Keith Windshuttle and Australia's history wars

Historians in the News

IF "history is an argument", an aphorism plausibly attributed to Bob Carr, the former premier of NSW, then Keith Windschuttle can be relied on to drum up more of it in 2006.

Windschuttle ignited Australia's immensely entertaining history wars with his 2002 book The Fabrication of Aboriginal History: Volume One, Van Diemen's Land. This was a research-based critique of the work of academic historians. It effectively demolished their consensus that 19th-century European settlers launched a bloody war of extermination against Aborigines in Tasmania.

As well as demonstrating that no such war took place, Windschuttle pointed to many errors of fact in the published work of individuals. Some were the result of carelessness. But in significant instances original sources were selectively quoted or misquoted, with a few texts actually rewritten, in order to advance an ideological thesis.

Historians under scrutiny responded with vehement excess that I was not alone in finding rather shocking. Not all ad hominem attacks on Windschuttle were well-aimed. One description, intended to be pejorative, branded him a "freelance" historian.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines "freelance", in contemporary usage, as one who works for himself, not an employer and, "in any department or practice of speculation, follows the method of no particular school".

Windschuttle, the modern freelance, originally intended to write a trilogy. He now believes he has accumulated so much information that it will take at least four books to cover the ground. Volume Two, dealing with historical accounts of events in NSW and southern Queensland, will come out in the next 12 months.

This time around, historians who take offence would do well to remember that Windschuttle is a publisher as well as a writer.

Whitewash, a collection of essays edited by Robert Manne, was their hostile response to Volume One, and it suffered grievous injury at the hands of John Dawson, another freelance whose counterblast, Washout, was published by Windschuttle's Macleay Press.

Getting a bit lost recently, with reviewers in holiday mode, was a new Macleay book, The Invention of Terra Nullius by Michael Connor, whom Windschuttle met while researching Van Diemen's Land and Connor was completing his PhD in Australian colonial history at the University of Tasmania.

The Invention of Terra Nullius is intensely researched and combative.

Connor begins his narrative by quoting Bain Attwood, associate professor of history at Monash University: "The British government determined in 1785 that New Holland was terra nullius, that is, no man's land."

Resuming in his own voice, Connor declares: "No. The decision to make a settlement in New South Wales was taken in 1786, and terra nullius was never mentioned."

Read entire article at The Australian

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