History Wars

Calling Those Error-Prone ‘Old Historians’ to Account

The term ‘history wars’ is an artificial construct designed by what historian Dr Michael Connor refers to as ‘the old historians’, or the history establishment, to demean any attempt by those who refuse to toe to the party line. Increasingly that party line holds Australia to be a racist country founded on the genocide and dispossession of Aboriginal people. One of its most high-profile defenders is Professor Lyndall Ryan who maintains, online at the University of Newcastle, what she terms a colonial Massacre Map.

One of its entries describes a massacre that purportedly took place at Risdon Cove, near Hobart, on May 3, 1804, at which an estimated 30 to 50 Aborigines, men and women, were killed in an unprovoked attack that set the scene for the genocide that was to follow and to characterise the colonist’s relations with the Aboriginal people for the next hundred or more years.  This incident was highlighted in a front-page article in The Wall Street Journal, written by an Australian-American, on August 21, 2000, by way of introducing Journal readers to the upcoming 2000 Olympics.

There was an affray between settlers and Aborigines on that day that was reported by the local commander, Lt Moore, to Lt Governor Collins on the very same day. But what we now ‘know’ about the Risdon Cove massacre – in particular the cause and the extent of casualties – is based on the testimony of an eye-witness, one Edward White, to a colonial government committee in 1830.

But was his testimony true?

Historian Keith Windschuttle throws doubt on it in his book The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, Vol 1.

However, in a fascinating new book, Truth Telling at Risdon Cove, authors Scott Seymour, George Brown and Roger Karge go further.  They provide convincing evidence that Edward White could not have been at Risdon Cove on the date in question and that therefore his testimony was false.  Or, at the very least, it was based on hearsay from some unidentified person, 26 years after the event.

The research methodology employed by the authors is most thorough and is easily understood by the layman, at whom this book seems principally directed.  Although having said that, and I speak with due humility as a layman myself, I doubt that any professional historian could legitimately find fault with the authors’ rigour and objectivity.  They cannot, and should not, dismiss it as a mere polemic written by unqualified amateurs.

The Edward White, that the old historians cite, is said to have arrived in Sydney, in July 1802, on the convict transport Atlas and was then transferred to Van Diemen’s Land, where he worked as a convict servant to one of the settlers.  The authors demonstrate, through meticulous research, that the Edward White who embarked on Atlas in 1801 could not have been at Risdon Cove in 1804 because he never arrived in Sydney.  He either died en route or was one of three who absconded in Rio de Janeiro. 

They then painstakingly identify the real Edward White who testified in 1830, and prove that he did not arrive in the colony until 1806.

Without the testimony of Edward White, the incident at Risdon Cove is reduced to the small affray reported by Lt Moore.  An affray provoked by apparent hostility on the part of the Aborigines and which resulted in the death of a handful of them.  That this was a tragedy goes without saying but, in the context of the times, cannot, by any stretch of the imagination be described as ‘the opening shot in a war that would result in the near extermination of Tasmanian Aborigines’, as it was in the Wall Street Journal article.

Having disposed of Edward White’s testimony, the authors then turn their attention to the political dimension of this obsession of the old historians with genocide.  ‘Why do intellectuals like genocide?’, the authors ask. 

Truth Telling at Risdon Cove is a beautifully produced coffee-table style book, enhanced by many illustrations, including extracts from critical primary sources accompanied, in most cases, by easy-to-read transcripts. It is fully supported by extensive footnotes, bibliography and index.  It is in fact a work of scholarship, albeit one that is easily digestible by the most untutored reader.

This book is important beyond the imperative to correct one false narrative. George Orwell was wrong only in his timing — 1984 came and went with barely a whimper, but in 2022 the rewriting of history is well entrenched in all our institutions.  Dr Michael Connor – who has also confronted major defects in the scholarship of many of the old historians pushing the genocide line – notes that much of what passes for history in recent publications is not based on primary sources but on the interpretations of those who have gone before them.  They simply accept, at face value, what has already been claimed as fact by someone else.  But his own research has shown, as just one example, that the much-touted Convincing Ground Massacre in Victoria has been greatly exaggerated

But it is not just misinterpretation or exaggeration of primary sources that is at issue.  Old historians are not above inventing their own facts.  Seymour, Brown and Karge have uncovered one such example of an apparent invention on the part of one eminent historian whose 2003 work is regarded as the ‘go to’ reference for the Risdon Cove narrative.   That historian has failed to respond to invitations to explain this anomaly. 

If this decline in academic standards is to be rectified, it will happen one battle at a time and will not be achieved by scholarly articles in conservative publications.  It will only happen when the broader public is made aware of our real history. Books such as Truth Telling at Risdon Cove will be an important part of this process.

I thoroughly recommend this book which is published by Risdon Cove Publishing and is available at all good bookshops or on-line at www.hidden-histories-tas.org for $44.95.

Peter O’Brien’s latest book, Villian or Victim? A defence of Sir John Kerr and the Reserve Powers, can be ordered here

8 comments
  • john.singer

    “When a person or persons are accused of assault, manslaughter or murder they are entitled to face their accusers. This is usually in a court of law and they are entitled to a defence. If they cannot afford legal counsel one will be appointed for them.
    This is the law of the land.
    If these events are in a field of conflict then the International Laws regarding war crimes may apply. In that event according to the “Yamashita Standard” even the Head of State (Governor or Governor General) may be required to stand trial.
    You may think this is trivial but I put to you that Billions of Dollars have been expended to vilify the conduct of settlers, marines, Government Officials, explorers, law enforcers and judicatures in relation to the original and on-going “settlement” of Australia and their conduct in relation to the Aboriginal people, In the classrooms of today young Australians are being taught to disrespect their ancestors and question their own self-worth and the validity of their Nation.
    Why haven’t the accused persons had their day in a properly constituted Court? It cannot be because most of them are deceased because most of their accusers are also deceased and the living accusers rely heavily on hearsay (which is not of itself evidence).
    In the spirit of Truth-telling the Government needs to have the guilt of these men and women tested in a proper forum and their defence properly funded before any matter based on assumptions of guilt is put to the Parliament in the form of Legislation or as a basis for a referendum.”
    I made these comments in another forum but they apply equally to what is written in History books and what is taught in Universities. The Aboriginal people of Australia are a remarkable people and they do not need the baggage of fake history to be proud of what they have achieved or to limit what they will achieve.

  • NarelleG

    @ John Singer – well said and true.

    This – *The Aboriginal people of Australia are a remarkable people and they do not need the baggage of fake history to be proud of what they have achieved or to limit what they will achieve.*

    I have found my studies and books collected fascinating – such a shame they will gather dust on my shelves.

  • brandee

    An excellent analysis and summary by Peter O.
    A good comment also by John S the last line of which is memorable and it reflects a similar sentiment to that in the title of the book Triumph of the Nomads by the masterful historian Geoffrey Blainey. Originally published in 1975 the revised edition of 1982 has a dust jacket illustration reproduced from the John Glover ‘The last muster of the Tasmanian Aborigines at Risdon 1836’. The illustration is of a peaceful tribal scene.
    Anything but peaceful is the story in Cape York [Nth Queensland] in 1848 told by Jackey Jackey a brave and loyal survivor of the tragic John Kennedy expedition. In his moving survivors tale Jackey Jackey tells of the merciless final pursuit of Kennedy and himself by relentless aboriginal tribal warriors intent on murder. Can we see that on a massacre map somewhere?

  • rosross

    I find it difficult to see how the many different peoples here in 1788, first called Indians, then Natives and finally Aborigines by the British were remarkable in any way. They were not even the only ones in the world who had failed to evolve beyond stone-age.

    The British were curious about them because they saw an opportunity to gain understanding of our common human stone-age origins and on that count, they were a valuable resource. However, nothing they did or lived was out of the ordinary for stone-age hunter-gatherers.

    Perhaps the excessive use of infanticide to keep numbers low and manageable and reduce the need for food was common to all stone-age peoples. All we can know is that it enabled the Aboriginal peoples to survive without evolving beyond a very primitive hunter-gatherer life.

    Some argue that the Australian island-continent was the most demanding as an environment for human survival but this is questionable. The climate, generally, is benign compared to the northern hemisphere and while a cold Winter no doubt took its toll, it would not have killed as readily as a northern Winter. Compared to the survival of Eskimos/Inuit in Canada and peoples in the farthest reaches of the northern hemisphere, Aborigines had a relatively easy time of it.

    I agree they do not need the baggage of fake history but there was never an Aboriginal people to achieve anything, and what achievements stand out for Aborigines in Australia compared to any other colonised people? I can think of none. There is an argument made by some, that moving into the then modern world of the late 18th century by stone-age hunter-gatherers was impressive. But was it? Aborigines were not alone in crashing headfirst into a more developed world and the Britons ended up with serious ‘headaches’ when the Romans arrived no doubt.

    And how can they go on to achieve anything when there is no ”they”? There is no one group which could register as having achieved? We have gone from around 350-500 different groups of peoples, many no more than family clans, here in 1788, descended from different waves of migration and colonisation to thousands of variations on those original themes. The 700,000 or so registered today are, in the main, minimally Aboriginal in ancestry, from whatever group, and more Anglo-European than anything else.

    How can the achievements of Australians with aboriginal ancestry today be separated out from their non-Aboriginal ancestry and the Anglo-European influences of the past 234 years? They cannot. Any achievement is sourced in our modern Western world in the democratic nation of Australia and those with Aboriginal ancestry are no different to those with Chinese or Turkish ancestry – they are simply Australians with mixed ancestry like most of us.

    So, just as a fake history does not help those with Aboriginal ancestry, neither does an invented exceptionalism which would make them unique at experiencing and moving beyond colonisation. We are all descended from peoples who have done that.

    What we need is an Australia which values all of our history but none more than any other. Anything which separates and divides us, and positive claims and labels do that as effectively as negative ones, is a betrayal of our democratic nation and our shared human and Australian history.

  • Suburban Boy

    Q: ‘Why do intellectuals like genocide?’
    A: To bolster the importance of their pronouncements on Australian history, which otherwise would be of little interest to anyone outside our shores (however central it is to our own people).

  • Peter Marriott

    Good clear piece Peter. I’ve read Keith Windschuttle’s book, and some of the details surrounding the obvious lying of the old lag White, very similar to prisoners today and down through the ages prepared to say anything if they think it will help them get some special treatment.
    At Risdon cove best estimate is 3 killed based on official eye witness accounts, after the aborigines had attacked settlers and threatened their wives, and the carronade was a ceremonial one , almost certainly fired a blank charge to frighten, despite the charge of William Wentworth, another type who I think was well known for his over the top rhetoric, and hyperbole.

  • Ian MacDougall

    All that. But then again ….
    https://noahsarc.wordpress.com/kangaroos-thylacines-and-aborigines-1/ and passim.
    NB: Hope this does not have to wait till Doomsday for ‘approval’; as in Stalin’s Russia; at this fauxliberal site.

  • Tony Tea

    I see Scott Seymour is in the news protesting that a Hobart statue is set to be cancelled.

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