June 20, 2003
Bellesisles down under?
Erin O’Connor has a long post on a recent controversy in Australia; a scholar by the name of Keith Windschuttle has published a screed saying that the accepted history of Aboriginals in Tasmania is bunk. According to Windschuttle, historians who claim that white settlers were responsible for genocide have played fast and loose with the evidence, and in some cases have actually made it up. O’Connor sees this as a repeat - on a much wider scale - of the Bellesisles controversy.
While American bloggers were busy celebrating the successful toppling of Michael Bellesiles, whose falsifications and sloppy citations underpinned his much-lauded but also factually challenged Arming America, Windschuttle was quietly exposing a host of Australian Bellesiles to view.
Further, according to O’Connor, “Unable to refute his argument, [other historians] have collectively attacked both [Windschuttle’s] character and his credibility as a scholar.” This is further evidence, in her view, of the corruption of the academy; truth telling is disparaged in favor of received wisdom.
The controversy, however, seems a little more complicated than O’Connor’s rather simplistic account of a plucky whistle-blower braving the scorn of academe.
First, it’s not yet clear whether Windschuttle’s charges are going to stick. One of the historians whom he goes after, Lyndall Ryan, is guilty at the least of very sloppy footnoting. However, according to blogger, “Keneth Miles,” she’s arguing that the evidence is there to support her assertions, even if she sometimes has cited it incorrectly, and that her errors are relatively minor ones. She further suggests that Windschuttle himself gets it wrong several times. Further, according to an article by blogging economist, John Quiggin, “Windschuttle has effectively misquoted Ryan himself, running two paragraphs together and shifting the associated footnotes in a way that makes Ryan appear deliberately dishonest.” Which is rather dubious academic practice by any standards.
Windschuttle’s second target is a historian by the name of Henry Reynolds. According to Quiggin, Windschuttle’s evidence against Reynolds consists of a single misinterpreted quote, which Reynolds immediately acknowledged. Furthermore, Windschuttle seems to have incorrectly alleged that Reynolds has reversed himself on the question of whether or not Tasmanian aborigines underwent genocide.
Inaccuracies and errors aside, Windschuttle is very clearly not acting as a disinterested whistleblower. He’s pushing his own account of the demise of the full-blooded Tasmanian aboriginals, arguing that disease and prostitution were to blame, not Anglo settlers. Unfortunately, it would seem that his own account of the facts is, to put it mildly, open to challenge. Christopher Shiel, guest-blogging on the Road to Surfdom, provides an account of a recent public debate between Windschuttle and Reynolds which reveals what seems to be a gross mistake on Windschuttle’s part, that undermines one of his key positive claims (if not the key one).
I’ve no expert knowledge to bring to the controversy myself, but it seems rather likely to me that O’Connor has gotten the wrong end of the stick. One of Windschuttle’s targets seems to be defending himself rather nicely; while the other may have a case to answer, it’s not at all clear that it’s the case that Windschuttle says it is. Furthermore, I think that O’Connor is plain wrong in her bald statement that other historians “are unable to refute his argument.” On the contrary, they seem to be doing a rather good job in showing that he’s mistaken on the facts.
Finally, in some ways, Windschuttle is a rather odd character for O’Connor to be defending. She’s someone who’s strongly and implacably opposed to the theoretical high-jinks and extreme relativism which (in her opinion) infest the humanities. By Quiggin’s and Shiel’s account, Windschuttle’s work is as theoretically out-on-a-limb and relativistic as you can get. According to Quiggin, he adheres to an extreme Whorf-Sapire hypothesis-type argument that language determines thought (see Shiel for further evidence on this). I leave the final summation to Quiggin:
What is more striking is the extent to which Windschuttle’s current work goes against the arguments he put forward in The Killing of History. The key villains Windschuttle assailed then were postmodernist theories in which truth was culturally relative, and ‘postcolonial’ history in which truth was subordinate to the pragmatic needs of progressive political struggle. In The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, Windschuttle has embraced cultural relativism and political pragmatism, merely inverting the political affiliations. Even sympathetic reviewers have noted that, far from being devoted to objective truth, Windschuttle has presented a polemical defence of an extreme position, ignoring or downplaying evidence that contradicts his case for the defence of British settlers in Australia. Although he frequently presents this work as a correction of the radical historians who have held sway for the last thirty years, in more candid moments he admits that he is seeking to overturn a view of Tasmanian history that became dominant at the time of which he is writing and has remained so ever since.
Update: Erin O’Connor has updated her original post to respond to Windschuttle’s critics, and comes to a balanced and fair assessment of the matter as it stands, or so it seems to me. Apparently various hands are preparing an edited volume on the Windschuttle-Reynolds-Ryan debate - which should throw some light on the murkier aspects of the argument.
Posted by Henry at June 20, 2003 12:04 PM
But this strategic post-modernism is rather common on the Right. I discovered this on reading Dinesh D’Souza’s End of Racism, where he goes on and on about the evils of cultural relativism only to excuse Thomas Jefferson’s racism on the grounds that it was the received wisdom of the times.
Tho I hear that on the right, such strategic hypocrisy is stylishly termed Straussian.
Shortly after she posted, I sent her links to all the posts on the other side of the question that you linked to, and suggested she add them as an update. She refused to do so.
Believing in the Tasmanian genocide doesn’t resolve Australian’s guilt about the way our ancestors treated the Tasmanians. On the other hand, believing Windschuttle’s story that the Tasmanians were responsible for their own destruction because they sold off all their women, does nicely remove the guilt.
Windschuttle seem to fit the Bellesiles role better than his targets. Bellesiles attempted to overturn conventional wisdom about guns in early America. His work achieved wide publicity and support because it suited the agenda of political groups seeking more gun control. Windschuttle is attempting to overtrun conventional wisdom about the Tasmanian genocide. His work has received wide publicity and support because it suits the agenda of right-wing groups.
It remains to be seen whether Windschuttle’s work holds up better than Bellesiles’.
Interesting - did she say why she was refusing?
She said she was “thinking the issue over”. I think it would have been better to have done that before accusing three academics of fraud.
Tim - you may want to check out Erin’s blog again - she’s responded to the various points that I’ve trawled together - and done so both fairly and reasonably, as far as I can see.
The Tasmanian Government are still at it…. thus proving they are incapable of learning from mistakes in the past.
Just a quick note - I have read both The Killing of History and The Fabrication of Aboriginal History and Windschuttle is no cultural relativist. I haven’t seen any claims of evidence which he has ignored.
Of course, it remains to be seen if he is right or not.
I just had a quick read of Quiggin’s article, and the idea that Windschuttle is a cultural relativist is, shall we say, an abuse of language. “Cultural Relativism” in the post-modern sense means regarding all cultures as equally good, even having their own truths where there is no objective way of determining which is correct; while the “cultural relativism” of which Windschuttle is accused means that he criticises aboriginal culture.
Surely the most important issue in all this, is whether or not Lyndall engaged in the sytematic fabrication of evidence? Many of her defenders seem to avoid this like the plague.
If she didn’t, Keith will stand condemned.
But what if she did? Settling this issue SHOULD have been a top priority in Lyndall’s defence. But there’s a continuing marked reluctance on the part of many of her supporters to go down this road.
If innocent of the charge, Lyndall’s declining to put anything in writing, and reported request that people do NOT record her rare verbal defence, wouldn’t seem to help her case.
There has been a rush of people trying to prove Windschuttle wrong. So far it has been like a prize-fight in which they come out, take a swing at Windschuttle, hit nothing but air and then their supporters proclaim them the winners.
Prominent historian Robert Manne accused Windschuttle of plagiarising the work of Edgerton by not footnoting Edgerton as his source. Turns out that Windschuttle’s footnotes quite properly gave the credit where it belonged, to the original sources that both he and Edgerton had summarised.
Windschuttle’s issues with Henry Reynolds go well beyond “a single misinterpreted quote, which Reynolds immediately acknowledged”. (Reynolds didn’t immediately acknowledge that he misquoted the original document, he denied that the misquote existed until someone stuck a photocopy of the relevant page of his own book under his nose and he had absolutely no choice but admit it.) Windschuttle’s primary issue appears to be Reynolds’ “calculation” of 20,000 aboriginals “killed by rifle” under the colonial regime. Windschuttle checked Reynolds’ footnotes on that issue and found that basically there is no credible supporting evidence for the 20,000 figure. It appears to come from some very dodgy calculations. For example, you take the number of white settlers killed by aborigines (800 to 850) in a period in the colony (now the state) of Queensland, multiply that by 10, add another 1000 to 1500 to round it up and there’s your figure of 10,000 aborigines shot in that colony. Add that dodgy figure to other equally doubtful figures for other parts of the country and you get to 20,000. There are other issues that Windschuttle raises about Reynolds’ methods.
Lyndall Ryan now claims that the reason that documents cited in her footnotes in her book don’t support her claims is a trivial error. It’s just that some of her footnotes from the PhD thesis got left out. For example, in relation to the particularly damaging claim about the Knopwood diaries, she now claims that the true source of her claims that 100 aborigines were killed in a four year period was not the diaries but was a report from explorer John Oxley, a report that she, oops, left out of her footnotes. Sounds reasonable until you find out that she was recently forced to admit that the Oxley report doesn’t mention 100 aboriginal deaths either and that she justified picking the figure of 100 out of the air by stating, “historians are always making up figures”. Should be “bad historians are always making up figures”. I haven’t been able to get hold of a copy of the Oxley report yet but a comment about that report I’ve read says that it makes no mention of 100 aboriginal deaths. There is, apparently, part of the Oxley report that mentions a number of escaped convicts living with aboriginal “mistresses” and apparently Oxley suggests that they ‘may’ have obtained these women by killing their husbands or fathers but doesn’t offer more evidence than mere suspicion that this is what happened.
One of the tricks played on an unsuspecting public by the “black arm-band historians” has been to selectively quote from original sources only the material that can be made to appear to support their theory and carefully omit the material that contradicts it. It is known that some escaped convicts were ‘adopted’ by and spent years living with aboriginal tribes and acquired aboriginal wives this way.
Windschuttle first raised the issue of false footnoting in Lyndall Ryan’s book over 19 months ago, she has had plenty of time to produce sources which support her claims, if they exist.
Windschuttle doesn’t claim that “the Tasmanians were responsible for their own destruction because they sold off all their women”. If people are going to debate this issue, the least that they can do to keep the debate honest is not misquote him. Windschuttle doesn’t claim that they were responsible for their own destruction at all. He argues that the primary cause of the rapidly diminishing population of full-blood Tasmanian aboriginals was diseases introduced by British colonists. The Tasmanian aboriginals had been isolated from the rest of the world and its diseases for tens of thousands of years. The great and largely unrecorded tragedy of colonisation around the world has been the devastation wrought by introducing diseases to previously isolated populations with little resistance or immunity. Diseases that caused discomfort and a relatively limited number of deaths in the more resistant European population swept through non-immune indigenous populations like the Bubonic Plague. People tend to forget that the ‘flu can be fatal if you have no resistance to it or to a particular strain of it.
He also lists a number of lesser contributory factors. Introduced venereal diseases contributed to the population decline by effectively limiting reproduction. If you’ve ever seen someone with an advanced case of gonorrhoea, you’ll understand what he means by “effectively limiting reproduction”. Celibacy starts to look like an attractive alternative.
Another factor he lists is the deaths that did result from conflict between settlers and the Tasmanian aboriginals. His issues are that there weren’t as nearly as many of these deaths as the “black arm-band historians” claim (he found a little over 100 credibly documented aboriginal deaths by violence, the question being how many undocumented deaths were there) and that much of the conflict resulted from raids by Tasmanian aboriginals to obtain desirable British/European goods such as flour, sugar, tea, blankets, metal tools, alcohol, etc. It wasn’t as a result of a noble guerrilla war of resistance.
He also includes the deaths from vicious ongoing inter-tribal warfare and the effect on their capacity to replace their numbers of losing women of child-bearing age, be that to kidnapping by or sale to whites. It may be politically incorrect to record that Tasmanian aboriginals traded “their” women (be they members of the same tribe or women captured from other tribes) but apparently it happened. History doesn’t just record the noble actions of the human race but also the ignoble.
He does not deny that there was some conflict and violence, only that it was not the result of a genocidal colonial policy or as widespread as the “black arm-band historians” claimed. There was no attempt to exterminate aborigines though there was a minority of settlers who advocated it. British colonial policy regarded the aborigines as subjects of the Crown and colonial administrators were repeatedly reminded of their duty to protect those subjects. People were hanged for the murder of aborigines in colonial Australia, the same penalty as for the murder of whites.
Where aborigines were killed, it was generally in ones and twos rather than in massacres of large numbers at once. This violence was not one-sided. Aborigines raided isolated homesteads, shepherd’s huts and miner’s camps in order to obtain the aforementioned “luxury” goods and assaulted or killed whites they encountered in the process. There were also some outright battles between large numbers of armed aboriginal warriors and troops or police. Incidentally, the “black arm-band historians” generally characterise troop or police expeditions to capture for trial aborigines who had committed such raids as “punitive expeditions” and imply or expressly state that they made no attempt to identify the culprits but randomly punished, ie killed, any aborigines they encountered. Many contemporary accounts of such expeditions still exist, however. They show the officers in charge taking the trouble to locate interpreters, questioning (ie not massacring) aboriginal people that they met along the way in order identify precisely who was involved and where they might be found, and then negotiating with the tribe for the surrender of the culprits. Sometimes these expeditions resulted in a battle when the tribe decided to fight rather than surrender the culprits.
Windschuttle’s point is that historians shouldn’t be making up figures or atrocity stories; they should be presenting facts supported by solid evidence and then drawing conclusions that are consistent with those facts and the evidence. If there are three different accounts of what happened on a particular day in a particular place, put the details of all three accounts in your history book, make arguments about which is the most credible, don’t just pick the most sensational story and portray that as proven historical fact.
Let’s deal with what actually happened in our past, not the product of someone’s imagination. The effect of the colonisation of Australia on the original inhabitants has been devastating enough without the need to make up atrocity stories.
The professor makes the syllabus, not you.