Blainey Outlasts the History Wars

By Allsop, Richard | Review - Institute of Public Affairs, March 2010 | Go to article overview

Blainey Outlasts the History Wars


Allsop, Richard, Review - Institute of Public Affairs


As Australia's premier historian turns eighty, Richard Allsop assesses the legacy of Geoffrey Blainey.

In his desire to restore the balance between white man and black man and to make up for our scandalous neglect of the Aboriginal heritage, he has at times swung too far the other way.'

That is the Sydney Morning Herald criticising Geoffrey Blainey for being too sympathetic to Australia's indigenous population.

Yes - criticising Blainey for being too sympathetic. These words were published in 1975 and were contained in a review of Blainey s landmark work Triumph of the Nomads.

In the early 1970s, Blainey had been the first academic historian in the country to include Aboriginal history in a general Australian history subject. Blainey had come to the then unusual view that the ninety-nine per cent of Australia's history prior to European settlement was worth studying. Triumph of the Nomads brought this radical premise to a much wider audience. An integral part of Blarney's argument was rejecting the existing assumption that Aboriginal society had been static. Blainey also believed that previous writers had underestimated Aboriginal economic success. Turning conventional thinking on its head, Blainey suggested that 'by the standards of the year 1800 ... the aboriginals' material life could be compared favourably with many parts of Europe'.

For some, such as the Sydney Morning Herald reviewer, he had gone 'too far' in redressing the historical imbalance, but most welcomed the fact that 'radical thinking, long overdue, characterises almost every chapter'.

As well as many positive aspects of pre- 178 8 Aboriginal life, Blainey also drew attention to some of the less pleasant characteristics of their society such as infanticide and the extent of their in ter- tribal wars. These aspects of his work were seized on by certain critics; however, a lot of this seizing did not occur until after 17 March, 1984. This was the day when, at the height of his prestige and influence, Blainey's life changed irreversibly. He concluded a talk to a Rotary conference in Warrnambool with some comments about Asian immigration that sparked a furore.

Blainey had been involved in controversies before, but debates about whether flax and pine were factors in the British decision to colonise Australia, or whether the Literature Board head office should be based in Sydney or Melbourne, were hardly adequate preparation for this conflagration.

One does not have to have shared Blainey's position on Asian immigration to lament the vitriol that was poured on him. Not content with just debating the actual issue of Asian immigration, many of Blainey's fellow academic historians went back through his opus to find examples of poor practice they could use to undermine his authority.

It presaged a new era in the national discourse, one in which someone with a view with which one disagreed was not just wrong on that issue, but was a bad person. The attacks on Blainey probably mark the beginning of the 'history wars' in Australia, wars in which ideological correctness became more important than any other factor in assessing a historian's worth. Ironically, apart from Blainey, the other major victim of the history wars was Manning Clark who, while obviously disagreeing with many of Blainey's views, nonetheless decried the attempts to silence him.

In many ways, the ground-breaking nature of Triumph of the Nomads has been obscured by the fact that promoting it has not suited anyone's political agenda. The left wanted to stereotype Blainey as a conservative while, for many on the right, aspects of the book, such as Blainey's use of the term 'invasion' to describe colonisation and strong defence of the strengths of much of Aboriginal society, were not necessarily to their liking.

Perhaps it is now safe to revisit the book following the official ending of Australia's history wars by prime ministerial edict on 27 August last year.

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