NOAH’S RAINBOW SERPENT – observations by Ian MacDougall

Kangaroos, Thylacines and Aborigines 2


I am putting this précis at the start of each of the four parts of this series, because feedback I get from WordPress tells me it is necessary, at least in many cases. The terms that visitors to this site put into web searches in order to land here indicate that many do not start their reading at Part 1.

At issue here is the question underlying the ‘black armband’ vs ‘white blindfold’ controversy in Australian history. It is not confined merely to Aboriginal history, because it goes right to the heart of the manner and nature of Australia’s European settlement. In these four articles I set out my reasons for concluding that Keith Windschuttle’s major argument in his book The Fabrication of Aboriginal History (2002) is seriously in error, and in its own way a fabrication.

Windschuttle argues that across the history of European settlement in Australia there is no substantive evidence of white-on–black violence amounting to massacre or deliberate extermination; not in any phase of it. He disputes all accounts by historians and others of such massacres; hence his use of the word ‘fabrication’. 

The book in question is the first of a planned three-volume series on Aboriginal history. It deals with the history of the Tasmanian Aborigines, who have disappeared completely as a ‘full-blood’ race, leaving only part-European descendants. Windschuttle sees this not as a result of deliberate genocide on the part either of the colonial government or settlers, but mainly as the consequence of unintentionally introduced disease. Tasmania has both the best colonial records in Australia and the most controversial history in this regard. This led Windschuttle to start there, with Volume 3 of his projected series.

What the historian has to account for is not so much the decline of the Aborigines of both Tasmania and Mainland Australia, but the decline of the ‘full-blood’ populations in both situations. Here recourse to disease as an explanation will not do, because that necessitates an even decline of both Aboriginal sexes. There is no disease known which annihilates men, leaving only or mainly women as survivors.

If there was any surviving ‘full-blood’ Tasmanian Aboriginal population at all, it would have to include both women and men, which in turn would have led to continuation of ‘full-blood’ populations (as has happened for example in the largely closed-breeding Chinese and Greek populations in Australia). One does not have to be a geneticist to understand that. 

The ‘full-blood’ decline can only be understood in terms of Aboriginal men dropping out of the breeding population, and having their places taken by white men. The dying-out was sexually biased; done far more by Aboriginal men than by Aboriginal women, and the only credible differential cause is colonial-era and colonial-mentality violence.

Call it conflict, massacre or murder; the result is still the same. Young black men were intentionally killed in fights with young white men – fights over black women and black-occupied land, and fights where blacks on foot armed at best with spears and clubs faced mounted white settlers armed with the latest in Western firepower. Sometimes black women were also casualties, and sometimes white men. But the net effect was the otherwise inexplicable decline of the ‘full-blood’ Aboriginal population to zero in NSW, Tasmania and Victoria, and in all but the most sparsely European-settled parts of South Australia, Western Australia, the Northern Territory and Queensland.

Windschuttle’s hypothetical diseases would have inevitably wiped out the entire Aboriginal population.

IM, 23 July 2010

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


 By 1860, the pale of European settlement in Australia (hereafter referred to for the sake of brevity as the Europale) was spread over the southeast of the continent, and that part of what is now Western Australia west of a line drawn between Esperance and North West Cape (see Map 1). On the eastern side of the continent, it contained all the land due east of the following present settlements: Port Lincoln and Whyalla (in present day South Australia), Broken Hill and Bourke (in New South Wales) and Roma (in Queensland).  From Whyalla, the frontier line headed east, and then gradually swung northwards while moving ever closer to the East Coast, until it met the coast at present day Rockhampton. North from there, it clung to the coast as far as Cairns. So it took in the southeastern corners of the present SA and Queensland, and most of present day NSW. It included Tasmania, but settlement there was mainly confined to the ‘T’ of country formed by the midlands and the Bass Strait coast, and containing the modern towns of Launceston, Devonport, Burnie, and state capital of Hobart. (See Map 7 below.) The west of that island state includes some of the most rugged country in Australia.

(Scroll down to page 49 of the pdf document.) MAP 1: THE AUSTRALIAN FRONTIER OF SETTLEMENT 1860.


  It is no mere coincidence that this 1860 white settlement frontier pretty much marks the inland boundary of present day horticulture, viticulture and cereal production in Australia. The frontier stopped moving west and north from the southeastern centres of colonisation when the Europeans had discovered all the arable land. In the areas beyond the shaded area today we find the bulk of the continent, but not of its people: they are concentrated into the major urban and regional centres, which are mostly on the coast. In some parts of that huge unshaded area, sheep and cattle can be grazed on native pastures. Elsewhere the land is too dry to support any introduced stock at all.

 Within the shaded area also are all but an exceptional few of the present day country towns, which mostly got going economically only during and after the gold rush decade of the 1850s.

 The Europale also lies within the boundary of maximum mean monthly temperature of 27C, and mainly has rainfall above 300 mm per year. Europeans living on the north coast of NSW have proved that they can tolerate high annual rainfall, as long as it comes within an acceptable temperature range. Locations in Australia with rainfall below 300 mm per year attract only a small minority of Europeans, and the same is true for the areas of the far north subject to high temperature and humidity, and to the annual monsoon.

 In Map 1, the shaded area of highest present agricultural productivity would have been such for the (immediately) pre-1788 hunter-gatherers as well. That map would also show the area of highest pre-1788 density of human population, and most of its game and ‘bush tucker’. Productive land is productive in terms of both natural and human-designed ecosystems.


The best map for this oddly enough comes from the US Department of Agriculture. The map does not seem to have any published  counterpart from Australian Federal Government sources on the Web. It is offered as additional detail of the European settlement story to date. The reader who takes the trouble to follow the link will see that wheat growing overlaps the 1860 pale of European settlement



 It will be seen that the pale did not extend much into areas where the mean maximum daytime temperature was above 30 C. Again, one can see in the temperature distributions across Australia one of the limiting factors on the spread of European settlement.



 Likewise, European settlement did not extend into areas where the rainfall was below 300 mm per year in 2006-7, which it should be noted was a rather dry year.


 Map 5 below shows the 2002 population distribution in Australia. Apart from the modern concentrations in the major towns and cities, arguably that map would also be a reasonable representation of pre-1788 population distribution, as the modern pattern of settlement reflects climate, soil types, rainfall and other factors conducive to human welfare and survival at any time.


(Based on estimated resident population)


 Beside European settlement, agriculture, rainfall and temperature, there is another, related distribution. It is that of the present day distribution of speakers of indigenous languages, mainly found today beyond the Europale. It shows that wherever Europeans settled, the native languages died out. The unavoidable conclusion is that conditions inside the Europale increasingly militated against aboriginal children learning their ancestral language in the process of growing up. As will be seen by following the link, indigenous speakers are confined to Cape York Peninsula in Queensland, and the more remote parts of South Australia, the Northern Territory and Western Australia. They have disappeared altogether from NSW, Victoria and Tasmania. This does not include speakers of ‘creoles’: pidgins based on mixtures of English and native tongues. However, these too are found closest to the areas where indigenous languages are spoken.

 The language decline correlates with the dilution of the aboriginal indigenous gene pool, as increasing numbers of people who describe themselves as Aborigines find themselves acknowledging, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, one or more Europeans in their ancestry.

(Scroll down to p 48 in the pdf document)



 In the 182 years between 1788 and 1970, there was effectively only one way for European genes to enter the aboriginal population, and that was through white men having intercourse with black women, a common practice on the frontier and on stations and properties where resident blacks provided low-wage labour to assist white owners, managers and staff. As Henry Lawson said of the ‘Bastard from the Bush’, in his poem of the same name:

 He’s been in every two-up school from Bourke to Wooloomooloo,/ He’s rode a hack and seduced a black. What more could a bastard do?

 The converse, if voluntary, meant social ostracism for any white woman, and so was literally unheard of.  While Aboriginal folklore is rank with tales of abduction and rape of aboriginal women by white men, and white folklore likewise, similar treatment of white women by blacks brought rapid white vengeance on the relatively rare occasions when it occurred. Plenty of white men kept black concubines and mistresses, and/or had casual and multiple liaisons with black women, and as this type of relationship is so common in Australian social history, and its converse so rare, we may call it for the purposes of this discussion the Aboriginal x European cross rule. Only in relatively recent times have aboriginal men married white women. The above-mentioned television presenter Ernie Dingo and the actor David Gulpilil are perhaps the most prominent of these. 

 Overt violence associated with sexual relations on the frontier has been explored in detail by Reynolds, (2000) Gould (2000, 2) and others. I will not pursue it far here. Just one example will suffice: in a recent edition (3rd September 2007) of ABC TV’s 7:30 Report ( ) one of Australia’s best known Aboriginal artists, Eubena Nampatjin, told of her life on and around the Canning Stock Route of Western Australia. She and her first (black) husband worked cattle on the route with white drovers. But the drover they joined was particularly violent and sexually aggressive. Eubena Nampatjin (translated) said of him: “If he wanted a woman for the night, he would hit her husband, shoot him. I had three girls and another two more girls with the drover. One passed away and another is still alive somewhere.” By which one assumes that her black husband was probably killed by the drover.

 Another example, this time where the relationship just as surely involved power and compulsion but without overt violence; except if there was no female compliance:

 Many a man with a spotless reputation in the white world was in fact a bunji-man. As a young girl travelling with Ulie in a white man’s car, along with two other Yamatji women, Bessie remembers the vehicle coming to a halt. ‘Who’s first?’ was the question, and the man and the two women disappeared behind some bushes. Ulie and Bessie sat beside the car, Ulie stressing that Bessie must look straight ahead, not look around under any circumstances. They sat, statue-like, and waited. The three came back to the car, and off they all drove, Bessie bewildered.

Bessie as a young girl had heard her mother talk about half-castes, and had wondered why some children were the colour they were. She asked her mother, who explained.

 Dingo, 1998, p. 81

 As well, we can tender here evidence from the late novelist Xavier Herbert, author of Capricornia and Poor Fellow, My Country. He gave the last interview of his life in 1985, to the journalist Dave Richards, in which he spoke of his effort to get the manuscript of his novel Black Velvet (later published under the title Capricornia:

 So I built this thing up and eventually went to Britain with it. But they wouldn’t take the book. For one thing, I suppose, it was amateurish. I was an unknown person. It was the depth of the Depression, 1930, and also it was too avant garde. There were some terrible stories. One particular thing in the Kimberleys –  the pearling industry which was established in Broome, I think they had some Portuguese people there, they were the master pearlers. They used to go up into the Kimberley country and steal the young gins, and they used to take these girls and they used to work them as skindivers. Of course, they used to rape them too and when they got too pregnant they used to chuck them overboard. Stockmen used to get out for a “gin spree”, they used to run the blacks down and take the young girls. They used to rape them.

 The girls used to sit down in the sand and fill their fannies [vaginas – IM] up with sand and go home and wash them. These people (in London) they didn’t believe it, they just said what a bloody awful thing it is, you haven’t got a nice person in it. And I said there aren’t any in that country. And they said, well what about yourself? I said I’m the biggest gin-rooter around the country myself. The only thing, I was more observant than the other blokes.

You didn’t write ‘Black Velvet’ out of a sense of morality?

 No, there was nothing like that. But I’ve always felt about the meanness. Don’t forget, I grew up where blacks were still being killed and children were starving to death. It was the done thing. I never liked it. I was always a critical person. We were taught, “Suffer the little children to come unto me”. There were blacks starving down the creek or being murdered. They weren’t regarded as human beings.

 (Richards, 1985 (1) 20, 29)

 I will return to the implications of these sorts of stories, and the associated statistics, in due course below.

 Though there is debate about all published population numbers for Aborigines, those I will use are from the Australian Bureau of Statistics. As will be seen, the thesis I set forward here does not depend on precision of population estimates.

 Between 1788 and 1901, the minimum aboriginal populations of Australia were as in the following table. These numbers are for the areas enclosed by the modern state boundaries, and percentage changes involved from column to column as we move from left to right. They ignore the fact that the colonies from which the states emerged were not all founded simultaneously. (The earliest colonies were NSW, from 1788, and Tasmania, from 1803.)

[Also, my apologies to the reader, but wide tables do not cut and paste exactly as one might want them to.  The table says that the Aboriginal population of NSW was 48,000 in 1788, and 16,000 in 1861. Similarly for the rest of it. A note also to interested scholars: the table should automatically correct if highlighted, copied (Control-C) and then pasted  (Control-V) into Word.]


STATE 1788 1861 % ch 1871 % ch 1881 % ch 1891 % ch 1901 % ch
NSW 48 000 16 000 -67 12 000 -25 10 000 – 7 8 280 -17 7 434 -10
Vic. 15 000 2 384 -84 1 700 -29 1 200 -29 900 -25 850 -6
Qld 120 000 60 000 -50 50 000 -17 40 000 -20 32 000 -20 27 500 -14
SA 15 000 9 000 -40 7 500 -17 6 346 -15 5 600 -12 4 888 -13
 WA 62 000 44 500 -28 40 000 -10 35 500 -11 31 000 -13 26 500 -15
Tas. 4 500 18 -100 85 +372 120   139 +41 157 +13
NT 50 000 48 500 -3 44 000 -9 38 500 -13 33 000 -14 27 235 -17
ACT n.a n.a   n.a   n.a   n.a   n.a  
Aust. 314 500 180 402 -43 155 285 -14 131 666 -15 110 919 -16 94 564 -15


 cat. no. 3105.0.65.001 Australian Historical Population Statistics

TABLE 8.  Minimum estimates of the Indigenous population, states and territories, 1788 – 1971

(This ABS report cites Smith, 1980 as its source. Percentage change (‘% ch ‘) calculations are not in the original.)

 Until the end of the ‘Black War’ (1824-31), the white settlers in Tasmania agreed on an original Aboriginal population in the range of 8,000 – 10,000. After that war, when all the surviving Aborigines were counted, they favoured estimates significantly lower: between 4,000 and 8,000.

 As can be seen from the table, the states and territories can be ranked in order of catastrophic decline of their Aboriginal populations as follows:

 Tasmania, Victoria, New South Wales (including the Australian Capital Territory), Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia, The Northern Territory.

 The colony of Victoria was founded in 1836, 48 years after NSW, but is surprisingly ahead of it in this list. I would assume that this reflects the fact that before the 1850s, Victoria was populated by ‘overstraiters’ from Tasmania, and after the gold rushes began, from NSW. The part of the Great Dividing Range known as the Blue Mountains was until the 20th Century a formidable barrier to transport and expansion westwards from the founding city of Sydney into the western slopes and plains of NSW, even after it was first crossed by European explorers in 1813. The Hume and Hovell expedition of 1824 from Appin NSW to Port Phillip Bay in present day Victoria not only opened the way for the pioneering and settlement of the rich grazing lands of the Murray Valley and ‘Australia Felix’ – the western district of Victoria – but of a considerable part of western NSW as well. 

 The next table, which is compiled from Australian Bureau of Statistics sources and those published by Berndt and Berndt (1999), suggests that by 1845, the total white population of the country was roughly equal to the minimum total black population as it was in 1788, which some now argue was as high as one million.

There are no accurate estimates of the population of Australia before European settlement. Many estimates were based on post-1788 observations of a population already reduced by introduced diseases and other factors. In 1930 the anthropologist Radcliffe-Brown postulated a minimum figure of 300,000. In 1980 L.R. Smith estimated the absolute minimum pre-1788 population at 315,000. Other estimates have put the figure at over 1 million, while recent archaeological finds suggest that a population of 750,000 could have been sustained.

 Year Book Australia, 2002; ABS Document 1301.0 – Year Book Australia, 2002

  Between 1788 and 1861, the aboriginal population declined overall from (a minimum of) 315,000 to a roughly absolute 180,000, while the white population rose from 859 to 1,168,149, trebling in the 1850s gold rush period. One might guess that the two populations reached continental parity some time around the mid 1840s.

 I also assume reasonable accuracy in the statistics set out in the next table, which shows the numbers in the black and white populations. I acknowledge the usual problems with such, particularly given that Aborigines were not counted in census statistics at all prior to May 1967.



1788 ABORIGINES 48,000 15,000 120,000 15,000 62,000 4,500 50,000  314,500
1788 WHITES      859                   859
1803 ABORIGINES 48,000 15,000 120,000 15,000 62,000 4,500 50,000  314,500
1803 WHITES   7,061            177          7,238
1811 WHITE MALES   6,645         1,052          7,697
1811  WHITE FEMALES   3,642            536          4,178
1811 WHITE MALES / WHITE FEMALES    1.82         1.96            1.84
1811 TOTAL WHITES 10,287         1,588        11,875
1821 WHITE MALES 21,543         4,636        26,179
1821 WHITE FEMALES  8,122         1,191          9,313
1821 WHITE MALES / WHITE FEMALES    2.65         3.89            2.81
1821 TOTAL WHITES 29,665         9,313        35,492
1831 WHITE MALES 36,243           979 19,815        57,037
1831 WHITE FEMALES 11,757           362   6,825        18,944
1831 WHITE MALES / WHITE FEMALES    3.08              2.90           3.01
1831 TOTAL WHITES 48,000       1,341 26,640        75,981
1841 WHITE MALES 94,094       8,755 1,706 39,559      144,144
1841 WHITE FEMALES 51,209     6,730 1,054 17,861        76,854
1841 WHITE MALES / WHITE FEMALES 1.84     1.30 1.62 2.21     1.88
1841 TOTAL WHITES 145,303     15,485 2,760 57,420      220,968
1851 WHITE MALES 113,155 58,235   37,321 4,633 43,631      256,975
1851 WHITE FEMALES 84,110 39,254   29,217 2,553 25,556      180,690
1851 WHITE MALES / WHITE FEMALES 1.35 1.48       1.28    1.81     1.71             1.42
1851 TOTAL WHITES 197,265 97,489   66,538  7,186 69,187      437,665
1861 ABORIGINES 16,000  2,384 60,000  9,000 44,500        18 48,500    180,402
1861 WHITE MALES 201,259 320,888 20,811 67,409 9,974 49,032      669,373
1861 WHITE FEMALES 156,103 218,876 13,556 63,403 5,962 40,876      498,776
1861 WHITE MALES / WHITE FEMALES      1.29       1.47      1.54     1.06     1.67     1.20            1.34
1861 TOTAL WHITES 357,362 539,764 34,367 130,812 15,936 89,908     1,168,149
1966 estimates* ABORIGINAL ‘FULLBLOODS’ 130 0 12,000 3,128 9,905 0 20,120   44,605
1966 estimates* PART ABORIGINALS 23,000 3,500 29,700 4,632 11,985 ? 4,000   77,495
1966 TOTALS 23,130 3,500 41,700 7,760 21,890   24,120   122,100


Berndt and Berndt, (1999) p 27

 Australian Bureau Of Statistics 3105.0.65.001 – Australian Historical Population Statistics, 2006  3105.0.65.001 Table 1. Population by sex, states and territories, 31 December, 1788 onwards

 Australian Bureau Of Statistics

cat. no. 3105.0.65.001 Australian Historical Population Statistics

Table 8.  Minimum estimates of the Indigenous population, states and territories, 1788 – 1971

 The above table above tells the depressing story of the decline of the Aboriginal populations in the 19th Century, which continued well into the 20th. For our purpose here it would have been excellent to have had available accurate statistics on numbers of individuals by sex and ancestry (ie half aboriginal, quarter aboriginal, three quarters aboriginal etc.) from 1788 on. Only a massive genealogical exercise carried out by and behalf of the present-day Aborigines themselves could produce such figures. Much knowledge is out there, and one hopes it will eventually be collected, through projects already underway in parts of the country.

 Reasonable statistical records have existed since 1788 of the numbers of each sex present in the non-Aboriginal population (which by the way since the turn of the 19th Century has included non-Europeans). For reasons set out below however, estimates of the number of Aborigines at any one stage do not necessarily imply a 50/50 balance of the sexes, or anything like it.

 Considering the above 1966 estimates:


‘full-bloods’ (% of total) 130 (0.6%) 0 (0%) 12 000 (29%) 3128(40%) 9 905(45%) 0(0%) 20120(84%) na 44 605(37%)
 ‘part Aborigines’ 23 000 3 500 29 700 4632 11985 ? 4 000 na 77 495
1966 TOTALS 23 130 3 500 41 700 7760 21890   24120 na 122100

 Berndt and Berndt, (1999) p 27

 Like the survival of language, and the survival of the Aboriginal races in whatever form, the survival of ‘full-bloodedness’ increases with distance from the sites of earliest European settlement. Like water spreading through blotting paper, there was a gradual lightening that diffused through the Aboriginal populations of Australia, and from the south to the north. It was a lightening of skin colour and other distinctly Aboriginal features, reflecting a lightening of the ancestral gene load as non-Aboriginal (mainly European) genes spread through and increased in frequency in the Aboriginal population.

 The physical anthropologists of the 19th Century classified humans into four major racial groupings: Caucasoids, Mongoloids, Negroids and Australoids. Mainland Aborigines were classified by them as Australoids, while the Tasmanians were classified as Negroids: specifically ‘negritos’, due to their short sature and similarlity to similar peoples of Southeast Asia, New Guinea, North Queensland and elsewhere. These racial classifications were seized upon by ‘Social Darwinists’ of the late 19th Century and after and set into various hierarchies, with Caucasoids (who else?) always at the top and Australoids and/or Negroids languishing around at the bottom. (The term ‘Social Darwinism’ was actually coined in 1944 by the American historian Richard Hofstaedter, and the pioneers of the theory included Herbert Spencer, Thomas Malthus and Francis Galton, the latter being Charles Darwin’s cousin, and the founder of eugenics. [See References 1: Social Darwinism] However, it should be emphasised that Darwin himself had nothing to do with the theory, which has been rightly seen as a corrupt derivative of his original work, though it did provide dubious intellectual bedrock for the expansionist programs of European powers, particularly Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany.)

 Since the Holocaust, the term ‘race’ has fallen out of favour in all areas of human biology and the humanities, and has been largely replaced by the synonym ‘ethnicity’, which covers all four of the original races as well as subdivisions within them. I do not believe that such seemingly politically correct cosmetic changes get us very far, and they certainly fool nobody. But lest I be accused of ‘racism’ for favouring the term ‘race’ over its synonym, let me challenge anyone so inclined to show where recognition of the differences between dingoes, wolves, cocker spaniels and Rhodesian ridgebacks (which are merely races of the species Canis vulpes) implies any order of superiority, however assigned. Racism is exclusively and inevitably about assertions of inferiority and superiority, and ironically, in order to speak of ‘racism’ one must first acknowledge ‘race’ as some sort of reality.

 We might at this point address the question: how does the population of pre-1788 Australia compare with population figures for other islands, considering the Australian mainland and Tasmania for this purpose as two oceanic islands? Below are set out figures gathered from the Internet for some other large islands and island groups, set out in order of increasing population density. (My apologies to the reader for the struck-through version of the table, but no editing procedure known to me can persuade it to go):


Australian mainland 300,000 – 600,000 7,682,300 0.06*
Tasmania 4,000 – 8000[more recently historians favour 8,000 – 10,000 *] 64,519 0.09** [0.14**]
Philippines 667,000 300,000 0.22
New Zealand 100,000 + 269,057 0.37*
Cuba 100,000 110,922 0.90
New Guinea 425,000 462 840   0.92 ?
Papua  300,000 ? 323,360  0.93 ?
Total Papua + New Guinea (1929)  725,000 ? 786,000  0.92 ?
Madagascar 1,600,000 587,041 2.72
Hispaniola 300,000-400, 000 76,480 4.58*
Australian mainland 300,000 – 600,000 7,682,300 0.06*
Tasmania 4,000 – 8000[more recently historians favour 8,000 – 10,000 *] 64,519 0.09** [0.14**]
Philippines 667,000 300,000 0.22
New Zealand 100,000 + 269,057 0.37*
Cuba 100,000 110,922 0.90
New GuineaPapuaTotal PNG (1929) 425,000300,000 ?725 000 462 840323 360786,000   0.92 ?
Madagascar 1,600,000 587,041 2.72
Hispaniola 300,000-400, 000 76,480 4.58*

 * The late Professor Rhys Jones favoured a pre-1803 Tasmanian population of 4,000 – 8,000

**Figures calculated from original pre-European population means

Sources for table: See References 2

 It will be seen from these figures that the Australian mainland and Tasmania had population densities (or human carrying capacities) of less than half that of the nearest other entity, namely the Philippines before the first Spanish settlement on Cebu in 1565.

 No doubt there were many factors responsible for this, and diet would have been one of them. The original inhabitants of the Australian mainland and Tasmania were in the main land-based hunter-gatherers, while those of all the other islands listed were agriculturalists and/or seafaring fishermen as well as opportunistic hunter-gatherers. Unlike the case of the mainland Aborigines, and particularly the Tasmanians, the maritime technologies of the Melanesians and Polynesians and peoples of the coasts of Asia were of a very high order, as were their navigation techniques.

 The other islands had more abundant rainfall per sq km per year than the Australian mainland and Tasmania, and the mainland is largely low-productivity dry land or desert to this day. As well, one must also consider the peculiar ecology of the eucalypt forests that dominate the better-watered parts of Australia, particularly Tasmania.

 As forests go, they are relatively barren of vertebrate animal life. Their main first order consumers (herbivores) are not the koala or its underground cousin, the wombat, but the various species of termite, many to be found there well protected in hardened nests; others in less obvious accommodation. All are consumed by ants, small native and feral mammals like ‘bush rats’, other arthropods, and by the echidna, or ‘spiny anteater’. Resident populations of the latter animal do not account for much of a eucalypt forest’s total biomass, probably because the rate of conversion of (dead only) tree tissue to termite biomass is slow. Though the echidna is well protected from predation by its sharp spines, it (along with rats and ants) does not provide much food for higher level consumers like goannas and dingoes, which are for this reason not abundant in eucalypt forest ecosystems. The real top-level omnivorous consumer there is fire: a major part of the forest ecology, but not a living organism at all in the accepted sense of the term.

 Eucalypt forests, and particularly old-growth ones, do provide shelter and resources other than food for a wide range of species, particularly birds, which often forage elsewhere and return to the forest for shelter at night. But on the other hand and by comparison with the eucalypt forests, rain forests are like coral reefs, sporting abundant resident animal life, both nocturnal and diurnal.

 Where the major native marsupial herbivores of the grasslands of Australia are the larger (red and grey) kangaroos, the corresponding herbivores of the eucalypt forests are the koala, the wombat, and the omnivorous brush-tailed possum. Rainforests, particularly in the tropics, are home to tree kangaroos, wallabies, ring-tailed possums, and ground-foraging cassowaries, brush turkeys, scrubfowls and other birds that feed on invertebrates in the abundant leaf-litter and humus on the forest floor ( ) By contrast, the birds most commonly found feeding in the slow-decomposing leaf-litter on the floor of a Eucalypt forest are rare: lyre-birds, and in the more open mallee country, mound-builders like mallee fowls. The puzzling nesting habits of these latter birds, which involve the building of large mounds of sandy soil over eggs laid above slowly rotting vegetable matter and daily opening, inspection and closing again, are probably these ground-dwelling species’ way of coping with fire.

 The koala can tolerate eating a wide selection of eucalypt species, but its main diet is centred on less than ten of the 700 or so species known. Such is the biochemical and physiological challenge involved in a diet of eucalypt leaves. This restricts the koala’s distribution and abundance profoundly as compared with the macropods (kangaroos and wallabies), which have a far less specialised diet. Moreover, although a koala female will commence producing young at around the age of two years, and keep doing so for about another ten years, koala populations have probably never achieved the Malthusian numbers implicit in these figures. This is shown by their 20th C record of failure in recovery of the populations known to exist up until the 1920s, when the species was nearly driven to extinction by the fur trade. One reason I would suggest is their diet, and the other is the frequency of fire in the same modern eucalypt forests that constitute their habitat.

 Australian forests and woodlands fall into two distinct categories with respect to fire, and these were first described as such in 1929. These are now called the pyrophytic and pyrophobic botanical assemblages. (Bowman, 2000, p 41) 

 Pyrophytic ecosystems are typically dominated by eucalypts and close relatives of the Family Myrtaceae. Their absence is one of the key indicating characteristics of rain forest. Acacia (wattle) species are to be found in both forest types in Australia, with about 600 native species overall. This continent is unique in the way so much of its land area is dominated by trees of just two botanic genera, both of which depend on fire for their ecological dominance. The manner of growth and morphological features of both eucalypts and dryland acacias positively encourage fire. When the ‘gum trees’ burn, they annihilate competing species, and particularly pyrophobic rainforest species. But not acacias; their seed pods release seeds into the ash beds left by the passing fire, chemical compounds in the smoke stimulate germination, and a new generation rapidly gets under way.

 The pyrophytic plants and the Aborigines came over time to a profitable mutualism: the Aborigines set fire periodically to the bush, thus clearing away the woody undergrowth and encouraging the growth of grasses, herbs  and the macropods and other animals which fed on them, and the eucalypts and acacias provided the fuel. Acacias also have an important part to play in forest recovery after fire, because as members of the Family Leguminosae, they are symbionts of nitrogen-fixing bacteria, and thus come to play the role of pioneer plants in ecological successions, making fixed nitrogen available to other plant species through the soil.

 The losers in the battle were the pyrophobic plant assemblages, typically those of the rainforests, which had been fighting a war with the pyrophytes over millions of years, using water (in stem and leaf sap, and in the soils and humus on the forest floor) as their selected weapon of defence against the advance of the fires enabled by the pyrophytes. That is, until the arrival of Homo sapiens tipped the balance in favour of the latter. Paleobotanical research indicates that pyrophobes such as Casuarina sp. were once far more widespread across the continent than they were in 1788. They have retreated further since, being now largely confined to damp gullies in the Great Dividing Range. Ground-breaking research by the late Gurdip Singh into pollens in the bed of Lake George NSW provides evidence that Aboriginal burning off of vegetation in ‘the Burning Continent’ may have begun as early as 110,000 years BP. (Kohen, 1993, Singh 1981)


1. Books, periodicals and online resources used in preparation and as source of quotations.

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






Papua and New Guinea