Australian PrehistoryHistory - AustralianAustralian CultureAustralian IdentityCultural Comparisons Between Australia and other Countries


Share |

Relations between Aborigines
and colonists

Aboriginal War
Friends or foes?

History Wars
Denying contestability

Black Woman and White Man
Rape or love?

Myall Creek Masscare
Causes and consequences of colonial violence

The Stolen Generations
It's not so black and white

Jimmy Govenor
Not a good fence builder

Mary Anne Bugg
Female Bushranger

Justice or resistance?

1967 referendum
The myths

Contemporary racism against Indigenous People

Convicts and their legacy

Convict legacy
How the past shapes the present

Convict life
Regrets and floggings

Convict crimes
Power and morality

Convict punishments
What purpose?

Larrikin Convicts
Breaking rules

Thinking different

Convict women
Moral diversity



From the Deserts The Prophets Come

The History Wars in Australia

In 1997, the government report: "Bringing Them Home - Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families" detailed policies of genocide towards Aborigines. In 2008, prime minister Kevin Rudd apologised for the genocide by didnt call for any of the ministers for Aboriginal affairs'or past prime ministers to be prosecuted for genocide. Furthermore, he didn’t ask for compensation to be paid to any victims or even name them.

The government report and apology reflected a cultural trait to speak of relationship between Aborigines and Indigenous peoples with a bias towards the anonymous. Specifically, it speaks of the un-named farmer that deprived the un-named Aborigines of land, the un-named sealer that abducted and raped the un-named Aboriginal woman, the un-named federal ministers for Aboriginal affairs that designed laws that stole the un-named Aboriginal children and the un-named Australians whose racism keeps Aborigines disadvantaged.

It is the bias towards the anonymous that perhaps best explains what has been termed the History Wars where history has been highly disputed due to what it has aimed to achieve as well as the evidence that it has been based on. In short, the bias towards the anonymous has meant that accusations of injustice have not been based on any recorded facts. Those who have disputed the accusations have been in turn been accused of trying to evade the “collective” responsibility for the injustice. In other words, they have been accused of being motivated by nationalism or social pride rather than a search for verifiable historical truth.

One of the consequences of the bias towards the anonymous has been that the writing has become more prejudicial. Specifically, when people are denied a face, it is very easy to simplify issues in a way that opens to them to vilification. Perhaps the best evidence of this comes from contrasting the stories of the anonymous people written about by historians with the biographies of real Australians in government, law, education and the public service.  Whereas the descriptions of anonymous Australians are usually very negative, the biographies of those who held true power are usually very positive. In other words, whenever real people are written about, descriptions tend to be far more flattering (especially when they come from positions of power.)

Even though the anonymous targets of the prejudice are not explicitly named, there is an inference of who they are, and that inference in turn filters into popular culture where it feeds prejudice. For example, in 2010 white columnist Catherine Deveny said,

"An Australian Flag in your front yard tells everyone you're only a couple of Bundy and Cokes away from lynching a wog, slope or Arab."

Basically, Deveny was asserting a widely inferred viewpoint that those who embraced an Australian identity were responsible for historical injustices while those that denounced an Australian identity were not only free of responsibility, but were morally justified in engaging in villification of those who were. As is to be expected, those who feel that are being blamed subsequently become offended by the writing and therefore want to contest it. Likewise, many who feel evading responsibility is as simple as calling a fellow Australian a racist naturally takes the simple option.

The second consequence of the bias has been a tendency for historians to fabricate events, rapes, murders and injustices. This is because people are seen as mere numbers that can be exaggerated to achieve a purpose when real perpetrators and victims are not being written about. For example, historian Lyndall Ryan cited the diary of John Oxley when revealing the deaths of 100 Aborigines at the hands of colonists. When the citation was later checked, it was found to have mentioned only four deaths. Ryan defended herself by saying,

“Historians are always making up figures.”

What Ryan said was true in the sense that historians make up figures when the figures aren’t seen to represent real people with stories to tell. In such cases, all that matters is a number that suits whatever purpose the historian is striving for. On the other hand, when real people are being written about, there is a desire to bring them to life by understanding the circumstances of their stories. When they are perpetrators, there may be a desire to understand the migrating circumstances. When they are victims, there may a desire for the pain they suffered to be told rather than be drowned out in a collective sea of broad victimisation. It is for precisely this reason that Truth and Reconciliation Commissions in post-genoice societies prioritise telling the strories of real people (victims and pepetrators alike) when trying to heal after episodes of genocide. It is by those stories that pepetrators and victims can be humanised.

Arguably, the first shot in the History Wars was fired in 1993 by Geoffrey Blainey when he coined the phrase “black armband view of history”. Blainey’s term referred to those historians who he said were writing about Australian history as if wearing a black arm band of mourning, grieving, or shame. Blainey contrasted the black-arm band view to the “three cheers” view of history that proposed that everything in Australia was wonderful after Convict transportation ended.

For reasons that can be speculated upon, the academic establishment found Blainey’s black arm band label to be highly offensive. In reaction, the term “white blindfold” was popularised by Carole Ferrier, Anne Clark and others to infer that the likes of Blainey were blind to the truth because they were white supremacists. In other words, Ferrier and Clark established a racist-non-racist dichotomy that proposed that only racists questioned the establishment while those who agreed with the establishment were race egalitarians.

Ironically, the black armband label was perhaps erroneously applied because the writings really didn’t show evidence of personal shame or grieving, rather, they showed evidence of evasion of responsibility and prejudice towards those outside the authors circle of influence. Specifically, by encouraging indignation towards the anonymous, rather than the academic that devised policy for Aborigines, the minister that proposed laws for Aborigines and even the historian that shaped social identities of Aborigines and non-Aborigines alike, the historians were agents in avoidance of true responsibility for what they perceived as the unsatisfactory contemporary Aborigine. Even the outrage of Ferrier and Clark was somewhat reflective of a wider Australian trait of not accepting personal responsibility in the sense that they point blank refused to concede that they or anyone close to them might have done something wrong.

The second major shot in the History Wars came in 2002 when Keith Windschuttle released the Fabrication of Aboriginal History. Whereas Blaney's shot questioned the attitude to the past, Windschuttle questioned the type of sources used to study the past as well as the methodology used to analyze those sources. In his book, Windschuttle used empirical research to show that historians had fabricated statistics and misrepresented evidence for reasons best described as deliberate bias. It was Windschuttle who had found that Ryan had multiplied recorded deaths by 2,500%. Windschuttle also showed that historian Henry Reynolds had been very creative with statistics when trying to raise awareness of a unknown frontier war. In short, Reynolds had cited primary sources when giving accounts of 10,000 Aborigines being killed by colonists; however, when Windschuttle checked the citations, he found that Reynolds had made the figure up. Basically, Reynolds had gone to newspapers and counted the mentions of attacks on white settlers by Aborigines. Reynolds then multiplied his figure by 3 and added 20% to decide how many Aborigines had been murdered by whites. Reynolds hd not stated his reasoning for this method of deciding how many Aborigins had been killed.

Ironically, Windschuttle's book was extremely damaging because its chief criticism, that historians had fabricated citations, was not contestable. While it could be debated that some approaches to history were more moral than others and that things occur even if they are not written down, it really couldn't be debated that Reynold's and Ryan had engaged in academic fraud.

Windschuttle’s book was not just a problem for the historians who had fabricated statistics and misrepresented evidence, it was also a problem for the universities that employed them. Specifically, because university culture demands citations to written records when justifying arguments, other historians had been citing Reynolds and Ryan to justify their arguments, which made their own work tainted by Ryan and Reynolds. It was a bit like two players in a football team adding some steroids to the water cooler so their drinks would have more kick. Unfortunately, since the water cooler was shared, every other member of the team was tainted and at risk of a drug suspension. In these situations, institutions have a choice between deciding whether sunlight is the best medicine to get rid of the mould or pulling down the blinds and going on the offensive. It was the later option that the majority of tainted historians (supported by their institutions) took as a collective.

One of the first major counter attacks was Stuart Macintyre’s “History Wars” (2003).  Like Ferrier and Clark before him, Macintyre chose political dichotomies as the chief form of counter attack. In his book, Macintyre argued that history was a branch of knowledge that was governed by rules of evidence so that historians created history but they were not free to invent or falsify it. Macintyre then declared that those who challenged the orthodoxy obeyed only Rafferty's rules. In the opinion of Macintyre, they caricatured their opponents and impugned their motives. They appealed to loyalty, hope, fear and prejudice. In Macintyre's view, this amounted to "bullying" of the history profession.

While his words were compelling for those under attack, objectively speaking, Macintyre was acting like the negative caricature he was trying to apply to Windschuttle. Furthermore, it was somewhat hypocritical to expect the Australian public to acknowledge the warts in the Australian public's heritage in the treatment of Aborigines while denying an expectation for academics to acknowledge the warts on their contemporaries in telling the story of that treatment. A label of 'denier' could have been imposed upon Macintyre.

Another counter attack was launched Robert Manne when he edited “Whitewash. On Keith Windschuttle's Fabrication of Aboriginal History (2003).” Again, political dichotomies formed the basis of the counter attack. In its title, the book showed that insulting people in the present was higher in its motivation than in trying to discuss what happened in the past. Among other things, the book likened Windschuttle to a Nazi holocaust denier.

Although the political dichotomies of the establishment had the effect of temporarily whitewashing problems associated with academic fraud, ultimately it was a case of trying to defend the indefensible and the estabishment conceded the point in roundabout ways. Reflecting this, supporters of the orthodoxy started making claims that just because something wasn’t written down didn’t mean it didn’t occur. For example, in 2007, radio shock jock and columnist Phillip Adams sarcastically wrote:

"Moreover, we will do our best to deny that they happened. Enter the historical revisionism of a Keith Windschuttle. Massacres of Abos? Where? When? Show us the documents! Show us the receipts for the corpses! If there’s no paperwork, it never happened. Oral histories of Aborigines? Vivid, detailed accounts of slaughter and atrocities can be discounted. They're not worth the paper they’re not written on. No need for sorries there."

While Smith’s reference to oral traditions did at least acknowledge that history should be based on some reference to sources, the sarcasm and derogatory racial epithets still appealed to political dichotomies that aimed to deny contestability. Furthermore, by referring to oral traditions instead of the written records, Adams conceded that the written records gave a different picture to what Reynolds and Ryan had proposed. Ironically, this was problematic for the academic establishment because it does not use oral records in peer reviewed literature.

Four key questions to emerge from the History Wars?

1) What have been some of the problems with the methods used to overcome deficiecies in primary and secondary sources?

Academic historians like to write as if they are communicating "facts" that are beyond dispute. For this reason, they write in the third person and use citations to written records that support what they are writing. Because of this desire for fact over opinion, academics are biased towards written sources. Basically, written sources have a degree of certainty that is lacking in more subjective sources such as songs, oral tradition, language or visual art. For example, while it is relatively easy to agree what a written paragraph is intended to communicate, it is not so easy to agree on what a painting or song is intended to communicate. Consequently, if an academic wants to use a painting or song as a source, he or she might need to concede that he or she is interpreting the past (giving an opinion on it that can easily be disputed), instead of being a faithful messenger who can't be disputed.

In regards to understanding the relationship between Aborigines and non-Aborigines in colonial Australia, deficiencies in the written record have been very problematic for academic historians that are reliant upon written sources. Firstly, Aborigines didn’t have a written language so their perspectives are virtually absent. Secondly, most of the Convict population was illiterate so their perspectives are virtually absent. Finally, the ruling class that had a written language wrote their history in ways that seemed highly biased.

Henry Reynolds was one of many historians who took some poor choices when trying to overcome the massive gaps in the written record. In one example, Reynolds wanted to find out how many Aborigines were killed by whites in Queensland prior to Federation. To do this, Reynolds referred to a previous article he had written where he had tallied up the number of whites killed by Aborigines (as mentioned in newspapers.) Reynolds then multiplied his tally by 3 and added 20% to arrive at the figure of 10,000 Aborigines that were killed by whites. Unfortunately, instead of explaining the methodology he had used to arrive at the figure of 10,000, he just gave a citation to a written source (his earlier article) as if the figure of 10,000 was a fact. In what is best described as an academic version of Chinese whispers, other academics subsequently cited Reynolds’s figure of 10,000 as if it were a historical fact. This created a huge pool of secondary sources that were not truthful to primary sources but were being cited as if they were indisputable facts.

Ironically, the type of "filling in the gaps" that Reynolds attempted required far more higher order thinking skills than being a faithful messenger of history. Specifically, it required skills in information synthesis, analysis, evaluation, application and speculation. Despite the increased risk of personal subjectivity, academics really should have been celebrating their possession of such abilities because if done well, it would have shown their intelligence. On the other hand, being a faithful messenger of primary sources required about as much higher order thinking skills as the student that simply parrots the teacher. Unfortunately, all the historians that cited Reynolds (rather than critically analysing his writings) showed that they were little more than parrots parroting a flawed message. As for Reynolds, by not being honest about his methodology, nothing he wrote could be trusted. Furthermore, his method to arrive at the figure of 10,000 really didn't show much evidence of synthesing a wide variety of sources to make the most probable conclusion. In other words, it didn't show much thought or intelligence.

2) Is it acceptable to corrupt history for a good cause?

History is useful for propaganda because it can be corrupted to make some groups look good and other groups look bad. This corruption is often justified as being in the pursuit of the greater good.

Arguably, the frequent use of insult in the contemporary discussion about the relations between colonists and Aborigines indicates that a pursuit of a greater good has guided many historians. Henry Reynolds was honest enough to say that all history was political and that politics drove his historical inquiry. In his own words,

"Well, my political ends are to bring about much more satisfactory relationships between white and black Australians." (1)

Presumably, Reynolds felt that if there was more awareness of injustice suffered by Aborigines at the hands of whites, then Aborigines could forgive and forget while whites could be more understanding of the disadvantage that lingered in Aboriginal communities as a result of past injustices. Black and whites could then join hands in the spirit of reconciliation.

Whether Reynolds was pursuing the correct history to achieve his stated political intentions was debateable. If Reynolds' approach had merit, then the same approach could be used to improve relations between Australia and Japan by raising awarness of how Japanese ill-treated Australian POWs and forced other Australians to fight a war that left lifetime scars that caused great hurt to their descendants. According to Reynolds's theory, by understanding how they had mistreated Australians, the Japanese could then understand why Australians have a propensity to abuse alcohol, suffer family break down and have difficulty in respecting laws. This understanding could then be used to lobby the Japanese government to run some foreign aid programs in Australia to "close the gap." These foreign aid programs could include Japanese language programs, health programs that teach about Japanese diets and Japanese education programs.

After seeing that Japanese were sincere in recognising Australian disadvantage and the historical reasons for Australian social problems, perhaps Australians could forgive and forget. They would then eagerly embrace the Japanese language, health, and family welfare programs to become advantaged like the Japanese.

Of course, perhaps instead of leading to understanding of Australian disadvantage, the history would lead to more Japanese feeling contempt for Australian criminality, drug abuse and family break down. Furthermore, instead of Australians forgiving and forgetting when confronted by historical stories of Australians being beheaded, tortured, starved and experimented upon by Japanese, Australians might become angry and seek retribution. Finally, some Australians may become frustrated that they are being defined using stereotypes of alcoholism, criminality and family breakdown.

Even white supporters of Reynold’s would probably oppose raising awareness of Japanese ill treatment of Australians as well as perceptions of Australian disadvantage relative to Japanese. The reason would be that the history would position them in a state of disempowerment relative to Japanese. (On the other hand, history of Aboriginal disadvantage positions whites in state of empowerment relative to Aborigines.)

The consequence of such diverse reactions to history would make it unlikely that the white hand and yellow hand would join in the spirit of reconciliation. For this reason, when it comes to using history in ways that define social stereotypes, perhaps it is necessary to be honest about one's motivations so that the motivations can be scruntinised for effectiveness. Arguably, the history of Renolds’ has contributed to Aborigines continuing to be defined by stereotypes of disadvantage despite tens of billions of dollars spent to alleviate that disadvantage. These stereotypes become self-fullfilling prophecies as non-Aborigines approach Aborigines with the expectation of failure or criminality. As told by Aboriginal man Dallas Scott:

“They seem wary of me because they know that Aboriginal people are over-represented in our jails, and jails house people who have committed crimes. Possible criminal by default – proceed with caution. On the flipside, you get people who want to use you to demonstrate just how much their first year Indigenous Studies Professor has taught them about “my struggles”. They tell me “you’re a true Australian” or loudly exclaim that they “support the First People like me in their just plight against the white man” or simply must tell me about some rally they attended to “make a difference…(they) never seem to stop being able to view me as a victim or as anything other than an Aborigine. They speak to me like I’m an idiot, that because of the colour of my skin, I was discriminated against in education and therefore lacking against their University educated prowess so they must make concessions for me and expect a lower standard of me at every opportunity. They seem to believe that I am unaware of how the modern world works, or worse, believe I need some of their do-gooderness to overcome a disadvantage that I clearly don’t have. I’m a cause, not a person to them.”


3) Has there been a whitewash of Australian history?

To evade criticism, the black armband tradition accused its critics of wanting a "whitewash" and of wearing a "white blindfold." The implication was that the likes of Blainey and Windschuttle were racist whites who were trying to conceal the "truth".

Ironically, a feature of the black arm tradition was an avoidance of naming the individuals and institutions responsible for perceived injustices. Generally, problems in Aboriginal communities today are explained as a legacy of the actions of unknown whites on the Australian "frontiers" in the 19th century. The actions of governments that designed failed social engineering programs, governments that banned the sale of alcohol to Aborigines (thus forcing drinking underground) and governments that banned sex across the colour (thus breaking up relationships) are ignored. By preserving the reputations of the culpable while criticising the unveriable actions of unknown colonists on the frontiers, the black armband tradition could be defined as a white wash.

The most probable reason for avoiding reference to individuals was a desire to preserve the reputations of certain professions and political parties whose constituent members acted in an abhorent fashion. Although being impersonal has damaged the brand of the "average" Australian who was deemed to carry the racist legacy of his or her predecessors, it has allowed politicians, activists, academics and lawyers to portray themselves as the professions who would provide the solutions to the average Australian's racism.

The biographies of Richard Windeyer provide a typical example of a whitewash that has arguably occurred to preserve the reputation of certain professions involved in Aboriginal welfare. Windeyer was a lawyer and NSW politician who defended 11 stockmen who committed the Myall Creek Massacre of 1838. In the massacre, the stockmen took around 30 Aboriginal women and children into a gully and used swords to behead them. They kept one woman alive so that she could be gang-raped for a couple of days. After the stockmen confessed to their crime, wealthy landowners of the district took up a collection to pay Windeyer to defend them. Knowing they were guilty, Windeyer argued that the stockmen should walk free since the bodies could not be accurately identified. The jury agreed and the men were acquitted. 

Considering the significance of the Myall Creek Massacre in Australian history, it would be expected that this chapter of Windeyer’s life would be prominently mentioned in his official biographies. Instead, the biographies either omit his role in the Myall Creek trials or infer that he was on the side of the prosecution defending Aboriginal rights. For example, the Australian Dictionary of Biography states that he appeared at the Myall Creek trials, not that he defended the murderers:

 “Windeyer was a member of the Aborigines Protection Society. His attention had been attracted to their legal disadvantages in the trial of an Aborigine, Murrell, and the trials arising out of the Myall Creek ‘massacre’ in which he had appeared.”

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography uses “legal disadvantages” as a euphemism for “massacre that Windeyer defended”:

“He was elected to the Legislative Council in 1843, where he pursued his commitment to free trade, education, and law reform. His active membership of the Aborigines Protection Society followed on his recognition of the legal disadvantages they suffered during the trials for the Myall Creek massacre.”

The Parliament of NSW also states that he “appeared” at the Myall Creek trials while neglecting to mention that he defended the accused:

“Member of the Aborigines Protection Society and appeared in the trials arising from the ‘Myall Creek Massacre’ and supported proposals that aboriginal people should be allowed to make unsworn statements in court rather than take an oath.”

Windeyer’s Wikipedia omits Myall Creek completely and instead portrays him as a man concerned about Aborigines being killed off and a combatant with Governor Gibbs over the use of land:

 "In 1845 Windeyer, though almost overwhelmed with work, took up the cause of the already fast-dwindling aborigines and obtained a select committee to inquire into the question. He was also in the forefront of the struggle with Gipps concerning generally the powers of the council and the governor on the land question, and in 1846 moved and carried an address to the governor acquainting him that the council could not entertain a Bill he had originated."

The legal profession is perhaps the main industry that benefits from the Windeyer whitewash. Privately, many contemporary lawyers would defend Windeyer as a man that simply did his job, which would be akin to Nazis who committed genocide defending their actions by saying they were just following orders. In truth, so abhorrent were Windeyer's actions that trying to defend him would constitute the defence of the indefensible. Windeyer's story demonstrates lawyers can be among the least moral people on earth - irrespective of whether the year is 1838 or 2013.

The Aboriginal welfare industry also benefits from the Windeyer whitewash. As a founding member of the NSW Aboriginal Protection Society, Windeyer played a key role in the establishment of the paternalistic ideology that many whites exhibit towards Aboriginal people. Considering how abhorrent an individual he actually was, his story illustrates that dangers of taking white at face value the people who claim to be the Aborigine’s champion – contemporary historians and lawyers included.

4) Can past injustices be used to explain present-day disadvantage?

There are communication professionals that seek to raise awareness of Aboriginal disadvantage and explain it as a legacy of past injustices. For example, in 2010, the Australian Bureau of Statistics released the report Indigenous Disadvantage and Selected Measures of Wellbeing, which showed that Aborigines life expectancy was 10 years less than non-Aborigines, that Aborigines were twice as likely to die before the age of one, four times more likely to be unemployed, twice as likely to need support for a health care problem, seven times more likely to be victims of child abuse, and 13 times more likely to be incarcerated.

The Black Armband history is used to explain this disadvantage. According to the theory, because unknown colonists murdered and raped Aborigines on the frontier in the 18th century, the descendants of the victims are disadvantaged today.

The link is dubious and arguably only used as a way of responsibility being directed away from policy makers who are the real culprits.  Specifically alcohol abuse can be traced to policy by past state governments that banned the supply of alcohol to Aborigines. This pushed Aboriginal drinking underground. Meanwhile, alcohol abuse in non-Aboriginal communities was reduced by ensuring that most drinking occurred in pubs where children were not exposed to the alcohol, where security was able to break up violence and where patrons were not breaking the law to have a drink. Likewise, a great deal of dysfunction and abandonment of children in Aboriginal communities can be traced to state government laws banning sex across the colour line. As a result of these laws, governments broke up families rather than supporting them.

Many white Australians are much more comfortable with blaming the unnamed colonists on the frontiers because it is not so close to home. If problems are attributed to government and policy makers, then culpability starts to be applied upon present generations, not generations long since dead. Furthermore, responsibility starts going up the chain of command, not upon long dead scapegoats that couldn’t defend themselves even if they could be named.

Perhaps the black armband historians like Henry Reynolds, Lyndall Ryan and Robert Manne can also be blamed because they use history in a way that creates negative social stereotypes of Aborigines that can lead to self-fulfilling prophecies.


1) Race wars written out of Australian history: historian

2)Indigenous Disadvantage and Selected Measures of Wellbeing (Australian Bureau of Statistics) 2010




John Caesare
The first

Our Ned Kelly
A story heard and considered

Eureka Massacre
Dying for liberty

Post Convicts

Why is it not celebrated?

White Australia Policy
From Convicts to Chinese

Baptism of Fire or Well of Tears

Simpson and his Donkey
A larrikin and a hero

Nancy Wake
A larrikin and a hero

The Depression
Australia's Greek Moment

World War 2
The eastern chapters

Cold War
The expression of transnational identities

Prime Ministers
Values and policies of Australian leaders




"Let no-one say the past is dead, the past is all about us and within"(Oodgeroo)