Requiem for a Genocide

Requiem for a Genocide

Mini Teaser: Keith Windschuttle revises the revisionists and does the post-colonial "history" of Tasmania a good turn--on its head.

by Author(s): Neil McInnes

This sordid version of events seems designed to outrage every progressive sensibility. So, as comic relief, as it were, one might look at the political reception it got. As Windschuttle's book was launched, a crowd demonstrated outside a Sydney bookshop shouting "Racism!" A former Labour prime minister, Paul Keating, launched another book offering a left-wing account of the "history wars" and implied that the ruling Liberal Party was behind the slanderous new history. A professor of politics solemnly explained that American neoconservatives were to blame, for they had encouraged Prime Minister John Howard to declare war on what they called political correctness in questions of race and gender. The tone of outrage had already been set by a High Court judgement that colonization had been, as it wrote,

"a conflagration of oppression and conflict which was, over the following century, to spread across the continent to dispossess, degrade and devastate the Aboriginal peoples and leave a national legacy of unutterable shame."

One of the judges who handed down that condemnation of the civilization of Enlightenment Britain later went into the wilds to express to Aborigines a profound apology for one particular massacre that, it was soon shown, had never occurred.

One might have hoped that the academic response would be more measured. In fact it was pathetic, but it has an interest that goes beyond the primitive Tasmanians. It goes to the question of how postmodernist historians, who deny there is any one truth about the past, behave when they are accused of telling untruths. Like any other reasonable human being in an argument, they must want to say they are right and the other fellow wrong, but their philosophy forbids that. One replied to Windschuttle,

"For us the "truth" is made up of countless contradictory, ironic and provocative elements, woven together into an allegorical, sometimes fictive documentation of what it is to live our lives."

In other words, "No facts please, we're postmodernists!" Charged by Wind-schuttle with fabricating history, Professor Lyndall Ryan retorted that history was

"a complex terrain in which multiple stories and interpretations are represented [and not] a one-dimensional discipline in which all ambiguity must be removed. . . . Two truths are told, is only one truth correct?"

Asked about her fanciful black death tolls in Tasmania, she said, "Yes, but historians are always making up figures."

This sounds like a plea of No Contest, which was largely confirmed when the profession produced 19 replies by historians and related specialists (including one who lectures in Genocide Studies) and compiled them into Whitewash: On Keith Windschuttle's Fabrication of Aboriginal History (Black Inc., 2003). Some of the most serious challenges, notably to supposed massacres and body counts, were simply ignored by their authors, as though they were walking away from positions they knew they could not defend. Other pieces of guesswork were insolently repeated with no new evidence. Asked how she got such a count as one hundred Aborigines and twenty Europeans killed in one place, Professor Ryan said, "I deduced it" without revealing her premises. Of another incident she said, "I surmised that a massacre of Aborigines had taken place . . . and had been hushed up", without revealing how, in the admitted absence of evidence, one surmises a massacre. In cases where Windschuttle advanced a smaller number of deaths, a common retort in Whitewash was, "We will never know with any certainty" (James Boyce), or "It is not remotely possible to find a precise figure for Aboriginal mortality" (Henry Reynolds), although they had been alleging big numbers for years past; the uncertainty, it seems, only affects other, lesser estimates.

Suddenly, too, "genocide" disappeared from the vocabulary. After years of talk about a holocaust and ethnic cleansing, the charge of genocide is nowhere pressed in Whitewash. Contributors concede they have moved away from "seeing the conflict as a series of one-sided massacres" (James Boyce) or from regarding racial conflict as "many large-scale massacres [rather than] pervasive but small-scale violence" (Dirk Moses). Henry Reynolds recalled that he had earlier warned that to exaggerate the carnage out of sympathy with the blacks just made them look stupid and the Europeans clever. In historical fact, by the time the European with his slow-to-reload musket got off his second shot, the native had put several spears through him and disappeared into the bush. The gory slaughters imagined in "genocide studies" were physically impossible 200 years ago in Tasmania. Windschuttle is entitled to crow in Quadrant,

"So, despite all the sound and fury raised by this debate, we have actually made some progress. The case for genocide in Tasmania has not been sustained. Indeed, its principal advocates have walked away from the topic, unwilling to defend it. So, my first thesis, there was no genocide in Tasmania, I now take as proven by default."

One point on which there has been no meeting of minds, and probably never will be, concerns the cultural relativism that is nowadays an article of faith in progressive history circles. In this view, one culture is as good as another, there is no hierarchy of civilizations, no development from one stage to the next. Thus there could be no room for Windschuttle's notion of a dysfunctional society doomed to be pushed aside by a more advanced one; no room, indeed, for my references to "primitive Tasmanians." Such reprehensible ideas, it is said, betray white supremacy or social Darwinism or plain racism. But no one is denying that the Tasmanians were intelligent human beings, quick on the uptake and inclined to be friendly (too friendly for their own good when it came to lending out their wives to visitors). Nevertheless, 8,000 years of isolation since the seas rose around their island had left their little tribal society divided, quarrelsome, ignorant, poor and perverse; they had lost abilities they once had, like how to catch fish or make fire easily, and the wheel was beyond their dreams. In the eyes of colonial officials, all children of the Enlightenment, they were the most primitive people on earth. Windschuttle still thinks so, and that is what offends his critics--all children, they, of 1968 and the Vietnam War.

In his Fate of a Free People (Penguin, 2004), Henry Reynolds depicts them not as primitive tribes but as a united people rising against the oppressors of their fatherland. He resiles from no anachronism as he idealizes them in language once reserved for "freedom-loving friends of socialism." He imagines them using guerrilla warfare tactics of a sort discovered by some third-world nations only in the 20th century, although the British governor of the day said they never once attacked a band of even three armed men, and only one red-coat lost his life in Tasmania. Staying closer to the evidence, Windschuttle says flatly, "The actions of the Aborigines were not noble; they never rose beyond robbery, assault and murder." That may be too harsh a judgement, but the resistance of the Aborigines did seem to the settlers so unpredictable and uncoordinated that it was more like individual acts of treachery than an organized military campaign.

The cultural relativists are especially affronted by the argument that the ready prostitution of the women impaired the survival of the Aboriginal race. Reynolds says this "crude analysis rests on censoriousness and sensation." Censoriousness? Is it prudish and fuddy-duddy to say that certain practices damaged fertility? Apparently it offends feminist beliefs of a particular sort, for Marilyn Lake says in her contribution to Whitewash that "Windschuttle simply recapitulates 19th-century moral judgements and sexist double standards" when he deplores primitive sexual mores. Double standards? So is there a single standard that actually endorses trading a wife's sexual favors for tea and sugar?

In Windschuttle's view there has been a veritable academic industry for the past thirty years manufacturing a false history of British colonization, designed to throw maximum discredit on the settlers and their descendants. It is staffed by Left-leaning academics who have gained control of history schools in most universities. If that sounds too conspiratorial, one would have to allow that Windschuttle has shown that the subject of Aboriginal history has become enveloped in an atmosphere of militant sentimentality, which has encouraged sloppy conformism and careless research bordering on dishonesty. How did this happen? After all, the facts and attitudes that Wind-schuttle adduces, which seem so disconcerting to the prevailing consensus, were all perfectly familiar to the settlers and officials of the day and were adopted by academic historians throughout the 19th century. Then, somewhere around 1900, the Aborigines virtually disappeared from the history books, not because there was a guilty cover-up (as now supposed) but because there were so few of them left, they had bequeathed not a single tangible monument to remind men of their culture, and they were thought to be doomed to total disappearance. What changed first were the population statistics, the recovery of the dispossessed races worldwide, or more accurately of their mixed-race descendants. By the 1960's these new forces were armed, again worldwide, with a combative ideology that mixed Marxism and romanticism with a shrewd awareness of the money value of land rights.

Essay Types: Essay