James Cook is seen here on this cover of "The Daily Telegraph."

History Wars Erupt in Australia

Steve Russell

They are having an academic conversation or a moral panic in Australia, depending on your point of view. For an American Indian, it looks a lot like the continuing skirmishes we call the Indian wars, largely conducted without firearms since 1890, but nonetheless a contest between colonial interests and indigenous interests.

In Australia, they call the latest controversy emanating from The Daily Telegraph in Sydney another battle in the “history wars.” The history at issue is either one of invasion and colonization containing genocide here and there or one of discovery and civilizing the aboriginal savages and offering them opportunities they lack the intellect to accept. Sound familiar?

The first departure from colonial orthodoxy was in the sixties when historian Henry Reynolds started to publish historical research from an indigenous perspective. Note that as Reynolds began to document the brutality of the British invasion, Vine Deloria Jr. was shaking up colonial certainties in the U.S. with Custer Died for Your Sins (1969).

Reynolds’ work, unconventional as it was in its conclusions, relied on normal academic sources and published in the places history professors publish. The move to aboriginal views collided with the backlash whipped up by Rupert Murdoch’s flagship newspaper, The Australian. This is the same Murdoch who gifted the U.S. with Fox News, and his newspaper would as well be called The White Australian.

Conservative historian Geoffrey Glainey coined the term “Black Armband” in 1993 to describe what he took to be the false progressive orthodoxy that the British were violent invaders who pushed indigenous Australians off their land by legal and extra-legal manipulations.

The Murdoch backlash turned into a war in 2002 when Keith Windschuttle self-published The Fabrication of Aboriginal History. Windschuttle was not a professor, but the same sort of provocateur that proliferates in the U.S., like Ann Coulter or David Horowitz. American Indians will remember the late David Yeagley. All folks who have good enough educations to find work in academia but who chafe at the blind referee process that is the coin of the realm and enjoy producing instant best sellers for the right wing talk radio echo chamber.

"The Fabrication of Aboriginal History" (Courtesy Amazon)

In Australia, Windschuttle’s self-published screed was a cool drink of water to conservatives who consider academic historians to be toeing a politically correct line, fabricating history to sooth the feelings of indigenous Australians. Sound familiar?

The current unpleasantness in Australia has been stirred up by The Daily Telegraph, which ran a front page headline that screamed in Second Coming type: “WHITEWASH.” That’s exactly what indigenous scholars in this country call the history of colonization as written before the 60s.

The “whitewash” of the Telegraph headline referred to a guidebook used at the University of New South Wales to suggest language that leaves room for indigenous views. The Telegraph went on to accuse “UNSW rewrites the history books to state Cook ‘invaded’ Australia.” The conservatives find the smoking gun to prove bias in these two sentences:

Australia was not settled peacefully, it was invaded, occupied and colonised. Describing the arrival of the Europeans as a “settlement” attempts to view Australian history from the shores of England rather than the shores of Australia.

Kyle Sandilands, the Rush Limbaugh of Australia, following up his outrage about “settlers” being called “invaders” advised “get over it—it’s 200 years ago.” Sound familiar?

The U.S. edition of The Conversation, an Australian publication that covers academic work for general circulation, quoted Jangga Elder Colin McLennan of Central Queensland, site of some notorious massacres:

I’ve kept a lot of this knowledge in my head about Aboriginal people being slaughtered and the locations of the killing fields in my country. It’s like an open wound that needs to be healed and it needs to be dealt with. This history belongs to all of us. We need to share it with each other.

Professor of Archaeology Bryce Barker of the University of Southern Queensland is heading up a study that will combine excavations of massacre sites with oral histories from the families of both the survivors and the perpetrators. Barker replied to the suggestion that Aboriginal Australians should “get over it” after 200 years:

Official records of the Coniston massacre, which took place in the Northern Territory in 1928, admit to 31 Walpiri, Anmatyerre and Kaytetye men, women and children being killed by Constable William Murray and his men. Is not an event on this scale—which happened just 88 years ago—worth remembering?

Barker’s citation of “official records” papers over skepticism about the body count. His research will involve digging up bones as well as memories from both sides and comparing the stories to the physical evidence.

The purpose of the guidebook that is being ripped by right wing media in Australia as “political correctness run amok” is to help correct the comfort level of indigenous students in higher education as well as to help the children of settlers deal with the truth.

Indigenous students are less successful than their white contemporaries at every level of education and as they move towards universities and graduate schools, the classes get whiter and whiter. Sound familiar?

Note that the guidebook is not required, but rather recommended. Reading over the guidelines taught me that there is as much tribal diversity among indigenous Australians as there is among indigenous Americans. This is worth knowing to me, and I’m halfway around the world and retired from academia.

Your mileage may vary, but I enjoyed reading the recommendations about how to make academia friendlier to indigenous Australians. It does not sound to me like any threat to white Australians, but the overall story being told sounds to American Indian ears very, very familiar.

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Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on
There is an old saying, "To the victors go the spoils," and while that might be true when it comes to stealing material things, it's NOT true when it comes to history. Unless a population or culture is completely wiped out (and even then it's questionable) there is always someone who remembers actual history. While the history of many countries settled by Europeans might be "WHITEwashed" there are those who pass the reality of actual events down to their families. We'll never forget and no degree of Whitewashing will convince us that the Europeans were bloodthirsty imperialists.