An essay from

Whitewash: on Keith Windschuttle's
Fabrication of Aboriginal History

(edited by Robert Manne)

(essay presented in Hobart on 11th Sept 2003
on the occasion of the book's launch)

Today, September 11 is, on my reading, most likely the 200th anniversary to the day that Bowen arrived at Risdon Cove. For Aborigines, what can this bicentenary possibly be but a day of sadness and grief? But for white Tasmanians, it is this, but, as we all know, not only this. But what the 'extra' is, it is hard to articulate, to find words around.

But if the meaning and memory of this day is complex for white Tasmanians, the reception the fabrication of Aboriginal History has received in the past year, is, for me, a source of unambiguous mourning.

It is this that I want to look at today. In my chapter in Whitewash I look at Windschuttle's overwhelming ignorance of the realities of life in Van Diemens Land. Given his extraordinarily narrow selection of sources, which are largely confined to a selection of government documents in 1827-32 period, this is not surprising. But I will leave you to read and decide for yourself on this. To me the case is so overwhelming that you must forgive me if I struggle to enter into dialogue and debate about it. The mistakes are too elementary, the overlooked sources too fundamental. And the other matters too important.

Today of all days, it is the reception to the book in Tasmania I want to ponder a little. Fabrication was launched at Hobart's 'other' bookshop, Fullers, where it has been subsequently recommended as a Father's Day gift. It has been discussed seriously by our annual Writers' Festival. It's been rigorously debated at a university forum. It has had large amounts of radio air time and print media exposure. Even some of its detractors have seemed to welcome the opportunity the book has afforded to having a debate, assuming that there is on what Windschuttle has to say some sort of reasonable debate to have.

I don't say this primarily to criticise. I know many involved in the examples I've given know Fabrication is a very bad book but given its promotion in The Australian and other media outlets, have concluded that there is now no alternative to promoting the debate. The publication of Whitewash itself is now unavoidably part of this legitimization of Fabrication by contributing to the perception that there are two points of view, Fabrication and the others, whereas there actually are many points of view and one fringe polemical work with no serious academic credibility.

I have not got any firm answers as to how we should respond. It is genuinely difficult to know what approach to take in such a media and politically driven debate. The point I want to make is we, especially in Tasmania, need to be struggling with this question, finding it hard. Not just assuming that having different opinions out there is a good thing, and discussing Fabrication as if it was just another legitimate view point of our past, whether we agree with it or not.

We need to look at this book differently, ponder together how we can best discuss its contents, because Fabrication can not be compared with any other historical critique that Tasmania has seen before. It is unique, for at least three reasons.

First is Windschuttle's cold heartedness that many others have referred to. I challenge any person of sensibility to spend time in Tasmania and not be struck by some awareness of all those timeless generations who shaped and created this land, lived, laughed, loved and played in it. And then be struck by some wonder, sadness and awe that by the early 1830s, almost all the survivors of this ancient people, were in exile in the straits. Much of my time in the past two and a half years has been spent reading the rich collection of published Van Diemonien writings. Everyone I have read before, even the social Darwinists, had at least a small inkling of the magnitude of what occurred. Maybe this is just emotional foolishness. If so, for me, count me with the fools.

The second area of uniqueness is in his two key conclusions. There is the spurious claim that he can give a precise figure to the number of Aborigines killed by the British and draw correspondingly firm conclusions about the level of violence they experienced. Second, and more crucially is his denial of Aborigines defending any communal interest, including land. I go into some detail in analysing Windschuttle's sloppy arguments for these conclusions in Whitewash and again refer you to them, rather than a cursory summary of them now.

Perhaps if this was all there was to Fabrication's uniqueness, though, while it would still be a uniquely heartless and bad book, I would not be reflecting on its right to be central to a university conference, writers' festival, fathers' day promotions, or be launched at a respectable book shop.

Why I do so is because of the extra bits, the bits that I can hardly read without feeling physically ill, sick in the pit of my stomach that we could as a community give such hateful dribble such a legitmate place in our cultural, and intellectual life.

Unfortunately it is necessary to read a small selection of what I am referring to. This is necessry because I am aware from reading Windschuttle's speeches and articles that he is generally careful to keep this stuff out of his public talks and debates.

Before I start though I want to apologise to all Aborigines here, alive and dead, for giving these words life this evening. But for our own sakes, we white Tasmanians must face up to their existence, this day perhaps more than any other.

In Fabrication Aborigines are presented as a people with no "compunction aboout killing anyone they found in their way," because "their ... culture had no sanctions against the murder of anyone outside their immediate clan...." Whites were therefore kllled "simply because they could be." They have no concept of communal identity of interest whatsoever. So primitive are they that they don't leave their fires even when they need to shit. Even in the snow-covered highlands, they wear no clothes. They can't make a fire, "a skill that even neanderthal man had mastered." They have no sacred rites, no concept of land etc etc etc.

Windschuttle is especially obsessed with domestic and sexual relations. Aborigines were "active agents in their own demise because their men hired out and sold off their women without seriously contemplating the results. Only men who held their women cheaply would allow such a thing to happen."

So badly off are they it is amazing they survived so long, for thousands of years, since they had for so long obstinately refused to change their destructive ways:

The real tragedy of the Aborigines was not British colonization per se but that their society was, on the one hand, so internally dysfunctional and, on the other hand, so incompatible with the looming presence of the rest of the world. Until the 19th Century, their isolation had left them without comparisons with other cultures that might have helped them reform their ways. But nor did they produce any wise men of their own who might have foreseen the long-term consequences of their own behaviour and devised ways to curb it. They had survived for millennia, it is true, but it seems clear that this owed more to good fortune than good management. The 'slow strangulation of the mind' was true not only of their technical abilities but also of their social relationships. Hence it was not surprising that when the British arrived, this small precarious society quickly collapsed under the dual weight of the susceptibility of its members to disease and the abuse and neglect of its women.1

There is much more but I hope you get the drift. Now in case you think there is any substance in any of this nonsense, none of this is based on reading our only, and I mean our only, documentary record of pre-settlement Aboriginal society: the accounts left by the British and French explorers. Windschuttle has directly quoted from none of these primary sources, not one, none.

For a man who makes so much of his supposed return to the best traditions of historical scholarship and dependence on the primary record, how can this not be cause for at least some self reflection? For the conservative commentators who would make use of Windschuttle for their own ends, how can this not be a source of at least embarrassment if not shame?

So devoid of evidence is Windschuttle that these sections are in an academic sense nothing more than ravings, ignorant pub talk. So bizarre were they that when I wrote my Whitewash chapter I couldn't quite see where they fitted in either.

But since then the reception of Whitewash has opened my somewhat naive eyes to what this debate is all really about and why these passages are integral to it. So I want to make a public correction to my chapter. These passages are not add ons. Henry Reynolds is right in his Whitewash chapter. They are fundamental to it, they are its core. It is the other material that is the padding, the extras. Why?

Because if we don't have them we are still left with a tragedy. However people die and in whatever cause, the hard fact would remain that by the 1830s as a direct consequence of the British coming to this island a whole way of life had been shattered and immeasurably changed. This one indisputable haunting reality would still break in and disturb.

If Windschuttle's overt political purposes are to be realised he must destroy this lingering culpability, this residual responsibility. Any remaining sense of tragedy must be hit and hit hard. There can be only one way to do this. Responsibility for the demise must be shown to rest with the Aborigines themselves. They would have died out anyway. British settlement offered them hope, a life line, the chance to survive, but they rejected it. British civilisation was a gift and an opportunity, but it was spurned.

Thus and only thus can the absolution of the invaders be complete. Thus and only thus can any claim to regret, any claim to compensation, any claims to redress today, be totally squashed and trampled down. And it is that, not any attempt at historical truth that is what Fabrication is, I now firmly believe.

Thus it feels to me that this bicentenary has truly become a day of unambiguous mourning for white Tasmanians. Not now primarily because of what happened at Risdon in 1803, but because of what is happening today. It is surely a cause for mourning that after 200 years we have gone not just backwards into the 19th Century, or stood still, but are being tempted to go into places of such darkness and ignorance where arguably we have never been before.

But there remains one qualification to this gloomy bicentenary day reflection about Fabrication's reception.

For today so many Tasmanians also remembered and gave thanks for the remarkable life of Aunty Ida. Thus has she again intruded on our war of words, as perhaps only she could, pointing us to a place beyond, to new life, to the potential of meeting, to a Tasmania where our debates are grounded in the lives of real people and some spirit is restored.

When I first read Windschuttle last December I didn't know how to respond. Fabrication was so ignorant about the reality of life in Van Diemen's Land, so disrespectful to Aborigines, that I didn't know what to do. I worried even a written response would give it undeserved credibility. Part of me still naively hoped it would soon be ignored as rational minds took over.

Like a good Christian boy, I took my moral struggle to church and asked my spiritual betters. Aunty Ida and the elders of Leprena understood much more quickly than I what this debate was really about. So Aunty Ida told me to go for it and it was necessary. I think without that blessing I couldn't have written my essay.

So come on white Tasmanians, let's not fall for Windschuttle's trickery. Surely the life of Aunty Ida and so many like her show us that there is a different way to talk, even argue, together. Let's change the very ground of this debate. Make its reference point, all the real people, dead and living, who have spent time here. Let's listen to the voices of the people who have lived here, past and present, first. Let's discard from legitimacy those who show nought but contempt for the people who owned, created and shaped our island home for timeless generations and their descendants today, and treat with disdain the records and accounts left in our archives and libraries. Let's not dispute that Windschuttle and those of his ilk may dominate the Murdoch press, Quadrant, new criterion and other 'respectable' publications. We can do better.

Let's have a discussion that is mindful of mystery. One where there will remain a space for silence and awe, a distrust of certitude and some room for the unknown. And, above all, let's ensure that the real Van Diemoniens, black and white, of yesterday and today, are heard.

Thank you.

1   Windschuttle, p386.