Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Fabrication of Aboriginal History

Every now and then, I come across a book that is mindblowing in it's impact. Such is the book
 The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, Volume One: Van Diemen's Land 1803-1847 by Keith Windschuttle.
Maybe the title should have been "How to Never Let Facts Get in the Way of a Good Story"
The first observation upon reading this book is that Keith Windschuttle is a meticulous historian. He uses the history books written by acknowledged authorities on the subject, as a point of reference, then examines with forensic detail, the historical documents that these historians have used to support their arguments.
What becomes apparent and is the core of Windschuttle's history is that there has been a fabrication of massive proportions, a distortion of perception and facts to accommodate point of view that is based on emotions and ideology that use facts selectively to create a history of aborigines that is pure mythology.
The mythology of the noble savage, the mythology of the massacred hoard of indigenous natives, the mythology of brutal and savage colonialism.
Looking at critical reviews of Keith Windschuttle's book, I cannot help but notice the emotional phrases that are used to discredit Windschuttle's work. Obviously there is an ingrained perception that cannot allow facts to disturb the image that has grown into accepted history of aborigines.

Example 1
Throughout Whitewash, we are reminded of Windschuttle's dispassion. He counts the dead but is unmoved by their passing. (Windschuttle is a historian not a bleeding heart) He concludes that 118 Aborigines were killed on the Tasmanian frontier. Mark Finnane, employing standard social science methodologies,(nothing to do with history) concludes this death rate was proportionally three times higher than that of Australian soldiers in World War I. He wonders why Windschuttle, whose work demonstrates the violence of the colonial frontier, "evades his own conclusions".

Example 2
To achieve his goal, Windschuttle uses the theory of cultural relativism in a form extreme enough to give pause to the most devoted adherent of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that language determines thought. As conservative anthropologist Ron Brunton noted in his Courier-Mail review,
[Windschuttle] derides the suggestion that Tasmanian Aborigines might act with "humanity and compassion" because such notions were "literally unthinkable" to them [because their language had no words for these concepts]. This baseless claim not only displays the cultural relativism that Windschuttle otherwise scorns, it also goes against significant evidence that was available to him.

In this criticism of Windschuttle, the references are to sociology theory, not history! It seems that history must be interpreted within an ideological framework of anthropology.

Example 3

Windschuttle is not consistent in this however. While denying the Tasmanians the basic concepts of humanity and the defence of their native land on linguistic grounds, he is perfectly happy to accuse them of being responsible for their own extinction by virtue of their willingness to 'prostitute their women', a concept that would surely be hard to frame in a society with no experience of money or commerce (leaving aside the well-documented and widespread incidence of rape). The word 'racist' has become taboo in Australian intellectual debates, but I find it difficult to think of an alternative characterisation of Windschuttle's version of cultural relativism.

Now he criticizes Windschuttle for his "cultural relativism", what this has to do with history is anybodies guess.

 It's not enough to slander Windschuttle with the accusation that he denies aborigines "humanity" but to accuse him of being a racist.

I will be open to any criticism of Windschuttle that actually disputes the facts, until then I am convinced by his argument and his version of history.

1 comment:

Jeannie said...

I'm not sure what the issue is here. Are most histories now changed and slanted to say how cruel and evil the Brits and Europeans were to come in to a new land, and conquer the natives in a brutal and unnecessary way? Meanwhile the natives were peace loving and submissive and did nothing to deserve the treatment they got. And then Windschuttle goes and says they weren't so noble and there weren't so many massacred as we were lead to believe. And so this is evil of him and how could he say this?

All histories are slanted. The invaders invade because they want more land and stuff and they don't care about the way of life they are overwhelming. They do what they have to do to get what they want and if they have really good weapons, they use them. The natives are regular people too. They are good and bad and they will use whatever means they have to to protect their way of life. This happens over and over all through history. Right now, Muslims are quietly invading countries all over and using whatever means to gain control. We, naive and trusting natives that we are, think we should play fair although not all of us, and don't realize what's going on until it may be too late and then there is serious confrontations and the strongest will win.