A Prehistory of Australia's History Wars: The Evolution of Aboriginal History during the 1970s and 1980s

Article excerpt

During the 1970s and 1980s what had previously been considered the domain of anthropologists, ethnologists and archaeologists became an interest of historians as well. (1) While initially historians concentrated on challenging the image of Australia as the "quiet continent" and unqualified descriptions of Aboriginal destruction, a second moment of historiographical reinterpretation shifted the focus of historiographical attention towards Aboriginal-white relations after the end of the hostilities on the Australian frontier. (2) Throughout a recent outbreak of Australia's "History Wars", Keith Windschuttle assumed that practitioners of Aboriginal history form a coherent group in their thinking. However, these "wars" were preceded by a long, complicated and strongly contested process of historiographical transition. (3) This article shows how many contributed to the development of the discipline, that there were many incremental interpretative steps and that Windschuttle crucially ignored the shifts, diversity and subtleties of the debates of the 1970s and 1980s.

This is a significant dynamic and should not be overlooked. Bain Attwood has recently and compellingly noted in Rights for Aborigines how the historiographical activity of the 1960s and 1970s was essential in providing a story, written narratives of Aboriginal history, to the political advocacy of Aboriginal peoples and their non-Aboriginal supporters and in eventually preparing the basis for the institutional shifts that culminated with the "Mabo" decision of the High Court in 1992. (4) This article proposes a selective and thematic interpretation of the transformations of Aboriginal history in the early decades of its evolution. (5)

a) The "Fringe-Dwellers of Australian Historiography" (6) Surveys of the evolution of Aboriginal history as a scholarly enterprise should depart from W.E.H. Stanner's 1968 Boyer lectures and from his landmark denunciation of previous erasures:

   let me make the point that inattention [to the Aboriginal
   experience] on such a scale cannot possibly be explained by absent
   mindness. It is a structural matter, a view from a window which has
   been carefully placed to exclude a whole quadrant of the landscape.
   What may well have begun as a simple forgetting of other possible
   views turned under habit and over time into something like a cult of
   forgetfulness practiced on a national scale. (7)

Stanner was criticising an established interpretative tradition epitomised by Manning Clark's treatment of Aboriginal history, a treatment characterised by an irreversible location of Aboriginality in a prehistorical past:

   [f]or apart from fire, the stone implements he used for hunting and
   food gathering, and the rock paintings on which he portrayed his
   vision of the world, the Aborigine handed on to posterity few other
   memorials of his encounter with the weird and harsh land his people
   had occupied since time immemorial. (8)

Stanner's departure has been frequently mentioned in the work of the historiographers of Aboriginal history. (9) His following remark was also a significant one: "[w]e have been able for so long to disremember the aborigines [sic] that we are now hard put to keep them in mind even when we most want to do so". (10) Stanner recognised two important aspects that are in many ways still relevant: in the first place, that the majority of the public and academic opinions were inclined to portray a very partial view of the historical landscape, and secondly, that the problem was not to be addressed simply by an exercise in nominal acknowledgement of Aboriginal peoples and their presence. Stanner noted that those who wanted to overcome the cult of forgetfulness were also facing notable difficulties.

Following his denunciation, the silence that had until then surrounded the experience of the Aboriginal people was progressively transformed into a multivocal debate. …