History on fire

Richard Broome, Aboriginal Australians, Allen and Unwin, 2010

A desirable outcome of the History Wars would be new work uncontaminated by the shoddy and politicised history writing of the last half-century. The need is urgent. The fourth edition of Richard Broome’s Aboriginal Australians has recently been issued by Allen & Unwin. In print since 1982, this is one of the most important Left books ever published in Australia. It has sold 50,000 copies and has moulded and influenced generations of teachers and their students. For the new edition, and in the shadow of the History Wars, Professor Broome has completely rewritten the text. There is the now obligatory denigration of Keith Windschuttle, and some parts of Broome’s narrative have changed to deal with criticism of his work. It may have a nice cover but it is one of the great intellectual disasters of our times for, amongst other serious problems, Broome uses and endorses a poorly researched and plagiarised book on Aboriginal massacres, the same poor book he used five years ago in his acclaimed and prize-winning Aboriginal Victorians.

There are minor changes. Broome has added a new error. Previously he wrote of Governor Phillip’s ineffectual order, after the murder of John McEntire, to send out a punitive expedition and bring back the heads of (the italics are Broome’s) “any six” of the natives. In the new edition that has been changed to the heads of “ten men”. What happened was that Phillip gave such an order which was changed from ten to six when it was discussed with Watkin Tench. In the event no one died. Oddly enough, new detail which Broome adds to his tale is taken from that part of Tench’s account where the numbers are reduced to six.

The Gamaraigal have disappeared from the new edition. Before, they were the Aboriginal people around Sydney Harbour and for twenty-eight years had a chapter to themselves. Now they been displaced by the Eora, and Broome does not bother to explain why the change has been made. Another casualty is the Dreamtime, which has been replaced by something Broome calls the “Great Tradition” which is a simplistic braiding of New Age, Stone Age and kitsch history. It is a misery-making thought that this will form attitudes and beliefs in both black and white readers well into the future. Students and general readers would be much better served by looking out for Josephine Flood’s The Original Australians.

At three particular points Richard Broome touches on topics of which I was critical in The Invention of Terra Nullius.

Broome popularised a misreading of James Cook’s secret Admiralty Instructions directing his search for what turned out to be a non-existent southern continent. Broome made it seem that when Cook took possession of something quite different for the British crown, the east coast of New Holland, he was disobeying them by not negotiating with Aboriginal people. It is a widely used error which Left historians and angry activists make much use of for political purposes to undermine the validity of Australia’s sovereignty. For example, in A History of Queensland, published in 2007, Raymond Evans asserted that Cook “was exceeding orders” by not negotiating with the Aborigines before taking possession of Australia’s east coast. I have argued that this is incorrect.

The Instructions, readily available on the internet, are explicit. They deal directly with Cook’s search for the imaginary Great South Land. The details are very precise. They order him to search to the south of the previous route followed in the Pacific by Captain Wallis; the latitudes for his voyage are given and he is ordered to search until he arrives at New Zealand. The imaginary Southern Continent was the object, not the east coast of New Holland. Henry Reynolds got around this problem in discussing the matter in The Law of the Land by using instructions given for Cook’s third voyage issued years later.

In previous editions Broome wrote inaccurately: “When Captain Cook sailed to the southern ocean he was ordered to take possession of any land there only ‘with the consent of the natives’, if it was inhabited.” For the anger this feeds, Broome has a responsibility to correct his error and point out the mistake. Instead he has restated the error and, even as he quotes the Instructions, obscured their precision: “Cook was ordered to search for ‘a Continent or Land of great extent’ in the south-west of the Pacific and ‘with the Consent of the Natives to take possession of Convenient situations in the Country in the name of the King’.”

From the precise Instructions he has taken a phrase which will make his readers immediately conjure up thoughts of Australia, and his discussion at this point is about Australia. This is blameworthy both for its inaccuracy and the seeming intention behind it. It is also an obsessive modern land-rights-influenced interpretation of what Cook was doing. In taking possession of the Society Islands, New Zealand and Australia’s east coast Cook was acting to thwart the activities of other European powers and was not knowingly evaluating property for future settlement. Involving Cook in a discussion, as Broome does, of treaty making and indigenous ownership of lands misunderstands his actions and even his presence in the Pacific, which was much more concerned with the geopolitical competition between eighteenth-century European superpowers.

From the early 1980s until fairly recently terra nullius was the foundation stone for writing general histories of Australia. It was an anachronism, for the concept only came into being in the late nineteenth century, over a hundred years after Cook’s voyage, and its meaning was misunderstood. It is a technical term in international law theory and means land without sovereignty. Henry Reynolds unjustifiably created new meanings (unpopulated and unowned) and thereby added immense confusion to our history writing, to the Mabo decision, and to the arguments of activists. The confusion of meanings attached to terra nullius in Australia made it useless as a tool for stringent historical analysis. Reynolds made a great mistake which caused enormous bitterness and he has done nothing to correct the confusion he caused.

It has become fairly standard for academic historians, avoiding responsibility for errors they spread with their misuses of terra nullius, to protect their old work by arguing that after all this is just a dispute about dictionary meanings and is not very important. But it is not a question of dry semantics, it is about the credibility of their work. Removing the term from the old histories, and all the speculative writing that clings to it, destroys the foundations of their narratives. Broome used the term anachronistically and imprecisely. He taught that “the British government decided that Australia was ‘terra nullius’ and took possession of it without asking the native inhabitants” and “The pertinent fact was their [Aboriginal] dispossession by settlers invoking ‘terra nullius’”. Those words have now been silently deleted and he has inserted a new section called “Seven determinants of contact”. Unhappily, the new pages are as bad as the old.

You cannot understand Left history writing without understanding the malice that motivates its authors. These pages are meant to be an indictment of our nation and an attack on the legitimacy of Australian sovereignty. Broome delves into a grab-bag of modish concepts and leftover vocabulary from the days of terra nullius and throws them together, producing nonsense: “‘waste’ and unowned land”, “Eurocentric English misrepresentations”, “discourses of savagery”, “a new Other”, “blackness”, “noble savage”, “basic savagery”, “some [settlers] were indeed savage”, Rousseau, Shakespeare and Othello, and more. There is also a footnote to Chapter 1 of Henry Reynolds’s The Law of the Land, the very place where its author’s flawed discussion of terra nullius sleeps. Either sheer incompetence or deliberate evasion is illustrated by the fact that though Broome offers a jumble of modern university-infected reasoning to explain Cook’s annexation of territory for the British Crown he does not find room for the words from Cook’s Journal in which the navigator simply states he took possession of the east coast as its first European discoverer. In The Invention of Terra Nullius I pointed out that when Broome discussed cannibalism in Aboriginal Victorians he had not cited documentary evidence, in a book he had used as a source, that ran counter to the claims he was making—from a man who had been a guest at a cannibal feast. Not telling his readers of archival material which contradicts his analysis seems to be a habit.

What needed to be done after removing terra nullius was to return to the original documents and start again. Broome has simply polished up and moved around old fictions and errors to keep in place the flawed analysis he had previously placed on anachronism and misunderstanding and added in some new intellectual fads. It doesn’t work. But this is the new orthodoxy which his book and a compliant academy will force on new generations of students.

Broome’s new index reflects his changed attitude towards the Latin phrase which now shows up as “terra nullius concept”. Though detaching the phrase from his colonial history and taking it to the modern era at the back of his book, Broome still makes errors and encourages laxity of thought. He defines the term imprecisely as “no-man’s land”—for his student readers he should have corrected Henry Reynolds’s errors and made it clear that it referred to sovereignty. He misleadingly attaches it to a famous law case heard by Justice Blackburn in 1971, but it was not used there and did not appear in modern Australian usage until some years later. He also cites Justice Brennan in Mabo, “the common law of this country would continue to perpetuate injustice if it were to continue to embrace the enlarged notion of terra nullius”. Terra nullius is not part of common law, and the idea of an “enlarged notion” is not accurate but springs from the incorrect Reynolds definitions.

Teachers swapping from edition three to edition four will discover that the anachronistic platitudes of terra nullius they had learnt and taught have disappeared without explanation. Broome had a responsibility to inform readers of the changes to his analysis and to explain why the text was altered. Perhaps schools and universities will now fail a student who uses an outmoded edition of Broome and writes that the Aborigines were dispossessed by “settlers invoking terra nullius”.

Where Richard Broome simply deleted his anachronistic use of terra nullius, Henry Reynolds adopted a more interesting approach. In an article in the Monthly he simply rewrote history, and not a single academic historian has ever spoken out: “I know of no historian or jurist who has written on the subject over the last twenty years who has said that the term was used in the late eighteenth century.” Unbelievable.

The most troubling problem with the new edition of Aboriginal Australians concerns its use of a heavily plagiarised and badly researched book that Professor Richard Broome, Professor Henry Reynolds, Professor Lyndall Ryan and Professor Bain Attwood have all cited or endorsed.

The Invention of Terra Nullius included a chapter on a book called Scars in the Landscape by University of Ballarat academic Dr Ian Clark. There has been a cover-up of that criticism. Those who had a responsibility to act turned aside. In the following comment by Patrick Wolfe, an academic reviewer of my book in 2006, he was careful not to disclose that what I was dealing with was plagiarism, and misuse of sources:

Connor has been handed some easy targets, and this should not have happened. Why, for instance, did Ian Clark leave himself open to the charge that he had failed fully to acknowledge his reliance on questionable secondary sources to substantiate the occurrence of certain massacres in western Victoria, a charge that Connor can detail to the point of overkill on pages 156 to 158?

What he called “overkill” were three pages detailing evidence of plagiarism. Though my book also drew attention to errors in the work of Professor Stuart Macintyre, this review carried an endnote by its author thanking Macintyre (!) for “his characteristically useful comments on a draft”. My book was widely attacked in print and privately by leading academics but I do not believe that a single one of them publicly referred to the question of Clark’s plagiarisms, although all must have been aware of them. Professor Macintyre was involved in this particular attack on my book, so he must have seen my criticisms of Clark and remained silent. The reason for this Great Australian Silence may be because Clark is part of the academic history establishment and, more importantly, because his work has been uncritically used by leading historians. During an earlier debate over numbers of Aborigines killed in the colonial era, Ian Clark’s flawed calculations were assimilated into the totals propounded by academic experts.

This heavily plagiarised book carries an endorsement by Henry Reynolds, who had previously collaborated on a publication with Ian Clark. Although it is a confusion of primary sources and unsuitable secondary sources, Australia’s best-known historian of frontier conflict called it “a fine piece of detailed research”. Any academic historian glancing at the sources Clark drew on would have seen problems, yet Reynolds wrote:

It provides a model for what now needs to be done all over Australia. It is, therefore, a credit to both the author and the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies and will remain an important work of reference for many years to come.

Fifteen years after publication it is a standard and respected reference work. It has sold out and the publishers now offer an internet edition, still using Reynolds’s words to attract buyers. For the praise Henry Reynolds gave Ian Clark’s book there is no excuse.

Among the academics who endorsed Clark’s work was Professor Bain Attwood, who referred to it favourably (and in relation to an invented massacre) at the launch of his own book called, ironically, Telling the Truth about Aboriginal History. This was ten years after Clark’s book had been published.

The failure of university authorities and the academic elite to act after my discussion was published in 2005 suggests little concern for the standards of their profession or their responsibilities towards their students.

The History Wars which took place around the publication of Keith Windschuttle’s first Fabrication volume demonstrated that something had gone very wrong and that the history profession was failing to treat the work of their colleagues with proper academic scepticism and to test the validity of their arguments by the simple matter of checking their footnotes. It was also evident that much of the academic fury on display in those years was about something more than a discussion of the numbers of Aboriginal deaths in colonial Van Diemen’s Land. The anger was generated by careerism and fear of the harm that would be done to their own careers if Windschuttle’s claims were accepted. Tasmania’s early history is of minor interest to mainland historians, but by establishing that flaws existed in the work of Henry Reynolds and Lyndall Ryan, Windschuttle was undermining the work of other academic historians who had relied on these two authors and, without checking the veracity of their assertions and use of primary sources, had drawn them into their own books, lectures, essays and theses. Windschuttle challenged the history writing of Henry Reynolds but he was also setting fire to the footnotes on which the careers of Australia’s elite historians have been built.

Clark states that he drew on material “uncovered in the course of my doctoral research”. His PhD thesis should be re-examined by Monash University to determine if it has the same faults as Scars in the Landscape.

Over the fifteen years since its publication, Richard Broome has used and endorsed Clark’s work. He did so in his article on “Massacres” in the Oxford Companion to Australian History; at a National Museum conference (held to refute Keith Windschuttle’s claims about errors in Tasmanian history) and his presentation became an essay published in the resulting book Frontier Conflict (edited by Bain Attwood and S.G. Foster); and in Aboriginal Victorians. The latter book was published earlier than mine in 2005. Though I imagine he has seen my chapter on Clark he has now introduced Scars in the Landscape into this new edition of Aboriginal Australians. For fifteen years he has endorsed work that he had a professional and moral responsibility to criticise and correct.

The way Broome introduces Clark to his readers is (as with his treatment of Cook’s Instructions above) slightly fudged:

In Scars in the Landscape, Ian Clark listed 107 violent incidents in Western Victoria, most well substantiated. Of the estimated 400 Aboriginal deaths, about three-quarters occurred in incidents involving the deaths of five or more people—some of which were clearly massacres.

Clark was not writing about “violent incidents”, he was writing about massacres. The full title of his book is Scars in the Landscape: A Register of Massacre Sites in Western Victoria, 1803–1859. The book is set out with incidents and maps and details. A number of the massacres have a single victim, which is bizarre, and he has used unreliable sources, which is reprehensible. In one instance Clark used a comment by George Robinson, Chief Protector of the Aborigines, that he had been told a settler had an Aboriginal skull mounted over his doorway. That appears in Clark’s book as a massacre with one Aboriginal victim.

Introducing his book, Clark assures readers that “The information about each massacre or killing is presented as it has been found in the primary source material”—but this is obviously untrue. Clark states that settlers staged a surprise attack, “killing more than 30 people and sparing not even babies”, at Mount Eccles in 1847. The basis for his claim is not a primary source document but a forty-five-page brochure, which gives no source for the story, self-published in 1980 by an amateur historian. Some of the writer’s words, including the death toll cited above, have been plagiarised by Clark. This is the standard of Clark’s scholarship in a work praised by Henry Reynolds as “a detailed, meticulously researched study of massacre in one Australian region”.

Another story is based on original sources which have been misread and misused to put together a massacre narrative. All Clark has really achieved is the ruination of modern lives and the inflaming of dissension in a small coastal community. It is the incident he places at a locality named the Convincing Ground near Portland in Victoria. Clark’s story is unfounded. After a committee of the Victorian Heritage Council heard evidence, and what appeared to be “oral history” based on Clark’s history, committee member Damien Cash, the only historian who heard the case, issued this dissenting comment which accurately sums up what has happened:

the massacre claim was revealed as a case study in the misuse of historical evidence, beginning with a series of errors made by Robinson in 1841–42, and then perpetuated through a series of unreasonable conclusions and other errors made by historians and consultants

In this particular instance Richard Broome is involved in the mess these errors have caused, and rather than acting to set the record straight, he has contributed to Clark’s misuse of sources by himself adding an invented death toll of sixty people. He does not mention that the total death toll from Clark’s book, which he cites, includes his own figure for a massacre which never happened.

The widespread plagiarism in the book is readily apparent when Clark’s sources are examined and compared to his text. The examples I have given in The Invention of Terra Nullius, which my critic described as “overkill”, are only from the texts I checked and not from a complete analysis of the book. I would imagine that the full extent of plagiarism is far worse than I have demonstrated. Richard Broome has previously criticised the best-selling book Blood on the Wattle by journalist Bruce Elder as not being “serious historical research”. Clark uses Elder’s book as a source. When, for example, he informs his readers of an incident which begins, “The popular writer Rolf Boldrewood reported a story about a squatter named John Cox …” his text is plagiarised. Most of the words are actually Elder’s. Not only is Broome recommending a book which draws on an author he does not believe should be taken seriously, he is also commending writing that has been plagiarised from that author.

Another writer of whom Broome had been critical for accepting “colonial gossip” of large Aboriginal death tolls was Michael Christie. Clark makes frequent reference to Christie. In Clark’s discussion of a supposed massacre of twenty people in the Victoria Range in 1843 most of his words have been taken from Christie, without acknowledging that this has been done. Within this particular text are three indented quotations to which Christie’s own footnote references have been attached. These references are listed as separate sources at the foot of the article as though Clark had referred to them and not, as it appears, simply used them as they appeared in the text plagiarised from Christie.

A further problem with Clark’s book is that he cites an earlier publication of his own, Aboriginal Languages and Clans: An Historical Atlas of Western and Central Victoria, 1800–1900, as the source of massacres. In that indexless and badly laid-out work it is almost impossible to gauge how trustworthy his sources are for the detail he offers, and in his references he refers to both original documents and some of the same poor second­ary sources he has used in Scars in the Landscape. It is possible that since its publication in 1990 this work, used by writers of heritage studies, has also been used as a reference in legal hearings on native title.

Scars in the Landscape was published in 1995. In 2005 I published my criticisms and nothing was done. For fifteen years the self-evident errors and plagiarisms of this book have not only been allowed to contaminate history writing and research but have also been legitimised by senior academics. In 2008 the book was cited by Professor Lyndall Ryan in an international publication dealing with Aboriginal killings.

Professor Broome’s latest endorsement of Clark’s book cannot be allowed to pass unquestioned. He is a Professor of History at La Trobe University and one of the state’s most prominent academic historians and educationalists working in the field of Victoria’s colonial and Aboriginal history. His books are used and trusted throughout Australia. When he writes that most of the “incidents” in Clark’s book are “well substantiated” he is putting the weight of his reputation behind this book, which should mean that he has checked Clark’s work. He must have seen the problems. It would be impossible for an academic historian to examine Clark’s sources properly and not notice the unreliability of the material being used—that was the way I discovered what had been done. The misuse of sources must also have been evident to the other academic endorsers of this work, Reynolds, Attwood and Ryan.

Since my concerns with his book were published, Dr Clark has been promoted to Associate Professor at his university, has sat on committees dealing with questions of student plagiarism, and has even taken part as an expert in an appalling ABC TV documentary on the Convincing Grounds “massacre”. The only massacre was what the historians had done to the records. And all this time a copy of my book has been sitting on the shelves at the University of Ballarat.

In relation to Richard Broome’s Aboriginal Australians the results of the History Wars have not been happy. The criticisms of his work have not inspired a reappraisal but a drawing in, more reactionary history, and a restatement of error. Broome and his colleagues are the people who will train a new generation of historians, and his Aboriginal Australians, and Ian Clark’s Scars in the Landscape, are where they will learn their history.

Michael Connor is the editor of Quadrant Online.

Post a comment