McGuinness, Windschuttle and Quadrant
The attempt to revise the history of the massacre of
Aborigines on the British colonial frontier in Australia
By Bob Gould
In the year 2000 Keith Windschuttle published, in Quadrant,
a long article accusing a number of historians, including Henry
Reynolds and Lyndall Ryan, of exaggerating the scale of massacres of
Aboriginal people on the Australian colonial frontier.
I took the initiative of organising a debate in my bookshop on these
question, with myself and Henry Reynolds on the one side and Keith
Windschuttle and P.P. McGuinness on the other. The debate, chaired by
Hall Greenland, was extremely well attended. The shop was packed and
there was considerable audience participation in the discussion.
This was the first of a series of confrontations between Windschuttle,
backed by other conservatives, and a number of historians.
My contribution to the debate consisted of an earlier, less
fleshed-out, version of the piece published here, which I worked on and
developed after the debate.
I raised several linked questions. My initial point was that Keith
Windschuttle's approach is narrowly forensic. Serious historical
matters should proceed on the balance of probabilities, with the
maximum of evidence presented, including documents, written and oral
history, and eyewitness accounts. Historical inquiry ought not to be
like a court of law, in which a simple onus of proof prevails, for one
very good reason: that by the time history is being written the
eyewitnesses are all dead and can't be cross-examined.
Windschuttle proceeds like an attorney for imperial British White
Australia, asserting that no historical narrative is true unless it can
be proved as if it were in a court of law, and the onus of proof is on
the people making assertions about Aboriginal massacres, and they are
not permitted to use hearsay evidence, oral history, or anything like
that. It's pretty obvious that such an approach is heavily biased in
favour of the conquerors, who are after all the people who kept the
The second major point, for me, arose from my profession as a
bookseller, and my fairly wide book collecting in the area of
I was already aware of a number of ostensible accounts of massacres of
Aborigines in popular Australiana, written in past times when such
massacres were presented as manly, civilised, nation-building
activities. I was particularly struck by the book, Taming the North,
by Sir Hudson Fysh, the founder of Qantas, which contains lengthy
accounts by perpetrators of massacres of Aborigines, in which they
After the debate, I decided one of the useful things I could do was
assemble as much documentation as I could find from past popular
literature and some academic literature, and create a bibliography of
accounts of massacres in the dispossession of Aboriginal Australia by
The document grew and grew, and I eventually had to call a halt without
having listed everything.
Readers, if they so wish, can discount my passionate advocacy on this
issue, but the arguments I present and the bibliographical references
speak for themselves.
Windschuttle and those who support his view have avoided any serious
engagement with the magnitude of the popular literature of the past,
dismissing those parts of it that they choose to notice as the
ramblings of old men.
The expanded version of my document, published here, has been published
previously in Labor Review, No 35, the well-produced magazine
of the Victorian Labor College, edited by Chris Gaffney.
More than 1000 copies of that issue were distributed and a few
remaining copies are available in my bookshop, priced at $5 plus $2
In 1977 the late Paddy O'Brien, in his right-wing populist book about
the left in Australia, The Saviours,
classified Paddy McGuiness as part of the left intelligentsia who had
promoted radical progressive viewpoints to the obvious detriment of
Australian life and culture. O'Brien wrote:
With the employment of graduates in journalism and the media,
particularly the Australian Broadcasting Commission, the values of the
Left Establishment have been given wider circulation than they had
during the 1940s and 1950s. The Australian, the Financial
Review, the National Times and Nation Review
have all at various times promoted radical-progressive viewpoints
through such writers as Dominic Nagle, Graham Williams, Robert
Duffield, P.P. McGuinness, Andrew Clark, Evan Whitton and Mungo
MacCallum. Nation Review, through the book-reviewing of Penny
Harding and Judah Waten, has helped keep alive the old pro-Soviet line
of the United Front period. (page 83)
At roughly the same time, in his book Unemployment,
Keith Windschuttle was attacking McGuinness from the left, about his
support for the Campbell Report, which recommended deregulation of the
Australian financial system.
How times change!
These days the magazine Quadrant is edited by McGuinness,
and is the spearhead of a wide-ranging neo-conservative attack on
leftism and liberalism in Australian society and culture. Keith
Windschuttle is a keynote writer in Quadrant, and his latest series of
articles is a major revisionist attack on almost all Australian
historians who study and write about Aboriginal history.
The Quadrant Project in relation to Aboriginal Affairs
The main features of this Quadrant revisionism include:
a sweeping attack on Australian historians for allegedly
exaggerating the number of Aboriginals killed on the Australian
a broad-based attack on the proposition that there was a
stolen generation of Aboriginal children.
questioning the value of the wages decision in 1966, which
led to Aboriginal labour in the pastoral industry being paid the award
questioning the implications of the Mabo decision in
relation to Aboriginal land rights.
arguing that a New Class of white activists are exercising
too much influence in Aboriginal affairs.
questioning demands for Aboriginal autonomy and Aboriginal
self determination, on the grounds that most Aboriginals marry white
Australians, which indicates a desire for assimilation into white
The most sweeping aspects of this Quadrant
project are the first two, and they are related. They start with the
thesis that there were no generations of stolen children and,
associated with that, they argue that if any children were removed, it
was for their own good!
Windschuttle, McGuinness and their coterie seize on the failure of two
stolen children to succeed in their Northern Territory court case for
compensation. They blithely assert that the result of this court case
proves that there were no stolen children, and further, that there was
no government policy to separate Aboriginal families. Failure in a
particular court case, of course, establishes nothing of the sort. All
it proves is that a particular judge thought that there wasn't
sufficient evidence for compensation after the passage of time.
On the stolen children question, what is really required is a serious
historical overview of government policy and practice in the Australian
colonies, states and territories from 1788 until now. Such an overview
The important new book, Broken Circles, Fragmenting Indigenous
by Anna Haebich (Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 2000) is a systematic and
total refutation of the McGuinness-Windschuttle-Quadrant thesis on the
stolen children. The blurb from the back cover is an adequate
description of the contents of the book:
There was no single stolen generation, there were many and Broken
is their story. This major work reveals the dark heart of this history.
It shows that, from the earliest times of European colonisation,
Aboriginal Australians experienced the trauma of loss and separation,
as their children were abducted, enslaved, institutionalised and
Anna Haebich provides a moving and comprehensive account of this tragic
history, covering all Australian colonies, states and territories. The
analysis spans 200 years of white occupation and intervention, from the
earliest seizure of Aboriginal children through their systematic state
removal and incarceration and on to the harsh treatment of families
under the assimilation policies of the 1950s and 1960s. The resistance
struggle and achievements of Aboriginal people in defending their
communities, regaining their rights and mending the broken circles of
family life provides a compelling parallel story of determination and
In the cult of holocaust denial, the pseudo-forensic special pleading
of David Irving and others is effectively destroyed by several massive
overviews of the holocaust, of which a representative example is Raol
Hilberg's The Destruction of the European Jews.
I submit that Haebich's monumental book performs a similar function in
relation to the curious and unpleasant Australian cult of stolen
Haebich's book, which is obviously the product of many years of
research, describes, in great detail, the ideology and practice of past
white Australia in relation to the protection of Aborigines. Haebich
painstakingly presents the evidence for the presence of a historical
thread in government ideology, policy and practice directed at the
breaking up of Aboriginal communities and families, and the forced
assimilation of Aborigines into white society.
The steely racist bureaucratic hand of the prodigiously energetic and
powerful English-born public servant, Auber Octavius Neville, the
long-lived Protector of Aborigines in Western Australia, emerges in a
striking way in this book. Neville was the super-ideologist and
practitioner of “breeding the colour out”, by government-enforced
Aboriginal family break-up and forced assimilation. His powerful voice
persuaded the 1937 Conference of Protectors, and others from all over
the Commonwealth, to adopt the following resolution:
That this Conference believes that the destiny of the native of
Aboriginal origin, but not of the full-blood, lies in their ultimate
absorption by the people of the Commonwealth, and it therefore
recommends that all efforts be directed to that end.
(There is a biography of Neville by Pat Jacobs, Mister Neville
Haebich's book completely shatters the Quadrant
proposition that there was no constant government policy and practice
of forced assimilation and family break-up, no stolen children!
(Haebich's earlier book, For Their Own Good (1992), is a study
of Western Australian government policy and practice in Aboriginal
affairs from 1900 to 1940, and is also extremely useful.)
The Quadrant proposition was insensitively asserted by
McGuinness on ABC television, throwing it in the face of fellow panel
member, Lois O'Donoghue, herself one of the stolen generation. This
denial of the stolen children is refuted from another angle, that of
direct personal testimony, by the book The Lost Children
(Doubleday, 1989) edited by Coral Edwards and Peter Read, recounts the
life stories of 13 stolen children told by themselves. Also useful in
this context is the moving book by Pamela Rajkowski, Linden Girl.
This documents how the ubiquitous Auber Octavius Neville had an Afghan,
Jack Akbar, and his Aboriginal wife, Lallie, repeatedly imprisoned for
daring to perpetuate colour by marrying each other, thus violating his
racist rule as Protector of Aborigines. In the end the Akbars beat
Neville and ultimately produced a family of three children.
Massacres on the Australian frontier, and the numbers
killed. Keith Windschuttle, Quadrant's
Quadrant's all-purpose polemicist in matters of radical
ideology, Keith Windschuttle, has turned his energetic literary and
historical hand to a wide-ranging polemic against virtually all
Australian historians of Aboriginal affairs, indicting them as
black-armband historians. He has produced about 35,000 words of polemic
in four articles in Quadrant.
all-purpose historical polemicist, as instant expert on the history of
Aboriginal-white Australian relations
His assault has been picked up in the daily press, and fits in well
with the prejudices of a number of populist right-wing columnists who
currently infest the Sydney papers.
I find it a bit personally painful to have to deal with Keith
Windschuttle's new views in these matters, as I find them so
extraordinary. I was a political associate of Keith Windschuttle on the
left in the 1960s, and he is, or was, a kind of a friend. More
recently, I have considerable respect for his useful book on
postmodernism, The Killing of History,
which in retrospect represents the middle phase of his intellectual
development in his personal journey to the far-right in ideology and
In the past few years he has become passionately converted to the
tenets of a curious ideological sect in the United States, the
Windschuttle's new outburst about Aboriginal affairs has to be located
mainly in the context of his overall conservative views and interests.
He is not primarily interested in Aboriginal affairs. His overarching
purpose is to launch a polemic on these matters as part of his general
assault on what he perceives to be the hegemony of the liberal left in
academic and intellectual life in Australia, and indeed the Western
Certain themes constantly recur in his writings. One of them is the
deceptiveness of the left, and its capacity to mislead the innocent. In
a remarkable article in Quadrant
about a year ago he ascribes his own conversion to Marxism in the 1960s
to the fact that he was an innocent, misled by Marxist ideas embedded
in the novels of John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway. I kid you not.
That is how Keith now views the world. Note carefully his theme of the
devilishly effective deceptive tactics of liberals and leftists. It is
a constant thread running through his new ideology.
The Quadrant bunch, particularly McGuinness, get very
worked up attacking what they call the inner-city chattering classes.
McGuinness, Windschuttle and Bill Hayden, chairman of the Quadrant
board, lash out constantly at “new elites”. Both these lines of attack
are eccentric considering that they are themselves all members of the
chattering classes, all members of very powerful elites, and most of
them live in inner-city areas, other than Hayden, who now lives on his
country estate and who used to live, as we know, at Yarralumla.
In his first Quadrant article on Aboriginal affairs, titled The
Break-Up of Australia, in attacking Nugget Coombs, Windschuttle has
this to say:
In the 18th century, the French radical Jean Jacques Rousseau portrayed
the celestial and majestic simplicity of man before corruption by
society. Since Rousseau, this concept has been a staple nourishment of
those revolutionary political movements — from the Jacobins to the
Khmer Rouge — who have wanted to purge society of its failings and
recreate the imagined purity of a community of perfect beings. Today,
it is the underlying presumption of the deep-green environmental
movement that sees the Western way of life as its principal enemy. As
my summary of his critique above suggests, Coombs adds to the concept
of the noble savage a grab-bag of contemporary left-wing sociology,
neo-Marxism, radical environmentalism and recent sociobiology. In other
words, to solve the problems of indigenous people in the modern world,
Coombs recommends not an Aboriginal program but the strand of the
Western intellectual and political tradition that is romantic,
revolutionary and utopian.
Wow! What a long bow. In this radical neo-conservative reconstruction,
the rot started with the Enlightenment, with Rousseau, and the “strand
of the Western intellectual and political tradition that is romantic,
revolutionary and utopian” inevitably leads to Pol Pot and Stalin.
The exotic nature of this construct is immediately apparent. In real
historical fact, such things as the right to vote in elections, the
right to form trade unions, the right to freedom of the press, etc, are
direct products of the radical tradition in Western thought. Did the
Chartists lead to Pol Pot? And so on. In addition to Stalin and Pol
Pot, this utopian tradition included Marx and Engels, Kautsky and Willy
Brandt, Lenin, Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg, Emma Goldman and Herbert
Read, Bertrand Russell and Clement Attlee and, in Australia, Henry
Lawson, Daniel Mannix, Dame Mary Gilmore, Jack Lang, John Curtin, Eddie
Ward, Christina Stead, Arthur Calwell, Germaine Greer and a multitude
Windschuttle's construction is absurd, and directed at delegitimising
any social and political radicalism. This strange construction is his
primary ideological preoccupation, and is a kind of philosopher's
stone, which he applies in every sphere of ideology, and now to
In the same article Windschuttle goes on to attack the very idea of
national self-determination based on linguistic or religious features
of modern nations, and he digs out the rather obscure 18th century
German philosopher, Johann Gottfried von Herder, labelling him the
father of modern national self-determination. Windschuttle then goes on
to stigmatise Lenin, Nugget Coombs and Henry Reynolds, in a kind of
guilt by association with Herder, in that they assert the importance of
self-determination. He claims that Herder was the intellectual
progenitor of Nazism. Another extremely long bow, but also one integral
to Windschuttle's rather weird current world view.
Quadrant, McGuinness, Windschuttle and national
The Quadrant bunch have a real obsession with opposing
national self-determination. McGuinness suddenly became a peacemonger
on the Australian intervention in support of Timorese independence.
The question of New Guinea
Windschuttle's animosity to ideas of self-determination ought to be
seen in that context. It's quite obvious that the next major question
of national independence in our region is the pressing demand for
independence of the Melanesian people in West New Guinea, and the
consequent question of their right to unite with Papua New Guinea and
develop a modern Melanesian national state, if that is what they wish.
There is clearly a powerful impulse in this direction felt by New
Guinean people in both parts of New Guinea. Australia's acquiescence to
the handing over of West New Guinea to Indonesia was an enormous crime
against the right of the Melanesian people to national
self-determination, and it's coming back to haunt Australia in the 21st
century. All progressive Australians should to everything in their
power to assist the people of West New Guinea to achieve their
independence, and all this huffing and puffing by Windschuttle against
ideas of national self-determination reflects fundamental opposition to
such a perspective.
Windschuttle ends his first Quadrant article with the following
paragraph, which incorporates all his basic themes, particularly
seduction and deception:
we are saddling them [Aborigines] with the very worst of our own
intellectual traditions: the romantic, revolutionary and utopian strand
of Western political thought and practice. Unfortunately, over these
same three decades, many highly educated Aborigines have been seduced
by the rhetoric of this showy package.
Windschuttle, McGuinness and their British imperialist bias
It strikes me as totally bizarre that McGuinness and Windschuttle take
such a sweeping stand in favour of the alleged benevolence of British
imperialism. McGuinness's parents named him Padraic Pearse after the
heroic poet, Padraic Pearse, who was the main ideologist of the Irish
Revolution against British imperialism in the 20th century, and was
shot by the British after the Easter Rising in 1916. His parents have a
strong case for haunting McGuinness.
Windschuttle obviously has some German migrants in his background, and
his German migrant forebears have a strong case for haunting him too,
considering the brutal nature of British imperial treatment of German
migrants in Australia. In the First World War, 6000 Germans, southern
Slavs and others were interned in a concentration camp near Liverpool.
They included many born in Australia and many Australian citizens.
Almost all of them, including the Australian-born and the Australian
citizens, were deported to fend for themselves in destroyed Europe in
1919. (See Gerhardt Fischer's book about these events, Enemy Aliens.)
Windschuttle ought to consider what happened to the German Australians
before he gets too worked up about the benign qualities of British
In the abovementioned article Windschuttle says:
With its colonisation of Australia in 1788, Britain, in a very real
sense, brought the cultural inheritance of Rome and its successors to
Leaving aside the obvious brutal point that it is exactly the obstacles
that Aboriginal people face as a result of British oppression and
conquest in Australia that prevent them having any easy participation
in the alleged equity and prosperity of the prevailing Australian
set-up, I wish to concentrate mainly, at this point, on the constant
theme of the lawfulness of the British conquest of Australia, which is
a constant theme of Windschuttle's articles.
Two of Rome's most influential heirs and successors, Britain and the
US, have been so materially and politically successful largely because
they have adopted the same approach, complementing their own cultures
with the best ideas they could find, whatever their national origin.
Surely, this is the example that the Australian branch of the Roman
inheritance should be setting indigenous people. We should be urging
them to complement their ancient cultures with the best that has been
thought and done in Western civilisation. By the best I especially mean
the liberty, equity and prosperity of the prevailing Western political,
legal and economic systems.
In the second Quadrant article, boastfully and hopefully titled
The Myths of Frontier Massacres in Australian History,
The first part of this essay will demonstrate just how flimsy is the
case that the massacre of Aborigines was a defining feature of the
European settlement of Australia.
Note in this context Windschuttle's use of the term European rather
than British. On page 8, he says of the Pinjarra Massacre, in WA:
though the British had overwhelming superiority in firepower, it was a
real battle between warring parties, with casualties on both sides,
rather than a massacre of innocents. It was not an ambush, since the
Aborigines were well aware of the troopers' presence beforehand. It was
not a punitive expedition either. This description might, ex post
facto, make sense, seeing that it had the same consequences as an act
of that kind. The encounter certainly did teach this tribe the power of
the white men and it forced them in a brutal way to come to terms with
the occupation of their lands. But at the time it was mounted, the
mission's first aim was to capture the murderers of a British soldier,
which was both a lawful and a morally justifiable objective.
Windschuttle's naive proposition that white police and
raids on Aboriginal camps were usually conducted in a benevolent way
Earlier, on page 6, he says, in relation to the Waterloo Creek
Massacre, the existence of which he is trying to deny, he says:
Between June and November 1837, on the sheep and cattle stations in the
newly opened pastoral country now called New England, five white
stockmen had been murdered by the local Aborigines. Those responsible
may well have regarded this as justifiable homicide since they resented
these intruders occupying their land, but under British law the
colonial government was obliged to pursue them. Naturally enough, the
white settlers of the region were keen for them to do so and at some
stages accompanied the mounted police through their districts.
It must be said forcefully here, that Windschuttle's assertion that the
normal practice of British soldiers and native police was peaceable
apprehension of suspects, is historical naivete, at best. The history
of the Australian frontier is embedded with accounts, both written and
oral, of police and military raids on Aboriginals, and they were almost
never conducted in the benevolent way Windschuttle would have us
believe. They were usually extremely brutal, marked by the use of
superior firepower, and often directed at the extermination of the
Aborigines under attack.
The usual means of apprehending Aboriginal suspects in the bush at the
time was as follows. After locating an Aboriginal camp, a troop of
police would ride up quickly and surround it. They would then
interrogate their captives using an Aboriginal interpreter and inspect
the camp for evidence, such as any property that had belonged to the
murdered men. If, as they sometimes did, the Aborigines identified the
culprits among them, they would be taken into custody and the rest
released. If there was no evidence and the Aborigines said the
murderers belonged to another tribe, the police would release them and
resume their search.
Windschuttle constantly claims that the military response of colonial
British Australia to Aboriginal resistance was lawful, responsible and
civilised. Whether it was lawful depends on your view of British
invasion. Whether it was responsible and civilised depends on your
assessment of the history. In my view it was not lawful, and a proper
overview of the history makes it reasonable to compare the response of
British Australia to Aboriginal resistance to the response of the Nazis
in Czechslovakia during the Second World War to the assassination of
Gauleiter Heydrich. As is well known, the SS destroyed the village of
Lidice and killed 193 people. The response of British Australia to
Aboriginal resistance had the same moral quality as the German response
to the assassination of the SS Gauleiter, and the numerical aspect of
it had a great deal in common with the numerical proportionality
exacted by the Germans.
In the article in the November Quadrant, Windschuttle says:
There is one good, general reason why we should expect the eventual
compilation of regional studies to produce a very much smaller tally of
violent Aboriginal deaths than the 20,000 now claimed. Ever since they
were founded in 1788, the British colonies in Australia were civilised
societies governed by both morality and laws that forbade the killing
of the innocent. The notion that the frontier was a place where white
men could kill blacks with impunity ignores the powerful cultural and
legal prohibitions on such action. For a start, most colonists were
Christians to whom such actions were abhorrent. But even those whose
consciences would not have been troubled knew it was against the law to
murder human beings, Aborigines included, and the penalty was death.
The important point about these extracts is the outlook in support of
British invasion and conquest that they reveal. They infer an
acceptance of the concept of terra nullius. Windschuttle implies, like
the colonial British who occupied Australia, that the Aboriginal people
had no rights to the land they had lived in for 60,000 years, and that
their military conquest and displacement was lawful under British law.
It follows that British colonisation automatically proceeded in the
civilised and moderate way for which British Imperialism was so well
known because its legal and political system was drawn from the
Windschuttle's extraordinary assertion that the numbers killed are
likely to have been many less than 20,000, because the Australian
British colonies were civilised societies governed by the benevolent
rule of law, runs up against everything we know about the early
development of Australia.
When I was a kid at a Christian Brothers secondary school in the 1950s,
we were forced by circumstances to regurgitate in external exams the
British imperialist history set out in Stephen Roberts's standard
textbook. The sagacious Christian Brothers teaching us, however, told
us in religion lessons that, while we had to tell that story for the
external examiners it was actually a pack of lies, that the true story
was that British imperialism was rapacious and brutal in Ireland,
Australia, India and other places. The pro-imperialist Stephen Roberts
version was obviously what Marxists quite properly describe as
reactionary ideology or false consciousness.
I'm very grateful to the Christian Brothers for wising me up to the
basic facts about British imperialism and Australian history, and I
submit that Windschuttle's version of the benign character of British
conquest of Australia is nonsense. It's very unlikely to have any
intrinsic appeal for Aboriginal Australians, Irish Australians, German
Australians, Melanesian Australians, Asian Australians and Anglo
Australians who have any real knowledge of history and some moral
Giving British imperialism the benefit of the doubt on the
Australian frontier because it embodied the values of the Greco-Roman
The pro-British-imperialist neo-conservatives rely on their listeners
knowing very little history. The Greco-Roman tradition in Britain, of
which Windschuttle is so proud, included the penal laws against the
Catholic religion in England and Ireland until 1829, and the virtual
banning of trade unions. That led to the rather well-publicised
transportation of the Tolpuddle Martyrs. Chartism was crushed in the
1840s and the basic democratic demands of the Chartists were not
achieved until very much later.
Civilised Greco-Roman-influenced Britain fought two wars to force the
Chinese to smoke British opium. The brutal maintenance of the Corn Laws
contributed to the death of an enormous number of people in the Irish
famine of the 1840s, and the British imperialists fought their longest
colonial war for about 1000 years to deny the Irish their national
independence. Hundreds of democratic political agitators were deported
to Australia at different times, including the Irish rebels of 1798,
the Scottish Martyrs, the Patriotes $#151; fighters for independence in
Upper and Lower Canada, and many others. Remember the dogged resistance
of the British government to India gaining its national independence.
The list goes on and on.
Windschuttle's puffed-up rhetoric about Gotfried van Herder and the
undesirability of national self-determination has to be considered in
the context of his explicitly pro-British-imperialist bias. He is
obviously upset about national self-determination because it buggered
up the sacred British Empire with its wonderful Greco-Roman tradition.
When you get to the Australian colonies, the British Greco-Roman
influence wasn't so hot either. Hasn't Windschuttle heard of Eureka,
the struggle against transportation, the brutal treatment of the
convicts, the White Australia policy, the Gatling guns directed at
strikers in the 1890s, the framing of the Queensland strikers in the
courts, etc. One wonders what his view is of Bully Hayes and the
blackbirding of the Kanaks, or maybe we are in for a further article by
Windschuttle, in which he uses the criminal standard of proof to get a
verdict of acquittal for British imperialist Australia on blackbirding
and the Kanaks.
In reality, Windschuttle's insistence that we give past
British-imperialist Australia the benefit of the doubt in all matters,
"because they were Christians", is a pompous piece of absurdity, likely
to appeal only to the ignorant or to those with a vested interest in
the past glories of the empire.
As for "being Christians", Windschuttle seems to have forgotten the
Spanish Inquisition, slavery, the Ku Klux Klan, Ian Paisley, and the
fact that Christian Germany produced the Holocaust.
One consequence of the pro-British-imperialist strand embedded in
Windschuttle's view of Australian history is that he can, in his own
mind, substantially reduce the numbers of Aborigines killed in
massacres. Those killed in any conflict where Aboriginals defended
themselves and their interests were, of course, according to his
rubric, lawfully killed, not massacred at all. This enables him, in a
philistine debating way, to accuse of falsification anyone who takes
into account, in their numerical estimates, Aboriginals killed in many
of these frontier conflicts.
Windschuttle's polemical trick. What are appropriate
methods for historical evidence and inquiry?
On page 12, he says:
Historians should only accept evidence of violent deaths,
Aboriginal or otherwise, where there is a minimum amount of direct
evidence. This means that, at the very least, they need some reports by
people who were either genuine eyewitnesses or who at least saw the
bodies afterwards. Preferably, these reports should be independently
corroborated by others who saw the same thing. Admissions of guilt by
those concerned, provided they are recorded first-hand and are not
hearsay, should also count as credible evidence.
The above paragraph is an extravagant, barefaced polemical trick.
Windschuttle here plucks from the sky, and insists that all historians
use as the only criteria for historical evidence, the narrowest
standard of the criminal law, incorporating the notion that the onus of
proof is on the accuser and that the case has to be proven beyond
Well, it's a very good thing for the liberty of the subject that
standard of proof exists in the criminal law. To apply it to historical
inquiry into the past, however, is palpably absurd, and loads the
historical record totally in favour of conquerors and victors. There
are actually two alternative standards of proof used in the law courts.
One is the above criminal standard and the other is the use of what is
often called the balance of probabilities, which prevails in civil
matters, and is also used in proceedings such as royal commissions and
statutory inquiries because the standard of criminal proof is, in some
situations, an insuperable obstacle to getting at the truth.
For instance, corruption in the NSW Police would never have been
cleaned up (to the degree that it has been, which is not total), if
there hadn't been a royal commission, which used the balance of
probabilities principle, before criminal proceedings commenced.
To apply the criminal standard to historical inquiry is absurd for the
obvious reason that after one generation no witnesses at all are
available for cross-examination. All serious historical inquiry, to get
at something like a true description of what happened in the past, has
to proceed by way of the balance of probabilities, rather than by the
application of the narrow standards of criminal law.
Windschuttle's insistence on the application of the narrow
law standard of proof to Australian frontier historiography, considered
in relation to four major genocides of the 20th century
The absurdity of Windschuttle's approach to the history of massacres of
Aborigines on the Australian frontier can be seen if one considers the
historical problems posed by four of the major genocides of the 20th
century, which are closer to us in time. In attempting to discredit the
consensus about the Nazi Holocaust against the Jews in Europe, David
Irving adopts a combination of attempted forensic disproof and
insistence on the narrow standard of criminal law.
It is true that because of the Nazi destruction of records, many
details are buried or unclear, but by painstaking reconstruction of the
circumstances, some of which are necessarily inferential, reputable
historians get to the figure of between five and six million Jews
murdered, and all serious historians reject David Irving's approach.
Similar problems exist with quantifying the Turkish Genocide against
the Armenian people between 1916 and 1919. Most of the records are
lost, and that exists is anecdotal evidence from survivors, and
confused, horrified, but sometimes not very detailed or comprehensive
accounts from people such as German embassy staff, missionaries, and
Nevertheless, reputable historians have constructed a well-accepted
picture of the massive scale and brutality of the massacre of the
Armenian people. Turkish government apologists for this massacre
frequently produce glossy books in the David Irving style, with lengthy
deconstructions of the Armenian Genocide. (Usually these are by
ponderous commissioned German professorial deconstructors, who try to
prove that there were originally few Armenians in the areas of the
massacres in Eastern Turkey, etc, but these pieces of scholarly
obfuscation are universally rejected by serious historians.)
A similar problem exists in the case of the catastrophic nationwide
massacre perpetrated by the Indonesian military regime against
communists and their alleged sympathisers after the attempted coup in
1966. Most estimates range from 300,000 Indonesians killed, to about
one million. The fact that the Indonesian military doesn't allow any
investigation of these events makes all attempts at quantification of
them largely speculative, but this does not prevent serious historians
attempting to make a sensible estimate and recording these events as a
major genocide, with 300,000 generally accepted as the minimum number
Another major 20th century event is Stalin's genocidal attack on the
communists and working class of the Soviet Union between 1934 and 1941.
During the Stalin period this slaughter was completely denied by the
Soviet regime. In the Khrushchev period it was partly acknowledged, but
without much detail. Since the collapse of the Stalinist regime from
about 1987 on, the bald outlines of the scale of the events have been
summarily acknowledged by the Russian authorities, and much
investigation has begun inside Russia, particularly by the organisation
Memorial, which consists largely of relatives of the murdered.
In the late 1980s the KGB made the cryptic public statement that in
those years between 700,000 and 800,000 people had been executed by the
KGB. There is much controversy among historians over the scale of
Stalin's genocide, ranging from Robert Conquest, whose earlier
estimates have proved surprisingly accurate when tested against later
releases of data, but his estimates are still contested by
David-Irving-like revisionists of Soviet historiography.
The problem that Conquest, Memorial, and others face is that the KGB
archives, and the archives of the camps, have still not been opened,
and therefore numerical estimates still necessarily retain an element
of intelligent speculation. The Stalinist murderers of the GPU had
their own euphemism, similar to the dispersal euphemism used for the
massacre of Aborigines in colonial Australia. This euphemism for
execution was 10 years in a camp without the right of correspondence,
and was used in hundreds of thousands of cases.
Windschuttle's tortuous argumentation that British colonial Australia
could not have perpetrated large-scale massacres against Aboriginals
because the British were Christians, and part of the Western
intellectual and legal tradition, has powerful overtones of the way
zealous believing Stalinists used to argue, saying that the atrocities
of the GPU and Stalin were impossible in the socialist Soviet Union,
and the way these Stalinists waved around the never-actually-practiced
Soviet constitution of 1936, as attempted proof that their mystical and
idealised view of the realities of Soviet life was the correct one.
The above overview of four major massacres of the 20th century
underlines the absurdity of Windschuttle's approach to the
historiography of the Australian frontier. Serious historians of all
those four major historical events never proceed within the narrow
framework devised by Windschuttle for the Australian frontier, for his
own polemical purposes.
How Australian historians of Aboriginal-white conflict
It is entirely appropriate to proceed, as Australian historians have
since about the 1950s (not just 1982 as Windschuttle asserts), by
drawing on all sources of information available in combination,
scrutinising them carefully to construct a picture of what really
happened. These sources must necessarily include the memoirs of
participants, newspaper accounts of events, written local and general
history, government documents and inquiries, and on the history of
Aboriginal massacre, local oral history and particularly Aboriginal
Aboriginal oral history is the only way memory of certain massacres has
persisted, because of cover-ups at the time, the dominance of the
perpetrators politically and culturally, and their considerable
advantages in the means of eliminating the evidence of their deeds. In
practice, oral history, which is one of the legitimate sources, is
often used as confirming evidence, and there is usually plenty of
material in newspapers, government documents, written memoirs, etc, to
build a picture, of which oral history is only a part.
There is a large amount of documentary material of all sorts about a
variety of killings of Aboriginals on the Australian frontier,
including a number of massacres. Nevertheless many events have to be
pieced together from a combination of these sources and carefully
considered oral history.
Acting as the smart lawyer for conquering British Australia,
Windschuttle rejects this kind of historical approach and insists on
the exclusive use of the criminal standard of proof. It's quite obvious
that Windschuttle's approach, if it were used by historians, would
preclude ever constructing a balanced and truthful history of the
Australian frontier, and take us back 70 years to the bland British
imperial history of people like Stephen Roberts.
Windschuttle's approach to Aboriginal and frontier history is narrowly
polemical. His primary historical interest in this area appears to be
discrediting accounts of Aboriginal massacres. It is only in the year
2000 that Windschuttle appears to have discovered that the modern
historical account of the Australian frontier is some kind of giant
falsification. He coyly ascribes his sudden discovery to reading a book
by another forensic Aboriginal massacre denialist, Rod Moran,
attempting to discredit accepted accounts of the Forrest River
massacre, and says that this so excited his interest that he went back
and looked at the literature.
It could reasonably be asked has he been for the past 40 years of
historical argument and study in these matters. He does not claim to
have done any primary research in the area. It is therefore reasonable
to regard his polemic as based on a, probably quite recent, crash
course in the literature, with his obvious narrow focus of disputing
accounts of massacres and murders of Aboriginals.
It seems to me that Windschuttle's search-and-destroy mission in these
matters is only aimed at reinforcing his smart criminal lawyer's
defence of the honour of British Australia. He neglects books and other
sources that contradict his case, and he seems to me to be ignorant of
the bulk of the existing literature.
The other striking thing is the narrowness of Windschuttle's interests.
For instance, all that seems to excite him about Waterloo Creek is his
own (fairly unsuccessful) attempt to discredit Threlkeld, and to
ridicule Milliss's attempt at reconstructing the events of Nunn's
punitive massacre expedition. The sweeping and informative description
by Milliss of the social and political relationships in the colony, and
between the different forces and interests in the colony and the
Colonial Office, doesn't appear to interest Windschuttle in the
slightest. What a philistine approach. Windschuttle dismissed Milliss's
extraordinary overview of the social and cultural atmosphere in the
colony of NSW as a petty exercise in psychology.
A useful way to discuss Windschuttle's project is to present an
overview of the literature. In this area I have a certain advantage in
that, as a bookseller for nearly 40 years, with an abiding interest in
Australian, Aboriginal and frontier history, I have been systematically
collecting my own archive in the area, which is now considerable. My
overview is based on my collection of material and a bit of a crash
course, in one way not unlike Windschuttle's, in drawing together the
relevant literature. In doing so, I have been forcibly struck by the
enormous variety of accessible material that Windschuttle ignores.
In commencing my own overview of the literature, I must declare my
standpoint and approach. My presuppositions are quite different to
those of Windschuttle. I believe a truthful history of Australia must
start with the following facts:
The pre-existence of a continent-wide Aboriginal society of
considerable complexity, with the Aborigines having the natural human
right to the country in which they lived. It follows that the
Aboriginal resistance to British imperialist invasion was entirely
The invading and conquering British initially transported to
Australia a brutal class system, ruled by the rich, the squatters and
the military, which included a large element of national oppression
against the Irish quarter of the population, and also against people of
colour such as Kanaks and Chinese.
For a very long period the most powerful forces in the
were the squatting interests, in alliance with the military, in a
sometimes uneasy balance, and collabouration with the governor and the
Colonial Office in London.
The expanding Australian frontier was a brutal, racist place
in which the powerful interests described above were dominant. In
particular, the rapacity of the squatters, mobilising and driving their
cruelly exploited, initially convict servants, produced a constant war
with the original Aboriginal inhabitants over land, women and
These are the dominant initial factors in Australian history, and any
areas of doubt or dispute should properly be considered in this
framework, not in Windschuttle's naive special-pleading,
pro-British-imperialist schema. My basic model of the early development
of Australian society is not just a question of different versions, as
the postmodernists would have it, but of fundamental truth or
falsehood. I am prepared to defend my basic presuppositions, but I
don't really believe that they require very much proof. Any reasonable
person considering the essentials of Australian history, can hardly do
anything but come to pretty much the same conclusions about the facts
of the case, as for instance Robert Murray did in his 1996 Quadrant
Windschuttle's attack on Robert Murray and Philip Knightly
I'm fascinated by the enthusiasm with which Windschuttle attacks Bob
Murray's useful 1996 Quadrant article, What Happened to the
I regard that article as of considerable importance. I have always had
a high regard for Bob Murray as a historian because, while his
political views are quite conservative, in relation to Australian
historical matters he follows the story where it leads. Murray's Quadrant
article is an important example of the work of a civilised
conservative, with considerable experience as a historian, providing a
useful overview of the sweep of Aboriginal and frontier history.
Although I disagree with a few things, when I first read the article I
mostly agreed with it. I'm always taken by the gritty realism and
materialism of Murray's work.
Windschuttle throws Bob Murray into the big stew pot of the poor
benighted deceived on the figure of roughly 20,000 Aborigines killed. I
don't believe Bob Murray is easily deceived on any question. The more
obvious explanation is that, on the basis of his very wide historical
research, Murray finds that kind of approximation so obvious as to
require little proof to anyone familiar with the historiography of the
Robert Murray is a much more authoritative historian, along with Henry
Reynolds in the area of Aboriginal history, than Keith Windschuttle.
One thing we know about Murray is the sweep and wideness of his
interests and research. Social history, political conflict, trade union
history and particularly, mining and commercial history. If anyone
would be in a position to judge estimates of the impact of the
Australian mining frontier on Aboriginal interests and numbers, it's
the veteran business historian, Murray. The dopey way Windschuttle
tries to apply his all-purpose forensic search-and-destroy mission to
every historian with whom he disagrees, becomes rather bizarre with
repetition, particularly when applied to Robert Murray.
Windschuttle makes a slightly tongue-in-cheek assault on Philip
Knightly, also tossing him into the big stew pot of the deceived, and
throwing up his hands in mock despair as to how a man whose main
intellectual contribution has been to expose mendacious war propaganda,
could be so deceived. As in the case of Murray, Knightly has obviously
considered the evidence for himself, and he clearly makes a major
distinction between the war propaganda, which he effectively
deconstructed (which was, anyway, mostly the war propaganda of that
Christian British imperialism that Windschuttle likes so much) and the
serious work of historians of the Australian frontier, the speculative
element in which is obviously dictated by the necessary circumstances
of this kind of historical inquiry, in which many records are missing,
and many massacres have been covered up by the conquerors.
It is obvious that Knightly has considered all these questions, and his
acceptance of the massacre accounts is quite deliberate and represents
his considered view of these historical events. Like Murray, Knightly
is well capable of looking after himself, and no question of deception
arises, except in Windschuttle's fevered imagination.
Bob Gould's overview of the literature about the killing of
Aborigines in Australia
I start my narrative with the two important books, Our Original
Aggression and Economics and the Dreamtime,
by the eminent Australian economist and statistician, Noel Butlin, a
founder of Australian economic history, and Australia's most renowned
These books, published in 1983 and 1993 have two aspects. Drawing on
the literature of eyewitnesses, and making mathematical and statistical
models, Butlin effectively destroys the arguments of the medical
revisionists, who claim the diseases that devastated the Aboriginals in
south-east Australia did not spread from white settlement initially in
Sydney, but came overland from contact with Indonesian traders from
Macassar, who made regular voyages to Arnhem Land. He establishes that
the proposition that smallpox, in particular, came overland from Arnhem
Land, is totally absurd.
A second important aspect of Butlin's books is the effective and
thorough way he disproves the traditional low figure ascribed to the
number of Aboriginal inhabitants in Australia at the time of British
invasion in 1788. He disputes the widely accepted Radcliffe Brown
figures in detail, particularly Brown's absurd proposition that there
were only 11,000 Aboriginals in Victoria. Butlin makes a convincing
case that the numbers of Aboriginals at the time of first contact were
many more than the relatively unexamined 300,000 estimated by Radcliffe
Brown, and were far higher in NSW and Victoria than Radcliffe Brown's
estimate. He establishes this by approaching the question from three
directions, in combination.
Firstly, he compares Australia with North and South America, where the
historical record shows an extremely large drop in the numbers of
indigenous people after European contact. He asserts, with considerable
justification, that the drop in Aboriginal numbers in Australia is
likely to have been of the same order. Secondly, he lists a number of
early explorers' reports on the very large Aboriginal populations that
they encountered in NSW and Victoria, particularly on the inland
rivers, and he takes these reports as evidence of much higher numbers
than the Radcliffe Brown estimates. Thirdly, he advances a very
powerful statistical and economic model of the carrying capacity of
major parts of Australia, presuming the known conditions of hunter
gatherer Aboriginal society, and demonstrates that the country had the
capacity for far higher Aboriginal populations than the Radcliffe Brown
account. He then asserts, quite reasonably, that there was no intrinsic
reason why the population would not have reached that capacity before
An interesting feature of Butlin's work is the assertion that the Gross
National Product of the Australian continent probably fell between
about 1800 and 1840, because the white settler society that displaced
the dramatically disrupted Aboriginal hunter-gatherer society was
considerably inferior in productivity during the period of transition.
Butlin was famously careful and conservative with his statistical
constructions, so that's a very interesting assertion.
Of course, Butlin's carefully researched constructions are vulnerable
to the same forensic search-and-destroy mission that Windschuttle
applies to the number of Aborigines killed. Butlin's propositions are
much better researched and documented than the sketchy Radcliffe Brown
Windschuttle doesn't even seem to be aware of Butlin's analysis, which
surprises me greatly, as Windschuttle's background is economics, and
this tends to confirm my suspicion that his knowledge of the literature
on Aboriginal history is limited. How could he have missed the work in
this field of Noel Butlin, Australia's most respected economic
historian and statistician? Economics and the Dreamtime,
in particular, is a tour de force, a unique analysis incorporating a
careful and thorough overview of the literature about Aboriginal
settlement of Australia, the development of Aboriginal society, and the
economic structure of Aboriginal society, into a detailed, carefully
reconstructed economic history of the first 50 years of white
settlement, integrating and interweaving the economics of Aboriginal
society and white society. No other scholar has even attempted such a
Windschuttle asserts, without presenting any supporting evidence, that
the Radcliffe Brown figures for the Aboriginal population at first
contact are too high, in the context of arguing that, because they were
too high, fewer Aborigines disappeared, which obviously suits his story
about the much lower numbers he claims were killed. The way
Windschuttle just asserts his lower figure than Radcliffe Brown's,
without any reference at all to the literature on the question,
forcibly underlines his irresponsible attitude to Aboriginal history.
Once again, all that seems to concern him is to make a case for the
benign character of British conquest, even if that means, as it does in
this instance, ignoring the literature, evidence and intellectual
disputes that contradict or undermine his thesis.
Butlin's book is important because the higher likely figures that he
satisfactorily demonstrates establish a sound framework for considering
the full scale of the destruction of Aboriginal society after invasion,
and the numbers killed.
Other books which that a useful overview of Aboriginal society before
contact are Aboriginal Man Adapting by R.L. Kirk; D.J.
Mulvaney's important much revised and much reprinted book The
Prehistory of Australia; and Mulvaney and Golsen's book, Aboriginal
Man and Environment in Australia (Canberra 1971). Also useful on
the original settlement of Australia 60,000 years ago are Sunda and
Sahul: Prehistoric Studies in Southeast Asia, Melanesia and Australia
edited by Allen et al (Academic Press 1977) and A Prehistory of
Australia, New Guinea and Sahul by White and O'Connell (Academic
It's convenient to start a regional overview of the literature with
Tasmania. There are a number of important books on the topic, Lyndal
Ryan's The Aboriginal Tasmanians, Henry Reynolds' recent book, Fate
of a Free People, J.E. Calder's 19th century book, which was
reproduced in facsimile edition in 1972, John West's The History of
Tasmania (two vols, Launceston 1852), L. Robson's A History of
Tasmania (Oxford 1983) and Clive Turnbull's Black War, the
two books by N.J.B. Plomley, Friendly Mission: The Tasmanian
Journals and Papers of George Augustus Robinson 1829-1834 (Hobart
1966), and The Tasmanian Aborigines (Launceston 1976), as well
as Vivienne Rae Ellis's book about George Augustus Robinson, Black
Windschuttle goes after Lyndal Ryan belligerently, attacking her for
presuming that a large number of Tasmanian Aborigines, who disappear
from the records were killed. Her proposition that they were killed is
inherently obvious. All the Tasmanian literature describes a constant
war between the white settlers and the Aboriginal tribes of the most
brutal sort. The newspapers of the day, and individual memoirs, are
saturated with accounts of these events.
Even in blood-soaked Tasmania, our smart criminal Lawyer, Windschuttle,
insists pompously that only those whose bodies were listed can be
counted as killed. Given the well-recorded, many years long, constant
military and private campaign of extermination against the Aboriginal
Tasmanians, for Windschuttle to dispute Lyndal Ryan's reasonable
assumptions about the numbers killed underlines the uselessness of his
approach as historiography, although he obviously considers it of some
use to him as polemic.
It is interesting how reactionary outbursts by conservatives on
Aboriginal affairs and Aboriginal history seem to come in 20-year
cycles. In 1982 an intellectual soulmate of the current Quadrant
bunch, one Patricia Cobern, wrote a curious article in The Bulletin
in which she ascribed the extermination of the full-blooded Tasmanian
Aborigines not to the war of extermination against them, or to the
imported white diseases, or to the disruption of their society by white
invasion, but to a range of alleged defects in their society, such as
their failure to wash and their birthing practices, which just happened
coincidentally, to come to a peak of self-destructiveness at about the
time of white settlement.
Quite properly, a wide range of civilised people, which included Lyndal
Ryan, Charles Perkins, Scott Cane and Dr Sandra Bowdler, responded very
sharply to Cobern, and quite effectively refuted her historical and
reactionary views. Coburn's article and the responses are printed as an
appendix to the very important work, A Prehistory of Australia, New
Guinea and Sahul, by White and O'Connell (Academic Press, 1982).
There is a substantial literature about the white conquest of Victoria.
The historical investigation of the Victorian frontier started much
earlier than Henry Reynolds' work in 1982. Peter Corries, later the
historian of the Kanaka experience, and even later the popular crime
novelist, wrote his thesis on Aborigines and Europeans in Western
Victoria (Canberra 1968). He refers to a number of killings.
Useful 19th century general histories include G.W. Rosen's book, The
Discovery, Survey & Settlement of Port Phillip (Melbourne,
1871) and James Barwick's book, The Wild White Man and the Blacks
(Melbourne 1863), which describe a number of massacres. Margaret Kiddie
covers such events in her 1961 book on the Henty family.
Also useful is Aborigines in Colonial Victoria 1835-1886 by M.F.
Christie (Sydney 1979). Michael Cannon's widely read 1973 work, Australia
in the Victorian Age, has a useful overview of a lot of the
available literature, mainly about Victoria, in the chapter Eliminating
the Native Inhabitants
(page 57, volume 2). This chapter lists a multitude of original
sources, memoirs of squatters, etc, describing massacres and killings.
Also important is the Journals of G.A. Robinson by G. Redland
(Vic Archival Society, 1977, 1980).
Don Watson's important book about Scottish settlement, Caledonia
recounts the brutal attempt at extermination of Aborigines in Gippsland
by the settlers led by Angus McMillan, which is also described in the
important piece of local history by P.D. Gardner, Our Founding
Murdering Father. Another source is The Kurnai of Gippsland
by Pepper and De Araugo (Hyland House 1985).
The 1888 book, Australian Men of Mark, the profile of George Day,
an early Gippsland squatter, says:
It is calculated that in 1842 there were 20,000 blacks around the
Gippsland Lakes, where at present not even one can be found. So has the
Aboriginal retired before the face of the white man.
Jack of Cape Grim, by Jan Roberts (Greenhouse 1986)
from the documents and memoirs the catastrophic impact of white
settlement around Melbourne on Aboriginal society, and recounts a
number of acts of resistance by various groups of Aborigines, which
immediately resulted in substantial massacres. She makes effective use
of the journals of William Thomas, which are in the Mitchell Library,
the letters to his family of H.H. Meyrick, which are in the LaTrobe
Library, and Niel Black's diary, also in the LaTrobe Library. All of
these documents and many other original sources that she quotes contain
substantial evidence of conflict and massacres. (J.F. Meyrick's
autobiography, Life in the Bush (Nelson 1939) is also a useful
document.) Also useful are P. Beveridge's The Aborigines of
Victoria and the Riverina (Hutchinson 1889) and T.F. Bride's Letters
from Victorian Pioneers (Government Printer 1898).
Edward Curr's book of reminiscences, Recollections of Squatting in
Victoria, 1841-51 (Melbourne 1893), contains many accounts of
massacres of which he had detailed knowledge. Also useful is Curr's The
(Government Printer 1886). Windschuttle tries to discredit Curr's
evidence by implying that he was senile when he wrote his reminiscences.
Any overview of all the literature on Victoria suggests a very high
figure for the number of indigenous people killed in conflict on the
frontier. As in the rest of Australia, many local histories of
Victorian country areas just record, as matters of fact, that conflicts
with Aboriginals resulting in death took place here, here and here, and
quite a few place names originate in such events. The Institute of
Aboriginal Studies published in 1995 an important book by Ian Clark, Scars
in the Landscape,
a registry of massacre sites in western Victoria, 1803 to 1850, which
lists and locates 110 such sites, and a map published by the Koorie
Heritage Trust of Melbourne shows 68 massacre sites.
Windschuttle, however, will have none of this. Unless the bodies are
listed, and observation by eyewitnesses (acceptable to Windschuttle)
recorded and confirmed in detail, the massacre incidents can't make it
into his chronology.
Even comparatively peaceful South Australia had a full-scale war
with the Aboriginal tribes indigenous to the well-watered Coorong area.
After Aborigines killed some white survivors of a wrecked ship, warfare
erupted with this tribe and went on for three years. After giving a
very good account of themselves in a guerrilla struggle, this group of
Aborigines was eventually defeated, and many of them exterminated. This
encounter is described in the book by Graham Jenkin The Conquest of
the Ngarrindjeri (Rigby 1978). Also useful is The Coorong
Massacre: A Study in Early Race Relations in SA by Judy Hamann, in
the Flinders Journal of History and Politics (Vol III 1973).
Frontier contact with Aborigines in Central Australia and the arid
areas was consistently bloody. The important piece of early
Australiana, The Trans-Australian Wonderland
by A.G. Bolam (1923), has matter-of-fact references to massacres and
exterminations in South Australia. Bolam did not feel they needed
proof, as everybody obviously knew about them. Another important book
is An End to Silence by Peter Taylor (Methuen 1978), a
description of the building of the overland telegraph from Adelaide to
Darwin. It includes material on the massacres of Aboriginals that were
part of the building of the telegraph.
The recent important overview of Australian Christian missions by the
Anglican John Harris, One Blood
(Albatross Books, 1990) has a number of detailed accounts of massacres
and killings in South Australia, on the Eyre Peninsula and in the arid
areas. John Harris's account of these events has been reconstructed
painstakingly from missionaries and squatters' memoirs, Aboriginal oral
tradition, local newspapers and government documents.
There is a great deal of literature about massacres and killings
on the Western Australian frontier, from the beginnings of the Swan
River colony into the 1920s. Useful sources are Mary Durack's pieces of
Australiana, Kings in Grass Castles, Sons in the Saddle,
and her history of Catholic missions in northern Australia.
Durack's books are among the most popular enduring accounts of pioneer
settlement, and have been reprinted again and again. Their total sales
number many thousands. The first two books are accounts of the travels
and settlement of her pioneering Irish squatter family, the Duracks.
She has a very matter-of-fact approach to Aboriginal history. By her
account, her family was often quite benevolent towards Aborigines, but
on some occasions, when their interests were affected, they
participated in punitive expeditions against them. She reports as
accepted fact, a large number of punitive physical actions, including a
number of killings, going right back to the commencement, in NSW, of
her family's extraordinary droving saga to the Kimberley. The following
short extract from Kings in Grass Castles gives something of
the flavour of life on the WA frontier.
Police raids and the inevitable unauthorised punitive expeditions
followed the murder on Osmond River. The police left terse records for
official files and the rest is silence.
The summary way that all this pioneering conflict on the frontier is
described in Mary Durack's books, without her feeling the need to prove
that these things happened, underlines the ubiquity of such events on
the Australian frontier, particularly in the Kimberley. It is worth
noting that the extract from Durack reprinted above includes
description of a massacre and of child stealing.
From this time on, however, the name of another boy, Ulysses, appears
in the Argyle journals. Nothing is recorded of how he got there but
Ulysses himself told me, many years later at Ivanhoe, that he and his
sister Maggie were the only survivors of a raid on a big encampment of
blacks around the Ord River after the spearing of Tudor Shadforth.
Without a trace of rancour, in fact with the suggestion of a
reminiscent chuckle, the genial old man in his pensioner's camp on the
river told how he and his sister had been discovered crouching behind a
“Better shoot 'em, one of the whitemen said. This little boy only gonna
grow up to put a spear in some poor whitefella and this little girl —
well she gonna breed more blackfellas. Then big Duncan McCaully come
up. I can do with a boy, he says, and he put me up on his saddle and
somebody else take Maggie and bye 'n' bye we come into Argyle.”
It was a good day's work on McCaully's part since both Ulysses and his
sister grew to become the backbone of station communities at Ivanhoe
Almost at once Ulysses appears in Father's journals as his almost
The boy, [he records], for his tender years undoubtedly bears the
fatigue of late travelling well and on no one occasion have I had to
upbraid him for lagging behind.
A useful overview of massacres in WA is European Aboriginal
Relations in WA, A History edited by Tom Stannage and Bob Reece
(UWA Press 1984). Also informative are Aborigines of the West:
Their Past and Their Present by Ronald and Catherine Berndt (UWA
Press 1980); and Aborigines, Settlers and Police in the Kimberleys
1887-1905 by Andrew Gill, in Studies in Western Australian
History (June 1977). More recent books with evidence about
massacres in WA include A Cry in the Wind (Darlington, 1998) by
Tom Austen, The Forrest River Massacres (1995) by Neville
Green and Neville Green's other book, Broken Spears. Neville
Green's account of Forrest River is contested by Rod Moran's Massacre
Myth (1999), but Green's argument is more persuasive.
Windschuttle relishes exposing the working-class Catholic
whistle-blower David Carley as having once been a convict, and he
reports approvingly the way the WA police tried to discredit Carley by
accusations about his character that they never attempted to prove in
court. He ridicules Carley's angry evidence about the atrocities
committed against Aborigines in the pearling industry, but Carley's
accusations are confirmed by a wide variety of memoirs, and controversy
in local newspapers. All Carley ever got for his vigorous exposures was
social ostracism and hostility from white settlers. Why would he have
conducted such a campaign on these matters for any other reason than
his moral conviction that such abuses had to be stopped?
Windschuttle wisely does not contest the testimony of Louis
Giustiniani, the evangelical Anglican missionary, who was an Italian
Catholic priest converted to Anglicanism out of religious conviction.
This man was a European-educated intellectual, and a capable linguist.
His angry agitation against the massacres of Aborigines that he
discovered in his missionary activity earned him nothing but ostracism
from the rather chauvinistic provincial elite of WA, and led to him
being refused naturalisation. All he got from his agitation was
trouble. Why would such a man lie about what he saw and heard?
Another important witness of massacres of Aboriginals in WA was the
colourful and energetic Scottish Catholic priest Duncan McNab. A man of
such conviction that he took up the Aboriginal mission in WA in his
sixties, he became outraged at what he saw and he, too, conducted an
energetic agitation to expose massacres with a view to getting them
stopped. Why would he lie?
The WA literature about the conflict on the frontier is widespread and
varied, and any serious overview of it must indicate a very large
number of Aboriginal victims during the conquest. A sneering attempt to
deconstruct the Forrest River massacre by concentrating on Ernest
Gribble's alleged sexual peccadillos is a very poor construct indeed,
in the face of the enormous literature on events on the WA frontier.
New South Wales
The evidence for constant physical pressure on Aboriginal society
including a large number of killings and massacres is very widespread,
and exists from the first settlement in 1788. In 1979 the veteran
journalist, the late Keith Willey, published a book about the impact of
the first settlement on Aboriginal life in the Sydney region and the 19
counties. When the Sky Fell Down describes the early war with
the Aboriginal resistance led by Pemulwuy, which has since been
recreated in a powerful novel by Eric Wilmot.
Keith Willey describes the first vicious punitive expeditions against
the Aborigines on the Hawkesbury (who had speared some settlers) in
which many Aboriginals were butchered. It also describes the Aboriginal
rebellion in the Bathurst area in the 1820s, which led to numerous
punitive expeditions in which hundreds of Aborigines with spears were
killed by British soldiers with guns. All of these events permeate the
official literature of the period, and the memoirs of settlers, as well
as the Sydney Gazette.
The military conflict with the Aboriginal tribes in the Bathurst area
is described in Windradyne of the Wiradjuri: Martial Law at
Bathurst in 1824 by Salisbury and Gresser (Wentworth 1971). Also
informative is The Warrigal Creek Massacre by Peter Gardner in
the Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society (June
1980). Other massacre references are in A Narrative of a Visit to
the Australian Colonies by James Backhouse (London 1843); Life
in the Bush by Meyrick; Men And a River
by Daley (who describes how a white posse rounded up 100 Aborigines,
shot them all and threw the bodies into the sea a few miles south of
Ballina.); The Destruction of Aboriginal Society by Charles
Rowley; The Port Stephens Blacks by William Scott (Dungog
1929); The Relations between Settlers and Aborigines in the
Pastoral District of New England 1832-1860 by Ian Campbell
(unpublished thesis, UNE, 1969); and Aborigines and Europeans in
the Northern Rivers Region of NSW 1823-1881 by M.D. Prentis
(unpublished thesis, Macquarie University, 1972). Also useful is Australians
1838, edited by Atkinson and Aveling (Fairfax et al 1987).
Roger Milliss's Waterloo Creek, Alexander Threlkeld's private
papers, edited by Gunson, and the important book, Koori: A Will to
by the Aboriginal author James Miller, all describe massacres in the
Hunter and in the north of NSW. Windschuttle attempts to discredit the
wide array of accounts that point to the bloodthirsty nature of Nunn's
expedition, by an attack on the ingenious reconstruction of Nunn's
expedition by Milliss in Waterloo Creek. Windschuttle's narrow
deconstruction of Milliss's analysis is unintentionally revealing about
his assumptions and method.
He brushes over the fact that Snodgrass, the acting Governor who sent
Nunn on the expedition, was a squatter in the Hunter, angry about
Aboriginals spearing his cattle, who clearly gave the nod to Nunn to do
what was necessary to get rid of the blacks in the fashion that was
rapidly becoming a habit on the Australian frontier. Windschuttle takes
Nunn's side vigorously and disputes that Nunn sanitised the evidence to
Governor Gipps's inquiry. When there is a conflict between one of
Nunn's senior officers and a man of lower rank, who blurted out to the
Inquiry that he saw 50 Aboriginal bodies, Windschuttle asserts that of
course the senior officer's version of a mere three or four bodies,
should be accepted because he had an overall view. That comment tells
you quite a lot about Windschuttle's historiographical bias in favour
of imperial British military authority, and how such bias interferes
with any realistic reconstruction of what actually happened.
These accounts are supplemented by material in many local histories of
parts of the region. In relation to the north coast area of NSW, the
settlement of the area from Port Stephens to the Queensland border
included many conflicts with Aboriginals. Once again, regional
histories, local newspapers, memoirs of settlers, local oral history
and Aboriginal oral history record many killings and a number of
massacres. An important source is Baal Bellbora
by Geoffrey Blomfield, a local historian of the Three Rivers area — the
Hastings, the Manning and the McLeay, which run down from the Northern
Tablelands to the mid-north coast. This book is an account of the
ruthless assault on the Aboriginal tribes in the Three Rivers area
during white settlement, including a number of massacres.
Keith Windschuttle gets very academically bitchy about local
historians, and he refers disparagingly to one of Millis's Waterloo
sources, as just an ordinary man who ran the local picture show,
implying that such a person could not know about such elevated matters
as history. Well, it's a fact of life that many local historians aren't
academics, but they are often soaked in the lore and memory of their
areas, and their research and testimony is of much greater value than
that of some academics, and they have usually done a fair amount of
original research, unlike some academic polemicists.
Race Relations in Australia. A History, by Yarwood and
(Methuen 1982), among other things, has an account of the Catholic
Bishop Polding's evidence about massacres to the Governor Gipps
Inquiry. The Last Kooradgie by John Meredith contains a
reference to an early massacre south of Sydney perpetrated on behalf of
John McArthur, and Simply Human Beings
by E.G. Docker (Jacaranda 1964), a useful overview of Aboriginal
history, has a number of massacre references not mentioned elsewhere.
A resource covering the whole of Australia is Bruce Elder's book, Blood
on the Wattle, the Massacres of Aboriginal Australians Since 1788
(New Holland, 1988 through 1998, seven printings). This book is
particularly detailed on NSW, including massacres on the Darling River
that have not been documented elsewhere, and Elder's bibliography is an
indispensable mine of information. Elder makes use of the reports of
the bloodthirsty explorer Thomas Mitchell, who was both brutal towards
the Aborigines, and extremely frank about what he had done. His reports
contain many descriptions of his attacks on the Aborigines, of which
this quote is typical:
The Aborigines betook themselves to the river, my men pursuing them and
shooting as many as they could. Numbers were shot swimming across the
Murray, and some even after they had reached the opposite shore.
The unrepentant and bloodthirsty Mitchell even named a nearby hill
Another exceptional resource is the monograph Illawarra and South
Coast Aborigines, 1770 to 1850
compiled by Michael Organ (Aboriginal Education Unit, University of
Wollongong, 1990). This meticulously documented overview of local
newspapers and other documents describes massacres of Aboriginals on
the South Coast, starting with Appin, going through Fairymeadow, and
down to the Victorian border by the end of the period. Another useful
source is Aboriginals and Colonists by Bob Reece (Sydney
University Press, 1974).
The book about agricultural settlement in NSW, A Million Wild Acres
by Eric Rolls, contains several massacre accounts, including reference
to the separate autobiographies of Martin Cash and Gardiner, the
bushrangers, who both described the same clash between a group of
shepherds and a large war party of the Kamilroi Tribe, in which several
hundred Aborigines were killed. Yancannia Creek by Mary Turner
Shaw (MUP 1987) is a detailed account of the author's family's
squatting settlement west of the Darling, with detailed accounts of
conflict and massacre.
Before the First World War C.E.W. Bean, later the major WWI historian,
wrote a series of important articles about the Darling River area,
which were reprinted by Angus and Robertson in the 1920s as a book, Dreadnoughts
of the Darling.
In these articles Bean recounts that blackfellows were shot all the
time and mentions a number of individual massacres as common knowledge.
Does Windschuttle regard Mary Turner Shaw and C.E.W. Bean as black
Western NSW was the scene of many massacres and killings. Bobbie
Hardy's Lament for the Barkindji contains accounts of massacres
drawn from local history. So does The Dark People of Bourke,
by Max Kamien. Many local histories of areas in the west of NSW include
descriptions of massacres, and once again, memoirs and local newspapers
are a frequent source of material on such events.
Sydney and Brisbane as maritime centres
The role that the ports of Sydney and Brisbane played in assaults on
indigenous people throughout the Pacific region is often overlooked or
forgotten in popular memory. One incident was the Ngatik Massacre, when
a British trading ship operating out of the port of Sydney massacred
all the men on the small Micronesian island of Ngatik in order to steal
a cache of pearl shell. This event is recounted in the book The
Ngatik Massacre by Lin Poyer (Smithsonian 1992).
The port of Sydney was the main support port for Marsden's gun-running
to New Zealand, which markedly increased the number killed in
inter-tribal Maori wars. Sydney was also a base for supplies to the
British in New Zealand during the two Maori wars that got British
conquest going in New Zealand. Later in the century the ports of Sydney
and Brisbane were centres for assorted attacks on indigenous people in
the Pacific, the most notorious of which was the constant kidnapping
(“blackbirding”) of Melanesians as semi-slave labour for the Queensland
cane fields. The murdered Pacific Island victims of British ships out
of the ports of Sydney and Brisbane must be added to the Australian
indigenous body count.
The Torres Strait islands
The islands of the Torres Strait, between Australia and New Guinea, are
inhabited by a Melanesian people on whom there have been strong
Polynesian influences. At the time of first contact with Europeans they
were proud, independent and fierce, and their rather warlike culture
They initially resisted British occupation bitterly and there were a
number of military clashes followed by military defeat and
pacification. They were more resistant to disease than many Aboriginal
populations in Australia, probably because of immunities acquired
through casual contact with seafarers from many directions. The Torres
Strait Islanders have survived physically, and a number of aspects of
their culture have survived and developed.
Their contemporary culture is a robust hybrid incorporating traditional
aspects, along with Anglican religious influences introduced by
missionaries. Those killed in the initial British war of conquest
should be counted in the numbers killed on the Australian frontier. Ion
Idriess's popular book, Drums of Mer,
and other books, recreate some of these events, and the two definitive
books on the history of the Torres Strait Islands are Jeremy Beckett's Torres
Strait Islanders, Custom and Colonialism (Cambridge 1989), and John
Singe's Torres Strait People and History (UQP 1989).
Windschuttle's contrived attack on the role of 19th century
missionaries as truthful witnesses about massacres of Aborigines
Windschuttle, in his last article in Quadrant, tries to create
a connection between 19th-century
missionaries and 20th-century
white activists in the Aboriginal cause, asserting that they are all
self-interested careerists, and that therefore it is likely that the
19th century whistle-blower missionaries invented a lot of the accounts
of massacres that they advanced.
He has quite a lot of fun pointing out how isolated they were from
normal Australian society because of their whistle-blowing, and he
seems to enjoy digging up and retailing sexual allegations against the
missionary Ernest Gribble.
When Windschuttle is attacking the missionaries his distaste for
anecdotal evidence evaporates, and every story hostile to them is
repeated as if it were true. He is a great one for talking about the
bad reputation of people he disagrees with or dislikes.
Windschuttle takes great care to inform readers that certain
missionaries failed in their business ventures, as if this in some way
invalidated their testimony. He makes much of the fact that one of the
whistle-blowers is a former convict. In his attack on Henry Reynolds's
book on the whistle-blowers, he only attacks the four on whom he can
dig up some dirt, and leaves alone those whose lives don't lend
themselves to such muckraking.
The contradictory and complex record of
Christian missions in Australia
In his December Quadrant article,
gets very radical in his attack on Christian missionaries, whom he
tosses into one stewpot with later white activists who support
Aboriginal people, and damns them all for allegedly contributing to the
current, bad situation of Aborigines.
He makes a strange attack on remote Aboriginal settlements, and
succeeds in sounding like urban Tory politicians attacking people in
country areas because they won't go to the city to get jobs. He ignores
the profound human point that Aboriginal remote communities are like
white remote communities in the sense that they are where they are
because the people were born there. It is their patch, and they want
their lives to improve where they live, which is their right. Only a
minority are prepared to move elsewhere.
Windschuttle says Aboriginal communities in remote areas are there
because that is where the missions were, but that is a circular
argument, because the missions were there because that's where the
Aboriginal people were. Windschuttle suddenly gets very leftist and
accuses most missionaries of trying to isolate Aboriginals so as to
inflict Christianity on them.
That doesn't prevent him, in another spot, celebrating the fact that
most Aboriginals are Christians, and only a tiny minority put
themselves down in the census as followers of traditional Aboriginal
He generally defends, as do the other current Quadrant
pundits, the past ruthlessly assimilationist practices of assorted
public servants such as the repellent Neville, but he attacks past
missionaries, primarily, in my view, because many of them bore vigorous
witness against massacres of Aboriginal people.
He is entirely selective in his balance sheet of past white
intervention in Aboriginal affairs. White outsiders were good when they
were enforcing assimilation, but they were bad when they were stirring
up a storm against the massacre of Aborigines. In his view you can
believe the self-serving stories of white public servants about why
they broke up Aboriginal families, but you can rarely believe
missionaries when they tell you about murder and massacre. This Quadrant
line of argument is humbug.
The effect of Christian missions on Aboriginal life requires a serious
overview, and a start in this direction has been made by John Harris
and Richard Broome, from different points of view.
Broome has done important and useful work of a critical sort about the
negative impact of Christian missions on Aboriginal life. His work is
an important part of the necessary balance sheet.
Another very useful book is the critical overview of the whole
Australian Christian missionary experience by the evangelical Anglican
historian John Harris, whose approach is ecumenical.
He studies the missions of all denominations, Catholic and Protestant,
sensitively and impartially. He acknowledges the negative aspects of a
number of missions in their hostile attitude towards Aboriginal
traditional beliefs and a number of aspects of Aboriginal culture, and
he points out how such an attitude actually weakened the impact of
He underlines the importance of missions as places of practical refuge
for Aboriginals from the constant physical attack to which they were
subjected on the Australian frontier, without whitewashing the negative
cultural effects of some of the missions. The thoroughness and sweep of
his overview is extremely valuable.
Harris points out that even some of the missionaries who had a sadly
negative practical attitude to Aboriginal culture and religion, such as
Rod Schenk and the Gribbles, nevertheless fought a courageous battle
for the physical welfare of Aboriginal people, and against murder and
massacre directed at Aborigines.
John Harris's account of the negative attitude of some missionaries to
Aboriginal society is supplemented by the work of the postmodernist,
Paul Carter, The Lie of the Land (Faber 1996).
Ploughing through Carter's maddeningly obtuse text is, in this
instance, well worth the effort. The chapter A Reverent Miming
is an extraordinary description of what happened at the Hermansburg
Lutheran Mission in central Australia.
Carter describes, in a pathetic and moving way, the constant pressure
on Aboriginal elders and religious leaders from the Protestant fanatic,
Pastor Friedrich Albrecht, to surrender the traditional Aboriginal
religious artifacts, the tjuringas. He also describes the official
Lutheran ceremony of desacralisation of the Manangananga Cave, in which
these objects had been preserved for many hundreds of years. Carter's
account is based on T.G.H. Strehlow's diaries.
Albrecht's fellow missionaries at Hermansburg, the two Strehlows,
father and son, accumulated an enormous collection of Aboriginal sacred
objects, and Aborigines in central Australia are still fighting a
vigorous battle with the Strehlow Estate to get the tjuringas back for
the Aboriginal people, to prevent them being dispersed via Christies or
Sothebys to rich collectors around the world.
Strehlow's own memoir, Journey to Horseshoe Bend (Rigby 1969,
78) is informative, and White Man's Dreaming,
Killalpaninna Mission 1866-1915 (Oxford 1994) by Christine Stevens, is
an absorbing study of one of the Hermansburg complex of Lutheran
If you read John Harris and the more critical Christine Stevens and
Richard Broome in combination, you begin to get a rounded picture. One
thing that emerges from this record is the towering moral courage of
those missionaries, both Protestant and Catholic, who chose to expose
massacres and assaults on Aboriginals despite the social ostracism and
hostility from white squatters that their courageous witness incurred.
From Harris, Stevens and Broome in combination you get a far more
balanced overview than you get from Windschuttle's petulant and petty
search-and-destroy approach to the role of Christian missions and
One thing that emerges from the courageous activities of the
evangelical Lancelot Alexander Threlkeld is the contradictory character
of 19th century evangelical Christianity in Australia. One evangelical,
Marsden, was quite negative about the prospects of missions to the
Aborigines, and played a terrible role in relation to indigenous life
in New Zealand, where his gun-running to selected Maori chiefs amenable
to the British interest and to conversion to evangelical Protestantism,
had bloodthirsty consequences.
Marsden also encouraged, with Biblical rhetoric, the expeditionary
campaigns against the Aboriginal tribes in the Bathurst area, where he
owned property, and some of his cattle had been speared.
Marsden was a vicious, self-righteous snob. In his conflict with
Threlkeld, he repeatedly asserted that being of lowly tradesman's
background, Threlkeld could not possibly be an effective missionary.
Marsden was famous for his long-running vendetta against Governor
Macquarie for appointing emancipists as magistrates, and Marsden
constantly refused to serve on the magistrates' bench with these
emancipists. Some loving Christian, our Marsden!
In London, the British evangelical, member of the Clapham Sect, Sir
James Stephen, the Permanent Secretary of the Colonial Office, played
an extremely complex and ambiguous role. The best sources about Sir
James Stephen are Rupert Lockwood's 30,000-word investigation of
Stephen's private papers published in Labour History in 1966,
and the book James Stephen and the British Colonial System 1813-1847
by P. Knaplund (Madison 1953).
Stephen's private papers disclose a strong British racist opposition,
which he successfully enforced in the Colonial Office, against Indians
and Chinese migrating to the Australian colonies. Stephen was
preoccupied with Australia becoming a part of the divine Protestant
religious mission of the British race.
His attitude to the Aboriginal question flowed from the complexity of
his religious ideas. He advised his minister, and wrote letters on his
behalf, saying that, as British subjects, the Aborigines should get
proper treatment and justice, but he also wrote that they were a doomed
race, and he warned Governor Gipps against too-vigorous attack on the
squatters over the Aboriginal question. In his private papers Stephen
wrote: “it is beyond the wit of man to discover any method by which the
impending catastrophe, namely, the elimination of the Black Race, can
Stephen's private papers reveal that he was angered and anguished by
the brutal assault on Aboriginals disclosed in the Gipps Inquiry, but
in the final analysis, he could not see any way of stopping the mayhem
on the frontier, consistent with British Imperial interests. Stephen
asserted that the only possible alternative to dealing carefully with
the squatters, would, in these circumstances, be to arm the Aboriginals
for their own self-defence, and that such an action was unacceptable to
All in all, he was the architect of a contradictory Colonial Office
policy, including verbal assertion of Aboriginal rights, occasional
intervention to stop the worst atrocities, but generally, a practical
acquiescence in most of the bloodshed on the Australian frontier.
By way of contrast with Sir James Stephen, his fellow Evangelical, the
courageous, ingenious Threlkeld, on the ground in NSW, was driven by
his evangelical conscience to risk much on behalf of the Aborigines.
Such were the real complexities of the time, which lead anyone with a
bit of humanity and wisdom to a more complex overview than the crude Quadrant
assault on 19th-century
missionaries who defended Aboriginal interests.
Lancelot Threlkeld as a truthful witness
I have to thank Windschuttle, in a way, for
attention to Threlkeld as a historical actor. Windschuttle's approach
to Threlkeld is as philistine as his approach to many of the other
historical figures in Australian frontier history.
He is only interested in discrediting Threlkeld. Pursuing this
overview, I managed to locate a copy of Neil Gunson's two-volume
collection of Threlkeld's papers, and biographical material on
Threlkeld. The striking thing about this material, and Threlkeld, is
what a modern and interesting man he was.
He was your typical 19th-century
enthusiastic, believing evangelical Christian missionary. His strong
religious convictions come through in his private papers. He was a
rather energetic anti-Papist, and towards the end of his life he
agitated vigorously against too much tolerance of the Catholic Church.
He doesn't display personal rancour towards Catholics, but he regards
toleration of Catholic priests in NSW as very bad for the interests of
the Protestant religion.
Threlkeld had a rather acid evangelical Protestant sense of humour.
Quoting John Harris in One Blood:
When a French (and therefore probably
anthropologist claimed to have determined the innate mental deficiency
of Aborigines by head measurements, Threlkeld enquired whether he had
measured the head of the Pope. (One wonders how he got on in the last
period of his life when he was the Congregational minister at Watsons
Bay, where about half the population of that then isolated fishing
village were Irish or Portuguese Catholics.)
Threlkeld was a man of many parts. He learned
native languages. His pride in his translations of the Gospels into
Aboriginal languages is extremely moving. It's sad that the languages
he translated into no longer have any speakers in the 21st century, but
that's not Threlkeld's fault.
Threlkeld did his damndest to make his mission a profitable concern.
His meticulous financial accounting to the London Missionary Society
makes fascinating reading. He helped his son to set up as a squatter.
He was an energetic, sometimes quarrelsome, resourceful man, with a
wide range of interests.
He was also an absolutely convinced evangelical Christian, and his
passions, and his evangelical religious conscience was deeply angered
by the systematic attacks that he became familiar with against the
physical life of the Aboriginal people, some of whom were in his care.
Windschuttle's attempt to demean Threlkeld, to destroy his status as a
witness in relation to the butchery on the frontier, makes me very
angry. The striking thing about Threlkeld wasn't his occasional
exaggeration, or the mistakes he sometimes made, but the general broad
truth of the story he told, and the courageous way he continued to tell
it in the face of official cover-ups and social ostracism.
The idea that he invented these massacre accounts is psychologically
untenable. The fact that he conducted this agitation against the
squatters and the powers that be in the Colony, to stop the killing,
cost him dearly.
It successively caused the avaricious Samuel Marsden, and that
Vicar-of-Bray figure, the Anglican Primate Bishop Broughton, to turn
against Threlkeld. His whistle-blowing against the Aboriginal massacres
was too embarrassing for them among the squatting interests in the
Colony, who were an important part of their social circle.
It is completely psychologically unconvincing that a passionate,
believing, Bible-translating evangelical like Threlkeld, would
deliberately invent massacre accounts. Windschuttle several times
asserts that he did, but provides no serious evidence.
The internal evidence in Threlkeld's papers is that he believed the
stories were truthful when he told them, although further information
caused him to modify a couple of them. The striking thing in his papers
is that most of the massacre accounts are only a secondary aspect of
his meticulous and detailed reports to the London Missionary Society.
He obviously hopes that the society in London can do something to stop
the killings, but the massacres aren't the only thing on his mind in
his reports to the Missionary Society, by any stretch of the
The Catholic Bishop Polding, gave similar
witness to Alexander Threlkeld
Threlkeld's massacre accounts mesh in with what
from other sources about the atmosphere and social relations on the
frontier in northern NSW. Windschuttle piously asserts that the fact
that that some of the Myall Creek massacre perpetrators were eventually
hanged, proves that justice was usually done.
What was striking about Myall Creek was that the cover-up very nearly
succeeded. Some of the murderers were acquitted once, and were only
finally convicted because of the stubborn determination of the Catholic
Attorney General, Plunkett, who was, like Threlkeld, an outsider to the
closed society of the squatters, the Anglican Bishop Broughton, etc.
In this context it is worth remembering that the Catholic priests and
the bishop in the Colony told exactly the same kind of story about the
massacres as Threlkeld, the rabid anti-Papist.
In Eris O'Brien's book about archpriest Therry, the deep anger of
Father Therry about the treatment of Aboriginals on the frontier is
The first Australian Catholic Bishop, Bishop Polding gave lengthy
evidence to Governor Gipps' Inquiry, in which he had similar anecdotal
evidence to Threlkeld of squatters bragging about hundreds of
Aboriginals they had killed. Polding gave his evidence to the Gipps
inquiry with considerable passion, and it's easy to see why the
Catholic clergy talked about the massacres with such powerful
These early Catholic priests were famous for their extraordinary
efforts, riding around country areas of the colony, ministering to
their scattered Irish flock, saying Mass, marrying people and hearing
confessions. (Polding heard the confessions of several of the
perpetrators hanged for the Myall Creek massacre.)
It's clear from the bald assertiveness of their evidence about
massacres of Aboriginals, and their stubborn attempts, like those of
Threlkeld, to get the massacres stopped, that their views were informed
by what they had heard in the confessional, but were not able to speak
of because of the seal of the confessional.
From a distance of 150 years, this particular 21st century Marxist
atheist has the deepest fellow feeling for the courageous Protestant
evangelical, Lancelot Threlkeld, and the energetic, hard-riding,
Catholic Bishop Polding, both of whom tried earnestly to defeat the
bloodthirsty activities of the squatting elite on the Australian
The more I research these questions the more interested I become in
these unsung heroes. I share the obvious passion of Henry Reynolds to
do honour to these courageous religious men who suffered much for their
energetic witness against the massacre of the Aboriginal people.
Queensland is a very large state with a
rich, well-watered coastal and northern part, and a large grassland
area in the centre. While the number of Aborigines before white
settlement is very had to estimate, using the Butlin approach,
Queensland had a very large number of Aborigines, and even the cautious
Radcliffe Brown estimated the number at 100,000.
Windschuttle does all he can to ridicule the estimates of Henry
Reynolds and Noel Loo's as to numbers of Aboriginals killed in
Queensland, but that's a very tall order, because we are a bit closer
in time to the settlement in Queensland. There is a vast amount of
literature of all sorts, and much oral history, from the Queensland
The conflict in Queensland was uniformly bloody. There were constant
arguments in the Queensland press for 70 years about Aboriginal
massacres and “nigger hunts” with most letter writers and leader
writers in the press defending the brutal physical displacement of the
There is an extraordinarily wide range of material about massacres in
Queensland, ranging from original documents and memoirs in the 19th
century, to scholarly books in recent times, and popular Australiana.
One original document is Blagden Chambers's memoir The Story of a
Massacre and its Aftermath
written in 1888, about a massacre in central Queensland in 1862,
reprinted by Methuen in 1988. Other useful sources are the several
pieces of popular Australiana by Hector Holthouse, which contain some
massacre references, mainly from Queensland, the most significant of
which are in his book based on the diaries of Evelyn Maunsell, S'pose
I Die, and Up Rode the Squatter.
George Farwell's book Land of Mirage (Angus and Robertson,
1983) has well-researched accounts of massacres in Queensland. The very
important book by A.J. Vogan, published in 1890, The Black Police;
A Story of Modern Australia, is an indispensable primary source.
Gordon Reid's book, A Nest of Hornets: The Massacre of the Fraser
Family at Hornet Bank Station, Central Queensland 1857, and Related
Events Oxford University Press, 1982) is a very detailed account of
massacres in central Queensland.
Noel Loos' book, Invasion and resistance: Aboriginal-European
Relations on the North Queensland Frontier 1861-1897 (Australian
National University Press, 1982) contains well-documented massacre
Exclusion, Exploitation and Extermination by Evans,
Saunders and Cronin is an extremely useful overview, containing
massacre references. Also useful are: The McKenzie Massacre on
Bentinck Island in Aboriginal History (Vol 9 No 1) by Kelly
and Nicholas; Matya-Mundu: A History of the Aboriginal People of
South West Queensland, by Hazel McKellar; and Police of the
Pastoral Frontier: Native Police 1849-59 by L.E. Skinner
(Queensland University Press, 1975).
Also extremely useful is The Long Blue Line: A History of the
Queensland Police Force by W. Ross Johnston (Boolarong, 1992),
which contains a detailed history of the Queensland Native Police. Tom
Petrie's Reminiscences of Early Queensland is also useful, as
are Noel Loos, Frontier Conflict in the Bowen District, 1861-1874
(unpublished thesis, Townsville 1970); H.L. Roth's The Discovery
and Settlement of Port Mackay (Halifax 1908); E. Thorne's The
Queen of the Colonies, Or Queensland as I Knew It (London 1876);
E.L.B. Kennedy's The Black Police of Queensland (London Murray
1902); O. De Satge, Pages from the Journal of a Queensland Squatter
(London, 1901); and Clem Lack, The Pale Invader and the
Dark Avenger (unpublished manuscript, an account of early conflict
between Europeans and Aboriginals in Queensland).
In 1998 an extremely important book appeared, by Pamela Lukin Watson, Frontier
Lands and Pioneer Legends: How Pastoralists Gained Karuwali Land
(Unwin). Lukin is a descendant of the brother of the courageous editor
of the Queenslander newspaper, Gresley Lukin, who exposed many
massacres in his newspaper in the 19th century.
Drawn from many primary sources, including the family papers of the
squatting families, the Costellos, the Duracks and the Collins, who
displaced the Aborigines in the Gulf Country of south-west Queensland,
Watson meticulously documents that dispossession and the many massacres
of Aboriginals, and gives a map showing the sites of nine massacres.
The constant instrument of the squatters on the frontier was the
Queensland Native Police, and there were two or three government
inquiries into this bloodthirsty body, all of which exposed
consistently ruthless practices on the frontier. The Aesopian term for
the punitive expeditions against Aboriginals was dispersal, which was
always meant widespread shooting. There is the famous evidence of
Wheeler, the leader, for a period, of the Queensland Native Police, in
one of the inquiries.
As reported in Bill Rosser's book, Up Rode the Troopers, The Black
Police in Queensland (Queensland University Press, 1990) Wheeler's
evidence on the May 3, 1861, follows:
Q. Were there any warrants out against those
The author, Bill Rosser, comments:
A._No. Warrants are never given out against the blacks for
cattle-stealing, which is done by the whole tribe.
Q. Did you recognize any of them?
A. It was getting dark, but I recognized two or three of them.
Q. Had you any information to prove that they were the same blacks who
robbed Mr Collins's station?
A. No. I only know from what the shepherds told me, that a certain
tribe of blacks committed the depredations, and that they had headed
towards the sea-coast.
Q. At the time of this affray the troopers were out of your sight?
A. Yes, they were out of my sight for about half-an-hour.
Q. Do those troopers understand English sufficiently to comprehend your
A. Oh, yes.
Q. Did you give them orders to go into the scrub?
Q. What was the nature of those orders?
A. I told them to surround the camp of Telemon blacks, and to disperse
Q. What do you mean by dispersing?
A. Firing at them. I gave strict orders not to shoot any gins. It is
only sometimes, when it is dark, that a gin is mistaken for a
blackfellow, or might be wounded inadvertently.
Q. Do you think it is a proper thing to fire upon the blacks in that
A. If they are the right mob, of which I had every certainty.
Q. What are the general orders of your Commandant?
A. It is a general order that, whenever there are large assemblages of
blacks, it is the duty of an officer to disperse them. There are no
general orders for these cases; officers must take care that proper
discretion is exercised.
Q. Don't you consider this a very loose way of proceeding — surrounding
blacks' camps, and shooting innocent gins?
A. There is no other way.
There was not the slightest trace of mercy in
soul. Indeed, his practice of undue severity on his own black troopers
had caused a detachment of twelve men to desert him.
Windschuttle does not appear aware of the rich
information in Queensland local histories. A large number of these
local histories report massacres of Aborigines as well known events in
an area's history, not requiring proof, and the locations of such
massacres often have names associated with the gory events that took
Three fairly typical examples of the genre of Queensland local history,
with massacres recorded, are: Hurricane Lamps and Blue Umbrellas,
The story of Innisfail and the Shire of Johnstone, North Queensland,
by Dorothy Jones (Bolton, Cairns, 1973) The Noosa Story, by
Nancy Cato (Jacaranda Press, 1979) and Rockhampton
by Lorna McDonald (Queensland University Press, 1981, and Rockhampton
City Council, 1995). Another extremely useful piece of local history is
A Submerged History, Baroon Aborigines and White Invaders
by Stephen Jones (Maleny 1990). This is an account of massacres in the
hinterland of Noosa.
Also useful are J.W. Collinson's books about Cairns. Janette Nolan's Bundaberg
History and People
(Queensland University Press, 1978) has an extended overview of the
conflicts with, and massacre of, the original Aboriginal population
during the settlement of Bundaberg.
Windschuttle is particularly infuriated by the Noel Loos-Henry Reynolds
method of making an approximation of the number of Aboriginals likely
to have been killed in the frontier war on Aboriginal society in
Queensland. Loos and Reynolds meticulously collect the numbers of white
settlers and their allies reported as killed over the whole period, a
total of 850 individuals (not including people wounded). They then make
the very reasonable mathematical projection that, given that the
well-established habitual response of Queensland white society to such
incidents was massive killing of Aboriginals in response to every
instance of Aborigines killing whites, the best estimate or
approximation of the number of Aboriginals killed is of the order of 10
or 12 to one, which adds up to about 10,000 Aborigines killed in
Such an approach is by no means new. Evans, Saunders and Cronin's book
quotes three 19th-century
squatters who made similar approximations on the basis of their
experience of the Queensland frontier. One of those squatters even
thought that 50 Aboriginals might have been killed for every white
casualty. From everything we know about the Queensland frontier, this
kind of approximation, which Reynolds and Loos never disguise as
anything but an approximation, is totally reasonable in the
Sir Hudson Fysh's important book, Taming
If none of Reynolds's and Loos' reasoning
Windschuttle, there is one almost unique piece of literature out of
Queensland, produced at a time sufficiently close to the events for a
number of participants to be still alive, but also reasonably close to
us in time (first edition 1933). This is a routine piece of popular
Australiana from the 1930s through to the 1950s, which probably sold
about 20,000 copies. I describe it in the following short piece I
submitted to the Sydney Morning Herald, of which the Herald
finally used part on November 19, 2000:
It is sad the lengths to which revisionist
will go to play down the number of frontier killings of Aborigines in
colonial Australia. They deny that deaths ran to many thousands — for
no purpose, it seems, except to absolve British white Australia from
Keith Windschuttle (Sydney Morning Herald,
September 19) seeks to discredit Henry Reynolds' estimate that between
8000 and 10,000 Aborigines were killed in Queensland alone. He would do
well to consult the book Taming the North by (Sir) Hudson Fysh,
the founder of Qantas, published by Angus and Robertson in 1933 and
expanded in 1950. Fysh's book is a biography of the famous squatter,
Alexander Kennedy, the Scottish settler who opened up the area around
Cloncurry for white settlement.
At the time the area was inhabited by the warlike Kalkadoons. After the
Kalkadoons had been provoked by the squatters pushing further and
further into every corner of their tribal lands, they finally speared a
couple of the most offensive intruders.
The vengeance of the squatters, implemented by the Native Police led by
the notoriously vicious F.C. Urquhart, who ended up Queensland Police
Commissioner, was awesome. Using their superior firepower, they wiped
out hundreds of Kalkadoons. What is most amazing about these incidents
is the brutally frank way Fysh describes them and other events in this
war of extermination, and praises the bloodthirsty Kennedy and
Urquhart. The ideology of the British Australian conquest is expressed
by Hudson Fysh on Page 89:
Undoubtedly only two courses remained: either
the arm of
might had to be lifted in administering a sharp and deadly lesson for
every outrage committed, or the whites had to vacate the country
completely, leaving the blacks in possession. Read the grim history of
conquest the world over of the battered weaker races who have given way
to the spread of so-called civilisation, be it the conquered Briton,
the Inca, the Red Indian, or the Hottentot. “Punitive” expeditions and
the bombing of native villages are by no means things of the past; they
have been unfortunately necessary to preserve life and law and order on
the frontiers of India, Iraq, and North Africa. The only difference in
the comparison is again that great unbridgeable gulf between the
Australian native and the invading whites.
Fysh describes several massacres. For example, he recounts how
Eglington, the white officer in charge, restored control during a clash
with Aboriginal murderers in which many of the natives were killed, the
rest making their escape to the rough country.
Kennedy then asked Eglington if a cheeky trouble-making chap, a piebald
black who he had had his eye on for a long time, was among those
killed. When Eglington replied no, Kennedy urged him to chase the
piebald black and others.
A long trip into the hills followed, the native police hot on the trail
and Kennedy as keen as the rest. A yell of defiance was heard, the
pursuers were discovered by the retreating party and hurled threats
from their supposed safety in the rugged hilly country. However, they
did not reckon on the deadly carbines of the whites and the native
troopers, who speedily shot the warlike bucks down.
In a later massacre, Kennedy was filled with a fierce rage and adamant
that nothing but a terrible lesson would suffice following the loss of
his partner as well as some of his cattle.
Kennedy's party finally located the Aborigines in a gorge. The
Aborigines showed hostility at first by hurling spears but fled at the
first sign of rifle fire, hiding behind boulders, behind trees, up
trees and making a dash for better cover when the opportunity arose.
Kennedy pursued one Aborigine who raced for the nearest creek: as
Kennedy reached the edge he took careful aim with his carbine, but the
weapon failed to go off. Hurling the carbine in after the native,
Kennedy jumped into the water, and commenced to grapple with his enemy.
Urquhart fired just in time to prevent serious consequences, for
Kennedy could not swim.
Fysh's book contains seven important descriptions of massacres of
Aboriginal warriors without firearms, by Urquhart, Kennedy and the
Native Police, armed with modern repeating rifles. These descriptions
are on pages 96, 122, 143, 145, 183, 184 and 186 of the book. No
prisoners taken are ever mentioned in these incidents.
Windschuttle asserts that most encounters between troopers, police and
native police on the one hand, and Aborigines on the other, were
legitimate police operations — the amoral justification of every
vicious imperialist military force in history. The self-righteous
Urquhart, a Rudyard-Kipling-like figure, even wrote execrable poems
celebrating several legitimate police operation massacres described in
Hudson Fysh's book.
The difficulty faced by Henry Reynolds, and every other historian who
attempts serious investigation of the history of Aboriginal
dispossession in Australia, is the obvious fact that the conquering
forces did not keep detailed records. In fact, they often destroyed the
records. The standing government orders to the white officers of the
Native Police were that they had to maintain total secrecy about their
murderous activities, and any infringement of this secrecy rule was
Many massacres took place on the nod, so to speak. On page 125 of the
book, Hudson Fysh describes Kennedy lobbying Seymour, the Police
Commissioner in Brisbane, who tells him, for the record, that he
shouldn't massacre unarmed Aborigines, and then races after Kennedy in
the street to reassure him that he will send plenty of police
reinforcements and that Kennedy can really do what is necessary.
Fysh's book does irreparable damage to Windschuttle's proposition that
regional studies show that the colonial frontier was not defined by the
mass murder of Aborigines. Most killings of Aborigines occurred not in
large numbers but in ones and twos.
Any reasonable reading of Fysh's book, which is favourable to the
perpetrators, and based on lengthy interviews and extensive personal
knowledge of them, confirms the massacre of many hundreds of
Aboriginals in the Cloncurry area alone, fairly late in the century,
making Reynolds' upper estimate of 10,000 Aborigines killed in the
whole of Queensland not at all unreasonable.
Judith Wright, in her moving and painful family memoir The Cry for
about her own squatting family in northern NSW and Southern Queensland,
gives evidence of hundreds more massacred, some on the lands of her own
family, in the 19th century.
The Hudson Fysh book contains, in the context of a favourable biography
of the two major perpetrators, their verbal descriptions of eight major
massacres, in which they were the prime movers, presented as necessary
police actions, and therefore worthy of praise. The author's account of
their bloodthirsty activities has an introduction by Flynn of the
Inland, and the author's narrative is endorsed by the two perpetrators,
Kennedy and Urquhart, as a true account of what they said.
Windschuttle's general model of the mild, careful and civilised
character of police actions against Aborigines is fatally undermined by
this extraordinary book. The massacre of Aborigines, lightly armed with
spears, by Native Police with repeating rifles, led by white officers,
was so ingrained a practice on the Queensland frontier that well after
the event the murderers could get away with bragging about it, and no
one, the perpetrators themselves, the publishers of the book, the
author, or Flynn of the Inland, thought even to question their account
of the events. It rang so obviously true.
I wonder if Windschuttle will accept this document as evidence in his
mental court of law, or will it be dismissed as anecdotal. These
accounts aren't too precise as to numbers, but it's quite clear that
the butchers are bragging about dozens and hundreds of Aborigines
massacred. Hudson Fysh's book is such an important social document that
it should be reprinted, with a suitable modern introduction, stressing
the moral justification of the Kalkadoon resistance to white invaders.
I am sure it would sell well. As Karl Marx was fond of saying, “history
is whole cloth”.
This book slots in with a pile of other evidence, which includes the
constant repetition in local histories and local newspapers of the
period, of other massacre accounts, anecdotal though they may be, which
makes the Reynolds-Loos methodology entirely reasonable. The greater
written evidence about these matters on the Queensland frontier owes a
lot to the improvements in newspaper technology and development during
the latter half of the 19th century.
There was an explosion in that period, of local weekly newspapers,
which has been studied in an important book published by Queensland
University Press, The Press in Colonial Queensland
by Denis Cryle. The fact that such a press developed so rapidly made
possible many reports of conflicts with Aborigines. That the Queensland
newspapers are such a significant source throws a certain amount of
retrospective light on the earlier events in NSW and Victoria, which
preceded the widespread development of a local press.
The anecdotal network of information, which people opposed to the
massacre of Aboriginals, such as Threlkeld and Bishop Polding, referred
to and used, was what substituted for a local press before a press
existed, and this fact underlines the validity of giving weight to
anecdotal evidence from the earlier period.
The massive amount of evidence and reportage from the Queensland
frontier about conflicts with Aborigines and massacres of them, makes
total nonsense of the unctuous Windschuttle approach that British
Australia could not have done such things because they were Christians.
The following extract is from the book North
of the Ten Commandments, A Collection of Northern Territory Literature,
edited by David Headon (Hodder, 1991). On page 94, at the start of the
chapter Too Much Blackfeller, are these moving quotes from
interviews with living Northern Territory Aborigines.
Them bloody-whatsa-European come on after
banging time now. They [my people] didn't know that, they reckon
lightning somewhere. And they reckon, “Ah that man get out bush.” They
reckon that lightning. Another bloke drop. Yeah, bang! Another bloke
drop. Bang! 'nother bloke. They bin look at, you know, they bin looking
eye. Something wrong? Got a blood come through the nose. “Oh, might be
lightning.” Bang! See? They didn't catch on for a while. They pick up
all the women and European takem away, you know? And the Aborigine just
follow them up.
The standard history of the Northern Territory, Far
by Allan Powell (Melbourne University Press, 1982, 1988) is a mine of
information about massacres and killings of Aborigines, painstakingly
compiled from memoirs of individuals, including perpetrators, local
newspapers and government documents. The Northern Territory frontier
was initially a very bloody place indeed. One Blood, John
Harris's book about missions, has a number of documented accounts of
killings in the NT.
Daly Bulgara, interview with Peter Read, 1977
All our mob been shot. My grandmother Maryanne ... bin
bugger. A lot of people bin shot there. Working man, too. All the
working man bin shot too. You know, they bin go to corroboree, working
people. Stirling [cattle station on the upper Hanson] men, and from
Neddy Jakamarra, interview with Petronella Wafer, 1981
Did the white men ever shoot those women and children
then, and piccaninnies?
Yes. Hittem, killem. Yeah, same way they killem killem long stick.
Gottem stick, knockem in the head or neck. Them kid, piccaninny, small
one, like a goanna, hittem longa tree. Bashem longa stone, chuckem
longa stone, or killem. Might be too cruel. Jush bashem. You know, too
small to shootem, too small. Women bin run-away, they roundem up,
Why did they do that?
I dunno. Oh, they bin like to killem, finishem up tribe. Take all of
their country. Might be they want to takem big place, you know, this
Chicken Gonagun and Sandy Mamboikyi, interview with Peter
They shot anybody, they told me. One old woman they
out in the plain. She was digging for nuts and she tried to explain
what she was getting, you know, something to eat. One white man shot
Dinah Kurratji, interview with Peter Read, 1977
And they bin turnem round, and shootem all. All people
bullock. Old people bin here, this country. Old people, like bullock.
Big mob, woman, kid, man. Too much woman. Too much ... too much man.
Too much blackfeller. All Warlpiri you know, all Warlpiri. Poor bugger.
Jimmy Jungarrayi, interview with Peter Read, 1977
When the old Captain cook died, other people started
could make Captain Cook another way. New people. Maybe all his sons.
Too many Captain Cooks.
They started shooting people then. New Captain Cook people. That was
new. New people did that. Those are the people that made was when
Captain Cook died; because they didn't care, they didn't know, all
those young people.
They are the ones who have been stealing all the women and killing
people. They have made war. War makers, those New Captain Cooks.
Paddy Wainburranga, 1987
The most striking account of such events is the autobiography of the
bloodthirsty sole leader of the Northern Territory Native Police, W.
Willshire, Land of Dawning (Adelaide 1896). The following
extracts give something of the flavour of this book:
I am proud to be able to submit to paper that
Government of the time told me off as the officer of police parties to
go out and do as the law provides in such cases. I worked hard for 10
months, sometimes with seven or eight men, and latterly with black
trackers and now I say All's well that ends well.
One Blood recounts the following about
Willshire (page 392):
While tracking some natives who had been killing cattle on the Victoria
Run in August, 1894, we came upon them camped in a gorge. As there was
no getting away, the females and kids crawled into rocky embrasures.
When we had finished with the male portion, we brought the black gins
and their offspring out from their rocky alcoves ... one old buck met
with a geographical accident by falling flop into a dry gully and
breaking his crupper bone. Lor, he did grunt and squeal with most
The inquiry, however, was fatally flawed. The
witnesses were screened first by Mounted Constable W.H. Willshire, a
curious choice, considering that Willshire was one of those accused by
the missionaries. A notoriously brutal man, Willshire's writings
revealed an unbalanced personality, sadistic and perverted. He was
almost certainly responsible, directly or indirectly, for hundreds of
Aboriginal deaths. As many as one thousand Aborigines were shot within
a radius of 300 kilometres of Alice Springs in the decade 1881-1891 ...
Willshire claimed that if most policemen dared accompany him on an
attack, “they would need a clean pair of pants”.
A number of books or original documents from the tail end of the
exploration period in Central Australia, from the 1860s into the early
20th century, have important descriptions of clashes with Aborigines
and massacres. Sturt's expedition killed some Aborigines, as did the
McKinlay expedition. The relevant books and documents include: Tracks
of McKinlay and Party Across Australia by W. Westgarth (London
1863); Account of Milner's Journey to Northern Territory, 1870-71
by A.C. Ashwin (Adelaide Archives); In Australian Tropics by
A.C. Searcy (London, 1907); By Flood and Field by A.C. Searcy
(London, 1912); and Wanderings in Wild Australia by W.B.
Spencer (London, 1928); Packhorse and Waterhole by G. Buchanan
(Angus and Robertson, 1934); Life of John Costello by M.M.J.
Costello (Dymocks, 1930); Northern Territory Charlie: Charles James
Dashwood in Palmerston 1892-1905 unpublished thesis by P. Elder
Luise Hercus is an anthropologist and linguist who has done much
translation with Northern Territory and Queensland Aboriginals. Her
book, with Peter Sutton, Aboriginal Australia, This is What Happened
contains many translated interviews with NT Aborigines, describing
massacres and killings, one of them on an island in the Gulf of
Carpentaria. The standard book on Darwin, The Front Door by
Douglas Lockwood (Rigby 1994) and Alice on the Line have a
number of accounts of Aboriginal massacres.
Ronald and Catherine Berndt's book on the Aborigines of Arnhem Land
mentions several massacres. Mervyn Hartwig's unpublished thesis, The
Progress of White Settlement in the Alice Springs District and Its
Effect Upon the Aboriginal Inhabitants, 1860-1894 (Adelaide, 1965);
and From the Barrel of a Gun: The Oppression of the Aborigines
1860-1900 by A. Markus (Victorian Historical Association, 1974) are
both useful. John Cribbin's book, The Killing Times (1984), is
a thorough account of the Coniston Massacre.
There are now two broad camps in Australian
Aboriginal rights and Aboriginal history. On the one side is an
enormous range of Australians who favour a civilised and modern
attitude in these matters. This is demonstrated by the largest popular
demonstrations ever seen in Australia for Aboriginal reconciliation,
which began with the march across the Sydney Harbour Bridge, and by the
overwhelmingly supportive popular response to the opening and closing
ceremonies of the Olympic Games, and Cathy Freeman's role in the
opening ceremony, and to such things as the political statement on
Aboriginal affairs at the closing ceremony by Midnight Oil and others.
The other camp is represented by the rabid conservative populists who
infest the Sydney media, and the federal Liberal government, which is
trying to cut back expenditure on Aboriginal affairs, and refuses to
make any statement of atonement, or any consideration of even the idea
of some kind of treaty with Aboriginal Australia.
The Quadrant bunch, and its activities concerning
Aboriginal affairs, is the intellectual wing of this reactionary
alliance. In his November Quadrant editorial, McGuiness makes
the unsubstantiated triumphalist assertion that the historians' picture
of Aboriginal massacre is disintegrating under challenge from dissident
historians, presumably the Quadrant historical polemicists.
Quadrant is actually the smallest spoke in this
wheel. The larger spoke is the Howard Government, and the most
effective weapon it has is the constant brouhaha of the right wing
populists in the tabloid media. Quadrant is a poor third force
pulling this creaking reactionary chariot, although it is important for
the intellectual reinforcement it tries to give the wedge politics of
the tabloid press and talkback radio.
There is a considerable battle going on for the hearts and minds of
Australians in these matters, which is one good reason why serious
public debate is needed. I would like to see a carefully organised
series of teach-ins, like the Vietnam teach-ins, over a whole weekend,
where all the views on these matters could contend.
As a bookseller, I am strongly of the view that some smart publisher
should start a library of Aboriginal affairs, and reprint many of the
books that I have referred to, which are unfortunately out of print. I
am certain that they would sell well.
The major role of Henry Reynolds in
popularising a truthful history of the encounter between Aboriginal
Australia and British white Australia on the expanding frontier, and
the subsequent harsh experience of Aboriginals in Australian life
In his pompous November Quadrant
McGuinness makes the insulting throwaway remark that Reynolds has
written the same book ad infinitum. That remark tells you more about
McGuinness than about Reynolds. The prolific McGuinness himself is
probably one of the most repetitive journalists in Australia. The same
obsessive themes recur constantly in his columns.
This does not apply to Henry Reynolds. A striking feature of his work
is how little he repeats himself. Starting 30 years ago with work about
the Aboriginal resistance to white settlement, over the years he has
systematically expanded his investigations to all aspects of the
interaction between traditional Aboriginal society and British white
invasion. Each of Reynolds's books is a scholarly and careful
historical analysis of a different aspect of this long historical
That McGuinness can make such a reckless and inaccurate observation
underlines the attitude of this Quadrant
bunch to Aboriginal history. In their cosmology, it seems, Aboriginal
history is only worth two or three books, and if you write any more,
you are probably repeating yourself. The enormous range of Reynolds'
work on Aboriginal history is a living refutation of this unpleasant
Eurocentric outlook. The 10 books written by Reynolds, or edited by
him, that are currently in print, are an extremely useful general
overview of Aboriginal history and politics.
In Australian cultural life, Henry Reynolds has played an enormous role
in popularising an accurate and necessary revival of memory about what
really happened to our first Australians, and how their blood soaked
the frontier from 1788. The popularity of his books is an indication of
a decisive change in opinion. He has been the most effective publicist
so far in the cause of a proper historical balancesheet.
It is Windschuttle, McGuinness and the denialists who are distorting
the historical record, not Reynolds and the other historians who have
brought what had been hidden into the open. Reynolds's important and
moving book, Why Weren't We Told
describes in a most interesting way his own intellectual odyssey in the
field of Aboriginal history, Aboriginal studies, and eventually
Aboriginal politics, and is a fascinating insight into the enormous
amount of work the man has done in the field, which gives his
conclusions powerful weight, and describes how he has arrived at many
of his conclusions.
Also fascinating and moving is the recent book, Fighting Words:
Writing About Race
by Raymond Evans (Queensland University Press, 1999). Ray Evans is a
very important Queensland historian of Aboriginal affairs, and race and
His book is an overview of his 30 years experience of research and
teaching in the field and explains how his views and interests
developed. One useful part of Ray Evans' book is the lengthy list at
the start of those who have influenced him or been his co-workers in
the field of Aboriginal and race studies.
This generous list is a very useful introduction to the personalities
in the field, and their work. Ray Evans' book has two chapters that add
extensively to our body of knowledge about massacres and conflict on
the Queensland frontier: The Owl and the Eagle and The
Mogwi Take Mi-an-jin. The second chapter makes extensive and
ingenious use of the government document, The Moreton Bay Book of
Trials. The end notes to Ray Evans' book contain many references to
written records of conflict events that I have not seen elsewhere.
Together, the two books, by Reynolds and Evans, provide a comprehensive
picture of how the whole school of inquiry into Aboriginal history and
experience evolved in the modern period, and how far removed it is from
the kind of melodramatic intellectual conspiracy asserted by
When the Windschuttle-McGuinness polemic on Aboriginal history and
Aboriginal affairs first erupted, I was a bit flabbergasted that these
two conservatives should choose this arena for an ideological argument,
as it seemed to me, from my existing knowledge and reading, that their
point of view was in sharp conflict with the facts of the case.
Nevertheless, that such a polemic could take place, and that prejudices
of a similar sort still persist in the tabloid press and on talkback
radio, led me to take the question seriously, dig into my personal
archive, and to rapidly widen my existing knowledge of the field and
the literature. As I have done this over the last few months, my view
that the Windschuttle-McGuinness standpoint is false has been
strengthened and sharpened. How can reasonable men hold the
Windschuttle-McGuinness position in the face of all the evidence?
What struck me as my inquiry developed is that no one in recent times
has done a thorough, compact overview of the literature, with a view to
combatting reactionary revisionist constructions (for the fairly
obvious reason that nobody considered it necessary until this argument
erupted, the facts of the case seeming so obvious).
That is the task I have set myself in this article, which is my
contribution to the debate. This controversy is subject to the obvious
comment by Aboriginal Australians that it is a debate among whites
about Aboriginal history and affairs. Nevertheless, it is a debate
about Australian history about the encounter between Aboriginal
Australia and white Australia, and it is largely confined to white
Australians because so far most historians in the area have been white.
It would be completely wrong to let McGuinness and Windschuttle get
away with their assertions without a proper, detailed and effective
reply, and it is necessary to have a debate, drawing on the existing
literature, and the work of existing historians, to get to the facts of
the matter, in so far as you can get the full facts without drawing
primarily on Aboriginal direct experience. In due course much more
written history will become available from Aboriginal Australian
historians, as the past and present obstacles to an indigenous written
historiography are progressively removed.
Windschuttle's conspiracy theory on the
writing of Australian history about Aboriginal-white relations
In the face of the overwhelming body of
of which is assembled here, Windschuttle is forced to adopt an
eccentric conspiracy theory to justify his point of view. He adopts a
construction in which, throughout the 19th century, most Aboriginal
massacre accounts were invented by missionaries, do-gooders, cranks,
and even by a large number of perpetrating squatters, who in their
senility, admitted to crimes they hadn't committed.
According to Windschuttle, in the 20th century, sinister academic
historians, drawn from intellectual elites, have continued this
practice of inventing massacre accounts. One has only to describe this
conspiracy theory briefly for its paranoid and self-reinforcing aspect
to hit one very forcibly.
The obvious question is, what possible motivation, or set of
motivations, could impel such a wide range of people, in different
places and at different times, and with such a diverse collection of
interests and experiences, to invent such a variety of Aboriginal
massacre accounts if they weren't based in the reality of Australian
frontier life, and unless most of them were true.
At an earlier, more intellectually useful, stage of his development
Windschuttle was preoccupied by the postmodernist killing of history.
He was deeply concerned, as many historians are, to defend narrative
history. A very important part of the serious history written by
younger Australian historians over the last 30 years has been devoted
to Aboriginal history and the history of the Australian frontier.
In his polemic, by using his absurdly narrow propositions about how
history can be written, Windschuttle is himself contributing to an
assault on serious narrative history, both that which has been written,
and that which is still to come. This is pretty sad.
It would be hard to get away with
Windschuttle's urban conservative revisionism in the bush
It also must be said that the
Windschuttle-McGuinness-Quadrant crusade is peculiarly the activity and
ideology of urban conservatives. It could not be conducted effectively
in the bush or in provincial Australia because of the fact that most
Australians in country and regional areas, whatever their point of view
about Aboriginal affairs, are aware of the history of Aboriginal
massacres in their own region.
Many people in the bush are aware of the real facts of local history.
The following letter in the Sydney Morning Herald of November
22, 2000, underlines this point forcibly:
Living in the country, I was unable to attend
the latest bunfight at Goulds in Newtown (Herald, Nov 13). But
having lived in country NSW for most of my life, I am familiar with the
stories of massacres.
Dame Mary Gilmore, the important Australian poet
participated in William Lane's expedition to Paraguay, is well-known
for her two books of reminiscences Old Days, Old Ways and More
which contain memories of her family as far back as her grandfather,
Hugh Beattie, who became a farmer in the Hunter Valley in the latter
part of the 19th century.
The sources are not indigenous people, academics or city-based
commentators but descendants of early white settlers. The stories are
oral and today rarely discussed.
Since they are not documented, they can easily be discounted by those
who deny the strong genocidal tendencies of early Australian settlers.
As a young man in western NSW I lived in a log cabin with musket holes
in the walls so that the settlers could ward off attacks. There were
even spear marks in the walls. The ground was a massacre site.
Fifty years ago stories of attacks and burial grounds still circulated.
Of course, there is now no evidence except the blood of Cain's brother
Abel that still cries out to God from the ground.
I suspect that even my own forebears were involved in some killings.
Although I am not responsible for their actions, I am profoundly sorry
they occurred. Any man's death diminishes me and especially when we
squabble over whether it was a few hundred or a hundred thousand who
We are collectively responsible for the racism that still stains our
Don Dufty, Mudgee
There are many accounts of Aboriginal massacres and killings in the
Hunter Valley and the north coast, of which her family were aware, and
which her grandfather tried to prevent, resulting in his ostracism by
the white community. Particularly chilling are her accounts of
massacres of Aborigines on the Clarence, where she says the rivers were
polluted for months by unburied bodies.
While Gilmore's evidence is largely anecdotal, it slots in accurately
with all the material in local newspapers about conflicts with
Aboriginals that appeared during the period she is recollecting.
Another interesting source is the very large, two-volume celebratory
book produced at the time of the first centennial, in 1888. Australian
Men of Mark
has several hundred full-page pen portraits of the notables in the
Australian colonies, many of then squatters. Many of these small
biographies record sharp conflict with Aborigines during settlement,
and celebrate the role of the particular squatter in expeditions
against the original inhabitants and the clearance of Aboriginals from
Celebrating Australia's brave Aboriginal
warriors and their 200-year war in defence of their land
The Aboriginal peoples' war of self-defence on
Australian frontier was a real war in every sense of that word. From
Pemulwuy and Yagan at the start, to the Kalkadoons and the Aboriginal
warriors in the Kimberley towards the end, the first Australians gave a
very good account of themselves, but they were eventually overwhelmed
by superior firepower and modern military technology.
This Aboriginal war of self-defence is celebrated in books Forgotten
Rebels, Black Australians Who Fought Back, by David Lowe (1994); The
Other Side of the Frontier by Henry Reynolds; and The Black
Resistance: An Introduction to the History of the Aborigines' Struggle
Against British Colonialism by Fergus Robinson and Barry York.
As in all wars of brutal colonial conquest, the conquerors initially
wrote the story of that war. The war was bloody and brutal, and the
overwhelming majority of casualties and victims were on the side of the
defeated Aborigines. Windschuttles's unpleasant historical revisionism
includes a failure to recognise and understand the extent of this
large-scale war of Aboriginal resistance and colonial conquest.
In such a war, the casualty figures for both sides, estimated by
Reynolds and Loos, are inevitable, and possibly conservative for the
The debate is not really about the number of Aborigines killed. It is
about whether there was a systematic, genocidal attack on Aboriginal
society on the Australian frontier.
Despite all Windschuttle's whipped-up indignation, attempting to
discredit Henry Reynolds's reasonable and conservative 20,000 estimate
for the number of Aboriginals killed on the frontier.
Reynolds repeatedly stresses that the 20,000 figure is only a best
estimate. It may be 30,000 or it may be 17,000. The real issue is
Windschuttle's completely indefensible proposition that very few
Aboriginals were killed in massacres or other killings. The whole
thrust of Windschuttle's polemic (he is quite explicit about this) is
to attempt to dispute the historical record that the British conquest
of Australia included a constant, bloody exterminatory attack on the
His denialist attempt to controvert this overwhelming fact of
Australian history collapses completely on any serious overview of the
A striking thing about Windschuttle's polemic is the fact that he is
attacking the work of almost all historians who have devoted attention
to Aboriginal history and conflict on the Australian frontier.
His assault is essentially negative. Where are the histories of
Aboriginal Australia and the interaction between white settlement and
Aboriginal society in Australia that he considers to be truthful?
As I have researched and developed this overview of the literature, I
have come to understand forcibly why there are so few histories of
Aboriginal affairs of the conservative sort that Windschuttle obviously
desires. The few that there are, achieve their blandness by ignoring
Most serious historians thoroughly digging into the available
literature are eventually forced to an opposite view to Windschuttle's
by the overwhelming and cumulative nature of the evidence he or she
discovers in the course of their investigations. As I have broadened my
research, I have constantly unearthed new material that contributes to
our overall knowledge of the widespread attack on Aboriginal society
The most powerful evidence comes, not from historians, but from the
memoirs of squatters, explorers and other contemporary witnesses. The
sheer volume of contemporary evidence from so many sources, and so many
diverse types of people, with different angles and interests, makes
Windschuttle's self-appointed task of sanitising events on the
Australian frontier a virtual literary impossibility.
He approaches this task ruthlessly, and tries to ridicule or deny the
credibility of material that doesn't fit his case, but the sheer volume
and internal consistency of all this evidence totally undermines his
While, in my view, Aboriginal oral tradition and white oral memory are
valid sources of historical information, even if you totally exclude
oral tradition the written material from contemporary 19th century and
early 20th century sources is so overwhelming as to establish the
validity of the Loos-Reynolds numerical estimates, and the general
picture given by the historians Windschuttle attacks.
The historical picture outlined by the progressive historians, because
of the necessary constraints of writing history for a broad public,
actually creates a milder impact on the reader than the sort of
response that a reader has from investigating the primary sources.
Having done a crash course in these contemporary sources of evidence
from the Australian frontier, it's beyond my understanding how Keith
Windschuttle can try to maintain his point of view.
In his December Quadrant article, Windschuttle says most
Australian Aboriginals simply want to live like the rest of us, and he
implies that they wish to disappear into an Australian community in
which we all merge together. Well, it is quite clear that most
Aborigines would like to live like the rest of us, in the sense that
they would like to have a similar income, similar health standards and
a similar life expectancy, but it is not demonstrated that they want to
be like Keith Windschuttle and Paddy McGuinness _ nor, for that matter,
do I and many thousands of other more or less white Australians.
One of the striking features of modern Australia is, as the Quadrant
bunch point out, intermarriage between national groups in Australia,
including Aboriginals and Europeans. In the
Windschuttle-McGuinness-Pauline Hanson universe, this is taken to mean
that they want to blend themselves into British Australia. That's
Why this debate now? The contest over the
Australian national imaginary in the years 2000-2001, the centenary of
In 1998 Miriam Dixson published a book, The
Imaginary Australian, in which she adopted a standpoint in some
ways similar to Windschuttle's.
She bemoaned the fact that “black armband” historians and other
intellectuals had painted an unreasonably bleak picture of the history
of what she called Anglo-Celtic Australia. She counterposed to this her
notion of Australian history and development and asserted the need to
develop an Australian national imaginary in the sphere of history,
literature, films and art, with a more benign picture of the history of
In a lengthy polemic I wrote criticising her outlook, I made the point
that her notion of an Australian “National Imaginary” was an
intrinsically useful idea, the only difference being that the idea of
such a “National Imaginary” held by myself and many other Australians,
was quite different to Miriam Dixson's, and in this context, to Keith
Windschuttle's polemic is clearly part of a contest that already exists
over the nature of the Australian national imaginary. In the future I
expect we will see the creation of novels, biographies, films and music
based on the authentic record of Aboriginal experience and the brutal
conflict on the Australian frontier.
I have no doubt that a film will be made of the novel Pemulwuy.
A film ought to be made based on Waterloo Creek and the life of
Threlkeld. I have written a 500-word proposal (a pitch) for a film
about the massacre of the Kalkadoons, and another 500-word pitch for a
film about the dramatic story of Jack and Lallie Akbar. There is
obviously an enormous creative potential for future artistic
productions based on a truthful National Imaginary including the real
record of the Aboriginal experience in Australia.
There is a new, pronounced, developing Australian national identity,
but it is in fact no longer mainly Dixson's and Windschuttle's British
Anglo-Celtic Australian identity. What actually happens now in
Australia, including among Aborigines who intermarry with Europeans, is
that people tend to stake out a strong claim to their rightful share of
the developing Australian identity, while at the same time celebrating
and retaining a certain diversity and an identity with the section of
Australian society in which they originate.
Both states of being coexist. That applies to many of us, Greek
Australians, Irish Catholic Australians, Chinese Australians,
Melanesian Australians, Aboriginal Australians and many other groups.
That is how our vigorous Australian national identity intertwines with
our healthy and robust Australian multiculture.
Windschuttle and company want separate identities to disappear as soon
as possible, but that's not going to happen, particularly with
Aboriginal identity. The children of Aborigines who marry Europeans
still identify, and are identified by the rest of society, as
The tendency, in fact, is for more and more people with some previously
hidden Aboriginality to come forward and proclaim it proudly. What was
in the past seen as a stigma has been transformed into a celebratory
sense of Aboriginal identity.
That has also been the experience of other previously stigmatised
groups in Australian society, a good example being the Irish Catholics.
The most striking personification of this dual and proudly proclaimed
Aboriginal Australian identity is Cathy Freeman.
The future of Australian national identity lies with the evolution of
an Australian culture that includes the assertion of a general,
all-encompassing Australian identity, intertwined with a proud
assertion of all the multicultural identities that make up the whole
skein of modern Australian society, with our first people, the
Aboriginal custodians of the land, having founding place in this
What happened to Aboriginal Australia? Bob
Gould's brief summary
An update version of my overview after the
Bookshop debate of November 12, 2000, incorporating new material that
has come to my attention.
After surveying the literature I present the
outline. Anyone attempting to advance a narrative about what happened
to Aboriginal Australia ought to start with a serious discussion of the
It is completely unconvincing to proceed, as McGuinness and
Windschuttle do, with a series of scattergun polemics against a small
number of historians, and bald assertions of their own beliefs, without
grounding these assertions in a systematic survey of the historical
record, and a serious discussion of the literature.
My overview of the existing body of knowledge, which is by no means
complete, is still quite sufficient to sketch out a comprehensive
picture, and that picture is in dramatic contrast with the sketchy,
apologetic narrative of Windschuttle, McGuinness and the other
revisionists of Aboriginal and frontier history.
Following Butlin, it's useful to start with Aboriginal hunter-gatherer
society, which developed over 60,000 years of settlement in
Australasia-Sahul. This Aboriginal society was stable and in reasonable
balance with the peculiarities of the Australian environment, which the
Aborigines modified, with a certain amount of fire-stick farming (of
the more balanced sort suggested by David Horton, rather than the
extravagant scale advanced by Tim Flannery and Stephen J. Pyne, whose
versions make the hunter gatherers mainly responsible for the
degradation of the environment, and extinction of the marsupial
Most prehistorians and archaeologists accept that there may have been
several migrations in early prehistory, which is suggested by the
continent-wide pattern of Aboriginal languages. One of the four
Aboriginal language groups, which has by far the largest number of
individual languages, is confined to the small area of the coastal
Northern Territory and the Kimberley region, and some cave art in
northern Australia has distinctive features.
An implicitly racist narrative has been developed by some from the
distinctive features of the cave art, in which that art is the product
of a lost race, quite distinct from the modern Aboriginal populations
of the region, who are alleged to be culturally regressive compared
with the lost race. This convenient Eurocentric narrative is
contradicted, obviously, by the other cultural feature that suggests
several migrations in remote prehistory, which is the unusual
concentration of Aboriginal languages in northern Australia.
One fascinating inference emerges from the discussion among
prehistorians about the routes of migration to Australia (described by
Butlin). The consensus view appears to be that the main waves were from
Timor to the coast of Sahul-Australasia, almost exactly to the point
now occupied by Ashmore and Hibernia Reefs, which were on the coast of
the continent for most of the past 100,000 years, until the sea levels
rose 8000 years ago.
The latest cohort of boat people out of Indonesia is doing nothing new.
Migrants out of Asia started making landfall in Australasia near
Ashmore Reef 60,000 years ago.
The continent-wide Aboriginal society that developed in Australia was
complex, and had a number of regional variants. In northern Australia
there was a certain amount of sporadic cultural contact with the
Indonesian archipelago and New Guinea after the sea levels rose 8000
years ago and drowned the land bridge with New Guinea.
There were complex Aboriginal trading networks, the songlines, which
often went through arid central Australia. A distinctive cultural
variant in Aboriginal society developed at the other end of the
continent, in Tasmania, also after the sea levels rose, and this
distinctive Tasmanian Aboriginal society developed in isolation for
In some areas, such as the inland rivers in the south east, the
Aborigines developed elabourate food-collecting practices, damming
rivers and creeks to make eel and fish farms, as described by Lourandos.
Following Butlin again, there is no reason to believe that Aboriginal
populations before European contact would not have risen to the maximum
carrying capacity of the continent for a hunter-gatherer society, of
the type disclosed by archaeology and Aboriginal legend.
The number of Aborigines in Australia around the time of first white
settlement in 1788 was of the order of 700,000, broken down in the
following rough proportion: 10,000 Tasmania, 40,000 in SA, 80,000 in
the Northern Territory, 120,000 in Victoria, 150,000 in each of NSW,
Queensland and WA.
Following Butlin, Aboriginal populations in northern Australia had a
certain amount of resistance to diseases endemic in Asia, such as
smallpox and leprosy, due to immunities developed by the survivors of
past epidemics precipitated by contact over 700 years with Malay
fishermen (the Macassarmen).
Because of the geographical barrier presented by the arid centre and
the dry-wet cycle in the north, these epidemics and the consequent
immunities for survivors did not spread to south-eastern Australia.
As a result of this, initial contact with Europeans in 1788 commenced a
cycle in south-eastern Australia of devastating epidemics of smallpox,
influenza, whooping cough and a variety of venereal diseases, which
went on for about 50 years.
These initial epidemics disrupted Aboriginal society and reduced
Aboriginal populations in south-east Australia by at least half by 1838.
Judy Campbell's methodological point that the epidemics included a
variety of diseases other than smallpox, is important. After plague
events such as these, the tendency of population is often to revive as
the survivors with immunity breed, but this possible cycle of revival
was disrupted by the physical conflict and competition on the
Australian frontier between an Aboriginal society disrupted by the
epidemics and an invading European society with major advantages in
“When the sky fell down”
This eloquent phrase, drawn from Aboriginal
literally what happened to those Aboriginal populations unfortunate
enough to live in the areas chosen by the white invaders to build
initial settlements, which became cities and major towns.
Almost all these settlements, starting with Sydney, and ending with the
Queensland provincial cities and Darwin, totally disrupted the existing
There was often, even usually, an attempt at resistance, such as the
guerrilla war of Pemulwuy, and the Aboriginal military resistance
around Bathurst. These were always repressed, by the use of the
technological advantages available to the Europeans, and Aboriginal
society was pretty well destroyed in the areas of white urban
The attempt at Aboriginal rebellion around Melbourne, spearheaded by
half a dozen surviving Tasmanian Aborigines brought to Port Phillip by
George Robinson, is particularly poignant, as is the earlier resistance
of the Tasmanian Aboriginals, assisted by Mosquito, the expatriate
In both these instances, Aborigines who had previously seen what had
happened to their own tribes, and who had been taken to another area of
white settlement with the Europeans, deserted the whites to help
organise Aboriginal resistance in the new area. Those expatriate
Aborigines were brave men and women.
The Port Phillip events are described colourfully in Jack of Cape
Grim and the Tasmanian events in Black War.
The determined resistance of the Aboriginal tribes to the settlement at
Bundaberg, from the 1850s to the 1870s, described in Janette Nolan's History
of Bundaberg is representative of the resistance around provincial
The Aboriginal resistance around Sydney, and the brutal military
repression permitted by the early governors, particularly the massacre
of Aboriginal families at Appin, are movingly recorded in two useful
examples of the new urban history: On the Frontier, A Social
History of Liverpool by Christopher Keating (Hale and Iremonger,
1996) and Bankstown by Sue Rosen (Hale and Iremonger, 1996).
The Australian pastoral-agricultural frontier
Butlin's book The Economics of the Dreamtime
sober and comprehensive description of the settlement of the pastoral
and agricultural frontier, with a largely economic focus, which is
extremely illuminating, as no other scholar has made this sort of
analysis. Flowing from his essentially economic analysis, Butlin,
however, has a tendency to downplay the physical and military conflict
on the pastoral frontier, and his economic narrative needs to be
balanced and supplemented by the literature about such conflict.
The expanding Australian frontier was initially, and for most of
Australian history, a pastoral frontier. In the first period, in NSW
and Tasmania, the squatters seized an enormous amount of Aboriginal
land and developed it with cruelly exploited, womenless convict and
The inevitable conflict with the indigenous Aboriginal inhabitants was
often precipitated by the conflicts over access to Aboriginal women,
usually taking the form of convict shepherds and squatters seizing
women without the customary gratuities to the husband or the tribe.
Plomley's observation, for Tasmania, that the dramatic and massive
appropriation of Aboriginal women by the whites was a very major factor
in the collapse of Aboriginal society, holds good at every phase of the
pastoral settlement of Australia, for about 150 years.
The disruption of Aboriginal society from the
appropriation of women had the obvious effect of producing mixed-race
offspring, many of whom died, but a number of whom survived, some to be
absorbed by assimilation into the white labour force in rural areas,
and others to be the progenitors of modern Aboriginal society in those
areas where full-blood Aboriginals died out. The other effect of the
seizure of women was the dissemination of a variety of venereal
diseases throughout Aboriginal populations, increasing the death rate
and the disruption of Aboriginal society.
Butlin's droll and brutal description of the
initial pastoral capital formation in Australia, which took place
during the interregnum after the Rum Corps seized power from Bligh, is
of considerable interest to Australians, both Aboriginal and European.
The ruling military junta made vast grants of Aboriginal land to
themselves and their cronies, such as Marsden, and these land grants
became the basis of many of the pastoral fortunes in early Australia.
When the new governor arrived from London it proved impossible to
reverse these land grants.
The main economic and physical conflict between Aboriginal society and
white society was over access to, and use of, land. White pastoralism
brutally disrupted the existing balanced and ecologically sustainable
Aboriginal hunter-gatherer society.
The pastoralists killed game, and their stock animals ate the fodder.
Quite quickly the Aborigines worked out that the new stock animals were
at the core of white invasion. They were also an attractive food source
in the absence of the game driven away by white settlement.
Physical conflict often began when tribal Aborigines speared and ate
the cattle and sheep, out of necessity, hunger and the
society-defending desire to drive the invading whites away.
Recent massacre denialists and British settlement benignists assert
that there was more co-operation than conflict between white settler
society and Aboriginal society.
An overview of the literature of conflict and Butlin's economic
analysis highlight the absurdity of this proposition. There was a
certain amount of co-operation between conquering white society and
surviving Aboriginal society, but it did not take the benign form
suggested both by Windschuttle and less extreme apostles of the benign
effects school, such as Bain Atwood.
Most of the time it was co-operation literally at the point of a gun,
and the financial incentives and rewards available to Aboriginal labour
on the pastoral and agricultural frontier were minimal compared with
the financial rewards available to white labour.
Following Butlin, white labour on the pastoral frontier, even convict
labour, involved a certain cost, and free white labour an even greater
cost. Many squatters and farmers employed some Aborigines on their
properties at very low rates and some squatters and other whites were
even motivated by humane considerations towards Aborigines. However, as
Ray Evans puts it in his book, Fighting Words, in debate with
Bain Atwood, Marie Fels and other benignists:
If pushed to choose a rough percentage for
examples of conciliation in the overall pattern of colonial race
relations, I would consider it a generous gesture to place this
proportion at much above 10 per cent. At the risk of being branded
irredeemably recalcitrant and crusty, I would also suggest that those
who argue that racial accommodation is as significant as, or indeed as
requiring, more studied attention than the major story of Australian
racial conflict, are really only represented in the tail as wagging the
From the start of the squatting frontier, with
at Camden, to its culmination with Vesteys in the Kimberleys, the
Northern Territory and Queensland, most of the literature and oral
history suggests that constant violence against Aborigines and
Aboriginal society was endemic on the frontier throughout that whole
To say that violence was endemic is not to say that it took place in
every instance. Some squatters were humane, and some conflict was
followed by more peaceful relations between Aborigines and squatters,
although this was usually after the defeat of the tribes in an
initially sharp conflict, and their reduction in numbers by disease.
Rowley said, in The Destruction of Aboriginal Society that
no member of the Select Committee questioned the philosophy at which
NSW settler democracy had finally arrived: that of the one bloody
lesson as the basis for peace in frontier regions.
As William Forster (formerly of Gin Gin
Station) said in
evidence to the same Select Committee of the Legislative Assembly of
NSW in 1856, “I think there are three stages. At first the Aborigines
are thoroughly wild, and at war with the whites, though in appearance
disposed to be civil than otherwise; they do not commence their
depredations until they understand our habits; they then reach another
stage, which is a kind of open war; after which they reach a third
stage, when they understand our superior power, and at the same time
their predatory habits are still in existence, they will carry on small
depredations, and no doubt take lives at times, but their object is not
to take life, it is not war.
There were three kinds of encounter on the
pastoral frontier. The least common was completely peaceful settlement
and dealings with the original Aboriginal population. A larger number
of contacts were the spectacular, systematic massacres, which are
exemplified in the bloodthirsty activities of Major Nunn in northern
NSW, Angus McMillan in Gippsland, Kennedy and Urquhart in Queensland
and Willshire in the Northern Territory.
The third form of encounter, the most common, was a sort of
intermediate form between the other two. A fairly typical example of
this intermediate kind of encounter is expressed in the following very
eloquent extract from the book Yancannia Creek
by Mary Turner Shaw, which is a description of her own family's
experience in pastoral settlement in the arid area of NSW beyond the
A morning task of the young Tietkins was to
bring in the
hobbled horses, and during their brief stay at Yancannia Creek he went
out on foot in search of one that had strayed. When some distance from
the homestead, he was startled to see “a blackfellow in his wild and
savage state ... in full panoply of paint and feathers ... alarming
six-barbed spear, shield and boomerang”. However, the confrontation
passed off peaceably with the self-styled “Monkey” obligingly finding
the lost horse and being permitted to ride it back to the station,
where he was rewarded with a stick of tobacco. Giles and Tietkins
proceeded on their way, following what was now a bridle track to
Torowotto Swamp, and so “over splendid saltbush and cottonbush country”
to Lake Yantara and on to the Grey Ranges and Depot Glen. After two
months absence they returned to Yancannia Creek to find that “Monkey”
had speared a shepherd and then led a part of his tribe against the
station, apparently planning to burn down the buildings and kill the
white men. They were driven off with losses (the number unspecified)
and Monkey himself was shot; they mustered “in considerable force” and
made another assault, but “the breech-loading rifle and revolver had
again sent them off with serious loss”.
The above extract describes the common cycle of
settlement: the initial clash, the ruthless force with which white
power is expressed in the crushing of the Aboriginal resisters, and the
final defeated coming in of the survivors to the pastoral property,
where they are forced by the necessities of survival to settle and
become a cheap labour force for the settlers. This cycle, typified by
Yancannia Creek, is story is still an extremely brutal, although less
brutal than the wholesale massacre, which was also present on the
pastoral frontier, and was used to persuade recalcitrant Aborigines to
quickly accept an eventual Yancannia Creek arrangement.
In case of further trouble Giles and Tietkins lingered a few weeks at
the station. The latter remarks, “I used not to feel very secure in
looking for the hobbled horses”, and indeed one day in thick scrub he
again came face to face with an Aborigine, to their mutual alarm. This
time it was an old man shaking with palsy, but holding several barbed
spears harmlessly enough in each trembling hand. After parley they
became “quite friendly”. The man insisted he had nothing to do with the
recent troubles and that Monkey was a rogue, and he dropped his spears
and followed Tietkins back to the station. “He eventually stayed and a
good feeling existed between the two peoples — a feeling which I think
This episode and the various encounters of the preceding years echo a
common sequence of events wherever white settlement began expanding
into tribal territories. At first the strange interlopers were greeted
with fear and caution, then often with courtesy and even personal
solicitude. Some of the Aborigines, such as “Tommy” and the native
guides before him, were ready enough to experiment in accepting white
men's ways. Then, sooner or later, more perceptive tribal leaders would
realise that the invaders were here to stay, overrunning their hunting
grounds with stock by no means intended for common use, and usurping
their vital waterholes.
Then they would determine to drive them out by all means known to them,
and these included stealth, cunning and deception as well as open
attack, but they were hopelessly and pathetically at the mercy of the
white man's guns, and although they had the courage to persist, when
the bravest and most vigorous had died, what was left for the rest to
do but to capitulate and make the best of it?
The median Yancannia Creek experience is taken up by Butlin in his
economic analysis of the Australian pastoral frontier and the
transference of the original Aboriginal capital in land and
hunter-gatherer social relations to the conquering white pastoralists.
Butlin describes how the Aboriginal survivors were incorporated into
the pastoralists' labour force at such a starvation level of payment
that white former convicts and other white pastoral employees resented
them, which was one of the subtle factors behind the Myall Creek
Massacre, in which Henry Dangar, who wished to wipe out all Aborigines
in the district to protect his pastoral interests, was able to incite
white shepherds against Aborigines on a neighbouring property, pointing
to their existence as a cheap labour force.
Such were the harsh cruelties carried out on the Australian pastoral
Butlin's economic description of the transfer of land and resources
from Aboriginal society to white squatter capital, and ultimately
banking capital, is one of the features that makes Economics and
the Dreamtime a unique analysis.
For a later period, Jack Kelly's two books, particularly Beef in
are useful, as is Colin Tatz's and Richard Broome's study of Aboriginal
labour on the Australian pastoral frontier up to recent times. The big
land companies that arose from the original brutal conquest and
transfer of capital from Aboriginal society to white settler society
were eventually absorbed into enormous land companies, such as Vesteys,
which had close links with big British and Australian banking interests.
These enormous pastoral interests, which had privileged access to
Australian governments for 150 years, were able, as Jack Kelly points
out, to acquire enormous grants of land for almost nothing, including
most of the desirable land along the river frontages in the Northern
Territory, Queensland and Western Australia, as well as vast tracts in
the more arid areas.
The exploitative economics of the pastoral industry depended on this
cheap land seized from Aboriginal Australia, and extremely cheap
Aboriginal labour, which was protected by a network of near-feudal
government rules and regulations that forced Aborigines to work for the
pastoralists for almost no monetary reward, and even in many cases
transferred the Aborigines' social service payments to the pastoralists.
After the Second World War the brutal economics of the capitalist world
market produced a crisis in this ruthlessly exploitative system. The
factors in this crisis were the collapse of world beef prices in the
1970s, the increasingly marginal character of many pastoral holdings in
arid areas (because of the fierce damage to the ecology caused by
pastoralism compared with the rather more productive Aboriginal
hunter-gatherer system in these areas) and the changes in pastoral
technology, such as the use of motor bikes and helicopters for
mustering, which dramatically reduced the labour requirements.
The pastoral system collided fiercely with human modernity when the
Aboriginal tribes in the Pilbara, led by Clancy McKenna, Dooley Bin Bin
and Don Mcleod went on a permanent strike in 1946 against slave wages
and walked off the stations, followed in 1966 by a similar development
in the Northern Territory around Wave Hill, when the Aboriginal workers
and their families walked off that station, led by Vincent Lingiari.
This event is passionately publicised in Frank Hardy's book The
Unlucky Australians, which captured the imagination of hundreds of
thousands of Australians at that moment of galloping modernity.
Growing consciousness of injustices to Aborigines exploitation helped
the pastoral stock workers secure an industrial award in 1966 which,
although it allowed for a category of slow workers at less than award
rates, still precipitated a crisis because the terms of trade on the
world market, and new pastoral technology, made horse-riding stock
workers redundant and almost unnecessary to the industry.
Most Aboriginal stock workers who were, in fact, extraordinarily
skilled, refused to work for the slow worker wage. Many of the pastoral
spreads in arid Australia, which had been the sites of such
bloodthirsty transfers of capital 60 or 70 years before, were abandoned
because of erosion and the collapse in the terms of trade, and the
surviving pastoral holdings were largely absorbed by enormous pastoral
companies and banks.
Rather than the achievement of a pastoral award in 1966 being the cause
of the elimination of Aboriginal employment from the pastoral industry,
the award was only one aspect of that process, which was much more a
product of the boom-and-bust cycle characteristic of the capitalist
system, combined with technological change and monopolisation. Modern
capitalist pastoralism uses very little labour, white or black.
The resilience of Aboriginal Australia
The denialist narrative of Aboriginal Australian
is mostly false. It is mainly driven by conservative ideology and the
economic motivations of capitalist interests such as mining companies,
big pastoralists and banks, whose interests are challenged by
Aboriginal land rights and Aboriginal claims for monetary compensation
for past wrongs.
In addition to this, Aboriginal welfare payments, like all welfare
payments, are resented by the ruling class in capitalist society
because they believe, ultimately, that all spare resources should one
way or another be transferred to themselves.
The current denialism is essentially driven by a network of
conservative political passions. As history, it's nonsense.
November 23, 2000