Fabricating Aboriginal History


KEITH WINDSCHUTTLE, AUTHOR: I started with Henry Reynolds' claim that 10,000 Aborigines had been killed in Queensland before Federation. Reynolds had provided false citation of his evidence. In the three years since then I have been checking the footnotes of the other historians in this field and have found a similar degree of misrepresentation, deceit, and outright fabrication.

PROF. HENRY REYNOLDS, UNIVERSITY OF TASMANIA: One of your problems, Keith, is that you are so self-righteous. You are unbelievably self-righteous. You vilify people whose evidence you don't like and you accept uncritically. The whole book does this. It's not unusual. We are all like that, but don't put yourself up as an arbiter for rigorous historical method, because you're not.

KEITH WINDSCHUTTLE: Well, Henry, you might think we are all like that, but we are not.

HELEN DALLEY: Eminent historian, Professor Henry Reynolds and writer Keith Windschuttle wage verbal warfare at a recent public forum in Tasmania.

PROF. HENRY REYNOLDS: Your book is full, absolutely littered, with cases where you simply are not critical about stuff which supports your own views and you're very, very critical of those who speak against you...

HELEN DALLEY: But this is just one skirmish in a bigger battle that goes to the very heart of how historians have portrayed Australia's past...

KEITH WINDSCHUTTLE: I've accused most of the historians of Aboriginal Australia of inventing evidence, exaggerating cases way beyond what the evidence will sustain and...

HELEN DALLEY: You called them fabricators and frauds on occasion.

KEITH WINDSCHUTTLE: That's right. I haven't used the word "fraud", but I certainly said, in terms of historical practice, what they're doing is corrupt.

PROF. CASSANDRA PYBUS, UNIVERSITY OF TASMANIA: Suggesting that dedicated professional historians are liars, that's what I object to. And I object to the fact that he engages in a very shoddy scholarship himself in order to make that point.

HELEN DALLEY: Keith Windschuttle is on a public mission to rewrite the story of black-white conflict in early Australia.

KEITH WINDSCHUTTLE: After examining all the archival evidence and double-checking the references cited by the best known academic historians in the field, I've come to the conclusion that most of the story is myth piled upon myth.

HELEN DALLEY: What happened after the British first sailed to these shores of Van Diemen's Land to make a lasting settlement in 1803 fills volume one of Windschuttle's provocatively titled book, The Fabrication of Aboriginal History. It is a full-on frontal attack against what he calls the orthodox, or accepted, history fed to students and readers by the leading historians of the last 30 years. That so-called black armband view, where there was widespread massacres, even attempted genocide of Aborigines by white British settlement, is a view Windschuttle, himself, once pushed, as a left-wing academic.

KEITH WINDSCHUTTLE: For most of my adult life I was a true believer of this story. I used to tell students that the records of the British in Australia was worse than the Spaniards in America.

HELEN DALLEY: These days Windschuttle is a true believer no more. He says the story of mass killings of blacks by whites is just not supported by the hard evidence.

KEITH WINDSCHUTTLE: Despite its infamous reputation, Van Diemen's Land was host to nothing that resembled genocide. And, of all the colonists that the Aborigines had they were fortunate they got the best colonists in the world, which were the British.

HELEN DALLEY: In public forums and the media, Windschuttle directly targets historians including Professors Henry Reynolds and Lyndall Ryan for pedalling what he claims are untruths about the extent of frontier warfare in Tasmania. His book painstakingly details their and others' mistakes and inaccuracies which he claims they've used to prop up a story about the foundation of Australia that was a lie.

KEITH WINDSCHUTTLE: I found such a wealth of material, including some of the most hair-raising breaches of historical practice imaginable...

HELEN DALLEY: Those under attack are fighting back, accusing Windschuttle, himself, of selectively using sources and worse, being a denier of the Aboriginal struggle.

PROF. HENRY REYNOLDS: Keith says that his target in all of this is not the Aborigines, it's the white historians, but don't believe that for one minute. The book is full of vilification of Aboriginal Tasmanians, make no mistake about that at all.

TEACHER: I think before we do anything, the first thing we've got to ask ourselves is what happened?

HELEN DALLEY: This is not just a debate in the rarified halls of academia. It goes to the heart of what our children and young people are learning in school about how white colonisation affected blacks.

STUDENT 1: I guess we've all been taught that the Aborigines were killed. There was genocide going on and blankets being given out with typhoid, things like that. I guess our understanding is that there were sort of massacre.

STUDENT 2: I suppose during my schooling I have never been taught a specific definition of genocide, but I have always been taught that there was genocide of Aboriginal people since white settlement.

STUDENT 1: Well, it definitely suggests that genocide did occur, especially with Tasmanian Aborigines...

STUDENT 2: And it was systemised.

STUDENT 1: And that it was systematic.

HELEN DALLEY: These Year 12 students at an independent Sydney school reflect the view that Windschuttle so rejects.

STUDENT 3: I've always been told that it was genocide, especially with the Tasmanian Aboriginals. I mean, since I was 10 or so, from any form of school, it's been the eradication of all Aboriginal Tasmanians.

HELEN DALLEY: Have students over the last 30 years learnt that there were many massacres?

KEITH WINDSCHUTTLE: Absolutely. Their teachers are now the generation of younger teachers, have grown up with that view as well. This is a very well-established, long-entrenched view and that's partly why I'm being subject to a fair degree of hostility.

HELEN DALLEY: But the reality in the early days of the colony in Tasmania is that 73 years after white settlement there were no full-blood Aborigines left. Everyone had died out, having existed there for well over 10,000 years before whites arrived.

PROF. CASSANDRA PYBUS: Suddenly these strangers come and within two generations they're all gone. Now, it's beyond my intellectual capacity to put a word on what that process is. It is astonishing in modern history. It is shocking beyond belief.

HELEN DALLEY: Do you appreciate that there's a tragedy about all this, that full-blood Tasmanian Aboriginals were wiped out within 73 years of settlement?

KEITH WINDSCHUTTLE: Well, of course, it's a terrible thing.

HELEN DALLEY: At white hands?

KEITH WINDSCHUTTLE: Who wouldn't think that's a terrible blot on the landscape? It's a tragedy in the sense that there was no way that a hunter-gatherer population that didn't have any kind of political control over their territory could hold that territory forever. Someone, either the British or the Indonesians, someone was going to come...

HELEN DALLEY: And kill them off one way or another?

KEITH WINDSCHUTTLE: ...and take over Australia. Well, any of the people who were likely to do it were going to bring what the British brought, and that was diseases to which the Aborigines had no immunity.

HELEN DALLEY: How the entire full-blood Tasmanian Aboriginal race died out is central to Windschuttle's argument. Was it genocide? Windschuttle lumps all the so-called orthodox historians together and claims they say it was.

KEITH WINDSCHUTTLE: There was no genocide in Australia. The idea that Australia, as some writers have said, was the moral equivalent of Nazi Germany in its treatment of the Aborigines - I think that view is completely false. In fact, I think it's grotesquely false. The original settlers, and the colonial authorities, wanted to civilise and modernise the Aborigines. The last thing they wanted to do was exterminate them. There was no policy about this. There was no policy at either the government level or amongst the settlers themselves, to wipe out the Aborigines, to drive them off the land.

PROF. CASSANDRA PYBUS: I don't want to call it genocidal, but I'm not going to tidy it up either.

HELEN DALLEY: But this is a central question as to our children being taught that we killed them all. Now did we?

PROF. CASSANDRA PYBUS: They died of Europeans' diseases - if we had not come, they would still be here. They died of European diseases. They died from European bullets. They died from eating European food. They died from starvation. They died as a direct consequence of us being here. I have never said "We killed them". I don't know whoever did say "We killed them".

HELEN DALLEY: But Professor Lyndall Ryan claims there was conscious policy of genocide including the infamous "black line". In effect, a human cordon of British troops and settlers designed to get rid of Aboriginals from areas close to white settlement. Governor Arthur also sent out roving parties in hot pursuit of Aboriginals.

PROF. LYNDALL RYAN, UNIVERSITY OF NEWCASTLE: I think if you go back to the sources and to the dispatches that Governor Arthur was writing back to England, he, himself, is aware that the government was, in the end, carrying out what I think Governor Arthur called the extermination of the Tasmanian Aborigines. He didn't want it to happen, but he could see that was what the outcome of his policy was.

HELEN DALLEY: So you call that genocide because you're saying there was some political intent to exterminate them?

PROF. LYNDALL RYAN: The policy was - the outcome of the policy was that. The numbers of settlers being killed are increasing, so he's got to do something about it. So eventually the Governor, the government, does institute policies which must end in the deaths of the Aborigines. Governor Arthur realised there were not a lot of Aborigines left and he was concerned that it would end up with them all being killed, and that's largely, in the end, what happened.

HELEN DALLEY: But even Henry Reynolds disagrees with Lyndall Ryan and has never claimed genocide occurred in Tasmania.

PROF. HENRY REYNOLDS: Two things. One, genocide is a crime of government. And, two, there has to be an intent. There has to be an intent to kill a group of people even if that isn't fully carried through. Now, in my view, the British Government, that is the British Imperial Government, never had the intention to wipe out the Tasmanians. Nor do I think Governor Arthur did. He was engaged in a war. He was willing to use as much force as was necessary to crush Aboriginal resistance, but this doesn't make it genocide. It makes it a form of warfare.

HELEN DALLEY: While he rejects genocide, Henry Reynolds stands by his highly charged assertion that the "black line" was an example of ethnic cleansing, a notion in the popular view associated with the killing fields of Kosovo.

PROF. HENRY REYNOLDS: I don't think the intention was to kill the Aborigines. The intention was to move them out of their own country. Admittedly it's the centre of Tasmania, but it is their country. It is to move people from their ancestral home, their country, and put them somewhere else. That is ethnic cleansing by any definition.

HELEN DALLEY: When you say "ethnic cleansing" to me and many people watching this, is what happened in Kosovo and Bosnia, that is a very serious charge, where people were routinely killed.

PROF. HENRY REYNOLDS: No, no, the killing was to frighten people, to drive them out, but the main process of Milosevic was to get them to move, to move people out, and that was what Governor Arthur was doing. He was moving them out of their country.

HELEN DALLEY: It's an emotive charge Keith Windschuttle totally rejects, based on the evidence.

KEITH WINDSCHUTTLE: The infamous Tasmanian "black line" of 1830 is described by Reynolds as an act of ethnic cleansing. However, if you read the documents of the time, its purpose was to remove from the settled districts only two of the nine tribes on the island, to uninhabited country where they could no longer assault white households.

HELEN DALLEY: Henry Reynolds, himself, was seen as a radical revisionist, a view decades ago, when he challenged the then traditional view of colonisation by asserting that Aborigines were not just the poor victims unable to cope with white colonisation. Reynolds maintains Aborigines put up a spirited, organised defence of their homelands against whites, calling it "guerilla warfare". This 1940s Chips Rafferty film Bitter Springs depicts many of the tensions that led to skirmishes and often violent conflict between blacks and whites on the frontier. Conflict arose over traditional hunting grounds and when settlers turned pastoralists, Aborigines retaliated by stealing sheep. But this celluloid depiction reflects more the view that Windschuttle would like us to return to - that whites only shot Aborigines in self-defence, in sporadic skirmishes on the fringe.

KEITH WINDSCHUTTLE: There was no frontier warfare. The Aborigines did not put up any kind of resistance to white colonisation. In fact, they were overawed, they were fascinated by the white people, they wanted to see the products they had, and the idea that they set up a kind of patriotic guerilla warfare resistance to white invasion of their lands, which is the orthodox story that I'm criticising, in my view, there's no evidence for it. The evidence is, in fact, the opposite.

HELEN DALLEY: You say there's no frontier warfare, but there was frontier conflict...


HELEN DALLEY: ..there were killings on both sides...

KEITH WINDSCHUTTLE: Oh, that's right.

HELEN DALLEY: ..and it got very bloody and violent?

KEITH WINDSCHUTTLE: Certainly. HELEN DALLEY: So Windschuttle accepts there was, indeed, plenty of bloody confrontation, but he labels it a "crime spree", refusing to call it warfare.

KEITH WINDSCHUTTLE: There was a government inquiry and the overwhelming evidence from both the white side and from reports from Aborigines themselves, not written by them, but people reporting their words, is that their main aim was to steal flour, sugar, tea and bedding and to them these were luxury goods.

PROF. HENRY REYNOLDS: Well, that's just silly. That's just plain silly. As most of the military historians, Australia's leading military historians, see it as war. In fact, the most recent publication by the Defence Department on the atlas of Australian war, the first chapter by Major General John Coates talks about the black war in Tasmania, both as war and guerilla war. That is, most people who have studied this, who are military historians, consider it as war.

KEITH WINDSCHUTTLE: Henry Reynolds quotes some whites saying "Oh, they're engaged in guerilla warfare", but the majority of white opinion was not of that kind at all.

PROF. HENRY REYNOLDS: The British Government instructions to Governor Arthur were to treat Aborigines, when they resisted Europeans, as enemies of a foreign state. There's no doubt that it was war and it was seen as war. Also, pretty clear that Aborigines, at least for some years, conducted a well-organised guerilla campaign and the evidence is overwhelming for that.

HELEN DALLEY: It's this interpretation of colonial conflict, dressed up as contemporary guerilla warfare, that Windschuttle finds so disturbing.

KEITH WINDSCHUTTLE: And what they've done is transferred a concept that was around in the 60s, a sort of radical leftist romantic concept from the '60s, and imposed that on the Tasmanian Aborigines in the 1810s and the 1820s, where it simply doesn't fit at all.

PROF. HENRY REYNOLDS: It's his idea that guerilla warfare is romantic, therefore we must say they weren't guerrillas. I don't see it as in any way romantic at all. I come to work with political viewpoints and I can't take them off like a suit of clothes, but the important thing is you are upfront about it, you say what your political views are. The problem with Keith is that he is intensely political and pretends he isn't, and that's where the deception lies.

KEITH WINDSCHUTTLE: My political agenda is that I think history has been spoiled by political agendas. I think the politicisation of history has been a disaster for the profession. I mean, good historians try and stand about their society and assess it evenhandedly, and they don't become participants in particular political disputes.

HELEN DALLEY: But the political undercurrents in Windschuttle's campaign have surfaced and hit one of Australia's newest cultural institutions, the National Museum in Canberra. A review panel has been appointed by the Federal Government to investigate, among other things, the indigenous exhibition, in particular the depiction of frontier conflict.

KEITH WINDSCHUTTLE: The biggest single picture of the display is a photograph by Bell's Falls Gorge and there's testimony there, from the Aborigines of the Wiradjuri tribe, that many of their tribespeople were killed there by white settlers, and that their ghosts can still be heard at Bell's Falls Gorge.

PROF. STEPHEN FOSTER, AUSTRALIAN NATIONAL UNIVERSITY: There's a very strong settler tradition that something terrible happened around that area in the mid 1820s, and that supports a very strong tradition among the Wiradjuri people that's been passed down from one generation to the next. However, the specific incident, of course, we will never know about.

KEITH WINDSCHUTTLE: That story is a myth. There is no evidence for it of any kind in the records in the 1820s when the event is supposed to have occurred. In fact, it first surfaced in the 20th century as a white legend, it wasn't a story the Aborigines ever told.

HELEN DALLEY: The museum claims it relied on hard evidence, but also acknowledged the oral traditions and stories of the Aboriginals. However, since Windschuttle's complaint, the museum has been forced to qualify some of the claims made in displays

PROF. STEPHEN FOSTER: If we've made errors, if various things were ambiguous or questionable, we would look at them very closely. Now, when the section on frontier conflict was, in fact, questioned, that's, in fact, what we did. If it turns out that Keith Windschuttle is correct in relation to other matters, we'd certainly look very closely at the evidence, we'd seek additional advice and, if necessary, we'd make appropriate changes.

HELEN DALLEY: Windschuttle dismisses accusations of a right-wing agenda.

KEITH WINDSCHUTTLE: Whatever I say people won't believe it. They'll all say "Oh, he's a political operative", but that is, in fact the case.

HELEN DALLEY: By following the trail of historian's footnotes, Windschuttle claims he has uncovered damning evidence of fudged figures and exaggerated claims.

KEITH WINDSCHUTTLE: Well, in some cases there are claims by the historians I'm criticising that can be shown to be absolutely false. People who were supposed to be on the spot were somewhere else, and there are other cases where historians - Lyndall Ryan has made a whole range of claims about events that happened and she's given footnotes to them, as historians are supposed to do, and when you look up the footnotes you find there's nothing there.

PROF. LYNDALL RYAN: There are a couple of references missing, but they are readily found in the archives and can be checked and he's chosen not to do that.

KEITH WINDSCHUTTLE: Lyndall Ryan cites the diary of the colony's first chaplain, the Reverend Robert Knopwood, as the source for her claim that, between 1803 and 1808, the colonists killed 100 Aboriginals. The diaries, however, record only four Aboriginals being killed in this period.

HELEN DALLEY: It's a devastating claim Ryan cannot refute.

PROF. LYNDALL RYAN: Right. I certainly agree that the Knopwood diaries say that, but I also had another reference referring to a report by John Oxley who was a surveyor who'd been sent down to Tasmania in 1809. He said too many Aborigines were being killed.

HELEN DALLEY: Okay, but how did you extrapolate from his words saying "too many Aborigines had been killed", to "about 100 lost their lives"? Is that just made up?

PROF. LYNDALL RYAN: Well, I think by the way in which Oxley wrote that he seemed to think there had been a great loss of life from the Aborigines.

HELEN DALLEY: So, in a sense, is it fair enough for him to say that you did make up figures? You're telling me you made an estimated guess.

PROF. LYNDALL RYAN: Historians are always making up figures.

HELEN DALLEY: It was here at Risdon Cove in 1804, that the first recorded shots were fired at Aboriginals by British soldiers. What happened here that day has been a seminal event in Tasmanian history. But according to Keith Windschuttle, the interpretation of the events here in 1804, and others like it, are central to how Aboriginal history in this country has been fabricated.

KEITH WINDSCHUTTLE: At Risdon Cove all the evidence at the time is that, on the spot, by people who were there, say there were either two Aborigines or three Aborigines killed. It wasn't until 26 years later that people came along and said "Oh no, I think there might have been 50 killed", and if you look at the person who said that, he wasn't there at the time.

PROF. CASSANDRA PYBUS: I don't know what happened at Risdon Cove. Something happened. I, myself, would choose not to talk about there being a massacre there, but to say that people who do say that there was a massacre there are engaged in deliberate falsehoods and fabrication is just a beat up.

HELEN DALLEY: Yet, based on the accepted premise there was a massacre at Risdon Cove, the Tasmanian Government handed back land there to the Aborigines in 1995 as a gesture of reconciliation. This historic site of first British settlement, where the Union Jack first flew in 1803, now sits virtually unused and unkempt. The archaeological heritage of several of the first huts now overgrown or decaying. One of the foundation stones of the accepted history is Henry Reynolds's claim of the overall number of casualties suffered by Aboriginals as a result of white settlement.

PROF. HENRY REYNOLDS: I have deliberately tended to limit the numbers killed. Hence, my claim that 20,000 are killed around Australia, which I think is still a very conservative estimate.

HELEN DALLEY: But in his book The Other Side of the Frontier Henry Reynolds states that "20,000 blacks were killed before Federation". He does not tell readers that is his guess, but he now admits it is an estimate.

PROF. HENRY REYNOLDS: It is reasonable to suppose that it might have been 20,000 and that's as far as you can go.

HELEN DALLEY: But that figure is widely accepted as fact, and quoted in much of the literature on the subject.

KEITH WINDSCHUTTLE: That's in all the standard histories. It's in the Oxford History of Australia, it's in the Companion to Australian Histography. It's a standard figure that's given by everybody and I thought it was well backed by evidence.

HELEN DALLEY: Indeed, Reynolds' claim that 10,000 Aborigines were killed in Queensland is attacked by Windschuttle as baseless.

KEITH WINDSCHUTTLE: He cites a piece of... an article he wrote himself many years before - as having established that fact. When I looked up the article he wrote earlier, I found it's not an article about 10,000 Aborigines being killed at all. It's an article about the number of whites who were killed by Aborigines in Queensland. So Henry had given a false citation of his claim that 10,000 Aborigines were killed. He had no basis for it.

PROF. HENRY REYNOLDS: Now you can't count them because they aren't recorded. But reading every country newspaper in Queensland, reading every government document, 10 years of serious research, my assessment is that 10,000 is a reasonable figure. Now, whether it appears in a particular article is neither here nor there. You've just got to look at the body of the research.

HELEN DALLEY: If Windschuttle has scored some direct hits in round one, his next two volumes investigating Aboriginal-white conflict on the Australians mainland, will no doubt target even more fundamental issues, such as land rights. The example of handing back land at Risdon Cove in reparations over an accepted massacre will mean land claims, in general, will be under his gun. Meanwhile, those under attack by Windschuttle are preparing to go on the front foot in a book of rebuttals about to be published. There's no doubt that more egos will be bruised and reputations will be challenged as Keith Windschuttle gets ready for round two.