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July 26, 2006

The Culture Wars Down Under: Keith Windschuttle, the Aborigines, and the Left - Part One

Posted by William D. Rubinstein

William D. Rubinstein - professor of modern history at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth and the author of Men of Property: The Very Wealthy in Britain since the Industrial Revolution - continues his exploration of Australia's culture wars by examining the controversy created by the publication of Keith Windschuttle's book, The Fabrication of Aboriginal History: Volume One - Van Diemen's Land, 1803-1847.


"Culture wars" in Australia were previously fought by the Old Left; today, by the new post-modernist left and its opponents. During the past few years, an enormous controversy has been generated in Australia by one conservative historian, Keith Windschuttle. The controversy has attracted international attention and has international implications.

Prior to the post-1960s academic hegemony of the left in Australian historical debates, Australian history was almost invariably depicted in glowing and optimistic terms, the story of a country where European, chiefly British settlers, sometimes convicts and generally poor, established a democratic, progressive, and internally peaceful and prosperous society, an America without its race problem, violence, or extremes of wealth.

During the past forty years, this image has been challenged from the left, which points to the "White Australia Policy" (the deliberate exclusion of Asian immigrants until the 1960s), the status of women, and, above all, perhaps, the treatment of Australia's Aborigines, who were allegedly killed in large numbers by white settlers, dispossessed of their lands, and made to suffer continuously as a marginal, despised race.

This negative interpretation, which was dubbed the "black armband" view of Australian history by the conservative historian Geoffrey Blainey, is one which has become virtually ubiquitous in Australian university history departments, whose wall-to-wall leftism can be sampled in any academic journal dealing with Australian history.

Australian academic leftism is certainly more comprehensive than at Britain's university history departments, which are much larger and more pluralistic and which have a range of sub-disciplines (Ancient and Medieval history, military history, business history, etc.) which are apolitical or objectively on the "right", and which have not been fully cannibalised by the postmodernist, feminist, and New Left brigades.

Politically, the academic left looked admiringly to Gough Whitlam, Australia's controversial Prime Minister in 1972-75 who greatly expanded central government powers, and, with less enthusiasm, to Paul Keating (Prime Minister 1991-96), known for his strong support of Aboriginal land rights. It detests Australia's conservative Liberal-National Party coalition and, in particular, the present Prime Minister John Howard, an avowed conservative who has won four general elections in a row since 1996.

As in Britain, the publicly-owned broadcaster, the ABC, is also a notable bulwark of the post-1960s left, having been transformed during the past forty years from a pillar of the conservative "Establishment" to a captive, in large measure, (but arguably less openly than with the BBC) of the left. As in Britain it is virtually untouchable behind the twin walls of automatic public funding, conscripted from all taxpayers, and legalised "independence" from public control or realistic scrutiny.

Into this morass in 2002 there unexpectedly appeared Keith Windschuttle's The Fabrication of Aboriginal History: Volume One - Van Diemen's Land, 1803-1847 (Sydney: Macleay Press, 2002). Windschuttle, a former academic and journalist and now an independent author (Macleay Press is his own independent publishing house), spent years researching in elaborate detail the alleged killings of Aborigines in Tasmania (known as "Van Diemen's Land" until the 1850s).

All of Tasmania's pure-blooded Aborigines, apparently numbering somewhere between 2000 and 15,000 when white settlement began, were dead by the 1870s, the only known example of the complete disappearance of a people in modern times (although mixed race Tasmanian Aborigines survive) and, needless to say, one of the main props of the leftist critique of white Australian society. After years of research, Windschuttle found that only 118 Tasmanian Aborigines had actually been killed in the whole period between 1803, when white settlement began, and 1847, when the frontier nature of Tasmanian society ended. Many of the 118 Tasmanian Aborigines who were killed, were killed in self-defence, while many alleged massacres of Aborigines by whites were simply mythical, among them alleged massacres which have been supposedly recounted in published works by recent historians.

Most Tasmanian Aboriginal deaths were the result of virulent diseases to which the natives had no immunity (including syphilis) and alcoholism. Windschuttle's book became arguably the most widely-discussed Australian historical work of recent decades. It was taken up and defended by conservative publicists and commentators, and venomously attacked by the whole academic and political left. The backlash it unleashed included a collection of deeply hostile essays, mainly by academic historians, edited by Robert Manne, Whitewash: On Keith Windschuttle's Fabrication of Aboriginal History (Melbourne: Black, 2003), which appeared only six or eight months after Windschuttle's book.

Before turning in more detail to the Windschuttle "culture war" itself - which I will discuss in my next article - it might be worth making two major points about Windschuttle's central claims.

First, the situation described by Windschuttle for Tasmania (and, I understand, to be confirmed in three further volumes about other parts of Australia) is exactly paralleled in virtually all other parts of the Third World where there was an allegedly catastrophic decline in the indigenous population following the arrival of Europeans. Indeed, the recent processes of historiographical and ideological assertion and rejoinder appear to be virtually identical as well.

A major part of the critical academic reassessment of Aboriginal-European relations in Australia has been a radical revision upwards of the number of Aborigines living in Australia in 1788 when Europeans arrived. Their number was generally believed to have been no more than about 215,000 - 300,000 for the entire continent at the time, a figure based upon careful anthropological research.

Since the 1970s, their numbers have been revised upwards, chiefly by the economic historian Noel Butlin, based upon what seem to me to be deeply flawed demographic assumptions. This much higher figure is now widely accepted by pro-Aboriginal academics. Since Aboriginal numbers certainly declined drastically after 1788, with the 1901 Census reporting only 67,000 in the whole country, this upward revision makes the negative effects of European society upon the Aborigines seem even more extreme than previously thought.

Among the Indians of North America, exactly the same processes and debates as in Australia are evident. A total American Indian population of no more than 1.2 million - 2.6 million for all of the United States, Canada, and Alaska before European settlement was widely accepted by demographers until the 1970s. By 1900, the total Indian population figure for all of North America had certainly declined drastically, to about 350,000.

The pre-settlement figure was revised upward in the 1960s to 10 million - 12 million, and then to 18 million, by one demographer, who simply took the population figures for Indians in the USA and Canada in 1900 and arbitrarily multiplied up by twenty to twenty-five, an obviously absurd procedure, but one designed to show that the white man was responsible for even more Indian deaths than previously thought. Much the same thing has been done with the population statistics of pre-Columbian Latin America.

In North America, how much of the sharp decline in Indian numbers was caused by actual killings of Indians by white men? Comparatively few, it seems - exactly the picture found by Windschuttle in Tasmania. In 1894 the U.S. Census Bureau claimed that "about 30,000 Indians" had been killed by white men "since 1775". It admitted that this figure was probably too low, excluding wounded Indians who later died and other categories, and produced a revised figure of 53,500 Indian deaths at the hands of whites in the 119-year period of frontier conquest and settlement. (24,000 whites were killed by Indians in this period.)

The actual killings of Indians by whites thus accounted for no more than 3.7 per cent of the estimated decline in Indian deaths in this period (and an even lower percentage if much higher Indian population figures are accepted). The others died through rampant epidemics caused by the introduction of virulent diseases to which the Indians had no immunity, by the forced migration of Indians to uninhabited regions in the West, by the depletion of livestock such as buffalos, by alcoholism, and by the psychological effects of white settlement on Indian society.

Unlike Australia, in the United States Indians were hated, feared, and deliberately moved to frontier regions, with, certainly, far higher rates of mutual violence than in Australia. Indians were almost invariably hated for their reputation for fearsome violence, depicted until the 1960s in hundreds of B-grade cowboy movies and popular accounts. (For more information, see my book Genocide: A History, London: Pearson Longman, 2004).

In America, certainly with far more justification, radical historians have furiously criticised the policies of European settlers towards the Indians, while missing the actual causes and without praising the positive benefits they brought in both the short and long term, from an end to intertribal conflict to Western medicine and literacy.

Australian radicals (and, indeed, the mass media) have also created an entirely imaginary world in which a benign and admirable Aboriginal society was destroyed by European settlement. The notion that pre-1788 Aboriginal society was benign is a myth. Living in very small tribes of no more than 500 - 1,000 people, Aborigines were a typical, albeit very primitive hunter-gatherer people who did not cultivate food plants or grow livestock (ubiquitous in much of Eurasia and Latin America for thousands of years), and could not readily store what food they had, on a continent with probably the lowest supply of protein in the world.

Aboriginal tribes were nomadic, engaged in a continuing, ceaseless hunt for food. Because of this, there was at all times an absolute premium on keeping the number of mouths to feed as low as possible consistent with the survival of the tribe, to which the individual was always sacrificed. As a result, infanticide and other murderous practices were ubiquitous. About 30 per cent of Aboriginal infants were deliberately killed at birth. Deformed children were always killed at birth as, in the case of twins, were one or both of the twins.

The cannibalism of a murdered baby was apparently a common practice among Aborigines. Some observers "report the neonate being killed and fed to an older child who is weak or sickly". If the Aboriginal population of Australia was 300,000 in 1788, and if the Aboriginal birth rate was four per cent per annum, and if only about 20 per cent of Aboriginal infants were killed, this suggests that about 2,500 infants were killed every year, or 250,000 per century, or 100 million (sic) in the 40,000 years of Aboriginal habitation of the continent.

Tribal wars also often ended in massacres. It would also appear that Aborigines exterminated a race of native Pygmies who once lived in Australia. As elsewhere in the Third World, women could be killed for almost no reason at all. One wonders if the anti-Windschuttle brigade seriously believes that European settlers should not have stopped these horrors, or whether they should be tolerated today if Aborigines decided to revive them. Similar monstrous practices existed throughout most other indigenous societies.

This unvarnished picture of Aboriginal life would have been self-evident to any nineteenth-century white Australian, so why is it so little known today? First and foremost, the left has done its best to censor it, using the alleged ill treatment of Aborigines by whites as a major stick with which to attack Western, European society in Australia.

But there are other reasons. Roger Sandall, an Australian anthropologist, shrewdly pointed out that 99 per cent of anthropological expeditions and surveys have been carried out after - usually long after - the most horrifying features of indigenous society had already been suppressed and "defanged" (as he put it) by colonial administrators and missionaries.

Then, too, there is the "Myth of the Noble Savage", the notion so common in the West since the eighteenth century that indigenous societies must be innocent and benign, in contrast to the modern West, with its violence and oppressions. The very opposite, however, appears to be the case. Indigenous societies had no notion of individual rights, equality, or rational, scientific thought based on evidence. It is very unfashionable to say this, but these - and, say, fifty other concepts we take for granted - are wholly the product of Judeo-Christian-Hellenic civilisation and of the post-Enlightenment West.

William D. Rubinstein is professor of modern history at the University of Wales-Aberystwyth. The Social Affairs Unit is publishing a fully updated and revised edition of Prof. Rubinstein's seminal Men of Property: The Very Wealthy in Britain since the Industrial Revolution. To read William D. Rubinstein's other essays on the Australian culture wars, see: The Culture Wars Down Under: Keith Windschuttle, the Aborigines, and the Left - Part Two and
The Culture Wars Down Under: John Wren, Frank Hardy, and Power Without Glory.


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Quote "During the past forty years, this image has been challenged from the left, which points to the "White Australia Policy" (the deliberate exclusion of Asian immigrants until the 1960s), the status of women, and, above all, perhaps, the treatment of Australia's Aborigines, who were allegedly killed in large numbers by white settlers, dispossessed of their lands, and made to suffer continuously as a marginal, despised race."

Australia allowed Asian immigration before the 60's. The requirement was they should speak English. There was never notions of multiculturalism in those days.

Australia and New Zealand were the first to give women the vote. I think we treat our ladies better than many cultures!

Windshuttle is correct re the PC brigade and our indigenous people

Posted by: Gavin at August 6, 2006 01:56 PM
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The anthropological assessment of pre-contact Aboriginal population was based upon detailed tracking down of existing and extinct 'tribes' (the term doesn't really apply amongst traditional Australian Aborigine groups due to their lack of a hierarchical chieftaincy structure) and cross checking with neignbouring tribes. In remote areas of Australia 'pre-' or recent contact tribes existed until the mid 20th century so anthropologists had a reliable figure of typical tribal size (and variations) to base their estimates on.

Alternative methods of estimating pre-contact Aboriginal populations assume some kind of 'carrying capacity' approach to the land. These techniques have been used to estimate a supposed 'sustainable population target' for modern Australia too. These later estimates presumably are stronger as we are talking about an existing society with a known economic and technological base, yet the various estimates for modern Australia's 'sustainable' population vary from about 5 million to 50 million depending on which authority you consult ...and the phase of the moon. Interestingly enough those who apply 'carrying capacity' type estimates to pre-contact Aboriginal populations do not seem to have the ten-fold variation problem the sustainable population have.

Posted by: Tom at August 30, 2006 07:43 AM
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The claim of Australian Aboriginal infanticide and cannibalism is deployed (most notably by politician Pauline Hanson) to dehumanise indigenous people and therefore justify their dispossession. Where is the citation backing this claim? The only written account of child-eating by Australian Aborigines I have ever heard of is by Daisy Bates, (1859-1951) notorious liar and amateur anthropologist, who made her living selling ever more lurid stories of Aboriginal life to a media hungry for race-sensation.

Posted by: Deborah at September 12, 2006 02:34 AM
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Further to William Rubinstein's work on Oz culture wars, I (b 1944) advise my gt. gt. grandfather (1796-1866) and his wife (1800-1866) settled in WA in 1850. One of their sons Jeremiah (1835-1916) was charged by a constable Troy via court summons dated 3/11/1878 for "assaulting and beating" aborigines Billacrow and Jimmie Wamman. There is a 1913 speech by Lord John Forrest which begins " Your excellency it affords me more pleasure than I can express in words to revisit this grand old institution and meet old acquaintances like my friend Jeremiah Clune..." Please assimilate these two pieces of WA history which - according to the new age 'historians' (all white settlers poison, rape and kill blacks at will) could not ever have possibly happended because 1. if Jeremiah was a friend of Lord Forrest 2. he would NEVER have been charged by police summons for bashing a couple of 'boongs' would he....aye....would he?
To those blinded by loony leftism I advise that Jeremiah WAS charged because the WA colony was run by THE RULE OF LAW it was NOT EVER run by the rule of LORE (viz redneck 'shoot the niggers' at whim lore.)
Our family and the Duracks are linked by marriage. My father JB (1907-1990) told me there was a Durack who was utterly insane and boasted that when he shot a black the black 'popped in the air like a rabbit' (which is what rabbits actually do when shot) Dad finished the family story with the description of that Durack when found dead (a featherfoot might have been told of his whereabouts on a certain day) as being "like a porcupine"......Justice done, and seen to be done. Rgds PPC

Posted by: Paul Clune at September 18, 2006 04:17 AM
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1. Read the Roth report (1904) 2. Read Salvado's diaries of the 1848 settlement of the Victoria plains (as neighbour to my gt. gt. grandparents Thomas Clune 1796-1866 and Bridget McMahon 1800-1866) 3. Read Sand and Stone (records of all police actions in WA colony from 1829-1900).........then realise cannibalism happened here in the 1800 - mostly infant girls were killed and eaten.
PPC

Posted by: paul clune at September 18, 2006 04:23 AM
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I find it hard to stomach such cretins as 'Deborah'. A brief examination of pre-PC literature on aboriginals, police, and bush history generally will overwhelm one with accounts of cannibalism. In WA from the earliest days to my old Prof Berndt in the 1960s, to recent suppressed police reports from Central Australia the evidence is overwhelming. Black, white, yellow and brindle were all eaten, but the best was a fresh young gin. Abo tastes may have migrated from the gustatory to the sexual but a young gin is still the best - ask Bropho! I will not waste time in attempting to educate the impossibly ignorant, but see Berndt's "The world of the first Australians", Oldfield's "On the Aborigines of Australia", and the important, but fugitive, "Anthropophagitism in the Antipodes" by James Cooke. The next project is to carefully examine the fate of white children 'lost' in the bush. Deconstruct the euphemisms and see that here is a real horror that ensured that all caring and awake settlers kept the horizon clear.

Posted by: steve at October 17, 2006 12:15 PM
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I also find it interesting that the passages accusing Indigenous Australians of widespread cannibalism are uncited, as are the claims of 'massacres' during tribal wars. European colonisers saw cannibalism as the quintessential expression of savagery and evil, and ultimate justification for their acts of thievery and murder. Why stop now huh?

Steve, suppressed police reports? Sounds like more imaginings from sick minds. Have you seen the suppressed police reports about Alien probings? Euphemisms? Like the one about 'dispersing' Indigenous people? Euphemisms are used to hide your own crimes, not the crimes of your enemies. Collateral damage vs murdering civilians is a good modern example.

One of the single most annoying claims made by the right are related to agriculture as signifier of progress, to this I ask, what native Australian crops are grown commercially today? Is it native wheat grown here today? Native cows? Ever been pulled on a cart by a few Kangaroos? Read 'Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies' by Jared M. Diamond and have your white supremicist bubble burst. Europeans got geographically lucky. There certainly ain't anything special about them.

Doesn't David Irving claim that Jews died more often from disease than by the hands of Nazis? Don't the Holocaust deniers obsess over numbers? Keith Windschuttle and William D. Rubinstein are in good company...

Posted by: Jason Brailey at September 13, 2007 01:18 AM
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Deborah and the fellow wacko Jason Brailey display their invincible ignorance like a faggot throws his dick around in a gay parade. A little work in a library will uncover the bibliographies of Beryl Craig of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies and the great Bibliography of the Australian Aborigines by Greenway. It is not the fault of those with knowledge that the left has systematically destroyed libraries in Australia and that the wackos are incapable of absorbing anything but a porno video clip. My book "Anthropophagitism in the Antipodes" details the subject and is fully referenced. It could have been at least 10 times larger but the habits of savages are not the primary focus of my cultural outlook. James Cooke - fugitive author.

Posted by: James Cooke at April 13, 2008 08:18 AM
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