NOAH’S RAINBOW SERPENT – observations by Ian MacDougall

Kangaroos, Thylacines and Aborigines 1

Posted in History by Ian MacDougall on April 19, 2009

Why Keith Windschuttle is likely wrong about frontier violence in Australia.

[A preliminary note: I have published this long piece as a four part series. The full bibliography is appended at the end of each part in order to facilitate ease of reference. In time I hope to have all references set up as links, and diagrams now linked to embedded in the text on your screen.

Since publication of Kangaroos, Thylacines and Aborigines in April 2009, a number of publications have appeared on the Internet that deal with the same subject: relations between Aborigines and European settlers. To my knowledge, there has been nothing published from scholarly or academic sources which supports the position taken by Keith Windschuttle, as discussed in this series by me; and there has been much that does not. Perhaps the most powerful piece of writing in the latter category was written by Tony Roberts, and published in The Monthly of November 2009 under the title The Brutal Truth.

An excerpt:

In 1881, a massive pastoral boom commenced in the top half of the Northern Territory, administered by the colonial government in Adelaide. Elsey Station on the Roper River – romanticised in Jeannie Gunn’s We of the Never Never – was the first to be established. These were huge stations, with an average size of almost 16,000 square kilometres. By the end of the year the entire Gulf district (an area the size of Victoria, which accounted for a quarter of the Territory’s pastoral country) had been leased to just 14 landholders, all but two of whom were wealthy businessmen and investors from the eastern colonies.

Once they had taken up their lease, landholders had only three years to comply with a minimum stocking rate. By mid-1885 all 14 stations were declared stocked. What happened in the course of this rapid settlement is the subject of this essay. At least 600 men, women, children and babies, or about one-sixth of the population, were killed in the Gulf Country to 1910. The death toll could easily be as high as seven or eight hundred. Yet, no one was charged with these murders. By contrast, there were 20 white deaths, and not a single white woman or child was harmed in any way. The South Australian government of Sir John Cox Bray (1881–84) knew from a variety of reports that the region was heavily populated. And it knew, from experience in South Australia over the preceding 45 years, precisely what the consequences of wholesale pastoral settlement would be: starvation, sickness, degradation and massacre.

Also recommended is George Monbiot’s review of the James Cameron blockbuster 3D film Avatar, as published in The Guardian of January 11, 2010 under the title The Holocaust We Will Not See. Monbiot sees the film as an allegory regarding the fate of the original population of American Indians. With Haiti in the current news, it is worth remembering that following the Columbus expedition of 1492 leading to the Spanish settlement of the Caribbean and Central America, the original inhabitants of Hispaniola, the island Haiti shares with the Dominican Republic, were totally exterminated.

Ian MacDougall, 21.01.2010 ]


The ability to stand outside your own political system, your own culture and your religion, to criticise your own society and to pursue the truth, is something we today take so much for granted that it is almost part of the air we breathe. Without it, our idea of freedom of expression would not exist. We should recognise, however, that this is a distinctly Western phenomenon, that is, it is part of the cultural heritage of those countries — Europe, the Americas and Australasia — that have evolved out of Ancient Greece, Rome and Christianity. This idea was never produced by either Confucian or Hindu culture. Under Islam it had a brief life in the fourteenth century but was never heard of again. Rather than take the idea of history for granted, we should regard it as a rare and precious legacy that is our job to nurture and to pass on to future generations.

Keith Windschuttle, Social history, Aboriginal history and the pursuit of truth, 2003

 …The British colonization of this continent was the least violent of all Europe’s encounters with the New World. It did not meet any organized resistance. Conflict was sporadic rather than systematic. Some mass killings were committed by both sides but they were rare and isolated events where the numbers of dead were in the tens rather than the hundreds. The notion of sustained ‘frontier warfare’ is fictional.

 A great many Aborigines willingly accommodated themselves to the transformation. They were drawn to and became part of the new society. Many other, however, were subject to a policy that kept them separate from the white population. The officials who initiated this strategy claimed it was to protect them from white violence and white exploitation. However, the worst crime Australia committed against the Aborigines was not violence or exploitation, but this very policy of separating and interning them on missions and reserves. Those who did this are still celebrated by historians today as great humanitarians and as the Aborigines’ friends. These volumes severely question that assessment.

Keith Windschuttle, The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, 2002, pp 3-4

Keith Windschuttle’s revision of Tasmanian history, The Fabrication of Aboriginal History – Volume One Van Diemen’s Land 1803-1847, (2002) which is the first of a projected three-volume series covering all of Australia, created some controversy in the press when it first appeared. Conservative reviewers such as Geoffrey Blainey (Blainey 2003) cheered and hailed it, while those more to the left, including Robert Manne, (Manne 2002) booed it in chorus. Windschuttle was arguing that the ‘orthodoxy’ in Australian historiography was wrong on Aboriginal history in general, on Tasmania in particular, and most particularly on its contention that the displacement of the Aborigines by European settlers and British civilisation had been violent and murderous. The second of the above quotes, from The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, sums up the Windschuttle position. We will ignore for the moment that its second paragraph can be interpreted as contradicting the first. I leave it to others to sort out the rights, wrongs and casualty figures of the various violent incidents cited by historians. My aim here is different and twofold: to frame whatever controversy there is in its appropriate ecological and biological setting, and beyond that, to apply to Aboriginal history the dictum of Hutton that underlies much of geology and all of the science of stratigraphy: ‘the present is the key to the past’. The human past is embedded in the human present, and to some extent inferable on that basis.

Of course, the possible pasts are too numerous for fine separation just by the facts of the present; except to note that the proverbial Martian surveying and comparing modern Canada, the US, Australia and New Zealand could spot the differences between them, and point not only to possible explanations, but proceed to rule out certain hypothetical pasts, and with confidence.

 As in other areas of human history, inference is needed for the Aboriginal past not only because there are controversial and politically sensitive areas, but because the documentary record alone is insufficient for sound judgement one way or another. While some might find certain inferences to be politically (and mythologically) attractive, on close inspection they turn out to be too improbable for acceptance. Such, I argue, is the case with Keith Windschuttle’s thesis on the demise of the Tasmanians, which he applies also to explain the declines of the mainland populations, namely that the bulk of it was the unintended consequence of introduced diseases, rather than the intended consequence of deliberate frontier violence.

 Understandably, given the press controversy, Windschuttle’s contention became the subject of dinner table and barbecue conversation across the country. Shortly after the first reviews of his book were published in The Sydney Morning Herald (against) and The Australian (for) in late 2002, I found myself involved in one such discussion. It was with Mick Baulkley, the neighbour next gate along the road to the cattle property I live on in the northwest of NSW. Mick told me that when he was a boy growing up in Cullen Bullen, NSW, there was an old man living there by the name of Ted Jones, who had told Baulkley of his youth working cattle in the Channel Country of Queensland. From the ages of the men concerned one might assume that the story would date from the period 1880 to 1910.

 Ted Jones told Baulkley that on the run then in process of being ‘taken up’ and stocked, the owners were having trouble with the local Aborigines, who had started spearing the cattle. This was a fairly common practice through the history of 19th Century Australia, and can be seen as an effort by the Aborigines to drive the newcomers and their stock off the run and out of their country. Jones told Baulkley that parties of white stockmen responded by locating any Aboriginal bands in the area, and as mounted teams, running the Aboriginal men down. Women and children were generally left alone.

 According to Jones, the horsemens’ weapon of choice was a metal stirrup, swung on the end of its strap like a polo mallet. A single blow to the back of the head was usually fatal. According to Baulkley, Jones said that though he did not like doing it, he accepted that it had to be done.

 When I first heard this somewhat unsurprising but none the less shocking story, I immediately felt great sympathy for the victims, as I believe most people would, certainly including Mick Baulkley and possibly including, in a perverse sort of way, Ted Jones himself. There can be no doubt that such killings were illegal and against the prevailing Judeo-Christian morality, and also that those responsible were highly unlikely to leave a trail of paper or anything else that would track it back to them. But was the story credible?

 It rests on an understandable disinclination on the part of the Aborigines to ‘go quietly’ as their locality was invaded by others seeking a permanent rather than nomadic presence. But what most inclines me to believe that the story is likely true is that precise bit of detail: the stirrup to the back of the head.

 A horseman has a tremendous advantage over a man on foot, particularly if the latter is trying to flee. But any horseman is wary of horses’ response to the unfamiliar, often through bitter experience. Firing guns off the backs of horses was not something Australian stockmen usually did in the course of their work, and it would likely cause the average stock horse to shy, skitter, or even bolt. Moreover, in a general melee, with horsemen and Aborigines moving in many directions, the chance of a horseman or a horse being hit by a stray bullet was likely unacceptable. Given this problem, something readily at hand to stockmen in their camps would be the obvious choice. I would have thought they would favour something with weight on the end of a handle, like a hammer or branding iron. But there were never enough of these to supply one to each man in the camp. The weapons would have to be available to all hands simultaneously. Spare stirrups and straps were common around stock camps.

 Why would they not choose say, wooden lances, which were in use by horsemen in various armies right up to the mid 19th century?

 A lance was more than just a long sharpened stake. The Norman lance as described by Montgomery (Montgomery 1968, p 161) had an untapered wooden shaft between 8 and 9 feet long and was tipped with a broad iron head. It had specialist-made metal tips and guards fitted, the latter to prevent the weapon travelling back past the horseman on impact with the target. Moreover, lances were useless for anything else, were dangerous in untrained hands, and would have been incriminating evidence if the authorities should see fit to turn nasty. If the tip went into the ground even at a trot, the rider would likely be thrown off and/or suffer injury. Fashion a lance out of a sapling and try it if you do not believe me. Never mind if you find yourself short of a horse: for this exercise a bicycle will do just as well, and it is far safer. Don’t try it from a moving car.

 Greatest effect is achieved if the business end of the weapon travels in the same direction as the horse. If it is moving backwards as the horse moves forward, as for example the head of a polo mallet does on a backstroke, the rider has to slow the horse to compensate. Lance tips travel forward at the same speed as the horse, but stirrups swung fast by a rider who was on a horse at full gallop would have been much faster still, and particularly lethal if they struck the target at the bottom of the swing while moving closest to the same direction as the horse, transferring maxima of both kinetic energy and momentum to the target. Again, vide the analogy of the polo mallet on a forward stroke. Needless to add, medical authorities recognize blows to the back of the head as particularly dangerous, given that the cerebellum, the motor area of the brain concerned with subconscious skeletal muscle movements required for coordination, posture and balance, is just under the skull there.

 Defence against the swung stirrups would have been difficult for the Aborigines. While they were expert at defending against attacks by Aboriginal weapons such as spears and nulla-nullas (clubs) with their narrow shields, these are useless against horsemen. Out of the long history of pre-firearm warfare on the Eurasian landmass, pikes emerged as the only effective weapons for foot soldiers to use against mounted knights. For example, those used by the Swiss pikemen at the Battle of Laupen in 1339 were 18 feet long (approximately 5.6 m), with shafts of ash and ten inch steel heads “held level at shoulder height, and totally effective against cavalry.” (Montgomery 1968 p 195)  A pikeman had to have sound training in the use of his weapon, and it had to be strong enough, as he allowed the galloping horseman to impale himself upon it, to resist bowing and breaking.

 Aboriginal spears are not pikes. A spear thrown at an oncoming horseman could conceivably have quite devastating effect, but not if used as a pike, for it was far too short and light in construction. In the horsemens’ favour also would have been the fact that the aborigines had little opportunity to train to deal with such encounters, and the likelihood that an Aborigine’s first such would be his last.

 Stockmen riding individually or as teams used to drive mobs of kangaroos on horseback, and as a young man I was told eyewitness accounts by Queenslanders of kangaroos being culled by horsemen wielding wooden clubs and even golf clubs, again aiming the blow at the back of each animal’s head. Skills learned by horsemen in the mass killing of kangaroos could be transferred to range warfare as described above.

 So the short answer is yes, I believe the Ted Jones story has credibility. But it is still, as I relate it here, third-hand hearsay. However, it should be noted that this account of Jones’ corroborates Henry Reynolds’ account of the settling of the Channel country in which he writes: …”Aboriginal resistance to the invasion of white people and their animals took what was, by the 1880s, the characteristic form of killing, maiming and running off stock and spearing isolated stockmen. Conflict which began in the late 1860s persisted for twenty years. Writing of this period, Mary Durack observed that:

Every traveller brought rumours of increasing trouble and many settlers now openly declared that Western Queensland could only be habitable for whites when the last of the blacks had been killed out – ‘by bullet or by bait.’”

(Reynolds, 2001, pp 130-131)

 As Jones is no longer alive, his story could not be admitted as evidence in a court of law, which is reasonable. But must an historian always follow the same rule?

 I call as my first witness Mr David Irving, who has made a reputation for himself as a leading ‘Holocaust denier’. Understandably, he has his critics. He was arrested in Austria in 2005 and sentenced to three years in prison after a judge ruled that he had breached Austrian law in two speeches he made in 1989, in which he asserted that there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz, and questioned the existence of extermination camps. He is also quoted as having made inflammatory statements about the Holocaust such as: “The Jews are the architects of their own misfortune, but that is the short version A-Z. Between A-Z there are then 24 other characters in intervening steps.” (Taylor 2007)

 But if we attend closely to what Irving says on the history of the Holocaust, we find that he does not deny that there was killing, nor at times even systematic killing, of Jews, gypsies, and others in the concentration camps of Nazi-occupied Europe during the Second World War.  What he does deny is that this was policy in the Third Reich, and specifically and most importantly, that Adolf Hitler knew that it was going on. He has challenged his critics to produce a single document that proves the contrary. At the time of writing, as far as I am aware, none have been able to. A single memo from a camp commandant initialed by Hitler would do. The following is Irving’s own summary, from the Introduction to his Hitler’s War (1977):

 Nothing created such agony when this biography was first published as my analysis of Hitler’s role in the Jewish tragedy. Pure vitriol spilled from the pens of my critics, but I see no reason to revise my central hypothesis, which is based on the records of the day: that Hitler grasped quite early on that anti- Semitism would be a powerful vote-catching force in Germany; that he had no compunction against riding that evil steed right up to the portals of the Chancellery in 1933; but that once inside and in power, he dismounted and paid only lip service to that part of his Party creed. The Nazi gangsters under him continued to ride to hounds, however, even when Hitler dictated differently, e.g., in November 1938. As for the concentration camps he comfortably left that dark side of the Nazi rule to Himmler. He never visited one; those senior officials and foreigners who did obtain privileged access, like Ernst Udet or General Erhard Milch or British Members of Parliament in 1933 and 1934, were favorably impressed (but those were early days). Himmler is known to have visited Auschwitz in 1941 and 1942. Hitler never did. (Irving, 1999)

Is it appropriate to conclude that therefore Hitler did not know? Or is it more appropriate to ask: ‘how credible is the proposition that Hitler did not know?” A moment’s reflection on the nature of the Nazi bureaucracy indicates that any Hitler subordinate (including Himmler) who took a decision to go down such a horrendously serious path without clearing it first with higher authority up to the Fuhrer himself would have been taking a monumental risk, not only that Hitler might not have wanted it, but of cutting himself off from the Nuremberg Defence in case things went wrong. That defence was the only one conceivable in Nazi Germany, and so came naturally to Hitler’s minions at the end of the war: ‘I was following orders.’

 The old caveat emptor principle can be expressed many ways, including ‘let the buyer beware’ and ‘if it looks too good to be true, it probably is.’ The Hitler portrait that emerges from Irving’s studio looks far too good to be true. While it is not beyond conceivable doubt that Hitler was unaware of the fate of the Jews, it is very close to it. Irving in the passage above, for whatever reason, seeks to pass responsibility down to Himmler. But as well as the fact that Hitler openly called for the extermination of all the Jews of Europe in Mein Kampf, Irving’s argument rests on a huge improbability, arising directly out of the nature of the Nazi regime. Historians, who like scientists, can only deal in probabilities and never in absolute certainties, are on safe ground when they reject it. They may choose to suspend judgement until ‘all the facts are known’, but the trouble with that is that all the facts are never known.

 With the above in mind, we might consider the credibility of another story. Sally Dingo says of Wail, one of the two outstations of the vast Yallalong holding in Western Australia:

            …Wail was not far from where many tribal blackfellas had been captured and taken to prison, walking, chained together at the neck, mile after blistering mile into Geraldton and then on to Fremantle gaol or Rottnest Island down south. At nearby Mt Narryer Station, an outcamp still goes by the name Jailer, across the creek from the old prison where the captives were brought on the first part of their long trek, the policeman on horseback beside them. A tree, now a stump, still stands outside, to which the men were chained. It was a time when there were some hard, cruel whitemen, I was told by a white stockman, who had ridden the Canning Stock route in his early teens, seeing and hearing much.

 Mostly the Yamatjis’ crime had been to spear sheep on their own traditional grounds, and often many of the prisoners had the misfortune merely to be there when it happened, or even somewhere in the immediate district. But at least they had escaped the oft-employed method of territorial and social control. They had not been massacred, as many before them. Sheep stealing was a serious offence in white eyes. So was being a witness. But blackfellas wanted tucker, and not surprisingly, these other fellas to move back off their land.

 (Dingo 1998, p 40)

 Dingo is a white woman married to Ernie Dingo, a prominent Yamatji Aborigine and TV presenter, and explains in her book not only the origins of her husband’s white-conferred family name, but his family’s history and its times from its own Aboriginal perspective, for which she plays the role of historian and third-person narrator. It is a valuable addition to Australian literature.

 Insofar as Keith Windschuttle dismisses other historians’ claims that frontier violence and murder are the basic explanation for the undeniable total extermination of ‘full-blood’ Aborigines in Tasmania, the complete obliteration of their language and culture, and the massive environmental and ecological changes in the Australian countryside as white pastoralism and agriculture replaced Aboriginal hunting and gathering, he is almost certainly wrong; as it is my intention here to show. Where he invokes disease as an alternative explanation, again he is almost certainly wrong, as I also aim to show. But on the positive side, though the publication of Windschuttle’s The Fabrication of Aboriginal History was greeted with press controversy, it has served as a stimulus to debate and research ever since, including my own. In my opinion, this can only be for the good. As the old Chinese proverb puts it: “Let the waters recede, and the stones will emerge.”

 The emerging stones might not be those Keith Windschuttle had in mind when he first decided on the three-volume project of which The Fabrication of Aboriginal History is merely the opening statement. The second and third volumes will have to take account of the (numerous) objections raised to date if they are to succeed as credible history, whatever they might manage commercially. The historian engaged in a search for the truth must, like a good detective, proceed to the facts behind the stories, sort the plausible from the implausible and, in the manner of a scientist, evaluate each hypothesis in terms of the probability of its being right. Moreover, the historian must in the end be able to say with Darwin: “I have steadily endeavoured to keep my mind free so as to give up any hypothesis, however much beloved (and I cannot resist forming one on every subject), as soon as the facts are shown to be opposed to it.” (Darwin 1888)

 Though I naturally cannot speak for others, insofar as Windschuttle and I are both engaged in a search for the truth, we are at the end of the day and inevitably, on the same side. I honestly would prefer his version of the past to be right, as no doubt would many other Australians, and many contemporary Germans would Irving’s. But we can’t have it, and must rule it out as beyond credibility.



To be continued.


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2. Online resources used in preparation of table 4: Pre-European influence island population statistics  (p.15)