The island of Tasmania is now seen in scholarly and unscholarly circles as the setting for one of the most disgraceful episodes in the recorded history of the human race. According to this story, virtually a whole people was wilfully exterminated by the incoming British—the rulers, soldiers, convicts, and free settlers. Various historians and other social scientists have described it as a policy of genocide, and a forerunner of what happened a century later in Hitler’s Europe. In his wide-ranging Fabrication of Aboriginal History. Volume 1, Van Diemen's Land 1803-1847,1 the Australian historian Keith Windschuttle inspects the evidence for this genocide. He concludes that the argument relies heavily on the errors and bias of historians.

Tasmania was once called Van Diemen’s Land—the Dutch were the first to map its coast. It was settled by the British from 1803, mainly as a receptacle for criminals and increasingly as a pasture for sheep. Whites and blacks soon clashed. The contrast between the economic life, forms of government, languages, and rituals of the the few thousand Aborigines and those of the invading British was acute. There was little chance of one people understanding the other. The Aborigines were the losers. The last full-blood Tasmanian Aborigine died in 1888, and most of the thousands who now call themselves indigenous Tasmanians possess only a minority strand of that ancestry.

The widely accepted explanation for this tragedy can be seen in many television documentaries and news articles. It was crystallized on the front page of The Wall Street Journal of August 21, 2000 when an alleged massacre near the present city of Hobart nearly two centuries ago was described as “the opening shot in a war that would result in the near-extermination of Tasmanian Aborigines.” The report adds that some of “the 50 or so killed that day were salted down and sent to Sydney as anthropological curiosities.” It is a chilling story. Is it true?

Windschuttle examines this so-called massacre of 1804. Instead of forty or fifty Aboriginal deaths he finds that not more than three Aborigines were killed, probably in a defensive action. How then did this myth arise? Windschuttle argues that the first accusation of large-scale massacre was made “decades later by people who were not there at the time and, in most cases, were not even in the colony.” As for the “salting down” of dead bodies for despatch to Sydney as mementos, the evidence likewise is frail. But the story is so widely believed that the site of the alleged massacre was recently donated by the Tasmanian government to the local Aborigines as an act of goodwill.

With impressive thoroughness, Windschuttle inspects the diaries, newspapers, and official letters and reports cited by historians as their evidence, and often he sees that evidence wither or change shape. The Hobart Town Courier of 1826 is twice cited by a historian as providing the evidence for killings, but the newspaper turns out not to have been in existence that year! An Anglican clergyman’s diary, confidently said to report the deaths of probably one hundred Aborigines and twenty Europeans in conflicts, reveals a total of only six deaths, four of whom were Aboriginal.

The sole “witness” turns out to have been living in India when the alleged massacre took place!

Brian Plomley, regarded by some as the most scholarly historian examining the fate of the Aborigines, is tripped by some of his own evidence. In listing the specific clashes between blacks and whites for November 1828, Plomley at one point added to his somber list the words “more killed,” meaning that additional Aborigines were the victims of white violence. Windschuttle, indefatigable, looked up the hand-written police record. It did not assert “more killed” but “mare killed.” In short a horse—described as “a valuable mare”—was the casualty. Windschuttle discovers so much mishandling of the evidence that he confines this miraculous conversion of one dead horse into several dead Aborigines to a footnote.

While Plomley did important research on the Tasmanian Aborigines and their way of life, his emotions perhaps blinded him. Of one important group of white settlers he wrote indignantly that they believed in extirpating the Aborigines—indeed they were “extirpationists almost to a man.” Windschuttle examines the views of each of these settlers at great length. In the end he is forced to expose Plomley for defaming twelve of the fourteen settlers. I myself wondered whether Plomley, usually so painstaking, could have made such an error. I consulted the relevant pages of his published work. Clearly he had not digested some of his own major sources.

Lloyd Robson, the author of the largest history of Tasmania, also overrides crucial evidence. He confidently described an episode in which twenty-two Aborigines were killed on the one day at Oyster Bay. The sole “witness” turns out to have been living in India when the alleged massacre took place! After reading this section of the book I turned again to Robson’s own narrative, thinking that perhaps he had been misunderstood, but the case against him is powerful. Even the witness himself denies that he was present.

Robson earlier in his career had performed impressive statistical research on the British convicts sent to Australia and on Australian soldiers who enlisted in the First World War. But on the fate of the Tasman- ian Aborigines he held passionate views which, according to Windschuttle, sometimes eroded his skills as a historian. It was Robson who also hinted—on the basis of flimsy evidence—that hundreds of Aborigines died as the result of deliberate poisoning. And yet Robson, to his credit, does not accept that a massacre took place at Hobart in 1804.

As historians, we all make errors from time to time. While reading the long recital of these failings, I felt an initial sympathy towards the Australian and overseas historians who were under such intense scrutiny. But many of their errors, made on crucial matters, beggared belief. Moreover their exaggeration, gullibility, and what this book calls “fabrication” went on and on. Admittedly, if sometimes the historians’ errors had chanced to favor the Aborigines, and sometimes they had happened to favor British settlers, a reader might sympathetically conclude that there was no bias amongst the historians but simply an infectious dose of inaccuracy. Most of the inaccuracies, however, are used to bolster the case for the deliberate destruction of the Aborigines. This case has now been glibly accepted as gospel in many educational and political circles and in some high legal circles.

Professor Lyndall Ryan’s influential book Aboriginal Tasmanians is dissected in more than sixty pages. A magnifying glass is focused on her crucial claim that in the two years to November 1830 the British “roving parties captured about twenty Aborigines and killed about sixty.” Windschuttle concludes that “none of Ryan’s footnotes support her assertion.” As for her claim that at the Eastern Marshes a party of whites killed five Aborigines, his research convinces him that this is “another piece of invention.”

Ryan replied at length in The Australian newspaper on December 17, 2002. Her sole attempt to meet specific factual criticisms of her work is the following quarter-confession: “Windschuttle points to some factual errors in the footnoting of my original work. There are indeed a few minor errors that can easily be rectified.” But he is not primarily criticizing the footnoting and a few minor errors. He is criticizing the main thrust of her narrative and what he sees as a wide array of major errors and omissions.

The evidence for “genocide” or deliberate “extirpation” appears frail or false.

The Fabrication of Aboriginal History sometimes moves slowly. Windschuttle admits that he pays “so much attention to footnotes, citations and archival references” that some readers will be deterred from pressing on. He argues, however, that this was the only way of testing the worth of rival historians: “there was no choice but to address the fabric of their scholarship in order to unpick their work and to establish what really happened.” In fact his book offers so many examples of the misuse of the original records that it would require many pages for a reviewer even to summarize the case laid out against the various historians involved.

For example, Professor Henry Reynolds, whose successful academic career has centered on Aboriginal–white relations in Australia, and whose opinions are said to have influenced the High Court of Australia in one of its landmark decisions, is strongly criticized for loading the dice. In his earlier book The Killing of History, Windschuttle had generally praised Reynolds. He now revises his opinion, after dissecting Reynolds’s handling of evidence—including a most remarkable misquoting of a crucial document. In 1830 in Tasmania, Governor Arthur had expressed the fervent hope that by careful measures he could prevent “the eventual extirpation of the aboriginal race itself.” Reynolds somehow deleted this compassionate wish when quoting the document verbatim. Instead he put into Arthur’s mouth another phrase: what Governor Arthur really feared was the “eventual extirpation of the Colony.” The meaning of one of the significant documents in early colonial history had thereby been drastically altered.

Windschuttle estimates the original Aborigines as numbering 2000—an estimate which is perhaps on the low side. Why did this population decline so tragically? He argues that the decline came partly from violence inflicted by the British colonists. He computes that death toll at 117, after listing “every killing of an Aborigine between 1803 and 1834 for which there is a plausible record of some kind.” In addition the Aborigines’ birth rate was lowered because maybe fifty women of reproductive age were sold to, or abducted by, the white seal-hunters living in nearby islands. More Aborigines died through intertribal fights. But probably the main killers were tuberculosis, influenza, and other diseases to which Tasmanians, living for thousands of years in total isolation, were as vulnerable as were the peoples of the pre-Columbus Americas, the Pacific Islands, and many other insulated parts of the world. On the dramatic decline of Tasmania’s population the book concludes: “The evidence for disease, then, as the major cause of depopulation is compelling.”

Not every side-argument in the book persuades me. My own view is that the original Tasmanians were not as backward, mentally and culturally, as Windschuttle sometimes depicts them. I think too that they were often ingenious as fighters and raiders on their home terrain. But I agree with the dominating theme of the book—that the evidence for “genocide” or deliberate “extirpation” appears frail or false.

In a year or so, a counterattack will undoubtedly be launched. Flaws, major or minor, will probably be found in Windschuttle’s book, as in any large exploratory or detective-like work. Even so, his book will ultimately be recognized as one of the most important and devastating written on Australian history in recent decades.

  1.  The Fabrication of Aboriginal History. Volume 1, Van Diemen's Land 1803-1847, by Keith Windschuttle; Macleay Press, Sydney, $49.95.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 21 Number 8, on page 79
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