History Wars

Robert Manne’s bad language

In his article in February edition of The Monthly about my book on the Stolen Generations, Robert Manne accused me of being a racist for supposedly using terminology about the Aborigines that was equal in insult to the word “nigger”. Manne wrote:

He [Windschuttle] must be the only historian who is not repelled by the quasi-zoological terminology — “quadroons”, “octoroons”, “cross-breeds” — universally deployed. Almost all historians who use these words in their work place them in inverted commas, to distance themselves from their plainly racist meaning. Windschuttle does not. No doubt he would regard this as political correctness. It is as if in writing a revisionist history of the Jim Crow regime of the southern United States, a historian used the term “nigger” without inverted commas throughout.[1]

This accusation is completely false. Manne does not quote one example from my book to support his charge — for good reason, since I never used those words in the way he alleges. In usage today, I agree they are demeaning, racist and insulting. However, no matter how strongly we disapprove of what people in the past said, we have an obligation to historical truth not to change their words, or even their punctuation. In our own writing in the present, however, we should avoid terminology that is gratuitously offensive.

One person whose use of language of this kind is a conspicuous feature of his own work is none other than Robert Manne. Without going to much trouble — I looked up one article he published in 2004 — I found within a space of just seven pages no less than seven separate cases of his unadulterated use of the word “quadroon”. Even more disgracefully, without quotation marks or any other distancing device he called people of mixed Asian and Aboriginal descent “low-grade colored hybrids”. In two cases, he used “quadroon” without quotes twice in the same sentence, deploying it as both noun and adjective. All these examples come from his article, “Aboriginal Child Removal and the Question of Genocide”. They are reproduced here exactly as they appear in Manne’s text, where none of them were diluted, distanced or shielded by quotation marks. Manne wrote: 

In June 1929, Cook wrote of the advisability of keeping quadroon children in the Territory, rather than sending them south, so they would be available for involvement in the program of “breeding out the colour”.[2]

One demographic nightmare that haunted Cook throughout his Chief Protectorship was the arrival of a time when the majority of low-grade colored hybrids would overwhelm the European population in the Territory …[3]

In order to save the quadroons or those of even lesser Aboriginal blood from growing up as “white natives”, in 1932 he had encouraged the Anglican nun Sister Kate Clutterbuck to establish Australia’s first special-purpose quadroon home.[4]

Neville pursued his quadroon children with such determination that in 1938 two scientists conducting a half-caste survey discovered that West Australian mothers of quadroons were unwilling to supply them with information owing to Neville’s policy of seizing all children” and dispatching them to Sister Kate’s.[5]

Before the amendments to the Aborigines Act of 1936, Neville was not able to prohibit by law, as he desired, the association of quadroons with those of greater Aboriginal blood, and he had limited powers to control Aboriginal marriages.[6]

He also had the power to take legal action against quadroons who associated with blacks.[7] 

If any readers come across other examples from Manne’s writings, please send them to me and I will publish them.

In contrast, in my book every use of the terms “quadroon” or “octoroon” clearly indicates I am not talking directly myself but am quoting other people or historical documents. The word “quadroon” appears thirteen times in Fabrication, Volume Three.[8] Every case except two is a quotation from a historical source and it is not me but the historical personage speaking. In the sole case where I use the term in the text myself (page 350), I put it in quotation marks to indicate it was a term from the period — used, in fact, in a 1936 Act in Western Australia — and in the other case (footnote 20, page 349) my usage is a reference to a classification in a sub-clause of the same Act. The term “octoroon” appears just seven times in the book.[9] In every use of that term, I am not using it myself but quoting the words of an historical personage. As a computer search of the book’s PDF file confirms, these are the only examples in its entire 656 pages and 260,000 words.

Moreover, contrary to Manne’s allegation, the term “cross-breeds” never appears in my book, in either my words or anyone else’s. Nor, my computer tells me, do I use any similar term like cross-breed, cross-bred, cross breed, crossbreed, crossbred or crossbreeds. Manne’s claim about my usage is a willful invention.

Since public apologies are now customary rituals on the Left, Manne should make two of them: one to me for making a slanderous accusation for which he had no evidence, and the other to the Aboriginal people of Australia for describing them in quasi-zoological terminology that, as he says himself, is the equivalent of using the word “nigger” without inverted commas.

[1] Robert Manne, ‘Comment, Keith Windschuttle’, The Monthly, February 2010, p 10

[2] Robert Manne, ‘Aboriginal Child Removal and the Question of Genocide, 1900–1940’, in Dirk Moses ed., Genocide and Settler Society: Frontier Violence and Stolen Indigenous Children in Australian History, Berghan Books, New York, 2004, p 228

[3] Manne, ‘Aboriginal Child removal and the Question of Genocide’, p 228

[4] Manne, ‘Aboriginal Child removal and the Question of Genocide’, p 234

[5] Manne, ‘Aboriginal Child removal and the Question of Genocide’, p 234

[6] Manne, ‘Aboriginal Child removal and the Question of Genocide’, p 235

[7] Manne, ‘Aboriginal Child removal and the Question of Genocide’, p 235

[8] pages 1, 158, 164, 167, 172, 214 (twice), 227 (twice), 230, 349, 350, 359

[9] pages 1, 167, 172, 227 (twice), 241, 359

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