The Fabrication of Aboriginal History

By Windschuttle, Keith | New Criterion, September 2001 | Go to article overview

The Fabrication of Aboriginal History


Windschuttle, Keith, New Criterion


As a preview to the Sydney Olympic Games last September, The Wall Street Journal ran a front-page story about the great issue it said was dividing the Australian nation, the treatment of its Aboriginal people. The two journalists who wrote the story opened with an account of an incident near Hobart in Tasmania in 1804 when British soldiers fired on a party of Aboriginal men, women, and children, who were out hunting kangaroos and armed only with clubs. This was "the opening shot in a war that would result in the near-extermination of Tasmanian Aborigines," the journalists wrote. "Some of the 50 or so killed that day were salted down and sent to Sydney as anthropological curiosities."

The fate of the indigenous Tasmanians is today frequently described in the liberal media as an example of British imperial genocide. This is because they were a distinct ethnic group, physically different from mainland Aborigines, and their last full-blooded member died in 1876. To underline the political reach of these events, The Wall Street Journal quoted the current federal senator for the Greens Party, Bob Brown: "We have to come to grips with our horrendous past," he said, "and nowhere is it worse than in Tasmania."

The New York Times took a similar approach. The day after the Sydney Games began it published an editorial entitled "The Other Australia," which admonished the country for its treatment of its Aboriginal people and recounted the horrors of its history. The editorial, which was reprinted around the world in the International Herald Tribune, said:

   The Aboriginal experience is depressingly similar to that of Native
   Americans in the United States. European settlers viciously drove the
   Aborigines from their land, massacring thousands with impunity.

At the same time, another article on this subject was syndicated to English-language newspapers around the world. This was written by Ben Kiernan, the A. Whitney Griswold Professor of History and Director of the Genocide Studies Program at Yale University. (My copy of his article came from the Bangkok Post.) Kiernan is an expatriate Australian, best known for his books on the Poi Pot regime in Cambodia. Despite his academic credentials, Kiernan made no pretense to treat his topic dispassionately. Entitled "Australia's Aboriginal Genocides," his story was replete with terminology such as "ethnic cleansing" and "transit camps" designed to draw comparisons with the practices of Nazi Germany and contemporary Yugoslavia.

Kiernan wrote of British colonists in the nineteenth century mounting "punitive expeditions" and committing "hundreds of massacres." In the Gippsland district of Victoria, for instance, "a series of horrendous massacres" reduced the Aboriginal population from 2000 to 126, he said. In Central Australia, he claimed, 40 percent of the indigenous population had been shot dead. In northern Queensland, the Aborigines "were hunted like wild beasts, having lived for years in a state of absolute terror of white predators." He also recorded the same 1804 incident at Hobart described in The Wall Street Journal, putting the total killed at forty. Among a long list of atrocities since the 1790s, Kiernan noted that as late as 1926 whites shot and burned to death 100 Aborigines at Forrest River in Western Australia. "The two police officers involved were acquitted and promoted." All told, Kiernan wrote, 20,000 Aborigines were killed resisting the British occupation of Australia between 1788 and 1901.

The desire by Australian authors to portray the history of race relations in their country in the blackest terms possible reached its nadir in a book by the journalist Phillip Knightley, Australia: A Biography of a Nation, published in London last year. Knightley, another expatriate who was a member of the famous team of investigative journalists on the London Sunday Times in the 1960, devoted a chapter of his book to "Black Australia. …

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