The Fabrication of Aboriginal History?

In November 2002 appeared a book by Keith Windschuttle that was to make Tasmanian history, for the first time, a national public issue. Through the sponsorship of the Australian newspaper in particular, The fabrication of Aboriginal history volume one Van Diemen's Land 18031847, was given an unparalleled level of media exposure.

Windschuttle claimed to have exposed a deliberate fabrication of evidence regarding the extent of violence against Aborigines by left-wing historians seeking to promote Aboriginal claims to compensation or redress based on past wrongs. Fabrication claimed that 'British colonists killed very few Aborigines in Van Diemen's Land'. Such was Windschuttle's faith in the comprehensiveness of the official documents and newspaper reports describing violence against Aborigines, he produced a definitive tally of 'only' 118 'plausible' deaths. This proved a popular line. Ever since Prime Minister John Howard said in 1996 that he hoped to make Australians feel 'relaxed and comfortable' about their past, such sentiments enjoyed powerful patronage.

But Fabrication was about much more than the publicity suggested. Fabrication explicitly aimed to produce 'an alternative version of its subject, a counter-history of race relations in this country'. The book pitted itself against a range of writers over 170 years, of varying political persuasions, lumped together as the 'orthodox' school. They had documented a high level of violence against Aborigines, and claimed that Aboriginal resistance was a consequence of the negative impacts of British settlement, especially the explosion in numbers of white people and sheep moving to Aboriginal hunting grounds in the 1820s. Fabrication's 'counter history' claimed that Aborigines overwhelmingly died from disease and their culture's purported abuse and neglect of women, while Aborigines' primary motivation for killing nearly 200 whites from 1824 to 1831 was to steal whites' goods.

The limitations of historical debate in the media were apparent in a lack of public scrutiny of Fabrication's 'alternative version'. It was not until August 2003 with the publication of Whitewash: on Keith Windschuttle's fabrication of Aboriginal history, that historians were able to defend allegations levelled against them, and question the evidence for Fabrication's own case. Whitewash charged that Windschuttle seemed to have read few primary sources other than the Colonial Secretary's Office papers, had almost no evidence for his principal claims about the cause of Aboriginal deaths or motivation for their resistance, and misunderstood or ignored the frontier context. Moreover it argued that Fabrication had methodological flaws and numerous errors. Of most concern were the offensive theories Fabrication propounded about pre-settlement Tasmanian Aboriginal culture that, it claimed, were not based on the reading of any primary source material or recent research.

It seemed that Fabrication's 'counter history' had been soundly and rigorously rebuffed. No one with any expertise in the subject matter supported Fabrication's alternative version of the causes of widespread violence and Aboriginal deaths. Even Windschuttle's own response to Whitewash in the October 2003 issue of Quadrant did not address these issues. Fabrication's broader cultural and political impact however remained profound. As Robert Manne had written in Whitewash, Fabrication was 'singing a song many people wanted to hear'. A more local concern was whether Tasmanian history had been misrepresented to serve a national political campaign. Certainly in the bicentenary year the most immediate task at hand for all historians of Van Diemen's Land was clearing up the confusion and hurt left in its wake. (See also Frontier Conflict.)

Further reading: K Windschuttle, The fabrication of Aboriginal history, Sydney, 2002; and 'Whitewash confirms the fabrication of Aboriginal history', Quadrant 47/10, 2003; R Manne (ed), Whitewash, Melbourne, 2003.

James Boyce