Van Demonisation

The approach some academics take to Aboriginal history reminds me of the board game Cluedo. They begin with the assumption that the crime of genocide was committed during colonisation, then try to deduce where, how and by whom. Up until 2002, a favoured scene-of-the-crime was Van Diemen’s Land; but after the publication of Keith Windschuttle’s The Fabrication of Aboriginal History; Volume One, Van Diemen’s Land 1803–1847 it could no longer be named as a crime-scene with impunity. Some academics protested (too much, methinks) that they never had promoted the Tasmanian genocide thesis—but they haven’t given up on it just yet.

Henry Reynolds can’t decide whether the crime of genocide was committed in Tasmania or not, but he sees “no compelling reason to doubt” that the “main destroyers” of the Aborigines were the murderous “borderers” who allegedly attacked them with impunity during the early years of colonisation; and he believes that Governor Arthur could have overstepped the line between warfare and genocide. Lyndall Ryan maintains her wage. James Boyce has decided that while the early years of colonisation were peaceful and the conflicts of the later years were abundantly documented, there were a few years in-between when the slaughter of whole communities went undocumented; and that after “most of the Aborigines were … dead”, genocidal policies were implemented. Since these three are the most academically acclaimed historians of Van Diemen’s Land, it is revealing to examine the state of their play.


Henry Reynolds


In 1981 in his book The Other Side of the Frontier, Reynolds argued, “Conflict is better documented in Van Diemen’s Land than anywhere else in the country and Ryan’s estimate of 800 [Aborigines killed by settlers] is possibly more accurate than any other we can make.”

In 1995, in Fate of a Free People, Reynolds argued that Ryan’s estimate of 700 Aborigines killed was “the most serious one to date”; but that it was “probably too high”. He then created a problem for future advocates of the genocide thesis by arguing:


“There is a tendency among writers sympathetic to Aborigines to exaggerate the number killed in order to emphasize the brutality of the colonial encounter. While this habit is understandable it greatly inflates the capacity of Europeans and generally underestimates the ability of the Aborigines. The story then becomes a struggle between cruel and clever whites and sympathetic but stupid blacks. In all such situations the question must be not whether the settlers wished the Aborigines dead (in many cases they clearly did) but whether they were able to carry their plans into operation given all the objective realities of the situation. The pursuing Europeans had firstly to find the Aborigines in the bush and then “come up with them”. Having done so they had to use their firearms effectively. As we have seen above, neither task was as simple as may appear at first glance.”


In 2001, in An Indelible Stain: The Question of Genocide in Australia’s History, Reynolds reviewed the claims that genocide had been committed in Tasmania, and criticised some of them, but without presenting a clear answer to the question posed in the title of the chapter: “Tasmania: A Clear Case of Genocide?”

In 2003, in Whitewash: On Keith Windschuttle’s Fabrication of Aboriginal History, Reynolds claimed that there was a:


“large amount of testimony throughout the early years of settlement from many settlers about the activities of stockmen, sealers, bushrangers and escaped convicts. The armed and usually mounted stockmen who inhabited the outer fringes of settlement and the sealers living on the Bass Strait islands were almost universally reputed to be the main destroyers of the Aborigines. There seems no compelling reason to doubt that this was the case. In fact it is hard to find anyone who argued this was not so. And it’s not as though the matter wasn’t constantly discussed in official documents, in letters of the settlers and in newspaper articles. There are literally dozens, if not hundreds, of

references to the murderous attacks by the ‘borderers’ as they were called. There is much more circumstantial evidence about ruthless attacks on the Aborigines than exists to support many of Windschuttle’s propositions about frontier conflict. Space forbids any more than a brief reference to the extensive literature.”


There are over 130,000 words in Whitewash, most of them devoted to misrepresentation, ad hominem, nit-picking, bluff and bluster. But the number of words allowed for the allegedly Windschuttle-slaying evidence of the violent destruction of the Tasmanian Aborigines by the “borderers” was 138: forty for a quote from Governor Arthur and ninety-eight for a discussion of the Broughton committee’s report, neither of which reported any specific killings.

If Reynolds does ever find the space to present a sampling of the “dozens, if not hundreds” of reports of murders by sealers, bushrangers, escaped convicts and “armed and usually mounted stockmen” during the early years of settlement, or a tally of the deaths such reports record, he will have to reconcile such evidence with orthodox historian Sharon Morgan’s report that:


“there were never many [horses] in Van Diemen’s Land. In 1803 there was only one … In 1804 there were none left in the colony; by 1819 there were only 281 horses in the southern parts of the island.”


More importantly, he will have to reconcile his claim that the early settlers slaughtered the Aborigines, while suffering negligible casualties themselves, with his claim that the Aborigines could prevail over the settlers in bush combat; and with the claims of orthodox historians such as James Boyce that the early years were remarkably peaceful (as discussed below).

In 2004 Reynolds had yet another opportunity to back his claims in an essay titled “Genocide in Tasmania” published in Genocide and Settler Society: Frontier Violence and Stolen Indigenous Children in Australian History. But he presented no evidence of Aboriginal fatalities in that essay, nor any estimate of the number of Aborigines killed by the settlers. He simply took it as a given that the number was of genocidal proportions, and proceeded to deliberate whether it could technically be classified as genocide. He decided that if the Aboriginal fatalities were to be classified as casualties of war (in line with his argument that they fought a patriotic war against invaders) they would not constitute genocide—but that:


“Whether Governor Arthur strayed over the unmarked border between warfare and genocide cannot be answered with any certainty. As always, it depends on what is meant by genocide. It is clear that he was determined to defeat the Aborigines and secure the permanent expropriation of their land, but there is little evidence to suggest that he wanted to reach beyond that objective and destroy the Tasmanian race in whole or in part. After all, he had been specifically warned against such action by his superiors in London, and carrying it out would serve no particular purpose.”


So, Australia’s most renowned Aboriginal historian, after a lifetime of study, cannot produce any evidence of genocide in the colony where conflict was “better documented … than anywhere else in the country”. And yet he cannot bring himself to acquit Australia of this most heinous of crimes. Because, just maybe, Governor Arthur, without recording his actions, when no one who would tell was looking, just might have …

In August 2008, sixteen academics from twelve universities spoke at a two-day conference sponsored by the Australian National University in honour of Henry Reynolds. I wonder if any of them thought to ask him to publish the mountain of evidence of white colonists killing Aborigines that he has invoked throughout his career, so it may be scrutinised.


Lyndall Ryan


In 1981, in the introduction to The Aboriginal Tasmanians, Lyndall Ryan compared the colonisation of Tasmania to the Nazi Holocaust, arguing that in both cases the aggressors tried to exterminate a race but “did not quite succeed”. In the body of the book, by fabricating evidence, she exaggerated the number of Aborigines killed. Near the end of the book she argued that although “European Tasmanians managed to convince themselves and the world that they had carried out the swiftest and most efficient act of genocide ever”, their attempt to exterminate the Aboriginal race failed, since inhabitants of Cape Barren Island with Aborigines on their family trees had survived to “demand recognition as an Aboriginal community”. In 1996 she revised her book, but not its fabrications or theme.

In 2002, in a review of The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, Volume One, which had exposed her fabrications, Ryan synopsised the book’s thesis regarding the demise of the Tasmanian Aborigines, then countered as follows:


“But it is possible to reach a plausible alternative conclusion. Indeed, this is exactly what I did in my book The Aboriginal Tasmanians, first published in 1981. This view asserts that the Tasmanian Aborigines did indeed constitute a threat to British settlers, that the Black War was ‘a conscious policy of genocide’, though not in the end a successful one, as the Aborigines survived.”


In 2003, in Whitewash, Ryan presented her official response to Windschuttle’s accusations of fabrication. Leaving aside the scholastic bankruptcy of that response, which is detailed in my book Washout: On the Academic Response to the Fabrication of Aboriginal History, what is relevant here is Ryan’s avoidance of any discussion of genocide, and her claim that her estimate of the Aboriginal death toll was:


“based on five years of close reading of the primary sources, from which I constructed an ‘Appendix of Aborigines Accounted for in the Literature’ in my PhD thesis. Windschuttle dismisses it on the grounds of insufficient detail and provides his own list of Aborigines killed by colonists. However, the two lists are not comparable. His is based on research in a very narrow range of sources to arrive at a claim of 118 Aborigines killed. Mine uses a far wider range of sources and accounts for 785 Aborigines killed, captured and living with sealers and settlers.”


Ryan did not provide a table or summary of the 785 Aborigines. However, in 2007 she submitted a working paper to Yale University’s Genocide Studies Program (GSP) titled “Abduction and Multiple Killings of Aborigines in Tasmania: 1804–1835”. A reader lacking the time or inclination to analyse Ryan’s evidence too closely might deem it a credible defence of the Tasmanian genocide thesis. Closer examination, however, with the help of Fabrication, reveals a very different story.

If the evidence Ryan presented to Yale could be taken at face value, it could be tallied up to support about half of Ryan’s estimate of 700 blacks killed by whites in Tasmania. It cannot, however, be taken at face value. The following are a few examples taken from Ryan’s paper:


1815 (November) Oyster Bay East Coast: Mass Killing of Aborigines: After the destruction of 930 sheep by Aborigines, recorded by Robert Knopwood the colonial chaplain, James Hobbs, a settler and government official, testified in 1830 that he had heard that a detachment of the 48th Regiment the next day shot 22 Aborigines. In 1852 the historian JohnWest recorded that 17 were killed.”


Ryan did not tell her GSP readers that Windschuttle had challenged this massacre story. In a sentence: there were no settlers or sheep anywhere near Oyster Bay in 1815 (the first settler arrived in 1821 and the first land grant there was made in 1823); Knopwood recorded 930 sheep being killed near Oatlands, nowhere near Oyster Bay; James Hobbs was in India in 1815 and his 1830 testimony referred to 300, not 930 sheep; the 48th regiment was stationed in Hobart in November 1815 and official documents didn’t record any trip to Oyster Bay, let alone any massacre. In other words, the massacre story was uncorroborated and implausible hearsay.


1823–1826: … The settlers and stock-keepers however took the law into their own hands and organised the multiple killing of Aborigines, confident that they would not be charged, let alone convicted or hanged for their actions. Few incidents were recorded.”


Since “few incidents were recorded” in official reports, newspapers, private letters, journals, or in any other way that Ryan could find, it is difficult to understand how she knew these multiple killings occurred. She didn’t explain.


1828 (January) Cape Grim, VDL Co: Richard Frederick, master of the VDL Co sloop, Fanny, told Mrs Hare, wife of the captain of the Caroline, that he and four shepherds had surprised a party of Aborigines at CapeGrim, killing 12 before retreating to their ship. MrsHare recorded the incident in her diary on January 19. The manager of the Company in a report to his superiors in London on January 14 acknowledged the attack but claimed there were no casualties because ‘the guns mis-fired.’”


Ryan did not tell her readers that Windschuttle had challenged this report (Quadrant October 2003 and March 2004). The manager, having acknowledged the attempted ambush, had no reason to lie about its lack of success. A number of people knew about the attempted ambush, but no one corroborated Hare’s version. The editor of Hare’s diary, Ida Lee, annotated the entry to the effect that Hare had probably elaborated the January incident later and confused it with a February incident in which six Aborigines (according to a company report) or thirty Aborigines (according to a later report from G.A. Robinson) were killed. By presenting the twelve deaths as a separate event (and accepting Robinson’s problematic report of thirty fatalities) Ryan inflated the Cape Grim death toll.


1828 (19 March) Tamar River: In reprisal for killing a stockkeeper in this area, the Hobart Town Courier reported that: ‘a party of volunteers came up with murderers at Bullock Hunting Ground, where 4 men, 9 women and a child of the Black people were killed.’ *** (H T C 1828: Mar 22)”


The problem is that there was no such report from Tamar River, no such quote about murders at Bullock Hunting Ground, and no report of Blacks being killed in the Hobart Town Courier of March 22, 1828.


1828 (March) Macquarie River–Eastern Midland Plain–Ross:  After Aborigines killed three stockkeepers and a settler in three separate incidents in this area, the Hobart Town Courier reported that: ‘[s]everal parties went after them. One party overtook them and killed five.’ *** (H T C 1828: Mar 22)”


There was a report in the Hobart Town Courier of March 22 from Macquarie River; it was about pumpkins “of remarkable size”—one weighed forty-eight pounds. There were reports from Ross and the Upper Clyde and Green Ponds about interracial conflict which recorded three stockmen killed, cattle speared, farms plundered, and a military party despatched, but too late to “get up in time to prevent the blacks destroying the buildings”. The paper did not report any Aborigines being killed. (Photocopies of the newspaper may be purchased from the State Library of Tasmania.)


1821–1830: Pastoral expansion: By 1830 when nearly half a million hectares had been granted, the colony had been transformed from small-scale agriculture to a wool export economy with nearly one million sheep occupying about 30% of the island. (Hartwell: 1954:118; Ryan 1996: 83-5) … With a dramatic increase in the colonial population … the pre-conditions were laid for conflict with Aborigines for possession of the land. (Hartwell 1954: 118; Ryan 1996: 83-85)”


R.M. Hartwell (The Economic Development of Van Diemen’s Land 1820–1850) did not record that by 1830 “nearly one million sheep occup[ied] about 30% of the island”. He recorded that by 1830 there were 680,740 sheep in Tasmania, and that by 1832 the total land owned or leased was 2,276,746 acres (922,082 hectares), about 13.5 per cent of the island’s 16,891,520 acres or 6,841,065 hectares.

Lyndall Ryan is currently an Honorary Professor of the School of Humanities and Social Science for the Faculty of Education and Arts at the University of Newcastle. I wonder if the good folks at Yale accept that Australian universities accept that their historians, as Ryan said, “are always making up figures”.  


James Boyce


In Whitewash, published in 2003, Boyce argued that: “On this island, much less conflict occurred in the first generation after white settlement than occurred almost anywhere else”. While commending Reynolds’ and Ryan’s works, he was circumspect about their “general estimates … not definitive claims” of Aboriginal fatalities, and he conceded that: “Disease might have been widespread, even the major source of the population decline”. But in his recent book, Van Diemen’s Land, he tacked back towards genocide as being the cause of the Tasmanian Aborigines’ demise.

Van Diemen’s Land spins a bemusing plot of white treachery against the Tasmanian Aborigines. Not that Boyce calls his book Aboriginal history; he calls it “environmental history, not because it explores how the settlers change the environment but because its primary interest is how the environment changed them”. Nevertheless, over one third of the book is about Aboriginal–settler relations, and it is promoted accordingly. In the introduction, Boyce states:


“In 2003 the publication of KeithWindschuttle’s Fabrication of Aboriginal History: Volume One, Van Diemen’s Land 1803–1847 gave national prominence to the topic of Aboriginal–settler relations in Van Diemen’s Land. The irony of this was that the chosen locale for debate happened to be the one place in Australia where the work of contemporary historians had actually moderated, not increased, previous estimates of violence. In Fate of a Free People HenryReynolds had argued that the massacre of Aborigines, far from being ignored as in many other regions of Australia, had previously been exaggerated because earlier historians underestimated Aboriginal advantages in the conflict.

“In assessing the level of violence (the only question most of the politically motivated

commentators in the so-called history wars seemed to take an interest in), this book essentially defends conclusions of nineteenth-century writers such as JamesBonwick and JohnWest, whose work was based on a considerable body of settler testimony.

It argues that Reynolds, and even Lyndall Ryan in The Aboriginal Tasmanians, have, far from exaggerating the number of Aborigines killed by the British, probably underestimated fatalities. Their analysis, and most debate to date, has been distorted by the unusual abundance of documentary sources relating to the final stages of the war between 1828 and 1831. This rich collection of documents, first put together by Lieutenant Governor GeorgeArthur, records small groups of survivors engaged in a guerrilla-style resistance in which they proved highly adept. By the time these documents were written, however, most of the Aborigines were already dead. What of the years before, when whole communities, not small bands of warriors, were Britain’s enemy?”


So Boyce claims that the number of Aborigines killed by the British was more than was estimated by Reynolds and Ryan—that is, more than 700—and that most of the killing was over by 1828. Is this a reversal of his previous claim that: “much less conflict occurred in the first generation after white settlement than occurred almost anywhere else”? This implication seems inescapable. But the Houdini of Van Diemen’s Land historiography continues as follows:


“The argument that massacres were limited, now almost universally accepted, is closely tied to the assumption that settlers were strangers to the new land and thus unable readily to kill indigenous people in an environment where the horse and

gun did not confer the same advantages as in much of mainland Australia. But this analysis ignores the two decades of comparatively peaceful shared land use that preceded the free-settler land-grab, and the extent to which this equipped Van Diemonian bushmen to undertake the expulsion and mass killing of Aborigines on behalf of their masters in the years immediately before the final guerrilla war. Massacres were, as most nineteenth-century historians believed, likely to have been commonplace.”


So Boyce does not reverse his previous position regarding the peaceful “first generation after white settlement”. Instead he redefines it as “two decades” (that is, from September 1803 to September 1823), which leaves about five years for the formerly peaceful Aborigines to become “Britain’s enemy”, and for the formerly peaceful bushmen to turn on their former friends and murder hundreds of men, women and children, leaving only “small groups of survivors” to fight the “final guerrilla war” that began in 1828.

So this brave new theory of British treachery tacitly concedes Windschuttle’s case regarding fatalities after 1827, holds firmly to the peaceful-early-settlement theory, holds partially to the Aboriginal-combat-advantage theory, and fits in genocide too. The only problem is that, true to Boyce’s form, he does not back his opening statement up. He presents no tally of alleged fatalities between 1823 and 1828; no credible case of any “whole community” being massacred; no summary of the “considerable body of settler testimony” he allegedly gleaned from nineteenth-century historians, and no new evidence of Aboriginal fatalities.

Boyce’s best shot at explaining “why large numbers of Aborigines may have been massacred in the settled districts despite the well-documented Aboriginal advantages in the conflict” amounts to conjecture that convict settlers may have gained “deadly knowledge” about the Aborigines during the “unusually long period of peaceful contact”. This “deadly knowledge” could have made massacres feasible—although not, it seems, to any effect from 1828 when they would have been abundantly documented, even though the declaration of martial law in 1828 would have made them legally defensible! But even if Boyce’s massacre-feasibility argument was credible, it would not be an argument that massacres did actually occur. Feasibility is a necessary condition of massacres, not a sufficient reason to assume they did happen.

The evidence Boyce presents of actual or alleged killings adds nothing of significance to what was discussed and tallied by Windschuttle in Fabrication. Boyce presents a statement by Roderick O’Connor that Douglas Ibbens single-handedly killed half the Eastern mob in one raid—presumably the mob waited patiently while Ibbens reloaded between shots! Boyce relates how Hamilton Wallace “fell in with about 250 Aborigines” to unknown effect. He relates how George Hobler set off with murderous intent after Aborigines who had speared one of his men, but to unknown effect. He relates some of the reports of George Augustus Robinson, which were analysed thoroughly in Fabrication. He presents a report from Gilbert Robertson of fourteen Aborigines being killed, which was analysed in Fabrication. He presents a report from Michael Steel about two Aboriginal fatalities. In Washout I credited Boyce with finding Steel’s report, and implied that the two fatalities had not been recorded in Fabrication—but I was mistaken, they were recorded, as reported by Thomas Wells. Boyce also revisits the Cape Grim violence of 1828, which was analysed at length in Fabrication and Quadrant. He also relates how two notorious Aboriginal bushrangers were hanged in 1825 and two tribal Aborigines were hanged in 1826 for murder, events that were also reported in Fabrication—Boyce adds that the latter hangings so outraged the settlers that no more Aborigines were charged with murder.

Other than his “deadly knowledge” speculation, Boyce presents no coherent argument or credible evidence that refutes Windschuttle’s case regarding the number of Aborigines killed by the British in Van Diemen’s Land. As far as British violence against Aborigines is concerned, Van Diemen’s Land is rich in conjecture and innuendo and insinuation, and it presents some facts and figures about blacks killing whites, but when it comes to facts and figures about whites killing blacks it is poverty-stricken. A reader on the lookout for validation of Boyce’s opening claim that massacres were commonplace and the cause of the population decline might expect to find some evidence in a fifty-eight-page appendix titled: “Towards Genocide”, until he notices that it is subtitled: “Government Policy on the Aborigines 1827–38”. But hadn’t he argued that “most of the Aborigines were dead” by 1828, and that any survivors were “highly adept” at resisting whites, as demonstrated by an “unusual abundance” of documentary evidence?

Genocide, according to the Macquarie Dictionary, means: “extermination of a national or racial group as a planned move”. For the Tasmanian genocide thesis to be revived, exterminating massacres and official planning or complicity must be implied. Boyce has made a robust start by surmising that massacres could have occurred between 1823 and 1828, and that the “government’s ethnic clearances” of Aborigines to Flinders Island after 1828 was “arguably the least defensible official action against an Indigenous people committed anywhere in the British empire during the nineteenth century”. Of course the supposed massacres coming before the alleged genocidal policy might be a problem—but maybe not! The academics got away with terra nullius—a policy allegedly applied a century or so before it was invented—so why not genocide committed a few years before the genocidal plan was implemented?

Australian history should not be treated as a find-the-genocide game. Boyce’s thesis that the tragic demise of the Aboriginal Tasmanians was caused by the bloody treachery of the settlers and the callous designs of the government consists of contradictory conjecture and unsubstantiated claims. In Whitewash Boyce made idiotic declarations that there was a “hole of such magnitude” in Windschuttle’s research “that it alone should discredit Fabrication’s central argument”, and that Windschuttle’s tally of Aboriginal fatalities had “no credibility, even as a starting point for further research”. But Boyce’s inability to find any evidence of massacres to add to that tally, after what must have been the mother of all archival searches, corroborates Windschuttle’s case that they did not occur.


John Dawson’s book Washout: On the Academic Response to the Fabrication of Aboriginal History was published in 2004. A footnoted version of this article is available from the Quadrant office.

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