Whitewashing the Frontier

Henry Reynolds

Professor of History at James Cook University of North Queensland, was one of the keynote speakers at an open forum on Reconciliation and the Stolen Generation organised last year by Sydney bookseller and Labor activist Bob Gould. The following is an edited version of Professor Reynold’s address at the Forum.

I’ve spoken in some funny venues in my time. This must be one of the most eccentrically endearing. Recently Bill Hayden gave a speech in Tasmania, at the University of Tasmania actually, called “Core Cultural Values: We ignore them at our peril”. Interestingly enough, on the front page of the paper that was sent to the media was a declaration which read “The writer of this paper is Chairman of the Editorial Board of the magazine,
Quadrant.” Being Governor General didn’t measure up with that great achievement. But we had been warned as to what to expect. Among many things, Mr Hayden said that the evidence given before the HREOC inquiry into the stolen children was very much based on faulty memory syndrome. Now this, I personally felt, was at best insensitive and at worst offensive, given the extraordinary sensitivity of the matter. But he also went on towards the end and made reference to what he called my scholarly reputation which he said had been invoked so freely to bolster the burden of guilt and accusations against the nation. But he then informed his audience and the whole of the Australian media to whom the paper had been sent, that that reputation was rather tattered now and that Keith Windschuttle had carved up that reputation.

Now I know the metaphors are mixed, tired and predictable but then indeed, so was the text. And indeed there had, quite earlier of course, been several publications by Keith Windschuttle, in particular an article in the Sydney Morning Herald, which many of you, I presume, have read, entitled “Exposing Academic Deception of Past Wrongs”. This was followed up by a recent Quadrant article called “The Myths of Frontier Massacres in Australian History”. Now in this Keith told the Australian public that he had discovered a major academic deception and in the Quadrantarticle he said that many historians had actually manufactured stories about the widespread killing of Aborigines. They had indeed been guilty of outright fabrications.

Now you can just imagine the joy that such an exposure would have created in conservative circles in Australia. You can probably see them there at lunch in the Melbourne Club dribbling into their consommé in delight that we had been put in our place. But, of course, there was some point to this, that since the publication of Charles Rowley’s The Destruction of Aboriginal Society in 1970 there has been a consensus, by and large, about the reality of frontier conflict in Australia. And, of course, this consensus has grown as the scholarship has increased.

There has been now at least twenty years of serious, detailed research that has found an outlet in many books, general, regional and even local. These studies have been in numerous disciplines, not just history, but in anthropology and sociology and even in some linguistics. There have also been a large number of theses, PhDs, Masters and BA Honours theses. Now in my view this work is one of the most impressive achievements of Australian intellectual life of the last generation.

It is my view that the evidence for substantial, continuing frontier conflict is overwhelming, convincing and incontrovertible. Now it was for that reason that in my book, The Other Side of the Frontier, first published in 1981, that I said that it was reasonable to suppose — and I didn’t say more than that — I said that it was reasonable to suppose that 20,000 Aborigines had been killed in conflict with settlers. I regarded that as a modest, deliberately modest, estimate in order to counter the exaggerated claims of many that because the Aboriginal population had declined so much, then the death rate from conflict must have been much greater. This consensus which some of us would say results from the evidence is countered by another explanation in the work of Keith Windschuttle. Well, if it is not the evidence, why is there this consensus?

Well it seems my friends that there is a conspiracy. I am not quite sure who it is at the moment, but all of those usual suspects, you know, the lefties and the bleeding heart liberals and the black armband wearers and the new elite – old Bill talking about elites, my goodness me. Living in Yarralumla doesn’t put you in the elite, it seems. But not only is there a conspiracy at the moment, but there has been for a long time. That is, from at least the 1830s up to the present, there has been this theme which can be seriously construed as a conspiracy. That is, from the 1830s onwards there was a cabal of missionaries and do-gooders and activists who, according to Windschuttle, made up massacres to influence policy. And they were overwhelmingly committed to a policy of what Keith Windschuttle calls separatism.

Now I’m sure I’m reasonably simple but I would have thought that those who opposed killing Aborigines were different to those who killed them, because killing them must be the most emphatic form of separatism imaginable. Now it seems that the separatists are all about us. There are probably some of them here now. You may actually be standing next to a separatist. I’m not quite sure how you identify them, but they must be with us.

This theme was taken up in an article in another Quadrant in September, “The Breakup of Australia” when Keith Windschuttle remarked, and these remarks were highlighted in a sort of subtitle, that Reynolds (by which he was talking about me) hopes the Aboriginal claim for self-government will be decided by an international legal tribunal and backed by the authority of the United Nations.

The Australian political system will then have no choice but to accept the outcome. Hopes? Because I don’t think that’s what my hopes are at all. And it might be not unreasonable for me to turn back to him as he has done with so many other writers and say, “Where is the evidence?” Reading the hopes that lie in my heart. That is not my view and nor is my view what he characterises as separatism. Let me just quote to you that the separatists want Aboriginal people to, and I quote, “live within an Aboriginal state, governed by Aboriginal culture and laws, where residents can recreate a pre-industrial, pre-capitalist lifestyle to keep the modern world at bay.” Now I’ve been around Aboriginal politics for a long, long time and I don’t think I know anyone, anyone who thinks that is a desirable future for Aboriginal Australia. I have no idea where that idea could possibly have come from. But, of course, one of the most important aspects of the Keith Windschuttle recent opus is, as I say, his argument that historians have betrayed their professional standards, have engaged in deception and manufacturing stories. Not that I find much evidence to substantiate these claims.

There are, of course, a number of charges. There is the charge about Forrest River which is too detailed to go into here. His arguments come from a book by Rod Moran, the literary editor of the West Australian — not that that’s anything against him of course — in which he presents a lot of evidence that, as far as I’m concerned, doesn’t substantially challenge the idea that there was indeed a massacre. Since 1974, much of the more recent work, extremely detailed, extremely meticulous, particularly by the great scholar of the Tasmanian Aborigines, N.J.B Plomley, have shown that the estimates of death by conflict were modest, to say the least. He then calls doubt upon the very massive work of Roger Milliss. One of the many reasons — and obviously I’m being selective — he says that Milliss’ estimate of death is too large is that no-one reported dead bodies and that if more had been killed they would have reported it.

What alarms me is that this indicates a fundamental misunderstanding of the climate of New South Wales in 1838 when nobody, no white person on the frontier would have reported to the authorities about dead Aboriginal bodies. And there is, above all, the question of Queensland when he looked at my work, in which, with a colleague, we counted, pretty accurately I think, that perhaps 850 settlers were killed on the frontier in Queensland.

He said we didn’t have any evidence for Aborigines being killed. Innumerable attacks on European property. And the critical thing about the frontier is that settlers revenged every killing of Europeans many times over. And they said they did. They said they did, time and time again, openly and in public. So if 2,000 Europeans were attacked, how many Aborigines do you suppose were killed in return? After all, the Europeans in Queensland were on horseback and they had repeating rifles and they had six-shot revolvers. But above all the Queensland story has to include the Native Police, a paramilitary force which rode the frontier from 1848 to, in modified form, 1907. For fifty years, up to 2-300 armed Aboriginal troopers with white officers roamed the frontier.

They didn’t arrest anybody, they didn’t take prisoners or those they did, every time were shot while escaping. And there were no prisons of the sort that existed in Western Australia. What do you suppose happened on the frontier with the Native Police? In 1861, in the Queensland parliament, the Attorney-General got up in debate and said “The instructions are to the Native Police to disperse Aboriginal groups. Any large gathering is to be dispersed and when they cause any trouble they are to be dispersed.” And he said of dispersal, which is idle to dispute, means nothing but firing into them. Another member of parliament in the same debate reported in the newspaper said: “If extermination is desired, and that seems to be the only option, then the Native Police are the only appropriate force.”

I believe that my estimate of 20,000 Aboriginals killed on the frontier is modest and utterly sustainable by vast amounts of evidence. Returning to the beginning, I believe that when Bill Hayden said in effect that almost anyone who went before that Commission was somehow psychologically disturbed and was making their stories up, I felt that was gratuitous and insulting.

I feel also that in many ways the writings of Keith Windschuttle fall in the same camp. And to all those Aboriginal families in North and Central Australia who know what happened to their ancestors, who know what happened to their parents and their grandparents and their great grandparents, fortunately I don’t imagine Quadrant reaches those parts of the world. I also think Windschuttle has been profoundly unfair to all of those people who protested against the killing on the frontier, by suggesting that most of them were in some way psychologically unbalanced and made up the stories.

I also feel that Keith has been very unfair to the historical profession by suggesting that large numbers of historians have manufactured or fabricated stories. He has been unfair to the whole historical profession so I call on him now to provide the evidence of that, and to “put up or shut up”.