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.
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,
“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,
“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
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
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
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 August 2008, sixteen academics from twelve universities spoke at a two-day conference sponsored by the
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,
“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.”
If the evidence
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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)”
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
“In 2003 the publication of
“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
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
So Boyce claims that the number of Aborigines killed by the British was more than was estimated by
“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
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
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
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
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.