What are the true "facts"?
It is probably fair to say that most people find studying Australian history to be about as stimulating as studying Norwegian voting patterns. When people think of great history, they usually think of a great man invading his neighbours and then building monuments to his glory. The closest Australia has to such a history is John Macarthur leading a rebellion to protect his interests in sheep farming. However, compared to Chaka Zulu uniting the tribes of Africa, Napoleon conquering Europe or Qin Shihuang building a terracotta army to protect him in the afterlife, the story of a sheep farmer seems diminutive.
Just as Australian history is not "great", it is not the kind of history that produces a moral story that unites people in praise. While the French can take pride in the egalitarian, fraternal and libertine ideas that inspired their ancestors to storm the Bastille that imprisoned the downtrodden, there isn't the same emotional resonance in putting the old ball and chain in tribute to Australia's founding fathers. Likewise, there isn't much pride in laying down in a seductive pose in tribute to the founding mothers.
The Aboriginal chapters that are distinct from the wider Australian story are very interesting for the anthropologists seeking the diversity of human experience; however, the diversity of their cultural practices also tends to be too confronting for the mainstream education system and thus tends to be ignored. Furthermore, their DNA, skeletal record and chromosomes also offers a wealth of information for those studying human evolution but these are rarely discussed due to political considerations.
The inherent difficulties in making Australian history interesting and "moral" has given rise to what has been referred to as the history ways. These wars have had four main characteristics:
Firstly, they are chiefly concerned with Aboriginal history, or more specifically, the victimisation of Aborigines since 1788. Ironically, the victimisation of Aborigines has resulted in the Aboriginal story being ignored. What were their values? How did relationships form in Aboriginal society? How was justice delivered? What happened to the elderly that were too sick to move? How did things come into being? How were conflicts resolved? What myths underpined social identities?
These things aren't considered when writing about how Aborigines were treated. All that is considered is what allegedly whites did to them, and this relegates Aborigines to a status of passive agents with no personality other than victimisation.
The second characteristic of the history wars concerns the accuracy of historical interpretations, and in particular, the credibility of oral traditions. There are obvious problems with justifying something with the words, "my grandmother told me." Maybe grandmother's memory was faulty, maybe grand mother was not always completely honest, maybe grandmother misheard or maybe there was a temptation to embellish what grand mother actually said. For this reason, academic orthodoxy demands everything be justified with a citation to a printed record. Grandmother's diary would also be at risk of some of these issues, but at least it would be in a form that didn't change over time and would be less prone to corruption by others.
Despite demands for citations of written records, the debate about oral traditions seems to have led to a concession that the written record is deficient and just because something wasn't written down doesn't mean it didn't occur. This concession seems to have empowered some historians to call upon their imagination when writing about the past. Unfortunately, they have justified their imaginings with a citation to a written record. For example, academic Lyndall Ryan read the diary of colonist John Oxely which made mention of four Aborigines being killed by colonists. Perhaps quite rightly, she assumed that many more Aborigines had been killed but their deaths weren't recorded. She then decided that 100 seemed a reasonable number, but rather than acknowledge her embellishment, she cited it as being recorded by John Oxely. In this way, she was portraying herself as someone who was not re-imagining the past, but was a faithful messenger of its records, which was not true. Likewise, Henry Reynolds cited primary sources when giving accounts of 10,000 Aborigines being killed by colonists. What Reynolds didn't mention was that he just made this figure up. He had gone to newspapers and counted mentions of attacks on white settlers by Aborigines. He then multiplied his figure by 3 and added 20% to decide how many Aborigines had been murdered by whites. Again, he deceived his readers with a citation that implied the primary sources recorded 10,000 deaths.
The actions of Ryan, Reynolds and others were exposed in 2002 when fellow historian Keith Windschuttle released his book, The Fabrication of Aboriginal History. The book was not just a problem for the historians mentioned, it was a problem for the entire history profession and the universities that employed them. Because university culture demands citations to a written record when justifying arguments, other historians had been citing Reynolds and Ryan to justify their arguments, which made their own work tainted by Ryan and Reynolds. It was a bit like two players in a football team adding some steroids to the water cooler so their drinks would have more kick. Unfortunately, since the water cooler was shared, every other member of the team was tainted and at risk of a drug suspension. In these situations, institutions have a choice between deciding whether sunlight is the best medicine to get rid of the mould or pulling down the blinds and going on the offensive. It was the later option that the majority of tainted historians, supported by their institutions, took as a collective.
Much of their defence was based on arguing the validity of oral traditions. It was argued that just because something wasn't written down didn't mean it didn't occur. This message was in turn proliferated through the media via the likes of Phillip Adams. For example, in 2007, Adams sarcastically wrote:
"Moreover, we will do our best to deny that they happened. Enter the historical revisionism of a Keith Windschuttle. Massacres of Abos? Where? When? Show us the documents! Show us the receipts for the corpses! If there’s no paperwork, it never happened. Oral histories of Aborigines? Vivid, detailed accounts of slaughter and atrocities can be discounted. They're not worth the paper they’re not written on. No need for sorries there."
The fundamental dishonesty in the defence was that Windschuttle's principle allegation against Ryan and Reynolds was not that they had used oral traditions, it was that they had taken creative licence but used written records to justify their creative licence as fact. Maybe if Ryan and Reynolds had been citing conversations with a present day Aborigines to justify the figures they came up with then Adams would have a point. They weren't. They were citing the written records of white people.
The third feature of the history wars has been a creation of a moral code that underpins a group identity. Admittedly, some of this had been a deliberate PR trick in response to Windschuttle's allegations of academic dishonesty; nevertheless, the moral approach preceded Windschuttle. Australians have been expected to just accept the history and those who haven't have been negatively caricatured as heartless, racist or reactionary. For example, the history of Robert Manne directly vilified his critics by referring to them as "deniers" and "right-wingers". This could be seen in setting up dichotomies in his titles such as:
In Denial: The Stolen Generations and the Right (2001)
Whitewash. On Keith Windschuttle's Fabrication of Aboriginal History (2003)
The "moral" approach towards Aboriginal injustice has allowed the history to be used in a way that underpins a social identity. Using this approach, historians have been able to gain a far greater sense of moral empowerment than that which could be achieved by discussing thieves or prostitutes. Objectively speaking; however, since there has been a devaluing of written records, and an acceptance of the embellishment and imagination that comes with oral traditions, it has been contradictory to then carry on as if the past is certain and that critics are "in denial."
Just as it has been morally dubious to demand certainty about history that has come from the embellishment of written and oral records, it has been morally dubious to deliberately distort history for political reasons or to create social identities. Generally speaking, it seems that historians have wanted to use history in a way that makes the public feel sympathy for Aboriginal people, gives Aborigines a victim identity that they can use to unify themselves as a group and personally demonstrate that they oppose racism. Maybe this is a good thing or maybe it isn't. If it is a good thing, there are plenty of verifiable injustices that allow this intention to be achieved. For example, in the Myall Creek Massacre, the written record clearly demonstrates that 12 migrant stockmen slaughtered up to 30 women, children and elderly from the Wirrayaraay group in an extremely horrific manner. The names of the murderers have been recorded. Most of the victims are unnamed, but their tribal group is not. There is room for speculation about many other issues surrounding the massacre, but there is no disputing that basic facts of the case.
Contrasted to Myall Creek, stories of massacres on unnamed tribal groups in undefined manners by unnamed colonists depersonalises history. When the only evidence of them is an oral tradition, it is hard to learn lessons from them because oral traditions always have inconsistencies that come from embellishment. Furthermore, at times, the massacres justified by oral traditions have been exposed as fabrications, which has in turn cast public doubt on many other injustices. Finally, it is hard to approach history in a justice frame of mind when perpetrators and victims are unnamed. Justice is not impersonal; it tells the story of victims and shines sunlight on perpetrators. Anything that allows perpetrators to slip into the anonymity of sayings like "we are all responsible" is a step away from justice. This anonymity doesn't just protect the memory of deceased murderers of the 19th century, it also protects the careers of present day policy makers that have have wrecked havoc in Aboriginal communities and exploited Aborigines for their own personal gain.
This is not to say that many of the injustices mentioned by oral traditions didn't happen, but when the unverifiable histories that may well be pure fiction dominate the histories that certainly aren't fiction, then historical justice is not being served. Instead of victims being acknowledged, the actions of perpretrators being exposed and lessons being considered, historians are calling each other liars or deniers. Furthermore, when stories that were made up on the computers of university professors walk off the page and into the oral traditions of the wider community, then potentially people's identities are being manipulated in unhealthy ways.
The last feature of the history wars has been a tendency to extend them beyond the history profession. Actors, musicians, novelists, journalists and politicians have become agents and leaders in the history wars. Ironically, by removing the need for primary sources to be considered and allowing imagination, oral traditions and morality to take its place, Australian history has become far more accessible, interesting and real for more Australians.
Arguably the history wars are almost over and the victory can probably be awarded to Windschuttle. Publications of the genocide approach have slowed to a trickle and mainstream media no longer profiles Aboriginal genocide anywhere near the way it once did. For all the academic name calling, defence of oral traditions, and caricaturing of critics, universities are wedded to the written record. While the authors of websites like this one can inform their speculation on the past using the predictive powers of sociological and psychological theories, picture analysis, popular culture, and even oral traditions, university does not work the same way. For the university system to work, citations to written records must be used and they must be used honestly. Privately, it seems Windschuttle's message has been heeded.
While Reynolds, Ryan and others still have their careers, history shows that the institutions' defence of their own is the most common response to allegations of impropriety; however, history also shows that blinds are eventually opened. Once more academics have retired and a new generation takes their place who are not tainted by the previous, then the sun will shine in. Furthermore, if history is any guide, this next generation will be savage on the current. In Australia, intellectual leaders almost never say sorry for something they are personally responsible for. It is almost as if they have adopted the old Convict idea that one should never confess to a crime. However, they are more than willing to apologise for the actions of previous generations or for someone else. (It could even be argued that this is done to distract attention from their own crimes.) If history repeats, as it so often does, some decades off in the future, many of today's historians are going to be well and truly trashed and historians of the future will apologise for their actions.
The combatants in the history wars
Stuart Macintyre - All historians are equal, but some are more equal than others
As a former Dean of the Faculty of Arts at the University of Melbourne, and member of the Communist Party of Australia, Stuart Macintyre’s interpretation of Australian history was left-wing. Although left-wing meant different things to different people, Stuart Macintyre’s brand of the left smelt of all historians being equal, but some being more equal than others.
In his book, the History Wars (2003), Macintyre argued that history was a branch of knowledge that was governed by rules of evidence, so that historians created history but they were not free to invent or falsify it. Macintyre then declared that those who challenged the left-wing orthodoxy obeyed only Rafferty's rules. In the opinion of Macintyre, they caricatured their opponents and impugned their motives. They appealed to loyalty, hope, fear and prejudice. In their intimidation of the history profession, they acted as bullies.
The perception that Macintyre tried to weave was that the left-wing orthodox strain of history was governed by love, and an objective quest for the truth, while all those who challenged it, or kept the left honest, were governed by a mean spirit, and/or falsification of evidence.
To launch the book, Macintyre enlisted former Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating. Keating used the opportunity to belittle John Howard - the man who replaced him as PM.
The personal attacks in the book, as well as its launch by a Labor politician famous for his personal attacks and insulting tongue, did seem to indicate that there remained a significant gulf between what Macintyre preached, and what he practiced. Furthermore, since Macintyre was writing from the position of academic orthodoxy, and therefore power, his claims that the attacks by lone individuals on the estabishment amounted to “bullying” had an air of dishonesty about them.
Keith Windschuttle – A focus on the known facts, not the imagination
Keith Windschuttle completed a BA (first class honours in history) in 1969, and an MA (honours in politics) in 1978. When he commenced his career, Windschuttle heavily relied upon other historians for his "facts" and identified himself as left-wing. As he started to do more research of his own, he realised that many of the historians he had been relying upon were more like fiction writers than objective interpreters. In The Killing of History (1994), he argued that historians on both sides of the political spectrum hade misrepresented history to support various political causes or ideological positions.
In 2002, he narrowed his criticism to the left when he released The Fabrication of Aboriginal History. In the book, he used empirical research to show that left-wing historians had fabricated statistics, and misrepresented evidence in order to achieve some kind of self-interest. Windschuttle landed a particularly telling blow on Lyndall Ryan - Head of the Women's Studies Program at Flinders University. Ms Ryan had cited the diary of John Oxley when revealing the deaths of 100 Aborigines at the hands of colonists. Upon checking the diary, Windschuttle found mention of only four deaths. On national television, Ms Ryan confessed:
“historians are always making up figures.”
Hitting back at his criticisms of them, the left accused Windschuttle of being a heartless historian. They also said that just because something was not written down didn't mean that it didn’t occur. In their view, "imagining" the gaps was therefore a legitimate form of historical inquiry.
Lyndall Ryan - History by the women's department
For Lyndall Ryan, Head of the Women's Studies Program at Flinders University, it was perfectly common in history for historians to imagine statistics and actions but cite them with primary sources as if they were factual. Admittedly, she only confessed her beliefs when it was shown she had done exactly that. In her defence, she said:
“historians are always making up figures.”
If an undergraduate were to use Ryan’s “research” methods and cite them as fact, he or she could be expelled from the university or failed the subject ( if the university or professor didn’t like him or her.) A similar fate did not await Ryan. Fellow historians stood by her, she ended up at Newcastle University and the state controlled media continued to seek her out for opinions when she promoted her new books. (Private media did not.)
One reason for her continued success may have been because she had social connections that her peers didn’t want to lose. A second reason may have been that her work had been cited by other historians in support of what they were writing. To concede that what she was doing was wrong would undermine the validity of their own work. A final reason may have been a belief that her historical faction needed to stay united against criticism for fear that acknowledging faults would undermine the status of the faction. A curious feature of Australian history is that people are very willing to apologise for the actions of past generations, but never for their personal actions of the actions of those close to them.
Henry Reynolds – The school teacher that became a revolutionary historian
Henry Reynolds commenced his career as a school teacher married to a Labor Party Senator and finished it as one of Australia’s most revolutionary historians. In books such as Why Weren't We Told? (2000), Mr Reynolds conceived the nature of contact between colonists and Aborigines as a battleground. He wrote of frontier wars in Queensland that resulted in the loss of 3,000 Europeans and 20,000 indigenous Australians. He wrote of guerrilla warfare in Tasmania that threatened the very viability of the English colony.
No historian in the preceding two centuries had conceived history in such a way. It seemed that, until Reynolds, there hadn’t been any idea that there had been wars between Aborigines and Colonists. Most of the myth-building conflicts were presumed to have been confined to bushrangers and miners rebelling against authorities. Conflicts between Aborigines and colonists were believed to have been between individuals and/or small parties that was deemed to be criminal conduct - not war.
Reynolds' interpretation of history was undermined when Keith Windschuttle checked his citations and found that he was fabricating statistics and giving accounts that were different to what the primary sources said. For example, Reynolds cited primary sources when giving accounts of 10,000 Aborigines being killed by colonists. Windschuttle checked the primary sources and discovered that Reynolds arrived at the figure by going through newspapers and tallying up mentions of Aboriginal attacks on settlers. Reynolds then multiplied the number by 3 and added 20% as his estimate of the number of Aborigines killed by whites. Dubiously, he never stated why he employed the methodology. In fact, it could be argued that his methodology was anchored in white supremacy because it relied on the notion that one white person was worth more than three Aborigines in battle. Admittedly, whites may have had guns, but guns were not common in a society descended from convicts and at threat of an American style rebellion.
Upon his "research" methods being unveiled, Reynolds defended himself by saying that history is always political. Other historians came to his defence because they believed Reynold’s political motives were worthy and therefore it was acceptable that he was engaging in academic fraud.
Geoffrey Blainey – An economic historian with a focus on the pragmatic
Blainy commenced his career as an economic historian, and perhaps his focus on economics made him more of a pragmatic historian when compared to his more emotional colleagues. He wanted to understand, instead of demonise. His early work included:
The Rush That Never Ended: A History of Australian Mining ( 1963)
Tyranny of Distance: How Distance Shaped Australia's History (1966)
Triumph of the Nomads: A History of Ancient Australia (1975)
Although his books were influential, arguably it was Blainey’s comments on other historians that brought him the most fame. In 1993, he coined the phrase “black armband view of history”. The term referred to those historians who seemed to be writing about Australian history while wearing a black arm band of mourning, grieving, or shame. Blainey contrasted the black-arm band view to the Three Cheers view of history that was common in most countries around the world.
Blainey’s black arm band comment elicited the antagonism of his colleagues. He was subsequently redefined as a heartless right-wing ogre.
Kate Grenville – History by a novelist
In her novel, The Secret River (2005), Kate Grenville imagined the life on the frontier of colonial settlement where the colonists battled with Aboriginal tribes.
Although Grenville’s work is clearly fiction, she has raised the ire of historians by referring to her writing as a form of historical inquiry. She has described herself as "up on a ladder, looking down on the history wars". She has also said that although the historians are “doing their thing”, as a novelist, she can come at the issue from a way of “empathy and understanding.”
Manning Clarke – The conflict of values in a multicultural society
In the mid 1950s, Clark conceived a large multi-volume history of Australia, based on the documented sources but giving expression to Clark's own ideas about the meaning of Australian history.
The main theme in Clark's history was the interplay between the harsh environment of the Australian continent and the European values of the people who discovered, explored and settled it in the 18th and 19th centuries. Other themes included the clash of European belief systems imported into Australia, and those value systems created in Australia.
Ironically, many of the conflicting values that defined the urban foundations of Australia still existed in his time. As a consequence, Clark was targeted by those people who didn’t like the values demonstrated in his version of events.
Historians researching Clark have unearthed a peculiar aspect of his own history. In Clark’s memoirs, he wrote of arriving in Bonn on the on the morning of Kristallnacht. This was the massive coordinated attack on Jews throughout the German Reich on the night of November 9, 1938. Almost 1,000 synagogues were burnt, and almost 30,000 Jews were arrested. For Clark, it was a hugely influential event, and shaped his thinking throughout his life. In reality, historians discovered that Clark didn’t on the morning of Kristallnacht – he arrived several weeks later.
Clark obviously fabricated aspects of his own story because he appreciated that the perception of the historian influences how the historian’s analysis is received. A bit like Manne, Clark knew that an image of someone who was appalled by genocide would make people more open to his history. Unfortunately, by deliberately lying, his historical insights will always be tainted by the fact that they were filtered through the mind of a liar.
Robert Hughes – History by an art critic
Art critic Robert Hughes was interested in how features of the Australian character, such as iconic support for the underdog and the bushranger, could be traced to the Australian penal experience. His 1987 book, The Fatal Shore, became an international best seller. It detailed the period 1770 to the 1840s, and explored bushrangers, Convicts and conflict between the English and Irish.
Hughes was one of the few Australian historians to have escaped criticism. Perhaps this was because his chief subject matters, Convicts and their cultural legacy, was a topic that most other historians were quite uncomfortable with, and therefore didn’t want to touch. Alternatively, perhaps it was because he was more concerned with understanding instead of demonizing.
Greg Melluish - Turning the museum's curators into its exhibits
A very unique historian, Gregory Melluish strayed from the safety of the flock as he made intellectuals his chief subject matter. As a result, intellectuals, who had been inclined to see themselves as curators of the museum, found themselves to be the museum’s chief exhibit.
Melluish argued that, instead of wishing to contribute to national life, many intellectuals, especially in the humanities and social sciences, came to understand their role as being in perpetual opposition to the mainstream Australian. He explained this opposition as the reason for why intellectuals were widely disliked by the wider Australian community.
Melluish also noted the irony of the humanities field being extremely vocal in its support for diversity, while being the least diverse institution in Australian society.
Just as mainstream Australia did not always appreciate the intellectuals' analysis of them, intellectuals did not always appreciate Melluish's analysis of them either.
Andrew Bolt - history by a journalist
Journalists define the news as something that someone does not want you to know. While some news indeed takes that form, it also manifests into something that can cause the red ants to fight the green ants in a way that gives the journalist a great opportunity to give running commentary. Media consumers take sides, gain a feeling of belonging, give an opinion and feel an emotional work out. More importantly, they keep buying newspapers or watching the news. The desire to provoke and cover conflict has attracted journalists to the history wars.
Most journalists have supported the black-armband side because it has been framed as the story that someone (dead colonists/ catholic missionaries/ right wingers) don’t want you to know. Another journalist, Andrew Bolt, has taken the other side by raising awareness of the history that the black-armband historians don’t want you to know.
The more that Bolt found dishonesty amongst the profession, or expressed concern at their moral conduct, the more enemies that he made. In 2011, he was partially silenced when white skinned Aborigines took him to court for racial discrimination. Bolt had argued that the whites were identifying with a distant Aboriginal ancestor in order to gain access to the funding, scholarships, and employment opportunities reserved for disadvantaged Aborigines. According to Bolt, true Aborigines were missing out as a result.
Bolt’s view was widely supported by dark-skinned Aborigines, particularly in the Northern Territory where he was from. Justice Bromberg found in the favour of the white Aborigines and Bolt was ordered not to ever comment on issues concerning white Aborigines. (Bromberg had previously sought preselection for the Australian Labor Party.)
Perhaps because of his ability to transmit his views widely, Bolt was arguably subjected to more hated than any combatant in the history wars. Some of the comments made about him were as nasty about those directed at “reactionaries” during China’s cultural revolution. A candidate for the Australian Greens even stated he would condone people seeking out Bolt and beating him to an inch of his life.
Graham Walsh – Operating outside the funding system
For more than 30 years, Graham Walsh studied a collection of rock art in the Kimberly known as the Bradshaws. The paintings depict slender figures with strait hair, ceremonial tassels, and boats with up to 20 people on board. Walsh also recorded the oral history of local Aborigines. These tribes declared that the art was ‘before their time’ and explained them as being created by birds.
The combination of the pictures themselves, and the oral history of the local tribes, led Walsh to conclude that they were painted by an unknown Asiatic race before the last ice age. Walsh has explained his theories in a series of lectures, and in books such as:
Bradshaws: ancient rock paintings of north-west Australia (1994)
Bradshaw Art of the Kimberley (2000)
For decades, Walsh’s theories went unchallenged. This was largely because he was one of the few people to take any interest in the paintings. Things changed, however, after the 1992 Mabo vs Queensland judgement. Archaeologists saw the potential for funding by helping Aborigines use the art for a land claim. Walsh’s theories of an unknown Asiatic race before the last ice age thus undermined a potentially lucrative project. As the archaeologists had little knowledge of the Bradshaws in comparison to Walsh, a political approach was undertaken. On the 18th December 1995, the Australian Archaeological Association issued a media statement declaring that Walsh’s interpretations were
“based on and encourage racist stereotypes.”
The Archaeological association argued that the paintings were created by the direct descendants of the local Aborigines and couldn’t have been more than 4,000 years old. The Association ended up with egg on its face in 1997 when La Trobe University scientists dated a fossilised wasps' nest found on a Bradshaw at 17,500-years-old; thus giving strong scientific support to Walsh's theories.
Perhaps it should be stressed that Walsh has no formal qualifications as a rock-art expert. Conceivably, he could have done a Ph.D in the subject sometime in the last 30 years, and thereby gained a qualification. The only real obstacle to completing formal studies would have been finding a supervisor that knows more than him.
Even though Walsh lacks a university qualification, arguably his ability to operate outside the university system has given him some freedom that university scholars lack. In order to gain funding, or persuade their peers to accept their theories, academics in the humanities are often forced to take moralistic positions, instead of scientific positions. The Australian Archaeological Association’s hostility to Walsh, and their methods of discrediting his views, illustrate that this has definitely become a problem in Australia.
Baz Lurhmann - History by a director
Baz Lurhmann’s Australia (2008) perhaps best illustrated how the History Wars have shown little interest in the facts of history and have instead, focussed more on building social connections and status for certain groups.
Australia was initially funded by Ruper Murdoch’s Fox Studio’s, but Lurhmann accepted additional funding of $40,000,000 from the Federal Government, which reportedly asked for a stolen generations angle be inserted into his script. The result was the same mix of the clichés, stereotyped characters and historical inaccuracies found in Communist propaganda films.
Australia centres around a drover in 1939 who has been ostracised because he was married to an Aboriginal woman. He fights for his Aboriginal mate to drink in the bar with him, and has a romance with a white lady that wants to adopt an orphan Aboriginal boy; eventually persuading her to let the boy leave with his Aboriginal grandfather. The movie ends with notice saying that the policy of assimilation ended in 1973 (in the era of the Whitlam Labor government) and that the Government apologised to the stolen generations in 2008.
In truth, rather than turning Aborigines into whites, government policies in the Northern Territory up until 1967 focussed on preventing assimilation of Aborigines by "protecting" them from whites. Specifically, it was illegal for white men to have sex with Aboriginal women. Additionally, it was illegal to supply alcohol to Aborigines. If barman didn’t serve Aborigines in the front of the bar, it was not because he was racist, it was because he could be prosecuted for doing so. As a result, Darwin developed a culture of barman serving Aborigines out of a back window. In short, Lurhmann’s film created a stereotype that the Northern Territory was a racist community when in truth, it had racist administrators. Since the local community could not vote, they really weren’t responsible for the policies implemented, and many became criminals just to treat Aborigines with equality.
In 1967, the Federal government gained the power to make laws targeted at Aborigines. In 1973, the year Lurhmann said assimilation had ended, the Federal Labor government was in fact implementing many of his social engineering policies targeted at Aborigines on a national scale. In 2008, when the Federal Labor government apologised to the stolen generations, the Federal government was in the midst of an intervention in the Northern Territory. Policies of assimilation definitely had not ended.
Phillip Noyce - History by a movie director
Like Baz Lurhmann’s Australia (2008), Phillip Noyce’s Rabbit Proof Fence (2002) illustrated how the History Wars have shown little interest in the facts of history and have instead have focussed more on building social connections and status for certain groups.
When promoting his movie, Noyce said:
"For me, Rabbit-Proof Fence the movie will be as much about stolen history. History that we Australians needed to reclaim...Until 1967, Australian Aborigines couldn’t vote and were not counted as citizens."
In truth, the 1967 referendum that Noyce was referring to had nothing to do with Aboriginal voting rights or citizenship. When the colonies of Victoria, South Australia, Tasmania and NSW framed their constitutions in the 1850s, they gave the vote to all male subjects over the age of 21, Aborigines included. Admittedly, most Aborigines didn’t know about their voting rights and perhaps didn’t care. It wasn’t until the 1890s that any Aborigines actually commenced voting.
The 1967 referendum that Noyce mistakenly believed was about giving Aborigines the vote was really about whether to include Aborigines in the federal census and whether the Federal Government should be allowed to make laws specifically targeted at Aborigines.
It is not without irony that it was only in 1967 that the Federal Government gained the power to make the Aboriginal-specific laws that Noyce believed it had from 1900-1970, and believed it had used to create the stolen generations.
After Rabbit-proof Fence won best picture in 2002, Noyce used his acceptance speech to criticise the Federal Liberal Government for not apologising for "its" policy of removing mixed race children from their communities from the 1900 to 1970. He then criticised Australians for losing their humanity for voting for the Liberal Party.
Colin Groves - History by an Anthropologist
Logically speaking, people should be able to discuss events that happened more than 10,000 years ago without many of the political disputes that accompany those events of the last few centuries. Unfortunately, anthropologists like Colin Groves, a favoured expert of the ABC, showed a tendency to anchor ancient history in contemporary political issues.
Groves supported the Out-of-Africa theory of human evolution. This proposed that 1 million years ago, Homo erectus left Africa and spread throughout Europe and Asia. Then 200,000 years ago, Homo sapiens left Africa and exterminated all Homo erectus in Europe and Asia.
The Out-of-Africa theory has been disputed by Alan Thorne, who used skeletons unearthed in Australia to support the Mutliple-Regions theory of evolution. The theory proposes that Homo erectus was not conquered. Rather, once Homo erectus left Africa 1.4 million years ago, it kept evolving on migration lines between Asia and Africa (and possibly Australia). Interbreeding among nomadic tribes kept most of the different groups on a relatively constant evolutionary track and ensured they remained the same species.
Groves has played both the racism and stolen generations card to erode support for Thorne’s views. Specifically, Grove’s wrote:
"Unfortunately, although Alan Thorne, the describer of the Kow Swamp skeletons, never actually said that they were Homo erectus, the idea that an extremely primitive people preceded the present Aboriginal people in Australia, and was eliminated by them, seems to have seeped into some folks' consciousness just like the Negritos did. Negritos or Homo erectus - either way, the Aborigines were not the first possessors of Australia so the land doesn't really belong to them and the whites needn't feel too bad about dispossessing them. Really good fodder, this, for the One Nation Party, and the Prime Minister needn't feel he has to say "sorry"."
The irony of Grove’s position was that it proposed that Aborigines, like all humans, were responsible for the genocide of Homo erectus and Neanderthals. Thorne’s position proposed that they were not, and that sex trumped war.
Perhaps the more palatable nature of Thorne’s interpretation was what most concerned Groves. He denounced The One Nation Party and contemporary politics in order to make himself seem more enlightened. It was a common action in the History Wars where as as far as many combatants were concerned, substance was secondary to spin and slogans.
Activity 1 – What methodologies are used to speculate on the past?
Much of the history wars has concerned the use of methodology and the "moral" justifications to question those methodologies. To understand the past, this site has used the predictive powers of sociological and psychological theories, primary sources, secondary sources, picture analysis, popular culture, architecture, music, oral traditions and even personal observation of the behaviour of kangaroos and other native wildlife. There are very few citations to other sources and rarely has the citation been used to justify an argument. Furthermore, often when citatations have been used, the correct academic format has not.
Can you suggest some problems with each of these methods?
The methodologies used in this site can't really be used by universities. Can you suggest some reasons why universities would always reject these methodologies in favour of citing written primary sources or citing the written interpretation of their contemporaries?
Academia is highly specialised. For example, an academic in sociology will typically engage in topical sociological discourses and cite other sociology writers. Meanwhile, an academic in history will engage in historical discourses and cite historians. Can you think of the pros and cons of specialisation?
Some organisations rank universities and academics. The system they use is to count the number of times an academic is cited. The more citations, the higher the rank of the academic and the higher the ranking academics, the higher the rank of the university that employs them. Can you suggest how such rankings could affect the methodologies used by academics, the subjects that they choose to investigate and the manner that they engage with their peers?
Activity 2 - Analyse and apply
Purpose – To understand how history is used for political purposes
Consider the following statements and find examples about how they could apply to the study of Australian history:
“Those who control the present, control the past and those who control the past control the future.” George Orwell
“What is history but a fable agreed upon?" Napoleon Bonaparte
“historians are always making up figures.” Lyndall Ryan
“These missionaries took any rumor about violence towards Aborigines, no matter how unreliable or vague, and propagated it without checking its accuracy. Why would they do such a thing? They wanted to show the need for their own institutions. By portraying colonial society as awash with violence towards the blacks, they justified their policy of separating Aborigines from white society…They have also influenced policy ever since. Those who claim to be the friends of Aborigines have long supported separatism—from the missions and government reserves of the nineteenth century down to the proposals for a treaty and separate state today” Keith Windschuttle
"For me, Rabbit-Proof Fence the movie will be as much about stolen history. History that we Australians needed to reclaim...Until 1967, Australian Aborigines couldn’t vote and were not counted as citizens." Phillip Noyce
"Well, my political ends are to bring about much more satisfactory relationships between white and black Australians." Henry Reynolds
"It begins, I think, with the act of recognition. Recognition that it was we who did the dispossessing. We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life. We brought the disasters. The alcohol. We committed the murders. We took the children from their mothers. We practised discrimination and exclusion." Paul Keating
"An Australian Flag in your front yard tells everyone you're only a couple of Bundy and Cokes away from lynching a wog, slope or Arab." Catherine Deveny