Historians row over Tasmanian invasion

January 10, 2003

Australian historians are gearing up for a legal battle arising from claims that Tasmanian Aborigines and early British settlers did not engage in a war that ended with the near-extinction of the original black inhabitants.

A one-time radical Marxist and former teacher of history, Keith Windschuttle, argues in his book The Fabrication of Aboriginal History that more whites than blacks were killed in Tasmania. Mr Windschuttle said his latest book would be the first of three to show how historians have fabricated the story of black-white conflict. He accuses "orthodox historians" of a conspiracy to exaggerate frontier violence to promote the idea that Aborigines fought a noble guerrilla war defending their land against the invaders.

Mr Windschuttle writes that only 118 Aborigines were shot in the conflict with white settlers whereas many more whites were killed by marauding blacks. He says the blacks had no land rights, no sense of "belonging to the land" nor of the white settlers trespassing on their territory. "Far from generating black resentment, the expansion of (European) settlement instead gave the Aborigines more opportunity and more temptation to engage in robbery and murder, two customs they had come to relish."

The dispute could end up in court after Robert Manne, professor of political science at Melbourne's La Trobe University, accused Mr Windschuttle of plagiarism. In a newspaper article, Professor Manne describes the writer as "a neo-Tory apologist for British imperialism" and his writing as "pitiless and riddled by self-contradiction".

He said he followed a footnote in Mr Windschuttle's book to a work by American anthropologist Robert Edgerton and discovered several occasions where, he claimed, the Australian had copied Edgerton's words almost verbatim without attribution. "Here he has comprehensively fallen short of the standards he requires others to meet," Professor Manne said.

Mr Windschuttle rejected the claim and said he would sue for defamation. He said it would be clear to any reader that the section of the book to which Professor Manne referred did not pretend to be original and was derived from the work of three other authors.

However, he has also come under attack from one of Australia's best-known historians of frontier conflict, Henry Reynolds, formerly at James Cook University in Queensland.

In a review of the book, Professor Reynolds said Mr Windschuttle had used sources selectively and had made up his mind what he wanted to say before he started the research.

The significance of the debate extends beyond academic circles and into the political realm, where arguments continue over land rights for Aborigines and whether they are entitled to a national apology for past wrongs done to them - as well as whether reparations should be made.

Prime minister John Howard disputes what he calls the "black armband" view of history and its claims that Aborigines were wrongly dispossessed of their land or that many were massacred in fighting the white invasion.

He has consistently refused to apologise to Aborigines on behalf of the Australian people.

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