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March 01st 2010 print

Philippa Martyr

The Sorrow and the Pity

Indigenous Australians, far from languishing in brute savagery under white domination, appear in the archives—and consequently in this book—as lively, irrepressible, audacious, ambitious, clever, eager, talented.

This essay was first published in Quadrant, March 2010

In 1969 a two-part documentary cut French society to the quick. The Sorrow and the Pity presented interviews with former collaborators and Resistance fighters in occupied France during the Second World War. For the first time in twenty-five years, the French had publicly to face the fact that their collective behaviour during that period had been less than creditable.

As anyone who has tried to Google the phrase “French military victories” using “I’m Feeling Lucky” knows, it is not easy to face up to some of the inconvenient truths of the past. Today every Frenchman of the right age fought for the Resistance, and one wonders why, in the face of this impressive army, Charles de Gaulle or indeed the D-Day force was ever needed. Yet in Spain today the respective sides of Republican and Falangist still maintain their old prejudices, and still refuse to speak to each other, or indeed about the Civil War at all in a way even remotely comparable to The Sorrow and the Pity.

I found myself thinking of all this as I read the third volume of Keith Windschuttle’s series The Fabrication of Aboriginal History. Windschuttle sent me a copy of his book because he knew that my own research has recently taken me into the almost completely unexplored area of indigenous mental health history in the same period in Western Australia. He also knew that I would do him the courtesy of reading it before I said anything about it in print—a courtesy too frequently overlooked. He has not invited me to review this book; I have done this of my own free will. I’m aware that this will alienate some people who have in the past shown an interest in my own work, but if any history journal here or overseas would like a review of this book, written separately for their purposes and according to their guidelines, I am happy to supply it.

Enough with the apologias. My sorrow and pity is tied up with the fact that so few historians will read this book—really read it, from cover to cover. It’s not a light read, and I’d recommend doing it in chapters and allowing each to settle before moving on. But it is the kind of book which, were it not written by Keith Windschuttle, you could hand to a history undergraduate and say, “Look, this is how it’s done. Now stop hanging round the student union and go and do some actual research.”

But of course, given that Windschuttle is Windschuttle, you can’t do that. Well, you can, but it would have to be in a plain brown envelope, and after tutorial hours, after extracting awful promises not to expose the giver. The student would not be able to reference Windschuttle’s extensive research, or at least not seriously—if they did so unread, in the spirit of dismissal, well-padded with lots of counter-references to Robert Manne, then yes; I’d also recommend that the smarter ones go for the “postmodernist prank” approach, use extensive quotations from it out of context, and thus score major brownie points with their assessors.

That’s the trouble with this book, and with any research into this difficult area of indigenous history and the “stolen generations” at present. Historians (and politicians and bureaucrats) have, for the most part, shown themselves to be dishonest in their dealings with both primary and secondary sources, and Windschuttle has endeared himself to them no end by pointing this out. I am not a politician, and make a fairly unconvincing bureaucrat, but I do know only too well the means by which this has come about through the very people whose full-time job it is to preserve, interpret and guard our history, namely historians. 

I know that academic historians struggle under the dual burdens of the need to publish continually and to obtain as many grants as possible, even though they have nothing like the time to carry out the projects. I know that those who evaluate grant submissions are the “usual suspects”. I know that archival research is time-consuming, and that it’s much easier to get places if you know how to use media sources and create a bit of spin for yourself. I know that the peer review process for Australian journal publications is often frustratingly sluggish, and is used by some historians as an opportunity for invective against the author of a piece (whose identity, in the small and closed shop of Australian history, can often be guessed pretty accurately), making recommendations which, if acted on, would change its principal subject matter and orientation to the area in which the peer reviewer, rather than the author, is interested. I know that after the personal scalding some historians received in the “history wars” there was a general closing of ranks, and that there is now a vastly increased sensitivity to anything outside the walls which might cause a repeat performance.

And yet, knowing all of that, I still find it inexcusable that there has been such playing of fast-and-loose with the sources. For this, I have to thank Professor Richard Bosworth, my ardently left-wing first-year history tutor at UWA in 1987, whose attitude to footnoting was almost paramilitary, and who instilled in me at this tender age a respect for the audit trail which has never left me. (Naturally I still screw up from time to time, but not without shaking and flashbacks.) Given this—and allowing for the fact that Richard could not be everywhere at once—I wonder how it was possible for so many others to have gone so wrong, for so long.

One of the strengths of Windschuttle’s book is that he is patient enough to have traced most of these errors to their source, which is Peter Read’s pamphlet The Stolen Generations (1981). This document formed the academic basis for the Bringing Them Home report in 1997. One can understand that a political group would misuse information for its own ends; that is after all their stock-in-trade. I hoped for better things from historians; unfortunately, given all of the above hindrances under which they must labour, it takes only one bad bit of evidence to enter the food chain for the most wildly inaccurate premises to become very easily crystallised into solid, incontestable facts. Most historians are too hard-pressed, too busy, too constrained—and sometimes too frightened, and occasionally too lazy—to go to the sources themselves.

Windschuttle’s book (yes, I’m getting there, honest) has fifteen parts overall, two introductory essays and thirteen chapters. It opens with a provocative preface on the Rabbit Proof Fence controversy, which, given the amount of outrage generated, indicates that most people have read only Windschuttle’s summaries in the Australian, Quadrant or the Australian Spectator. That’s a shame; the preface is more interesting, and more balanced.

The book’s introduction specifically tackles Australia’s reputation for genocide. Windschuttle’s most astonishing piece of evidence—of which I was utterly unaware—is that the reason Australia’s courts have not been deluged with compensation claims is that most of these claims simply do not stand up to the laws of evidence, and that the genocide argument has been legally disproven in the High Court on several occasions. Windschuttle rightly puts Kevin Rudd’s “Sorry Speech” in this context, noting that it allowed Rudd to maximise his publicity while not binding himself to any compensation obligations, knowing full well that the High Court had already made this almost impossible.

Chapter 1, “The Invention of the Stolen Generations”, explores Read’s creation of the concept and his later (flourishing) career based on these allegations. There is a positive pack of dogs that do not bark in the night: for example, indigenous activists, even the ultra-radical Black Panthers of Australia in the 1970s, never previously made any use of the issues of child removal or genocide to support their claims. On a more basic level, the numbers of the “stolen generations” literally do not add up. During these decades of “genocide”, the indigenous population increased numerically by leaps and bounds. The masses of archives available tell a completely different story from the one routinely presented even in profoundly moving autobiographies. Historians and others who argue otherwise are forced to resort to David Irving-style claims of faked documents and widespread overarching conspiracies (Fred Chaney, for example, claimed that government records of that period were “faked”), or engage in rather puzzling claims of “pedantry” such as that advanced by Raimond Gaita.

More remarkably, the Human Rights Commission’s inquiry which produced Bringing Them Home called only a single witness from the bureaucracy or administration of the time, even though many were still living, to answer questions on their genocidal intent. No prosecutions have been undertaken for genocide, purportedly because these would cause a backlash of anger against indigenous people today (which is unusual, given the fashionable tendency to argue that Pius XII should have spoken out against Nazism even though it would have caused a backlash of increased and targeted violence against Jews across Europe). The long association of indigenous administrative policy, including the “genocide”, with successive Labor governments across Australia has also been ignored. I think it’s in the same locked filing cabinet as the equally long association with the White Australia policy. Some interesting parallels might emerge in a study of the two concepts under Labor. (Now there’s a PhD which will never see the light of day.)

I can be briefer about the remaining chapters, as they unpack these basic premises with regionally-based archival information. Windschuttle begins in Chapter 2 with a breakdown of the evidence purportedly used by Read in the New South Wales archives, complete with the statistics which Read never bothered to generate. Windschuttle is also able to show that Read deliberately suppressed much of his own collected oral history testimony which showed indigenous families in a less-than-positive light.

Chapter 3, “The Intentions of the Policy Makers”, is the kind of thing which should be required reading for any budding historian. Windschuttle notes in his introduction that

all those in the past responsible for Aboriginal policy and child welfare still deserve a proper hearing, with their names and reasons fully disclosed so we can judge the decisions they took in the light of the prevailing attitudes and opportunities of the time, as well as what we know about their characters through the full record of their public lives.

Windschuttle uses Chapter 3 to provide this. Some administrators were complete and utter bastards; Windschuttle gives examples. Some were kind, supportive and went to great lengths to help those under their care to access good nutrition, health care and employment. And almost all those working in this area, he shows, were grossly under-funded and stretched to capacity. (Anyone who has worked in an under-funded and overworked government department will recognise the patterns of behaviour in the staff described here.)

Chapter 4, “The Culture of the Camps”, makes for hard reading, but no harder than what has been appearing regularly in the Australian for years. Chapter 5, “Life in the Institutions”, tackles the difficult stories, but just for a change it also shows that better institutions existed and flourished. Chapter 6, “The Credibility of the Stolen Children”, is sensitively written, and explores questions of oral history and politicised fiction which may be presented as biography or autobiography. Windschuttle’s deconstructions of If Everyone Cared (1977) and My Place (1987) are not unkind or unfair; I have read worse in newspaper book review columns on any weekend. His critiques make for interesting if rather disturbing reading, and they shed considerable light on the My Own Sweet Time hoax perpetrated in 1994.

Apparently Australia’s master plan to eradicate indigenous Australians was formulated at the Canberra conference in 1937 when state and federal departments of Aboriginal affairs met for the first time. Chapter 7 argues, at length and in detail, that there was no such plan. The policy formulated for Western Australia did not affect the great majority of indigenous people there; powers were severely limited; schemes were undermined by existing legislation. Ultimately A.O. Neville, although an authoritarian at heart, had nothing like the level of control he has been accused of having, nor did he roam the countryside exercising these draconian policies at will.

This argument extends into Chapter 8, which explores the Neville–Hitler thesis in greater depth, and throws in additional villains like Sister Kate. Chapter 9 is very, very hard going indeed, but again, no worse than what has been appearing in the Australian. Child sexual abuse, rape and forced marriage are never going to be easy to write about or read about, and as for practices like female genital mutilation, Windschuttle is not presenting anything here that has not been described by anthropologists for decades. To pretend otherwise—that these practices did not exist, or that we should turn a blind eye to them because they are culturally specific—is to forget that this book is trying to understand the mindsets of white administrators, missionaries, teachers, and of indigenous people, in the pre-1960s era. These issues were crucial in formulating policies to protect indigenous women and children from violence, and should be understood in this context.

Windschuttle has taken the trouble to devote several chapters to Western Australia, for which I am grateful. Western Australia’s situation—given its vast geography, and great diversity of climate, habitats and language groups of indigenous peoples—is unique, and is well worth considering in its own right, especially in this amount of detail. He also devotes Chapter 10 to the Northern Territory under Cecil Cook’s regime; Chapter 11 to Victoria and Tasmania; and Chapter 12 to South Australia and Queensland. Throughout, Windschuttle presents not only archival research but also ample support from secondary sources, and overviews of the principal historiographical debates which have surrounded these issues in each state.

In short: the stolen children weren’t (a) stolen, and (b) children. A substantial percentage of them were given up willingly by their parents and other relatives (conspiracy theories notwithstanding) because they would have a better chance at education, decent food, freedom from disease and sexual predation, and eventual employment, than if they stayed in the camps. Many families lived together in institutions, and experienced no more separation than the child attending classes during the day. Far from being separated for life, at least half of those institutionalised returned home once they were adults. The majority of the “children” were teenagers, who were not institutionalised but were instead found jobs and apprenticeships, and most preferred and were allowed to marry other indigenous people.

What stands out is just how unsuccessful white policies have been in their alleged aims of “controlling”, “policing” and “repressing” the indigenous population. Australian government agencies would win no prizes for achieving key performance indicators in social control, genocide or totalitarianism at any time in the last hundred years; in fact, they would be drummed out of the Twentieth Century Mass Murderers’ League with mocking laughter. Indigenous Australians, far from languishing in brute savagery under white domination, appear in the archives—and consequently in this book—as lively, irrepressible, audacious, ambitious, clever, eager, talented; often victims of factors beyond their control such as parental alcoholism; capable of overcoming dreadful disadvantage and finding their own path in life; with a clear sense of their own culture, pride in who they are, and a marked preference for marrying their own people; above all generous, practical and willing to work.

If there is any “denialism” in all this, it is that this version of indigenous history has been denied to so many people. Instead, they have been sold a mess of self-pity and blame which has profoundly disenfranchised them. It is painfully clear that indigenous suffering had more to do with dire poverty and government parsimony than with issues of eugenics. Poor white families, single mothers and destitute children were subject in the same era to the same removals and harsh moralising, and the same apprenticeships, and the same attempts to protect girls from sexual abuse and prostitution. Every social historian, especially those who have studied life in public institutions, knows that in the early to mid-twentieth century, institutions—while grim and unpleasant in many ways—often provided destitute people with a standard of living higher than they would have had in their homes or on the streets. We also know that their success or failure depended on adequate funding, good administration and caring staff. Indigenous institutions were no different.

This is the best and most powerful lesson of Windschuttle’s book: if we really want reconciliation, we must look at our common history and experiences in this country; our shared heritage of poverty and mismanagement, and also our shared growth, triumphs and failures. This book is a substantial forward step along the path of reconciliation based on a courageous and honest acknowledgment of our common past. It is unfortunate that those whose livelihoods depend upon keeping indigenous people in a state of indefinite anger and blame will do all they can to ensure that people believe Windschuttle is prosecuting indigenous people, rather than defending them. That is the sorrow, and the pity.

Dr Philippa Martyr is a historian and a regular contributor to Quadrant.