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On 'fabricating' history

History, politics and the philosophy of history

Stuart Macintyre


In 1994 Keith Windschuttle published a strident polemic about The Killing of History. He suggested that the discipline and practice of history was suffering a potentially mortal attack from pernicious theorists who asserted that it was impossible to tell the truth about the past, who were hostile to the idea of an objective, knowable past.

He therefore laid out a series of summaries of the claims of these theorists - Todorov and semiotics, Levi-Strauss and structuralism, Foucault and poststructuralism, Derrida and deconstruction, Lyotard and postmodernism, Kuhn, Feyerabend and others on epistemological relativism, Hayden White on tropology - to show their lethal effects on historical knowledge.

The book also considered the work of some historians, and among them two Australians, Greg Dening and Inga Clendinnen, as well as an Australian cultural theorist, Paul Carter.

The subtitle of the book was 'How a discipline is being murdered by literary critics and social theorists'. Windschuttle saw this occurring in two ways: first, the theorists were writing their own bad history; and second, historians themselves - even very good ones - were capitulating to the virus and 'embracing assumptions that have the capacity to demolish everything they once stood for'. With much epistemological huffing and puffing, he claimed that the only proper method for historians was strict empirical inductionism: you had to work without preconceptions from the evidence.

It is a strange polemic because the diagnosis - how history was being murdered by literary critics and social theorists - was belied by the close attention to some of these capitulators. Windschuttle disagrees with Inga Clendinnen's work on the Aztecs, but praises it; he rejects Greg Dening on Mr Bligh's Bad Language but makes it sound creative and challenging.

There are jibes and jests along the way about Parisian academic fashion houses, and there are allusions to Allan Bloom, Roger Kimball and Dinesh D'Souza, for this a contribution to the offensive against campus radicals, and the surrender to political correctness.

It's also a quirky book, full of personal digressions as Windschuttle reflects on his abandonment of the left. He is identified on the dustjacket as former lecturer in history, social policy, sociology and media studies. He recalls his own education as a historian at Sydney in the 1960s and his good fortune to have been forced to read Gibbon, Macaulay, Carlyle, Maitland and Tocqueville. He was indeed fortunate - each one is a superlative historian - though it is noticeable that he encountered them in a course on historical method, for they had disappeared from the curriculum of ancient history, British, European and American history, for reasons to which I shall return.

He recollects the shortcomings of Australian history as it was written and taught at that time. If ever there was an academic scene that deserved the postcolonial term Eurocentric, he writes, it was this historiography, for it confined Aborigines to the prefatory passages and allowed them to disappear in 1788. He praises Charles Rowley, whose account of The Destruction of Aboriginal Society in 1970 showed (and I quote him) that 'what most people had assumed to have been small, isolated outbreaks of violence against blacks, coupled with some sporadic, pathetic gestures at welfare, actually formed a great unbroken arch of systematic brutality, dispossession and incarceration stretching from the late eighteenth century to the twentieth'. He goes on to say that Rowley composed his account primarily from government records and then, a decade later, Henry Reynolds showed it was 'possible to use Aboriginal voices to tell the story'. That was a conspicuous example of good history for Windschuttle in 1994.

Late last year he offered a strikingly different assessment. The first volume of what is planned as a series on The Fabrication of Aboriginal History pronounced that Henry Reynolds, along with a group of historians and archaeologists who have worked on culture contact in colonial Tasmania, are utterly mistaken about the fate of its Aborigines. He accuses them of inaccuracy, inconsistency, wishful thinking, white vanity, dishonesty. They have suggested that the colonists practised genocide, when in fact of all the European encounters with the new worlds of the Americas and the Pacific, this was probably 'the site where the least indigenous blood of all was deliberately shed'.

That Windschuttle should have so changed his opinion about Reynolds, and also Rowley, is only one of the surprises in this book. Of all the scholars whom he criticises, not one is a practitioner of the critical theories that he had diagnosed as killing history eight years earlier - they are conventional, empirical historians writing archivally based narrative. It is also noticeable that the potted biography on the dust-jacket abbreviates Windschuttle's earlier academic career, and removes reference to sociology and media studies. For that matter, it includes a blurb from an American epigone, the very vanity for which he castigated Paul Carter in 1994.

Between the judgements he made in 1994 and those he pronounced last year Windschuttle has shifted ground, and so has the context in which he operates. We have had a sustained onslaught on the progressivism of the chattering classes, and above all a campaign to discredit the status and aspirations of the Indigenous peoples. Mabo and Wik, Reconciliation and the Stolen Generations have occasioned a strong counter-offensive that seeks to remove the grounds for recognition of the claims of Aboriginal Australians. Windschuttle has joined a group of influential publicists who seek to deny racial violence as a foundational theme of the European occupation. The claims of this group are taken up in the op-ed pages by newspaper columnists, and pressed on institutions such as the National Museum. His particular contribution to this campaign is that of an independent scholar who calls the history profession to account.

One line of response to his work is to dispute his credentials and, by implication, his expertise. While his understanding of what happens in history departments is remarkably ill-informed, I don't find this a persuasive response. History is a form of knowledge that is open to all who wish to practise it, and should not be a closed shop. The problem is that Windschuttle himself wishes to issue such prescriptive rules about its practice. He himself violates the methodological rules that he declared obligatory in his earlier work. Accordingly, I want to follow your invitation and say a little about the state of the discipline and the nature of historical truth.

Historical truth

The western historiographical tradition, which goes back at least as far Thucydides, rests on a distinction between truth and myth. It dealt with events that had actually occurred, and it ordered them by means of narrative into a coherent and instructive whole. We might note here already the tension that arose in imposing the literary form of the narrative on the flux of human activity, and one branch of historical writing tended to the antiquarian and another to the literary. The two branches coalesced in the eighteenth-century work of Hume and Gibbon, who offered insights into the advance and retrogression of societies that were endowed with the force of art and taught with the authority of the real.

History was taken into the academy in the nineteenth century as a science that would yield objective knowledge of 'the past as it actually occurred'. The phrase 'the past as it actually occurred' was coined by Leopold von Ranke, who codified the disciplinary procedures of archivally based scholarship. The records of the past were brought together and arranged, the historian collated all the evidence and derived its meaning.

Ranke also advanced a way of interpreting the past that would become known as historicism, the idea that we can only understand the particular when we see the whole, and understand each part of it. The earlier idea of timeless truths based on fixed human qualities yielded to the historicist method of understanding each particular epoch in its own terms.

Windschuttle makes much of this notion of historical empathy in his recent book. He derides historians of Aboriginal Tasmania for their imposition of anachronistic values such as nationalism and practices such as guerrilla warfare. He even claims that since the Aborigines had no word for land, they had no notion of territory. This is the error of nominalism, and he reveals a remarkably pre-historicist naivete in his insistence that the Aborigines were incapable of compassion.

The history that was produced in European universities after Ranke were narrative histories, but they were always more than inductions from the empirical evidence. They relied on explanatory concepts. The economic historian, for example, uses the concept of private property and the market to elucidate periods in which property was constrained by social custom and buying and selling were regulated by powerful norms. The medical historian uses the phenomenon of the virus to explain the health of societies that did not know of it.

As these examples suggest, history is a porous discipline that draws on other disciplines. The social and literary theorists, whose recent influence Windschuttle decries, were preceded by social scientists, who exerted the dominant influence in the middle decades of the century, and before that litterateurs such as Carlyle and lawyers such as Maitland, and many others.

Long before literary theorists suggested that no text has a fixed and transparent meaning, the philosopher and ancient historian R. G. Collingwood drew attention to the limits of the archival document: it does not give unmediated access to the past, it is simply a trace and to it the historian must bring a trained imagination. As Collingwood put it, the only historical knowledge we can have is the knowledge of what the mind has done in the past. Long before Henry Reynolds and others sought to restore a lost dimension of Australian history, Edward Thompson determined to rescue the common people from the enormous condescension of posterity.

These changing interests and perspectives have both intellectual and social determinants. Each generation seeks a history that will speak to its concerns. When Windschuttle, who is engaged in a polemical campaign to revise history, criticises the politicisation of history, he is doing precisely what he complains of.

History is a discipline. It has procedures and conventions that govern its practice, rules of argument and evidence. Historians gather evidence in archives, libraries, museums, on the web and in the field. They organise it, interpret, and finally they compose their accounts. The activity involves transcription and with each transcription there is a chance of error. Hence the importance of what my predecessor called 'the virtuous habit of verification' - going back with your manuscript to check the quotes and the references are accurate.

When I do this with my own writing (which admittedly begins with a left-hander's jagged scrawl) I find that about every tenth quote has altered a phrase, and perhaps as often I have conflated the source or specified the wrong page. Laptop computers reduce the need for transcription. Lyndall Ryan, whose references Windschuttle finds particularly faulty, was using pencil, pen and typed drafts.

History is also a profession, which teaches and conducts research; and here the most powerful force is the principle of peer assessment. Peer assessment, by examination of research theses, refereeing of books and articles, and appraisal of applications for research grants both enforces standards and shapes the topics that are studied. Like other professions, it is also competitive, and the endeavour for originality tempers the tendency to imitation. The research imperative that began with Ranke's school of scientific history drives innovation.

Windschuttle makes much of the supposed conformity of those who have written about the racial conflict in colonial Tasmania. He sees them as of a generation with an urge for redemption. Together they comprise what he calls 'the orthodox school', but it is far more heterogenous group of writers than he suggests. It spans John Mulvaney, the pioneer of Australian archaeology, Brian Plomley, a conservative and traditional state historian, and Sharon Morgan, a younger historian.

Windschuttle not only ascribes a false uniformity of disposition, he suggests that it is enforced. No-one who disagrees with the orthodoxy, he alleges, need apply for a teaching position. No graduate student wishing to write a dissenting thesis should apply for admission to any of our academic schools of history. This is a slur. I myself encouraged the work of Marie Fels, whose dissenting work he praises.

Windschuttle's business

It will be apparent that The Fabrication of Aboriginal History operates with a caricature of how historians work. His argument is that the historians of colonial Tasmania have propagated a myth of genocide. This in itself is a remarkably tendentious claim since some of them have employed the term (he cites Lyndall Ryan and Rhys Jones) and some haven't, and in any case they use the concept in senses he doesn't acknowledge. But there is consensus that the European settlement of Tasmania produced violent conflict and that within fifty years the remaining original inhabitants were removed from the island.

Against the contemporaries who condemned the treatment of the Aborigines, the nineteenth-century historians who recorded it and the more recent historians who have explored it further, Windschuttle asserts that conflict was sporadic, that Aboriginal deaths were outnumbered by European ones and that the level of violence was uniquely low.

What are his reasons for reaching such a conclusion? One of his arguments is that the British colonisers were incapable of systematic destruction. They took possession of Van Diemen's Land with a civilized and civilizing colonial mission. (He explains that the expansion into Australia was in the peaceful and benevolent era of British imperialism, the 'second British Empire', a periodisation that he takes from the recent Oxford History of the British Empire and somehow thinks was unknown before that work appeared.)

He takes the validity of this appropriation as self-evident along with the doctrine of terra nullius, and passes over the failure of the colonisers to respect the residual rights it accorded the Aborigines, a failure that concerned the Colonial Office greatly. He notes the instructions to governors to conciliate and protect the natives, and argues they did their best to temper the hostility of settlers. In any case, he argues, those who exercised authority were incapable of wanton violence because they were 'Christians to whom the killing of the innocent would have been abhorrent'. I forbear from tallying the victims of Christianity during even the modern era of European expansion, conquest, pacification and control, and note simply that this is an argument by deduction rather than induction.

His second argument works at the micro-level. Windschuttle investigates particular incidents where the colonists came into conflict with the Aborigines, and suggests that the number of Aboriginal casualties is greatly exaggerated. His argument here is partly methodological. For some of the most frequently cited massacres, he finds that historians have provided inadequate evidence or referred to sources that do not exist. They have relied on dubious, hearsay accounts. They have failed to test the plausibility of the claims, confused names and places, exaggerated, misinterpreted the sources.

Windschuttle raises significant doubts about several of these massacres, and suggests that the historians who have related them have been careless with evidence and credulous in its interpretation. It is for those historians whom he criticises to respond. But his case falls a long way short of establishing a case that they have fabricated history. That charge would require him to go well beyond the examples of misinterpretation that he alleges. He would need to show a willful mendacity, an intention to deceive by deliberate falsification. He has not done so and in a field that has been worked over by so many researchers, it is hard to imagine how such invention could go unnoticed - unless one resorted to allegations of conspiracy.

Windschuttle's own interpretation of the sources is far from persuasive. He presses down hard and insistently on the scales of judgement. He demands a standard of proof - eyewitness testimony, preferably corroborated - despite the circumstances that inhibited such testimony. He places unwarranted confidence on the completeness and veracity of the official sources (since the authorities were instructed to prevent unwarranted violence, there is reason to believe that they did not receive reports of all incidents and to treat the reports they did receive with scepticism). He is far more critical of the allegations made by humanitarian critics, whom he sees as recycling myths of wanton cruelty. Whereas Christian compassion is a guiding ideal of the authorities, Evangelical zeal is a distorting prism for those who accused them of doing wrong. In all of this he is much more than an empirical inductionist, he is a partisan advocate.

His use of the archival sources to discern the logic of the Aboriginal response is particularly unpersuasive. It is hardly surprising that European reports should dwell on the turbulence of the natives, their propensity to plunder, violence and savagery; that he should take this evidence at face value betrays a failure of contextual understanding. Windschuttle seeks to refute Henry Reynolds' claim that an Aboriginal war of resistance posed a major internal threat to the Tasmanian colony by suggesting that particular Aborigines engaged in the 'senseless violence' of robbery, assault and murder. His failure of empathetic imagination is remarkable.

So too is his departure from the empirical method. Rather than inducing meaning from what happened, he conducts an argument by definition: since the Aborigines lacked the conceptual and organisational capacity to wage warfare, they can't have done so.

His third argument is by numbers. Windschuttle calculates that between 1801 and 1834 187 Europeans were killed and just 118 Aboriginals. This latter figure is based on a table created by Brian Plomley that listed all recorded attacks by Aborigines on the settlers between 1803 and 1831, with some additional estimates by Windschuttle for the following period. But Plomley was not calculating Aboriginal casualties, nor did he suggest that the incidents he recorded exhausted all occasions when Europeans killed Aborigines. Rather, he was tabulating reported incidents when Aborigines attacked Europeans. Windschuttle is taking the part as the whole.

But if only 118 Aboriginal Tasmanians were killed by the Europeans, how can the population have plummeted so rapidly to the verge of disappearance? Here Windschuttle has several strategies. First of all, he revises downwards the size of the Aboriginal population prior to European settlement; here I would say simply that his methodology is little more than guesstimate and that I would have expected some reference to the work of historical demographers.

Second, he invokes some extremely bad anthropological work (including that of one American writer whom he paraphrases closely but does not acknowledge) to suggest that the Tasmanian Aboriginals were primitive, dysfunctional and on the verge of collapse, principally because the brutal treatment of women threatened their reproduction. Hence, he suggests, with the introduction of disease and the attachment of Aboriginal women to European men, the numbers fell rapidly. In a final insult he suggests the Tasmanian Aboriginals owed their survival up to that time 'more to good fortune than good management'.

This is a grisly business. The downward revision of deaths in the Holocaust is an industry that has brought censure on David Irving and the revisionist school. That might seem an odious comparison, so let me make another. Robert Conquest and others have produced numbers of the victims of Stalin's Terror and they range up to 20 million. But revisionist scholars of Soviet history have objected that this figure includes those who died in famine and war, and that demographic analysis indicates a significantly lower figure.

I think we have to allow the possibility of such arguments, in Australia as well as Germany and the former Soviet Union - though it is clear that legitimate revision can tilt over to offensive apologetics. When we raise such issues, at the very least we expect to find sympathy and compassion for the victims. I do not see it in this book.


Stuart Macintyre is Ernest Scott Professor of History at Melbourne University and a former member of the Evatt Foundation's Executive Committee. A prolific author, most recently of A Concise History of Australia (Cambridge: 1999), his forthcoming book, which will place the 'Fabrication' debate within a larger perspective, is titled The History Wars (Stuart Macintyre with Anna Clark), and is scheduled for publication by Melbourne University Press in August 2003. This paper was originally delivered at the Blackheath Philosophy Forum on 16 March 2003. A copy of the talk presented by Keith Windschuttle on the same occasion is available on his website at Social History, Aboriginal History and the Pursuit of Truth.


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