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

The valet's view, as Hegel would say, of the particular Tasmanian case points to the surprising fact that 130 years after the death of the last Tasmanian Aborigine there are today more than 15,000 people on the island who claim to be Aborigines and want compensation for the misfortunes of their race. These people are mainly descendants of European sealers who camped on neighboring islands and took up with native women who were only too glad to escape the rigors of tribal life. (Some of them, according to the community's own leaders, have no Aboriginal ancestry at all and are only there for the government assistance.) They have taken to the courts the university historians' stories of massacres and laid claim to the lands where the atrocity was supposed to have occurred. So far they have not been successful, but their community receives millions of dollars a year as compensation for disadvantage.

The only reason the courts grant native title is that they have already been convinced that there were atrocities, that the Aborigines were dispossessed in a cruel war of invasion and aggression. And that is where the academic historians come in: It was they who told the courts that this was historical fact. Their history has been a weapon in a political and legal battle, which is probably why they have not been too fussy about checking their sources and weighing the evidence. Henry Reynolds actually boasts of the role he played in preparing the cases that won landmark victories for the Aborigines in the highest courts, and Lyndall Ryan says that opponents of land rights are apologists for British invasion. There is not the least pretense of objectivity in this cabal of activists. They would no doubt say that the task of bringing about a "reconciliation" between white and black Australians is more important than writing accurate history (which, as we have seen, some of them do not believe is possible anyhow), but Windschuttle asks

"how a story about violence and warfare between blacks and whites, if untrue, can help reconciliation at all. What good does it do Aboriginal people to tell them the whites wanted to exterminate them, when they never did?"

The debate is far from over. Windschuttle's Fabrication is sub-titled Volume 1: Van Diemen's Land 1803â€"1847; he is preparing several subsequent volumes dealing with mainland Australia, where he will argue against Henry Reynolds's theses, namely that the "violence was ever-present along the ragged line of early interaction", that "invasion and conquest prepared the way for settlement", and that the Aborigines put up a brave but futile resistance through a century-long campaign of guerrilla warfare. Already, inspired by his example, dissident or counter-revolutionary historians have re-opened the files on several supposed massacres and found only invention or exaggeration. It has been noted above that the tendency of the most recent scholarship is to revalidate the views of 19th-century historians, who were nearer the events and yet to be affected by the Black Power romanticism of the 1960s. So it is with massacre stories. In 1875 James Calder wrote in The Native Tribes of Tasmania:

"That many hostile collisions occurred between the two races during the 30 years that succeeded the first colonization of the country is true enough; but I know of no trustworthy record of more than one, two, three or at most four persons being killed in any one encounter. The warfare, though pretty continuous, was rather a petty affair, with grossly exaggerated details--something like the story of the hundred dead men, reduced, on inquiry, to three dead dogs."

Not all the atrocity stories will turn out to concern three dead dogs. It is beyond doubt that there were brief episodes, notably in the colony of Queensland in the second half of the 19th century, of savagery on both sides: cattle rustled, punitive expedition, Aboriginal revenge murders and mutilation of women and children, and finally the Native Police called in. These were Aborigines who donned the uniform and combined native bushman skills with European arms and discipline. Unlike the red coats in Tasmania, they could be deadly. But they were also a sign that other things were happening on the frontier besides bloodshed, something the settlers called "coming in." Right from the start, some natives realized that the new and superior power was implacable, irresistible and in some ways attractive. They joined it, settling on its fringes, taking work from it, accepting many of its ways. This was the beginning of the process of assimilation that for long promised, and still promises, the best future for the tribes dispossessed of their vast hunting territories by the new civilization of shepherds and cultivators. The Native Police were perhaps not the most glorious of those who "came in" but they were the forerunners of a campaign of integration, religious conversion (three-quarters of Aborigines say they are Christian today) and adaptation to the modern world, which progressed solidly until it hit the slogan, "Assimilation is cultural genocide."

This cry was raised by devotees of the "culture cult", as Roger Sandall called it in his 2001 book of that name: people who want the Native Americans, Canada's First Nation, Australia's Aborigines, the Maori and all the dispossessed and detribalized of the world to hive off from modern civilization, to refuse assimilation and to cling to the tattered remnants of their ancient cultures. For the white academics who press this case, it is a cruel self-indulgence at the expense of the dispossessed. Windschuttle thinks it is also the secret origin of those massacre myths that the academic historians have accepted uncritically: missionaries, former missionaries and other self-appointed protectors of the natives were out to prove that assimilation would never work, that black and white could never get along together, and that the only solution was to isolate the natives in reserves under the authoritarian management of the "protectors." What better support for this campaign than the myth of the bloody frontier and inevitable racial wars, rumors of hidden atrocities and hushed-up massacres?

Like some of Windschuttle's other theories, this one remains to be tested. What is sure in advance is that laborers in this vineyard must henceforth meet standards of honesty and accuracy quite unfamiliar to the credulous, the sentimental and the political activists who have ruled too long. Truth, it seems, may yet win out in the marketplace of ideas.

Essay Types: Essay