Fabricating history on Australia’s colonial frontier


McGuinness, Windschuttle, Quadrant and massacres of Aborigines

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 official records.

The second major point, for me, arose from my profession as a bookseller, and my fairly wide book collecting in the area of Aboriginal history.

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 proudly participated.

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 British imperialism.

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.

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 frontier.
  • 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 wage.
  • 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 society. 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 now exists. The important new book, Broken Circles, Fragmenting Indigenous Families 1800-2000, 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 Circles 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 culturally remodelled.

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 courage.

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 children denial.

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 [1990].)

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 all-purpose historical polemicist, as instant expert on the history of Aboriginal-white Australian relations

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.

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 politics.

In the past few years he has become passionately converted to the tenets of a curious ideological sect in the United States, the neo-conservatives.

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 world.

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 of others.

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 Aboriginal affairs.

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.

National self-determination, McGuinness, Windschuttle and Quadrant. The question of New Guinea

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.

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 Australia.

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 this continent. 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.

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.

In the second Quadrant article, boastfully and hopefully titled The Myths of Frontier Massacres in Australian History, Windschuttle says:

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:

Even 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 military 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.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.

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.

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 Greco-Roman tradition!

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 sensitivity.

Giving British imperialism the benefit of the doubt on the Australian frontier because it embodied the values of the Greco-Roman tradition

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 — 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 reasonable doubt.

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 criminal 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 Armenian survivors.

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 killed.

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 actually proceed

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 oral history.

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 legitimate.
  • 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 colony 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 resources.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 article.

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 Kooris. 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 Australian frontier.

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 statistician.

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 conquest.

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 story.

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 useful construct.

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 Press 1982).


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 Robinson (1998).

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 of Victoria (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 Australia 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) recreates 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 Australian Race (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.

South Australia

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.

Western Australia

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.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 tree.“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 and Auvergne.Almost at once Ulysses appears in Father’s journals as his almost constant companion.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.

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.

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 Win, 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 Creek 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 Knowling (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 Mount Dispersion.

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 armband historians?

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 included headhunting.

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 20thcentury 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, Windschuttle 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 religion.

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 Christian evangelisation.

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 missions.

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 missionaries.

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 be averted”.

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 British policy.

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 drawing my 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 Catholic) 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 several 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 imagination.

The Catholic Bishop Polding, gave similar witness to Alexander Threlkeld

Threlkeld’s massacre accounts mesh in with what we know 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 described.

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 conviction.

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 colonial frontier.

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 frontier.

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 Aborigines.

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 accounts.

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 blacks?
A. No. Warrants are never given out against the blacks for cattle-stealing, which is done by the whole tribe.
Q. Did you recognise any of them?
A. It was getting dark, but I recognised 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 orders?
A. Oh, yes.
Q. Did you give them orders to go into the scrub?
A. Yes.
Q. What was the nature of those orders?
A. I told them to surround the camp of Telemon blacks, and to disperse them.
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 way?
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.

The author, Bill Rosser, comments:

There was not the slightest trace of mercy in Wheeler’s 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 source of 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 place there.

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 Queensland.

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 circumstances.

Sir Hudson Fysh’s important book, Taming the North

If none of Reynolds’s and Loos’ reasoning convinces 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 historians 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 past atrocities.

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 punished.

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 the Dead 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.

Northern Territory

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 that. Banging, 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.

Daly Bulgara, interview with Peter Read, 1977

All our mob been shot. My grandmother Maryanne … bin die poor 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 Barrow Creek. 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, shootem. 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 country.

Chicken Gonagun and Sandy Mamboikyi, interview with Peter Read, 1977

They shot anybody, they told me. One old woman they caught right 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 her there

Dinah Kurratji, interview with Peter Read, 1977

And they bin turnem round, and shootem all. All people all, like 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 thinking they 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 standard history of the Northern Territory, Far Country, 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.

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 the 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.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 virtuous pertinacity.

One Blood recounts the following about Willshire (page 392):

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 (ANU 1979).

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 society on 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 reactionary 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 editorial, 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 process.

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 migration questions.

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 Windschuttle.

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 evidence, part 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.

any 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.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 were murdered.We are collectively responsible for the racism that still stains our culture.
Don Dufty, Mudgee

Dame Mary Gilmore, the important Australian poet who participated in William Lane’s expedition to Paraguay, is well-known for her two books of reminiscences Old Days, Old Ways and More Recollections, 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.

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 their properties.

Celebrating Australia’s brave Aboriginal warriors and their 200-year war in defence of their land

The Aboriginal peoples’ war of self-defence on the 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 Aboriginal side.

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 Aboriginal people.

His denialist attempt to controvert this overwhelming fact of Australian history collapses completely on any serious overview of the available evidence.

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 contrary evidence.

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 since 1788.

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 eccentric project.

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 nonsense.

Why this debate now? The contest over the Australian national imaginary in the years 2000-2001, the centenary of federation

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 Anglo-Celtic Australia.

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.

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 Aboriginal.

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 multiculture.

What happened to Aboriginal Australia? Bob Gould’s brief summary

An update version of my overview after the Newtown Bookshop debate of November 12, 2000, incorporating new material that has come to my attention.

After surveying the literature I present the following outline. Anyone attempting to advance a narrative about what happened to Aboriginal Australia ought to start with a serious discussion of the literature.

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 megafauna).

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 8000 years.

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 military technology.

“When the sky fell down”

This eloquent phrase, drawn from Aboriginal legend, is 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 Aboriginal society.

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 settlement.

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 Sydney Aborigine.

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 cities.

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 is a 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 ex-convict shepherds.

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 major 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 clear 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 elephant.

From the start of the squatting frontier, with MacArthur 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 period.

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 Australian 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 Murray.

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”.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 was lasting.”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 above extract describes the common cycle of frontier 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.

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 frontier.

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 Northern Australia 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 history 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


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