Myths and Non-Myths: Frontier 'Massacres' in Australian History-The Woppaburra of the Keppel Islands

By Rowland, Michael | Journal of Australian Studies, March 2004 | Go to article overview

Myths and Non-Myths: Frontier 'Massacres' in Australian History-The Woppaburra of the Keppel Islands


Rowland, Michael, Journal of Australian Studies


the laughter and yabber of the Island blacks was not there it had gone never to return I was speaking to one of the Tourist who came from South I told her this was one of the liveliest place on the Australian Coast and was done by the natives of the Island she said the Island was lovely but too lonely I wished the natives would come again. (1)

In writing of conflicts between colonists and Indigenous people on the Australian frontier, Keith Windschuttle and others (2) have through media attention focused much of the debate on issues of definition and numbers of people killed. In this paper I refer to the Woppaburra, who originally inhabited Ganumi Bara (the Keppel Islands) of the central Queensland coast and who were reduced as a population by about 75-80 per cent in the period 1865 to 1903. Some were shot, some poisoned, and others removed. Those left on the island (mainly women) were worked as slaves, poorly fed and clothed; on occasions punished and sexually assaulted. Most of the women contacted venereal diseases. The few survivors suffered further through indecision as a result of a clash of personalities between two white government officers, Walter Roth and Archibald Meston. This is the story of the lengthy suffering and degradation of a small Indigenous group at the hands of British colonists, rather than documentation focused on numbers and semantics. Numbers do matter historically, and they are examined here, but it is important to be aware of the human tragedy behind the numbers.

The historian Keith Windschuttle, in the journal Quadrant and in his recent book The Fabrication of Aboriginal History (2002) has generated considerable controversy with respect to the reporting of Indigenous and European massacres in Australian history. The genesis of Windschuttle's ideas can be found in an earlier book, The Killing of History (1996), although in this particular book massacres per se receive only passing treatment. (3) Windschuttle's first Quadrant contribution sets out to 'demonstrate just how flimsy is the case that the massacre of Aborigines was a defining feature of the European settlement of Australia'. (4) He argues that:

   Historians should only accept evidence of violent deaths,
   Aboriginal or otherwise, where there is a minimum amount of direct
   evidence. This means that, at the very least, they need some
   reports by people who were either genuine eyewitnesses or who at
   least saw the bodies afterwards. Preferably, these reports should be
   independently corroborated by others who saw the same thing.
   Admissions of guilt by those concerned, provided they are recorded
   first-hand and are not hearsay, should also count as credible
   evidence. (5)

In his second Quadrant instalment, Windschuttle argues:

   There is one good, general reason why we should expect the eventual
   Compilation of regional studies to reproduce a very much smaller
   tally of violent Aboriginal deaths than the 20,000 now claimed. Ever
   since they were founded in 1788, the British colonies in Australia
   were civilised societies governed by morality and laws that forbade
   the killing of the innocent. The notion that the frontier was a
   place where white men could kill blacks with impunity ignores
   the powerful cultural and legal prohibitions on such action. For a
   start, most colonists were Christians to whom such actions were
   abhorrent. But even those whose consciences would not have been
   troubled knew it was against the law to murder human beings,
   Aborigines included, and the penalty was death. (6)

In his final Quadrant article Windschuttle argues that 'the principal reason massacre stories have been invented and exaggerated over the past two hundred years was to justify the policy of separating Aboriginal people from the European population', particularly by missionaries. (7)

This article challenges a number of points made by Windschuttle and argues that his approach has obscured a broader pattern of human suffering--first, that he sets the standards of proof too high. …

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