Criminals & pimps

Shayne Breen

Keith Windschuttle & Tasmanian Aborigines

Recent comment on Keith Windschuttle's The fabrication of Aboriginal history concentrates on the book's claims that both Henry Reynolds and Lyndall Ryan deliberately fabricated stories of frontier conflict, thereby greatly exaggerating the Aboriginal death toll. The purpose of this fabrication, according to Windschuttle, was to support a subversive political agenda of Aboriginal separatism and the generation of white self hate. Although bordering on the irrational, these are very serious charges. They are at the core of Windschuttle's book, and it is important they are rigorously scrutinised in both the press and scholarly journals.

Frontier killing, however, is not the only important issue raised by Windschuttle's work. The other key issue, perhaps the key issue, is Windschuttle's shameless and unsavoury denigration of the character of Tasmanian Aboriginal society and culture. Both his book and several papers published prior to the book's release are littered with claims about the character of Tasmanian Aboriginal society that are not supported with evidence, or which demonstrate either a broad ignorance or a deliberate misunderstanding of the scholarly work in Tasmanian Aboriginal studies.

It is important to name this denigration and reject it. It underpins the book's arguments about frontier conflict, it is a major literary device in Windschuttle's work, and it has the potential to inflame racist attitudes to present day Aborigines across Australia. And it needs to be pointed out that while Windschuttle habitually bleats that he is unfairly castigated by those historian's whose reputations he seeks to destroy, his own work relies largely on systematic character assassination. His present targets are Lyndall Ryan, Henry Reynolds, and Tasmanian Aborigines in the past and present.

Windschuttle's arguments about the capacities and character of Tasmanian Aborigines are largely based on his view that they were the most primitive society known to man. The primitive claim rests largely on his perception that the Tasmanians' material culture was the most primitive known to man. Windschuttle knows this claim is now strongly disputed. He has consulted a small part of recent archaeological scholarship that effectively challenges 'the most primitive ever' claim in a range of technological and economic contexts. But with the same contempt he displays for Ryan and Reynolds, Windschuttle dismisses these arguments as politically motivated rationalisation.