Quadrant Magazine History
March 2003 - Volume XLVII Number 3
Back to contents...
KEITH WINDSCHUTTLE is a great controversialist. In his recently published and
(for the most part) generously reviewed book The Fabrication of Aboriginal History,
he takes issue with historians who have, under the cloak of academic respectability,
corrupted the story of the relations between colonists and Aborigines. Much
of his book is devoted to the methodology of history: he is scathing of historians
who, in his view, let their politics get in the way of history and he is merciless
with those who get their facts wrong.
Yet Windschuttles own methodology and accuracy are seriously flawed.
We can see this in one crucial section towards the end of the book, which he
calls The myth of the Great Australian Silence. This term was coined
in 1968 by the eminent anthropologist W.E.H. Stanner, when he spoke on the ABC
of the great Australian silence between ourselves and the
aborigines. This silence, Stanner told his listeners, might have begun
as a simple forgetting, but over time it had turned into something
like a cult of forgetfulness practised on a national scale. Leaving aside
books and papers expressly concerned with the Aborigines, he surveyed a
mixed lot of histories and commentaries published between 1939 and 1955,
and concluded that the Aborigines had largely been written out of Australias
Stanners phrase hit home. Many historians uttered a collective mea culpa
and a few of them applied themselves to remedying the years of neglect. The
most prolific was Henry Reynolds, whose books, including The Other Side of the
Frontier (1981), have had a profound influence on our understanding of relations
between blacks and whites, including the anguished histories of conflict and
dispossession. Reynolds, in his semi-autobiographical Why Werent We Told?
(1999), acknowledged his debt to Stanner and proposed some additions to Stanners
catalogue of neglect.
But now Windschuttle tells us the great Australian silence is largely
a myth. In The Fabrication of Aboriginal History he cites many works to prove
that Aborigines were not left out of the Australian story but in fact had been
given the attention they deserved - which, for example, in the case of Van Diemens
Land under Governor Arthur, was about 10 per cent.
Lets look at some of his evidence. Borrowing from Robert Murray (in Quadrant,
November 1999), who boasts that he is able to expose Reynolds "cover-up
story without leaving his office, Windschuttle tells us that the 1955
biography of pioneer pastoralist John Macarthur by M. H. Ellis includes eight
index references to Aborigines, troubles of settlers with. If we
look beyond the index, we discover that none of these occupies more than a sentence.
Here is a sample, comprising the first, the last, and one in the middle:
The farmer James Ruse and a companion had moved to the Hawkesbury bottoms,
where they were murdering natives and being murdered in turn by them
The prowling Irish outlaw vied with the savages in predacity and the
luluing of the famished myall mingled with the howl of the hunting dingo
Hard times for the Macarthurs, with blacks, kangaroos, emus and bushrangers
all converging on their flocks [p 511].
Aborigines, in other words, are at best incidental to Elliss story, serving
only to illustrate the sorts of inconveniences the pioneer pastoralists were
forced to overcome and add atmosphere to a ripping yarn. Does Windschuttle seriously
regard this as evidence to counter the charge of neglect?
WINDSCHUTTLE provides a novel way of testing the silence by consulting the
biographies of colonial governors before the 1850s. Anyone who does this,
he says, will find that the relations between the government and the Aborigines
are a topic that almost all biographers discuss. A footnote provides a
selective list of eight biographies, each with a list of references copied,
or aggregated from sub-entries, from the index. (Have indexers ever before enjoyed
such power?) Presumably he has forgotten that the alleged silence was identified
in 1968, as five of the eight books were published after Stanner, and four of
them in the 1980s, making them irrelevant to the discussion.
Of the three biographies that are relevant, two are by George Mackaness. In
Admiral Arthur Phillip: Founder of New South Wales, 1738 1814, published
in 1937,Mackaness provides a narrative of Phillips encounters with the
Aborigines. But apart from the occasional expression of sympathy for the Aborigines
and criticism of their convict provocateurs, his account is essentially a series
of quotations, direct and indirect, from Phillip and other contemporaries. It
was left to Stanner, many years later, to seriously explore Phillips relations
with the Aborigines, under the poignant title The History of Indifference
Windschuttle cites two index references from Mackaness s Life of Vice-Admiral
William Bligh (revised edition, 1951). But these are not to the Aborigines of
New South Wales, where Bligh governed from 1806 to 1808, but to Aborigines,
Tasmanian, whom Bligh observed during his voyages to Tahiti many years
before he became governor. Not only does Windschuttle, apparently, not look
beyond the index, he misreads or misrepresents the words in the index entry.
Mackanesss biography in fact covers the whole of Blighs turbulent
career and, accordingly, devotes less than one fifth of the book to his period
as governor of New South Wales. Most of that, not surprisingly, relates to the
Rum Rebellion. The book says nothing about relations between the government
and Aborigines in New South Wales.
The third biography is by M. H. Ellis, whose Lachlan Macquarie: His Life, Adventures
and Times , was first published in 1947, predating his biography of John Macarthur
by eight years. Windschuttle reproduces the four index entries for the entry
Aborigines of New South Wales, Macquaries policy towards.
The one substantive section extends for over seven pages. Here, Ellis shows
how Macquarie exhibited the Scottish flavour of his administration
in his contacts with the wild native. In their habits,
writes Ellis, the aborigines were uncommonly like the lower order of Highlander
of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, though in some ways less impish
in their mischiefs:
They had the same hunger for other peoples barley as seventeenth century
Maclean and Macquarie raiders of Ardchattan and Iona; the same appetite for
raw cow-beef as the pristine Ulvan. Their didgeridoo, their only musical instrument,
would have entranced a primitive Macintyre
In fact , altogether the primitive aboriginal had so Scottish an air about
him that it was only natural that the Governor should revert to the methods
and diction of the eloquent James VI and of the Edinburgh Privy Council in dealing
Ellis goes on to show how Macquaries best efforts to maintain harmony
between blacks and whites were sometimes thwarted: many a shepherd was
killed; many a native laid low. Buckshot flew about like rain in the wind.
Following an outbreak of native violence, Macquarie decided it was essential
to inflict exemplary and severe punishments on the mountain tribes.
His soldiers were set to the task; and after one dawn raid, Ellis tells us,
fourteen blacks were killed, a few were taken prisoner, and how many women
and children met their deaths, as they rushed shrieking and terrified over adjacent
precipices, nobody knew for certain.
No one could accuse Ellis of censoring the brutality of relations between blacks
and whites during Macquaries regime. The depiction of conflict is there,
in sometimes lurid prose, along with a similarly brief story of attempts at
conciliation. But these seven pages, less than 1.3 per cent of the text of the
book, scarcely support the case against the great Australian silence
.Elliss subject is the governor, and his interest is how Macquarie viewed
the troublesome blacks, his methods of handling the problem, and
what these tell us about Macquarie the man. As in his biography of Macarthur,
the Aborigines are incidental, minor problems for his hero to overcome. Ellis
even contrives a happy outcome:
Strange to tell, the Governors methods were soon attended with
the desired effect. By April 1817 all general hostility on both sides
had long since ceased. The black native, he told [the Secretary of State, Lord]
Bathurst, was now living peaceably and quietly in every part of the Colony.
End of story.
Malcolm Ellis, a Cold War warrior who died in 1969, led the charge against
Manning Clarks A History of Australia when the first volume appeared in
1962, denouncing it as history without facts. This perhaps was the
most heated and best publicized controversy among Australian historians until
Windschuttle launched his attack on Henry Reynolds and others in 2000. Ellis
and Windschuttle have much in common: their journalistic backgrounds, their
forensic approach to history, their embrace of controversy, their pugnacity,
their politics (though Ellis, a lifelong conservative, did not undergo Windschuttles
political transformation from youthful Marxist), their disdain for the academy,
their difficulty in recognising shades of grey. For Windschuttle, as for Ellis,
historical truth resides in facts, verifiable by written evidence; and when
historians make mistakes, their work crumbles.
IN CHALLENGING the notion of a great Australian silence, Windschuttle
concedes that Reynolds (and, before him, Stanner) was right about one work,
Australia: A Social and Political History, edited by Gordon Greenwood and published
in 1955: it does not have any serious discussion of the Aborigines. But Windschuttle
assures us that the Greenwood history was influential only within the
confines of the small Queensland higher education sector. Further south
it had much less impact. He is quite specific: In the history
departments of the University of Sydney and the University of New South Wales
at the same time, the book was regarded as inadequate and out of date and was
not recommended, let alone prescribed to students.
But hang on (as Windschuttle might say): I studied Australian history at the
University of New South Wales in 1967, a year before Stanners broadcast
and presumably within the period Windschuttle is referring to. My copy of Greenwood,
with some chapters neatly annotated, is still sitting on my shelves; and I still
have my notes from thirty-five years ago. Australian history was taught at second-year
level in a course entitled The Pacific and Australia: >From the Seventeenth
Century to the Twentieth Century. This listed four texts: one on New Zealand,
one on the Pacific islands, one on Britain in the Pacific islands and, at the
top of the list, G. Greenwood (ed), Australia: A Social and Political History
.These books were prescribed, and students were expected to buy them.
As an unrepentant empiricist (like Windschuttle), let me offer some more detail.
The reading list for the course also included forty-six reference books twenty-nine
of which focused chiefly on Australia. Of those twenty-nine, not one is specifically
concerned with Aboriginal Australians, let alone relations between black and
white, and few give the subject more than passing reference. None of the twenty-six
tutorials was even remotely concerned with Aboriginal matters (unless we include
one on the problems of the squatters), and only three of the forty-eight lectures
mentioned Aborigines, and then only to point out their small numbers, primitive
culture, lack of resistance, and insignificance to mainstream Australian development.
We learnt much more about New Zealands Maori wars than any conflict on
the Australian frontier. This is not to criticise the course lecturers, who
included some fine historians - but unsurprisingly, they too at that time were
parties to the silence. (The course convenor, A. T. Yarwood, a pioneer in the
field of Asian migration to Australia, went on to co-author a book on race relations
in Australia, in 1982.)
Windschuttle is also wrong about the University of Sydney, his own alma mater,
where Australian history was taught to third-year students and Greenwoods
Australia was listed as a text. This course was famous for the time the lecturer
took to get the First Fleet to Sydney. When the Fleet eventually entered the
Heads, around the end of second term, the students allegedly let out a cheer,
before being dragged back to England in term three. But this is merely oral
history, unsubstantiated by written evidence, so Windschuttle and I will have
none of it.
What is indisputable, however, is that Greenwoods history, sponsored
(as Reynolds points out) by the Arts Sub-Committee of the 1951 Jubilee Celebrations
Committee of the Commonwealth of Australia and reprinted five times before I
bought my copy in 1967, was a widely used text for students of Australian history
through much of the 1950s and 1960s; and that Windschuttle, in limiting its
influence to Queensland, without so much as one footnote to support him, has
told a whopper.
WINDSCHUTTLE is on firmer ground when he mentions the Australian Encyclopaedia,
published in ten volumes in 1958. Yet here he reveals a basic misunderstanding
of what Stanner and, after him, Reynolds meant by the great Australian
silence. Borrowing again from Robert Murray (but abbreviating his description
so as to give it even less relevance), he correctly observes that the encyclopedia
devotes 75,000 words, the size of a small book, to the Aborigines. Stanner,
however, does not deny that much was written on the subject, and his survey
explicitly excludes specialist books and papers. His point is that conventional
histories of the coming and development of British civilization gave the
Aborigines no significant place in Australia s past; that the several
hundred thousand aborigines who lived and died between 1788 and 1938 were but
negative facts of history and, having been negative, were in no way consequential
for the modern period. And yet, as he wrote elsewhere,
one cannot make full human sense of the development of European life in Australia
without reference to the structure of racial relations and the persistent indifference
to the fate of the Aborigines; in short, without an analysis of the Australian
In other words, the Aboriginal past was remote and incidental. Historians made
little attempt to engage the issue of relations between the two racial groups;
and as a result, society was under-equipped to judge the policies of the day
or confront problems that were in places six or seven generations deep.
It is not sufficient for Windschuttle to dismiss Stanners argument on
the grounds, these discussions were not to Stanners taste.
The point is that there were virtually no serious discussions, no attempt to
bring the historical and contemporary dimensions together, no attempt
to understand. There was anthropology and antiquarianism, but little history.
This was the great Australian silence.
The phrase, of course, is a generalisation; and generalisations imply the possibility
of variations around the periphery. Historians must generalise (and Windschuttle
does a lot of it, starting with the title of his book). But there is much truth
in Stanners generalisation, just as there is little truth in Windschuttles
protestations to the contrary. Similarly, there is much truth in the generalisation
reached by many historians, approaching the subject matter in different areas
and from diverse perspectives, that there was extensive violence on the Australian
frontier, just as there is little truth in Windschuttles conclusion that
the notion of sustained frontier warfare is fictional .
Why have I focused on just five pages of Windschuttles book? To test
him according to his own loudly trumpeted forensic standards. By these standards
he fails miserably. His denial of the great Australian silence is
central to his broader argument and part of his case against those he calls
orthodox historians. This term, of course, is a nonsense, only useful
in so far as it confirms that Windschuttle is indeed unorthodox, which means
in my view, if the five pages I have examined closely are anything to go by,
that he is adept at misrepresentation, inaccuracy and distortion.
Unhappily, he seems to be saying things that many people want to hear. If they
keep listening there is a risk that Stanners history of indifference
will become a history of denial.
Stephen Foster is Professor of Museum Studies
Heritage and Collections at the Australian National
University and the National Museum of Australia.
He is co-editor of Frontier Conflict: The
Australian Experience ,published recently by
the National Museum.
Recent issues available on-line: