Quadrant Magazine Masthead!  
  Home · Archives · Subscribe · Quadrant · Links · Feedback · Contact · FAQ

Quadrant Magazine History March 2003 - Volume XLVII Number 3

Back to contents...

Contra Windschuttle
S.G. Foster

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 Windschuttle’s 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 Australia’s past.

Stanner’s 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 Weren’t We Told? (1999), acknowledged his debt to Stanner and proposed some additions to Stanner’s 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 Diemen’s Land under Governor Arthur, was about 10 per cent.

Let’s 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” [p 60];

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” [p 426];

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 Ellis’s 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 Phillip’s 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 Phillip’s relations with the Aborigines, under the poignant title “The History of Indifference Thus Begins”.

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. Mackaness’s biography in fact covers the whole of Bligh’s 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, Macquarie’s 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 people’s 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 with him.

Ellis goes on to show how Macquarie’s 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 Macquarie’s 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” .Ellis’s 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 Governor’s 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 Clark’s 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 Windschuttle’s 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 Stanner’s 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 Zealand’s 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 Greenwood’s 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 Greenwood’s 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 conscience.

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 Stanner’s argument on the grounds, “these discussions were not to Stanner’s 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 Stanner’s generalisation, just as there is little truth in Windschuttle’s 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 Windschuttle’s conclusion that the “notion of sustained ‘frontier warfare ’is fictional ”.

Why have I focused on just five pages of Windschuttle’s 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 Stanner’s“ 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.

Available in all good newsagents now or Subscribe to Quadrant.

Recent issues available on-line:



  Home · Archives · Subscribe · Quadrant · Links · Feedback · Contact · FAQ
  Copyright © 1999-2003 Quadrant Magazine, Inc. All rights reserved. Nothing in this publication may be reproduced without the permission of the publisher. Please contact webmaster@quadrant.org.au with any questions about this site.