James Boyce

The difficulty Windschuttle had in defending the benevolence of British settlement in Tasmania was that within three decades the indigenous people that had survived and adapted to 30,000 years of environmental change had been reduced to a couple of hundred survivors, almost all of whom lived in enforced exile in Bass Strait. In this context Windschuttle’s conclusion that “the real tragedy of the Aborigines was not British colonization per se” became dependent on the claim that pre-settlement Aboriginal culture was “internally dysfunctional” and had long suffered from a “slow strangulation of the mind”. Aborigines were presented as a people so barbaric that they had “no sanctions against the murder of anyone outside their immediate clan”, “hired out and sold off their women without seriously contemplating the results,” deposited their faeces “close to the fires where they slept”, and ”went about completely naked, even in the snow-covered highlands”.

Any reader of the opening and closing chapters of the Fabrication of Aboriginal History, or of Windschuttle’s frequent columns in the Australian newspaper, will know that Windschuttle is not primarily concerned with how we see the past. His belief that traditional Aboriginal society was inherently violent and brutal is used to justify a strident political agenda. This now goes far beyond defending the benevolence of British settlement, attacking land rights or ridiculing the call for an apology to the stolen generation. In his most recent column in the national daily, “The Whitewashing of Aboriginal Manhood”, Windschuttle has sought nothing less than the withdrawal of all government support to remote Aboriginal communities and their absorption into suburban Australia.

SUPPORTERS AND MANY many opponents of Keith Windschuttle’s appointment to the ABC Board are in danger of missing the point. This is not a question of Windschuttle’s right wing political allegiances, negative view of the public broadcaster, or his combative role in the cultural wars. The Australian Parliament should review this appointment for one reason and one reason only — Windschuttle’s view of the Aborigines.

Windschuttle notoriety in Australian public life and favour in Cabinet emerged directly from his best known book, and the Prime Minister’s chosen Christmas holiday reading, “The Fabrication of Aboriginal History: Volume One Van Diemen’s Land”. Despite the considerable media attention this book received, it is still not well known that it was much more than an attack on the work of Henry Reynolds or Lyndall Ryan. Windschuttle sought to present a “counter history of race relations in this country” and central to his conclusion was his view of traditional Aboriginal culture.

The difficulty Windschuttle had in defending the benevolence of British settlement in Tasmania was that within three decades the indigenous people that had survived and adapted to 30,000 years of environmental change had been reduced to a couple of hundred survivors, almost all of whom lived in enforced exile in Bass Strait. In this context Windschuttle’s conclusion that “the real tragedy of the Aborigines was not British colonization per se” became dependent on the claim that pre-settlement Aboriginal culture was “internally dysfunctional” and had long suffered from a “slow strangulation of the mind”. Aborigines were presented as a people so barbaric that they had “no sanctions against the murder of anyone outside their immediate clan”, “hired out and sold off their women without seriously contemplating the results,” deposited their faeces “close to the fires where they slept”, and ”went about completely naked, even in the snow-covered highlands”.

The problem for those who have celebrated Fabrication’s counter history, is that despite the vehemence with which they attack every purported example of a historian making a claim beyond the documented evidence, Windschuttle did not consult even one primary source about pre-settlement Aboriginal culture before making his ludicrous claims. And it is not as if they don’t exist.

Supposed propensity of men to sell their women

For three decades before European settlement began in 1803, the southern coast of Tasmania had provided a safe haven for British and French explorers of the southern seas. The latter, especially the D’Entrecasteaux and Baudin expeditions, had a particular interest in the Aborigines, and their frequent and extended encounters with them are well documented in official accounts and private journals. Much of this material has been translated and published, and is very well known. Yet the only two occasions when this material was cited by Windschuttle it was footnoted to Ling Roth’s social Darwinist text “The Aborigines of Tasmania” published in 1899 (which, along with Robert Edgerton’s, “Sick Societies: Challenging the Myth of Primitive Harmony”, was the main source for Windschuttle’s theorizing.) Not surprisingly, Peron, like the other explorers, directly contradicts Windschuttle’s caricature of traditional Aboriginal culture, particularly the supposed propensity of Aboriginal men to ‘sell’ their women — one of the two main reasons Windschuttle claims the Aboriginal population collapsed.

In a subsequent article in the Australian, “No Slander in Exposing Cultural Brutality”, Windschuttle — safe in his assumption that his political and media champions wouldn’t bother checking his footnotes or wouldn’t care if they did — brazenly pointed to the Peron quotes as proof that he had read the primary sources, while failing to inform his readers of the source of these quotes. Furthermore no explanation was afforded as to why he dated the expedition of his solitary informant to between 1807 and 1816. Even the most precursory read of Peron’s actual account of his extended sojourn in southern Van Diemen’s Land, which included an excursion up the Derwent, would surely have revealed that British settlement had not yet begun.

The truth

The truth that Windschuttle and his backers were so concerned to hide is that his view of traditional Aboriginal culture is based on nothing more than prejudice. Before the new political correctness of the right effectively banned the word from public discourse we had a meaning for this sort of slander — racism. But racist or not, does such dubious history really matter for Aborigines today?

Any reader of the opening and closing chapters of the Fabrication of Aboriginal History, or of Windschuttle’s frequent columns in the Australian newspaper, will know that Windschuttle is not primarily concerned with how we see the past. His belief that traditional Aboriginal society was inherently violent and brutal is used to justify a strident political agenda. This now goes far beyond defending the benevolence of British settlement, attacking land rights or ridiculing the call for an apology to the stolen generation. In his most recent column in the national daily, “The Whitewashing of Aboriginal Manhood”, Windschuttle has sought nothing less than the withdrawal of all government support to remote Aboriginal communities and their absorption into suburban Australia.

The Australian Parliament has determined that a central function of the ABC is to “reflect the cultural diversity of the Australian community.” The cultural protocol produced by the ABC develops this further, stating that “the rights of Indigenous people to own and control their cultures should be respected. Diversity of Indigenous cultures should be acknowledged and encouraged. Indigenous worldviews, lifestyles and customary laws should be respected in contemporary life.”

This leaves plenty of room on the ABC Board for conservatives and critics. But, surely, no place for a racist.

James Boyce is a Hobart based historian who wrote the overview chapter for Whitewash: On Keith Windschuttle’s Fabrication of Aboriginal History (Black Inc) and is currently completing a history of Van Diemen’s Land.