is not about Aboriginal deaths at all. It is a tally of the number of whites killed by Aborigines. Nowhere does it mention an Aboriginal death toll of 10,000. Reynolds gave a false citation for his evidence.

And so forth. Needless to say, America has its own versions (See the "Civil War" section, above right).