NOAH’S RAINBOW SERPENT – observations by Ian MacDougall

Kangaroos, Thylacines and Aborigines 3


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.



While aboriginal ‘firestick farming’ probably produced an optimal yield of meat and vegetable for the native human diet in the circumstances, it was of severely limited efficiency compared with systems found on other islands, and it favoured the most ecologically barren of the competing forest ecosystems.

The other major factor, particularly in mainland Australia, was periodic drought. Populations of aboriginal food resource species in Australia can generally crash and recover rapidly. The biology of the kangaroo for example, takes drought well into account, with the females being always pregnant throughout their reproductive lifetimes, (giving birth and conceiving again within a day) and retarding or advancing each successive foetus through hormonal controls to fit in with prevailing external conditions. A female kangaroo is a first-order reproductive dynamo, commonly nurturing three young simultaneously: one developing on a teat in the pouch, one at foot, and one on the way in uter0.

By contrast, pre-1788 Aboriginal humans had (roughly) a 15-year life cycle. Where their prey species like kangaroos practiced diapause, holding foetuses in ‘suspended animation’ until a diet of green grass signalled to their bodies that better times had returned, the human predators had little alternative but to move with whatever macropods and other animals they could follow as they searched for pasture and forage, and to practice infanticide: killing infants in hard times to favour maternal survival.

Tasmania is a stand-out case. It has high mean annual rainfall and attendant heavy afforestation, and its eucalypt forests and timber-based industries are a major part of its modern economy. They are in marked contrast with its relatively low pre-1788 human population, which most probably varied across a mean between 4,000 and 10,000 individuals. It would seem that the relatively primitive technology of the Tasmanians, coupled with the robust nature of Tasmanian forest species, meant that the forests, not the people, remained the dominant factor in the overall ecology of the island, with the trees setting the limits on the human population, rather than the converse as is the case today. The population distribution for modern Tasmania set out in Map 5 (above) and relating to Map 7(below) reflects the distribution of the original Tasmanian Aboriginal population as according to Ryan (Ryan 1996, pp 15-16) with the favoured areas at any one time being the river valleys of the southeast and the Bass Strait coast, and the least favoured being the high country to the west.

At the same time, that human population appears to have been in equilibrium with Tasmania’s resources and limiting factors. One can make a case from the following table that the population history of Aborigines in Tasmania is (fairly well) a negative reflection of the history of sheep numbers there, with the latter literally constituting a text-book example in the literature of ecology of population growth to equilibrium. The island’s sheep population plotted against time fits well against a logistic curve (Kormondy, 1969, p.85). It shows a period of accelerating growth from 1816 to about 1844 followed by deceleration to maintenance of a relatively constant level after 1860.

It is reasonable to assume that the pre-1803 Tasmanian Aborigines and their numerous food species had reached similar (dynamic) equilibrium populations, perturbed only by extremes of weather. Such equilibria would have altered over the 20,000 years since the retreat of the Pleistocene glaciers began, but would have tended to stability after the rise of the Bass Strait (around 11,000 BP) cut the Tasmanians off permanently from the mainland. As they were non-seafarers, the Tasmanians of between 11,000 BP and 1803 AD, remained arguably the most isolated human population on Earth, and one must assume, the most stable. For nearly all of those 11,000 years Tasmania had a closed breeding population, with none departing over the sea, and none coming in off it, before the brief visit of the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman in 1642, who planted a flag and claimed the island for the Dutch East India Company, named it after his patron Anthonie van Diemen, Governor of the Dutch East Indies, and then departed.

White settlement from its very beginning brought substantial ecological change to Tasmania, as we shall see below. As the American ecologist Eugene P Odum (Odum 1953) pointed out, in a given ecosystem there can be many species, each represented on average by few individuals, or a few species, each represented by many individuals. The last mentioned situation is what farming and grazing practice in various regions of the world has been trying to achieve and maintain for the last 15,000 years. But there cannot be an ecosystem in which many species are represented by many individuals.

Australian agronomists when comparing the carrying capacities of different areas of country use the concept of the ‘dry sheep equivalent’ of various types of stock and competing wildlife, particularly kangaroos. For example, research has shown that on average a single eastern grey kangaroo is the grazing pressure equivalent of 0.625 ‘dry sheep’, while a single fully grown steer is equal to 8 ‘dry sheep’. To put the problem of grazing competition of kangaroos with introduced stock into this modern agricultural terminology:

Kangaroos only compete with livestock for pasture when total grazing pressure exceeds dry matter production. To estimate the contribution of kangaroos to total grazing pressure, research has shown that one dry sheep equivalent (DSE) equals 1.6 kangaroos or one kangaroo equals 0.625 DSE.

(Temby, 2003)

The above figures were worked out for Victoria. Applying this Victorian data direct to Tasmania  without correction for environmental differences, we can say that the introduction of one sheep to a native pasture requires the removal of 1.6 kangaroos for equilibrium to be maintained without expanding the grassland area. This is the basis for the ‘Kangaroo Equivalents of Sheep’ column in Table 5 below.


               (After Table 2; Ryan, 1996, and Kormondy, 1969)

1803 4,500   [8,000 ?] 480    
1811   1,588    
1816   3,114 54,600 87,360
1818 2,000 2,000    
1821   9,313    
1823 1,000   200,000 320,000
1824   12,643    
1826 1,500   553,698 885,917
1828     791,200 1,265,920
1830   23,500 1,000,000 1,600,000
1831   26,640    
1834 112      
1835 123      
1838 60      
1841   57,420    
1847 47      
1851 30   2,000,000** 3,200,000
1854 17      
1859 14   1,800,000** 2,880,000
1868 3      
1869 2      
1871 1      
1873     1,300,000** 2,080,000
1876 0      
1884     1,600,000** 2,560,000

** = figures after Kormondy 1969, p 85.

 According to Mr Nick Mooney of the Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service in a private communication to the author, Tasmania now has between 10 and 15 thousand kangaroos on about 15 percent of their former range. Applying this figure directly to Tasmania as a whole, we get a pre-1803 population between 67,000 and 100,000 animals. The average of these figures rounds out to 85,000 animals. Ecologists recognise as a rough rule of thumb a 10 fold decrease in total biomass at each trophic level in a food pyramid. For example, 100 tonnes of growing pasture will support and/or become the biomass equivalent of 10 tonnes of grazing herbivores, which in turn will support and/or become the biomass of one tonne of carnivores. As the masses of fully-grown thylacines, Aborigines and kangaroos are roughly equal, a population of 85,000 kangaroos would support a total population of 8,500 thylacines and Aborigines combined, (if kangaroos were their main source of meat – possums were also important to the Aborigines). This fits well with the above broad range of 4,000- 10,000 Aborigines and the Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service estimate of 1500 – 2000 adult thylacines (personal communication from Mr Mooney, 21 September 2007.)

I present these not as a watertight figures, but merely to give an order-of-magnitude estimation. Removing the equivalent of 87,350 kangaroos in 1816, by virtue of taking the fodder they would have consumed and feeding it instead to the 54,600 sheep introduced that year would, on the face of it, put a considerable dent in the Aborigines’ stock of available kangaroo meat. Hence the Aborigines, variously recorded from time to time as complaining that whites had killed all their game, probably had a point.

Keith Windschuttle disputes that game was ever in short supply for the Aborigines, and devotes pages 87-95 of his book to refuting the ‘starving natives’ thesis, advanced by other historians and notably by the late Brian Plomley. Against this, Windschuttle argues that at the time the ‘Black War’ began in 1824, ”the settlers had occupied only 3.1 percent of the land in Tasmania… The non alienated land still accounted for about 95 per cent of the island, leaving plenty of fodder for kangaroos, emus, possums, wombats and other native game…” (Windschuttle 2002 p.88)

He argues further that the ‘starving natives’ proponents ignore their own statistics that show that by 1824 the Tasmanian aboriginal population had crashed. He cites Henry Reynolds as claiming that the Aboriginal population had declined from an original 5,000 – 7,000 in 1803 to 1,500 by 1824, and to 350 by 1831. Plomley’s figures for the same period are an 1803 population of around 5,500 declining by 1831 to “less than one-tenth of that figure…” Windschuttle adds that both Plomley and Reynolds:

 “…want us to believe that this dramatic decline in the human population was accompanied by an even greater decline in the population of kangaroos, possums and other native game. However, if there were fewer Aboriginal mouths to feed and thus far fewer animals that needed killing, the native game population of Tasmania should have seen a corresponding increase. In fact, the number of game animals – whose populations had been regulated by thousands of years of human hunting – should have soared once their principal predator was all but removed from the natural environment. The thesis that the animal population would have done the opposite – toppling from a peak in 1803 to a trough in 1824 when it left 500 Aborigines to starve – is inherently implausible. A decline in the number of hunters, other things being equal, will always cause an increase in the number of the hunted.” (p. 89)

 The trouble with this is that the ‘other things’ in the rapidly changing Tasmanian context were not equal at all. For a start, Windschuttle gives no role to the 320,000 sheep which were in Tasmania by 1824, though he does cite figures for sheep and cattle (of which latter there were 67,190 in 1827) on page 94, five pages later. Taking 8 DSE as the accepted mainland figure for cattle, we could say that those 67,190 cattle were the equivalent of 537,520 sheep. Adding Windschuttle’s own cited 436,256 for the 1827 sheep population, we arrive at a grand total of 973,776 DSE. This was no trifling number of sheep, and was equal to a DSE population of kangaroos 1.6 times greater, ie 1,558,042, and sufficient to support of population of Aborigines approaching half a million; that is, around the 2005 total population of Tasmania, which was 485,300. I leave the reader to both round the numbers and draw conclusions as to the effect of all this on the actual kangaroo population of Tasmania at the time.

From the outset, the European settlers in Tasmania tried to modify the ecosystems they found in situ in ways they believed would enhance the productivity of the holdings, properties and land they occupied on whatever basis, including by (then illegal) ‘squatting”. This commonly involved the ringbarking and/or clearing of forest and woodland to make way for pasture and fields for cultivation, and the removal (using both firearms and ‘drives’ on the mainland by club-wielding horsemen) of native grazing macropods and emus. But while the whites’ livestock, like their women, were off limits to aboriginals, the converse in neither case was true. Kangaroo and emu hunting and culling, the aim of which was often nothing short of local extermination, considerably reduced the protein available to the natives, as did the removal, through ecosystem simplification, of the wide variety of animal and plant foods the aboriginal women and children gathered. Thus began the history of frontier conflict over rights to hunt and gather versus rights to farm and graze.

So let us take another look now at the question of frontier violence.

Women and livestock were the two issues generating most conflict between Aboriginals and European settlers in colonial Australia. The livestock at issue were macropods, cattle and sheep. (Europeans, as far as we know, never competed with Aborigines for possums, though they would have done so for fish; Aborigines killed sheep, presumably to get rid of them, but did not eat the meat.) Due to the imbalance of the sexes in the white population, as we have seen in Table 2, there was a strong tendency for white men to seek partners for whatever duration among any Aboriginals living nearby. In many places, it was possible to trade various valuables with tribesmen for women living in the group by virtue of blood relation, marriage or capture in a raid on another tribe or group. White women, as noted above, were definitely off limits to Aboriginal men, as were the Europeans’ sheep, cattle and other livestock, imported to Australia from Britain or NSW at great expense, and commonly husbanded closely for breeding stock or sale. Lines of suitable steers in due course became available to be sent to town markets. It is not surprising to find that while the colonial herds were building up, graziers were utilising kangaroo meat in their diets, and as food for their dogs, particularly in the very earliest stages of settlement when they had no wish to slaughter any of their own cattle or sheep at all.

The British perception was that the macropods were wild in the country and belonged to nobody. The ecological reality of Tasmania and elsewhere was that the biomass of available grass and herbage in any one period of time could feed a related biomass of herbivores only up to a limit, which in turn could support a limited biomass of omnivorous humans, their dogs and a net population of wild carnivores. The latter included dingoes on the mainland, where they had displaced thylacines; thylacines in Tasmania, and also the Tasmanian Aborigines’ dogs (gone feral) as the aboriginal populations crashed. Settlers everywhere in Australia honoured these principles every time they set about clearing the bush to make way for grass; ‘clearing off’ kangaroos and emus to make way for sheep, cattle or crops, and clearing off Aborigines to make way for themselves.

In Tasmania, where little clearing took place before 1830, thanks to the extensive open woodlands the Aboriginal ‘firestick farming’ had invitingly created, the earliest recorded such dispute over kangaroos took place at Risdon Cove in 1804, in which the Aboriginal dead have been reported in various sources and histories as ‘up to fifty’. Of this Keith Windschuttle says

Overall, the weight of evidence does not support the interpretation about the Risdon Cove conflict now current in history books and the news media. It was not a slaughter of ‘up to fifty’ innocent men, women and children. It was a defensive action by the colonists in which three Aborigines were shot dead, and at least one, though possibly more, wounded… (1)

Windschuttle, 2002, p 26.

As I said at the outset, I leave it to others to sort out the rights, wrongs and casualty figures of this and other incidents. For Keith Windschuttle and the colonists in question, the Aborigines had no right to challenge white kangaroo hunters. As they took up the land, the colonists made the same assumption that Windschuttle made in The Fabrication of Aboriginal History; namely that plenty of kangaroos were left somewhere out there for the Aborigines to kill and eat. (Rabbits incidentally were not even introduced to Tasmania until 1827, though they later reached plague populations there.)

Clearly, the Aborigines saw it differently. If we entertain the assumption that their population was in an equilibrium with that of the macropods and other game, they arguably had considerably more acuity and insight than did their European immigrant opponents. According to the figures in Table 5, in 1803 the human population dependent for sustenance upon on the game of Tasmania increased by ten percent. By 1816, when records of sheep numbers began, it stood at 3114, as against a minimum of 4,000 Aborigines in 1803. If those Aborigines were all still alive, the population dependent on the game would have increased to 7114, in other words by nearly 80 percent, while at the same time competing pressure from the sheep on the macropods and other herbivorous game populations would have driven those populations downwards. (The emu, which the Aborigines did not eat, was extinct in Tasmania by 1840.) And after the arrival of the sheep, if meat was unavailable to the whites from such game sources, then culling of sheep could fill the gap. This option was not available to the Aborigines without risk of vengeance from the whites. Their population decline is understandable in these terms alone, and is not an isolated case of such.

For another mammal species went into severe decline at around the same time in Tasmania; a decline that both parallels that of the Aborigines and sheds light on it. It was of course, the above-mentioned thylacine: the marsupial ‘Tasmanian tiger’. The website of the Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service ( ) gives the following sad timeline:

1830 Van Diemens Land Co. introduced thylacine bounties.

1888 Tasmanian Parliament placed a price of £1 on each thylacine’s head.

1909 Government bounty scheme terminated. 2184 bounties paid.

1910 Thylacines rare—sought by zoos around the world.

1926 London Zoo bought its last thylacine for £150.

1933 Last thylacine captured, Florentine Valley, sold Hobart Zoo.

1936 World’s last captive thylacine died in Hobart Zoo,   (7/9/36).

1936 Tasmanian tiger added to the list of protected Wildlife.

1986 Thylacine declared extinct by international standards. )

Private correspondence from Mr Nick Mooney of the Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service to the author (on 21 September 2007) reveals the following relevant information about the pre-1803 thylacine population:

Based on diary records of shepherds/hunters operating over certain areas, amounts of food in certain areas and usual home ranges of a 25-35 kg predator, our judgment was that there were likely 1,500-2,000 adults. About 1/3 of mainland Tasmania’s 6,000,000 ha was good habitat, 1/3 mediocre and 1/3 poor. If one assumes bounties drove them down and graphs the bounties and then estimates what the likely sustained yield would be then the lower estimate makes sense. 

Thus the 1803 thylacine population was of the same order of magnitude as that of the Tasmanian Aboriginals. Given the prevailing attitudes of the time, it is not hard to understand the decline of thylacine populations in areas where their distribution overlapped that of the sheep. The argument Windschuttle proposes for minimal white settler impact on native game that “the settlers had occupied only 3.1 percent of the land in Tasmania…”  (above) would mean that they posed little threat to macropods or the mammals that fed on them, principally thylacines and Aborigines. On this basis alone, the bounty on the thylacine would have had an effect on the numbers of them in settled areas, but probably not sufficient by itself to tip species over the edge into extinction. Bounties have been likewise offered for dingo scalps on the mainland to the present day without successfully exterminating the animal, though many pastoralists would be only too glad to see it happen.

However, the large hunting dogs white settlers brought to Tasmania were eagerly sought by the Aborigines. As their populations went into decline, these dogs they had acquired from the white settlers went feral, and began attacking sheep. They arguably also helped drive thylacine numbers downwards, through competition for native prey, and direct dog on thylacine predation: particularly on young thylacines.

Windschuttle’s figure for land occupation above is taken from Morgan’s Land Settlement in Early Tasmania (Morgan 1992). But Morgan maintains that in general graziers, their stock and their stockmen “preceded official settlement by some years.” (Morgan 1992 p. 19) That was probably the reality of most settlement. The only sure way to find out if stock will thrive on a particular patch of country is to go in and stock it, and then wait and see. If they do well, then apply for the freehold before someone else does. Settlers, whose land clearing activities only began in the 1860s, had occupied 30% of the land of Tasmania by 1830. By that time bounties for the capture of live (remnant) Aborigines were also on offer from the government.

Here incidentally are some of the methods used to control the dingo on the mainland (it never reached Tasmania):

In most states and territories, legislation requires the destruction of wild dogs in sheep and cattle grazing zones. Current management aims to minimise the damage of wild dog predation on livestock, not just on killing wild dogs. Aerial baiting with 1080 baits is the principle [sic] tool. Usually it is targeted to limited buffer zones adjacent to livestock grazing areas. Widespread coordinated campaigns have been shown to be more efficient and effective than small localised efforts. Other techniques include shooting, fencing and trapping. Bounty payments have not been successful in reducing predation by wild dogs and are subject to abuse. New techniques such as the use of livestock-guarding dogs, poison ejecting devices and toxic collars have been suggested as alternatives to current methods.

(Pest Animal Control CRC, Dingoes and other wild dogs, undated)

 This supports the above contention by Nick Mooney that the thylacine was never evenly distributed across Tasmania. Indeed, it would be surprising if it were otherwise. Rather, most of Tasmania’s thylacines were likely to be found at any one time in the most biologically productive areas: those taken up for settlement by Europeans, which would best explain its rapid demise as a species. The same applies to the Tasmanian Aborigines, when considered in their ecological setting. Sheep and cattle introduced in the DSE numbers cited would have likely had a profound effect on the abundance of macropods, as they went into competition for pasture and forage. European hunting of macropods for food, hides, dog food and sport would have taken a further toll. Thylacine bounties claimed (perhaps the best indicator of the size of the population) and the figures supplied by Mooney (above), being as we have seen in the same order of magnitude as the estimated Aboriginal population, indicate fairly strongly that the hunting thylacines and the hunting-gathering Tasmanians placed overlapping demands on the macropods as a food resource, were both heavily dependent upon that resource, and suffered parallel population declines with its decline as the tsunami of sheep and cattle surged in.

Map 7 is a natural colour Landsat photograph of Tasmania put together as a mosaic in 1999-01. (Refer to the caption downloaded with it for details.) The lighter shaded areas of the Midlands and coastal river valleys in the north and east of the island are the prime agricultural areas today, and for the same ecological reasons, the centres of greatest pre-1803 food concentration for macropods, and the thylacines and Aborigines which fed on them. King Island (top left) and the Furneaux Group (Flinders, Cape Barren and Clarke islands, top right) are also shown. Between 1832 and 1847 Flinders Island was a reserve where the Government kept Tasmanian Aboriginal  survivors of the ‘Black War’.


 “Caption: Land uses and human influences on the environment are evident in the image. The relatively dry pasture of the Midlands, shown as near white (indicating a high degree of light reflection), contrasts with the light green intensive cropping land uses on the north-west coast. On the west coast, the mining landscape of Queenstown is shown as a bright white area north of Macquarie Harbour. Fire on the west coast south of Macquarie Harbour has led to the loss of peatland soil and has exposed the underlying rock-shown as a brown and white swathe running in a north-south direction between Macquarie Harbour and the Southern Ocean. Forest coupes in various stages of harvesting and regeneration can be seen in the north-west, north-east and south-east (shown as small light patches within the darker green forested areas). The mosaic was assembled from images captured at different dates and seasons to assemble a cloud-free coverage: this is shown clearly in the relative greenness of pasture in the central north (base data from November 2000) compared with the north-west (base data from February 2000). Changes since the last report are noticeable particularly in the north-west with clearance of woody vegetation for pasture around Woolnorth and plantation development in the Gunns Limited plantations at Surrey Hills near Hampshire.” 

Source: AUSLIG, Australian Centre for Remote Sensing, mosaic prepared by School of Geography and Environmental Studies, University of Tasmania from base data dated 1999-01


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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

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