Tim Blair


New Criterion



Saturday, April 05, 2003
BLAINEY REVIEWS WINDSCHUTTLE, and his fellow "professional" historians.

Choosing the US-published New Criterion as his vehicle, Professor Geoffrey Blainey has reviewed Keith Windschuttle's book, The Fabrication of Aboriginal History. Blainey has written the only book that might be called a history of Australia's Aborigines, The Triumph of the Nomads.

Blainey's review is, like the man, moderate in tone, almost forgiving of the peccadilloes of his colleagues, but scathing about their main thesis and its basis in lousy scholarship and sheer dishonesty. Not that Blainey would ever use such words. His words:I felt an initial sympathy towards the Australian and overseas historians who were under such intense scrutiny.

He presses on: But many of their errors, made on crucial matters, beggared belief.

With impressive thoroughness, Windschuttle inspects the diaries, newspapers, and official letters and reports cited by historians as their evidence, and often he sees that evidence wither or change shape. The Hobart Town Courier of 1826 is twice cited by a historian as providing the evidence for killings, but the newspaper turns out not to have been in existence that year! An Anglican clergyman’s diary, confidently said to report the deaths of probably one hundred Aborigines and twenty Europeans in conflicts, reveals a total of only six deaths, four of whom were Aboriginal.

Blainey also reports one of the errors that escaped Uncle's reading of Windschuttle. It's a beauty.

Brian Plomley, regarded by some as the most scholarly historian examining the fate of the Aborigines, is tripped by some of his own evidence. In listing the specific clashes between blacks and whites for November 1828, Plomley at one point added to his somber list the words “more killed,” meaning that additional Aborigines were the victims of white violence. Windschuttle, indefatigable, looked up the hand-written police record. It did not assert “more killed” but “mare killed.” In short a horse—described as “a valuable mare”—was the casualty. Windschuttle discovers so much mishandling of the evidence that he confines this miraculous conversion of one dead horse into several dead Aborigines to a footnote.

Unlike the other "professional" historians who have responded to Windschuttle - all but one of them have conducted personal attacks on the man - Blainey has not only read Windschuttle's book but also reviewed some of the historical work Windschuttle criticises.

While Plomley did important research on the Tasmanian Aborigines and their way of life, his emotions perhaps blinded him. Of one important group of white settlers he wrote indignantly that they believed in extirpating the Aborigines—indeed they were “extirpationists almost to a man.” Windschuttle examines the views of each of these settlers at great length. In the end he is forced to expose Plomley for defaming twelve of the fourteen settlers. I myself wondered whether Plomley, usually so painstaking, could have made such an error. I consulted the relevant pages of his published work. Clearly he had not digested some of his own major sources.

Lloyd Robson, the author of the largest history of Tasmania, also overrides crucial evidence. He confidently described an episode in which twenty-two Aborigines were killed on the one day at Oyster Bay. The sole “witness” turns out to have been living in India when the alleged massacre took place! After reading this section of the book I turned again to Robson’s own narrative, thinking that perhaps he had been misunderstood, but the case against him is powerful. Even the witness himself denies that he was present.

On the totally-discredited Lyndall Ryan, Blainey merely reports her "quarter-confession" in conceding some "minor" errors, and notes that she fails to recognise that Windschuttle has destroyed the entire thesis of her book Aboriginal Tasmanians, a book that has polluted the secondary and tertiary curricula of a generation of Australian students, and may continue to do so.

Like many informed readers of Windschuttle, Blainey finds Windschuttle's own interpretation of the causes of the decline of Aboriginal Tasmanians less convincing, but more right than wrong.

Blainey's conclusion?

In a year or so, a counterattack will undoubtedly be launched. Flaws, major or minor, will probably be found in Windschuttle’s book, as in any large exploratory or detective-like work. Even so, his book will ultimately be recognized as one of the most important and devastating written on Australian history in recent decades.

Uncle can also do predictions. In about five minutes the alienated historians of the Australian left - and there are crowds of them - will begin the same kind of personal attack on Blainey that constituted their response to Windschuttle.