Who Killed the Truth?

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What killed the Tasmanian Aborigines? When British colonists arrived in 1803, the island's indigenous people numbered a few thousand. Thirty years later, about 100 remained. Most historians blame their demise on the British: the settlers invaded the Aborigines' land; the Aborigines waged a "Black War" of resistance; the settlers did their best to exterminate the Aborigines; the settlers won. That story, shorthanded as genocide in the media and many history books, exerts a dark hold on the Australian imagination and haunts indigenous politics to this day. Referring to the bicentenary of settlement last week, Tasmanian Aboriginal leader Michael Mansell said: "The British had more impact on Aborigines than the Holocaust had on the Jews."

Keith Windschuttle used to believe the "genocide" story, he says. But in The Fabrication of Aboriginal History Volume 1: Van Diemen's Land 1803-1847, he argues that it is a myth. With forensic thoroughness, Windschuttle exhumes the footnotes of several influential histories and finds, in dozens of cases, that the evidence has been tampered with. Numbers are conjured out of thin air, quotations misleadingly edited, tall tales presented as fact. Since the errors all tilt one way, Windschuttle concludes that they're deliberate - made by left-wing historians eager to cast whites as colonial oppressors and blacks as heroic freedom fighters. The real story, he argues, is there was neither organized resistance nor attempted extermination. The main killers of Aborigines were diseases to which isolation had made them fatally vulnerable, and the loss of women who were traded to or abducted by whites.

In the halls of academe, those assertions went down like a grenade at a garden party. By the time the book was published last December, enraged historians and social scientists were already on the counterattack. When an opinion piece by Windschuttle appeared in the Australian, three academics wrote to complain that he'd been "given space to attack the credibility of major Australian historians." Some 30 of their colleagues have attacked Windschuttle's credibility, and his conclusions, in opinion pieces, book reviews, online forums, public debates, conferences and three books: Frontier Conflict, edited by historians Bain Attwood and Stephen Foster; The History Wars, by historians Stuart Macintyre and Anna Clark, and Whitewash, edited by political scientist and commentator Robert Manne. "A work of demolition," writes Manne of Windschuttle's book; "the simulated proceedings of a neo-conservative kangaroo court," judges Whitewash contributor Shayne Breen. Other critics have called Windschuttle a "counterfeit" historian, a "propagandist," and "a right-wing polemicist" with the style of a "prosecutor at a Moscow show trial." He is regularly likened to Holocaust denier David Irving.

For the debate's participants, the stakes are clearly high. "The future of Australia will be seriously affected by whether or not the Windschuttle view prevails," wrote Manne in the Age. In Frontier Conflict, Australian National University historian Ann Curthoys writes that the controversy is about the "moral basis of Australian society." Windschuttle agrees. "For some reason," says the former leftist turned conservative, "the academic historians who dominate this field [of Aboriginal history] prefer to portray their own country as the moral equivalent of Hitler's Germany." Monash University historian Graeme Davison worries that "the highly polarized and political flavor of the controversy may lead many people to conclude that history itself is ‘just politics.' "

Windschuttle's charge that the writing of Tasmania's history has been at least partly "politics" has yet to be convincingly rebutted. "The questions [he] raised about previous accounts of Tasmanian massacres could not be evaded," concedes Macintyre in The History Wars. Claims that it was just a question of a few minor gaffes "only increased the suspicion," he went on, "that something was seriously amiss with the standards, if not the integrity, of the profession." Greg Lehman, an academic of Tasmanian Aboriginal descent who contributed an essay to Whitewash, claims Windschuttle's book has "generated a resurgence of critical consideration of a number of historians who have been ... caught out on a number of shortcomings." But in anthropologist Ron Brunton's view, those historians "haven't yet explained properly the kinds of errors Windschuttle is pointing to."

Instead, the critics have stayed on the offensive. Windschuttle's mistakes have been pounced on. For example, says University of Tasmania historian Michael Powell, at one point "he accepts without question a claim that a quarter of the island's Aboriginal population were together in one spot." In Whitewash, Mark Finnane shows that Windschuttle's tally of 120 "plausible" Aboriginal killings in 30 years still represents an "extraordinarily high" death rate in a population of 2,000 to 4,000. Windschuttle's simplistic view of Aborigines has also been widely deplored. "He presents them as without redeeming features," says Powell. "He fails to take their perspective." And "his idea that they had no view of territorial ownership offends against common sense." Windschuttle says he welcomes criticism, "in fact I thrive on it." But so far he's heard nothing that "seriously challenges any of my major arguments."

Perhaps because it's been conducted largely in the media, the public debate on Fabrication has been light on factual argument. That is a pity, says Brunton: "I think Windschuttle is wrong on anthropological grounds. But one would imagine that historians would say, O.K., he's gone in fairly hard, but this is a useful exercise. We disagree with him, but he has raised important issues. These things are said, but they are drowned out by personal vituperation."

A charge often leveled at Windschuttle is that he is heartless. "The author displays no compassion for the fate of the Tasmanians," said Whitewash contributor Breen in a forum at the University of Sydney. "I am alarmed by the lack of compassion Windschuttle shows towards Aborigines," echoed Melbourne University's Macintyre in a discussion on ABC Radio's Late Night Live. Windschuttle, whose 1994 book The Killing of History condemned the politicization of the discipline, replied that the historian's duty is "to be dispassionate. It is to try and stand above current political squabbles and current political interests and tell the truth about the past, whatever happenedd." Says Paul Comrie-Thomson, a Sydney philosopher who has written a thesis on compassion: "In this debate we're seeing what is called moral vanity. When people say, I am opposed to Windschuttle because I care, they are making a claim about their moral superiority."

Windschuttle's opponents also complain that he doesn't care about present-day Aborigines. In Whitewash, Australian-history doyen Henry Reynolds writes that Fabrication opens a path for those who would "undermine all those staples of indigenous politics - land rights, self-determination, reparation, even the need for a prime ministerial apology." Windschuttle believes some historians have adopted the role of the missionaries who, he says, eagerly propagated any rumor about violence toward Aborigines to "justify their policy of separating Aborigines from white society. They hoped to be seen as the saviors of the Aborigines." A false view of the past is in nobody's interest, he says: "What good does it do reconcilation or Aborigines to tell them whites wanted to exterminate them when they never did? What good does it do to tell them they are a conquered people when they never were?"

Some of Windschuttle's opponents speak about such things with caution these days. Asked what killed Tasmania's Aborigines, Manne lists disease, loss of their hunting grounds, and "violence and killing," though "I don't think anyone knows the exact balance between these things." It certainly matters, he says, whether the killing was deliberate. "But it also matters a great deal that there was the intention to take the Aborigines' way of life from them no matter what the cost." In philosopher Comrie-Thomson's view, "tragedy is not injustice." Harder than saying "we are responsible," he says, may be to face "a chilling possibility - what happened was an inevitability. No one can be blamed." But Manne believes Australians have a moral obligation to "apologize to the survivors" and "make it clear that we feel we're implicated and we feel shame in regard to what happened."

In Tasmania today, 18,000 people claim Aboriginal descent, but only 7,000 have the genealogical bona fides recognized by the official indigenous body, the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre. The Lia Pootah, a grouping of people who claim descent from colonial half-castes rather than the full-blood survivors of 1834, are scathingly criticized by the tac - and vice versa. Charges of racism and cultural genocide have been exchanged. Last week the tac ignored the bicentenary of settlement, but the Lia Pootah held a ceremony and a barbecue of kangaroo and fish and chips, saying they wanted to promote reconciliation by respecting both sides of their ancestry. Windschuttle was there.