Henry Reynolds: Australian Historian stands his ground on terra nullius theory

Historians in the News

AUSTRALIAN historian Henry Reynolds has defended the doctrine of terra nullius, insisting that while the High Court did not rely on his view of white settlement for its Mabo decision, it nonetheless endorsed the controversial theory.

Under attack from dissident historian Michael Connor, who published his book The Invention of Terra Nullius in December, Professor Reynolds maintains British settlers never recognised the property rights of Aborigines.

''The one, utterly unquestionable fact about Australian history is that when the British arrived in 1788 they didn't recognise the Aborigines owned any land,'' Professor Reynolds said.

Dr Connor believes terra nullius -- Latin for land belonging to no one -- was a largely untested theory which was pushed by Professor Reynolds and given too much credence by the courts.

But Professor Reynolds maintains terra nullius was being used by legal experts in the 1970s to describe the situation that existed in 1788 and was not his term.

He downplayed the impact his 1987 book, The Law of the Land, had on the High Court in Mabo, but appeared to accept Dr Connor's argument that origins of the term terra nullius could be better explained. ''In retrospect, you know, it might have been a good idea if we had said when we mentioned terra nullius: 'Say, by the way, they didn't use this term at the time','' Professor Reynolds said yesterday.

Professor Reynolds said Dr Connor was trying to force together history and law and did not understand the High Court had based its Mabo decision on legal precedents, merely using his book as ''background''.

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