What happened in January 1788 wasn’t an invasion, it was the beginning of a revolution. The revolutionary social and political achievements of the nineteenth-century colonies became the foundation of our Commonwealth. Then, in the second half of the twentieth century, ancien régime nostalgia, built on fantasies of noble-savage Aboriginality, Australiaphobia and Left politics, was adopted and propagated by the dominant cultural elite, and today the successes of our revolution are rejected by its twenty-first-century beneficiaries. In an essay in the June issue of Quadrant, “The Killing of History”, Keith Windschuttle wrote of the woke history rewriting curriculum being introduced by the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority which
reads like a wish-list from the Green Left Weekly. It endorses every one of the major claims currently being made by left-wing climate warriors, LGBTI advocates and indigenous activists. In fact it is not a curriculum that teaches history at all. It is an exercise in the indoctrination of identity politics.
Lies need to be defeated with history which starts with a truthful beginning: In 1788 the First Fleet opened the door onto a violent continent. The ancien régime tribes it encountered related to each other by customary violence, not customary law.
This essay appears in the latest Quadrant.
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Though a Marxist approach to anything seems obscene, French academic Christophe Darmangeat’s study of Aboriginal violence in Justice and Warfare in Aboriginal Australia, published in November 2020, promised much (despite its ridiculously expensive price) because of the clear-headed criticisms he had previously made of Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu when Australian academics were either silent or supportive. Alas. Coverage of Pascoe this time is brief and noticeably tender. Since that earlier review French universities have been shaken by waves of wokeness, inclusion, Islamophobia, inclusive language, Black Lives Matter and all the other cultural tools for constructing a civil war—all clearly stamped “Made in the USA”. To this reader Darmangeat and his publisher seem keen to signal their good, though white-privileged, intentions in this frightening atmosphere and flaunt their white-flag willingness not to upset the atmosphere of intolerance and forced conformity.
Darmangeat thanks two leftist Australian academics, Ray Kerkhove and Peter Sutton, “for their in-depth reading of this manuscript, their many remarks and suggestions, and the gracious provision of abundant documentation that escaped my attention”. Having thus contributed to the behind-the-scenes selection of material and the writing, Sutton adds his praise to the publisher’s website: “The nature of that society [Aboriginal] has recently come under considerable social media debate and public discussion in Australia. This book is thus a very timely contribution to our understanding of the past.” Social media “debate” is hateful and vicious and intolerant of dissent: public discussion in Australia only presents one point of view.
More praise came from Griffith University academic Paul S.C. Taçon, of whose research Darmangeat approves. Taçon offered a further imprimatur of limp leftist endorsement: “I opened the book with trepidation because the topic is fraught with problems of politics, definition, interpretation, bias, prejudice and missing data. But I was pleasantly surprised to find all the issues were tackled head on with a very readable forensic analysis.” He may have opened the book, but he was closing the cage door of an imprisoning conformity of thought on Aboriginal history. Though Justice and Warfare in Aboriginal Australia was “very readable” to him, it was stumblingly impenetrable to me. This is from the Conclusion:
In the first [of “two main possible evolutionary scenarios”], such [“kinship and residence”] groups would have been, in one form or another, an ancient and general characteristic of the human species. One can imagine low hypothesis, where they would have formed with the emergence of sapiens or even during the transition to the recent Paleolithic, about 50,000 years ago; in the high hypothesis, these groups would derive directly from a characteristic selected by biological evolution in one of the ancestral species and would have a common origin with the groups of male relatives observed among chimpanzees.
There are excellent selections of primary sources but the “forensic analysis” hides within convoluted prose and heavy Marxist clouds. In clear and comprehensible language the publisher’s book publicity claims the author is arguing “that warfare among Australian Aborigines was mostly an extension of their judicial systems. He demonstrates how violent conflict occurred when circumstances prohibited regulated proceedings.” From this interesting and neat theoretical packaging I stumbled to cope with the reality of these “judicial systems” as I learnt about obtaining “kidney fat” the traditional way:
The modus operandi was relatively constant: the target was most often caught by surprise while asleep. Neutralized by a rope passed around his neck or a club, he was pulled away if necessary and operated on alive: his lower back was incised, the precious material was seized and used at once. The victim survived a day or two in terrible agony.
From within his university Darmangeat maintains The Aboriginal Collective Conflicts Database, which records historic cases of Aboriginal fighting and warfare against other Aborigines. Here, with less Marx and more reality, the author shows a serious and informed intent to evaluate the sources he uses, or rejects. It is a vital story and generally ignored in Australia for political reasons even though, as the author points out, we have “a vast unpublished—and most probably poorly studied—documentation, available only in local libraries and institutions”. The Database is clearly laid out in table and illustrative map formats and presently lists 215 “collective fights” between the 1700s and 1949—this is solely black-against-black conflict. The information given includes date, location, numbers participating and numbers of dead or wounded. Each event is clearly sourced.
In Australia we host academic massacre maps (poorly researched) and this Collective Conflicts Database lives in France. There has also been some commendable local work, non-academic, in compiling data for Aboriginal attacks on settlers, which were often the reason for the so-called massacres. From these studies there could emerge a new understanding of Australian colonial violence—though considerable work needs to be done to review the claimed massacres of Aborigines. Many of these would once have been seen as settler defence and retaliation to Aboriginal violence: now the only word ever applied to these collisions is massacre.
The source material Darmangeat uses is vital and important but the Marxist analysis does not break down any barriers—as the cited praise of Left academics suggests. The canon of post-1960s history writing by Left academics seldom progresses but usually goes round and round about, caged in an imprisoning conformity of what we are allowed to say. In the bookshops there is a new book by Henry Reynolds called Truth-Telling: as if.
Our history writing needs a glorious (but peaceful) smashing of dishonest platitudes, and Darmangeat’s database, despite Marx and the praise of Left academics, is a shattering intrusion of truth into the reading and writing of our past. It recognises the deep-seated and widespread bloody traditions of Aboriginal brutality and cruelties while also recognising that colonial revolutionaries would finally impose order on customary violence—that is until modern times as ancien régime nostalgia and a woke desire for violence threaten a civil war of savagery. As Darmangeat writes:
it seems that colonial presence has more contributed to extinguishing the conflicts—often in an extremely rapid manner—than to fuelling them, if only because of the sudden demographic decline it has caused among the protagonists. The colonial order, of which the prohibition of tribal violence was a major element, did the rest.
The revolution imposed order. He cites a Western Desert Aborigine: “Before, it was permanent war. You didn’t sleep at night because your brother would come and kill you to take your wife and daughters. But when the Whites came, everyone calmed down.”
From the 1970s, when part-Aborigines became Aborigines, possessing the faith or race of romantic Aboriginality granted absolution for the sins of capitalism and modernity, Westernism and whiteness. With the Dreamtime absolution came racial and moral superiority. Reality was discarded. As the anthropologist Ronald Berndt observed in the beginning, in 1971, “A great deal of interesting myth making is going on.” And the new myths hide the past, distort the present, and seek to control the future.
In 2007 the playwright Louis Nowra published a long and horrifying essay called “Bad Dreaming: Aboriginal Men’s Violence Against Women and Children”—the evidence he produced was shocking. There was a fury of criticism, largely directed against the author for speaking up. The White Aborigine matriarchy (Larissa Behrendt and company) was loudly opposed, the matter was silenced—and how many women and children have died violently since then? The essay included a brief survey of the battered Aboriginal women observed by First Fleet officers. The texts by Governor Phillip, Watkin Tench, John Hunter and David Collins are well known. The cruel treatment of women they recorded was enacted even by men they liked, including Bennelong and Colebe. Nowra calls Bennelong a rapist. Will statue protesters call for the cancelling of his name in Sydney? Or that of rapist and murderer Pemulwuy? Yet, if at the time it was written you had put down Nowra’s furious and brilliant essay and picked up Stuart Macintyre’s A Concise History of Australia you would have found this view of the First Fleet witnesses, “As soon as the coloniser’s eye turned to Aboriginal women, it perceived them as chattels.” The historian deletes Aboriginal violence towards women and talks of white sexuality, venereal disease, and “shame and contempt for intermarriage”. His reference to “the complete subordination of native women to their male companions” is a meaningless, genteel cop-out. His readers would have had no idea he was talking about bashed and murdered women.
Being abused in the use of sources by our history writers is familiar to Australian readers. Christophe Darmangeat quotes from The Aborigines of Victoria and Riverina (1889) by Peter Beveridge, as does Bruce Pascoe in Dark Emu. Pascoe has the colonial observer (who he calls Andrew) being “astonished at the amount of fish caught” by Aborigines using nets. When Darmangeat cites Beveridge, the settler is more dismayed than astonished:
Tons upon tons of fat, delicious fish are permitted every summer to go to decay … Had the aborigines the very least foresight during the fish season they might cure sufficient food to supply their requirements through the dreary months of winter, at which season game is not very abundant, and hunting toilsome.
A long-term antidote to all this would be for a major library or museum to sell cheap print-on-demand facsimile copies of hard-to-obtain Australian texts from their collections. Real books are needed, not electronic versions. Books that can be picked up and put down, forgotten about, remembered and searched out again. Books that readers can scribble notes in.
The never-ending sermons on the invasion of Australia are a dreary, guilt-making business in the hands of teachers and academics, whereas the beginning of the Australian revolution seen through the eyes of Tench or Collins was dramatic and exciting. Its continuation throughout the nineteenth century was a great adventure and the books that describe this new society deserve modern readers. The nineteenth-century accounts of Aborigines also need to be put in the hands of readers, not served up in selective quotes by politicised activist historians.
The young victims of the new school curriculum, from whom the facts of Aboriginal violence are hidden, are also meant to be impressed by Aboriginal culture and are taught, as Keith Windschuttle noted, that the lack “of such technologies as wheels, pottery, farming and metallurgy were not signs that it was primitive. Such an idea comes from ‘now discredited’ theories of cultural evolution.” Ancien régime black romanticism has gone barking mad.
While hoping for common sense to return, reading Down Among the Wild Men by John Greenway is highly recommended. In a teasing conversation with his colleague Norman Tindale they discussed a planned anthropological expedition into the outback and the literally tons of equipment and supplies they would need. Greenway asked Tindale how little an Aborigine would need to carry in their place:
“Nothing,” Norman concluded. “He could go in naked, find a piece of quartz, make a knife in a minute or two, use that to cut his spears and woomera, and he’s in like Flynn.”
“We represent progress?” I asked, philosophically.
“Of course,” said Norman, “don’t talk rubbish.”
Michael Connor adds: I would like to thank the Quadrant reader and history enthusiast who provided me with a reading (sans Marx) copy of Justice and Warfare in Aboriginal Australia.