NOAH’S RAINBOW SERPENT – observations by Ian MacDougall

MacDougall’s Music

Posted in Uncategorized by Ian MacDougall on March 4, 2010

I am currently recording a new CD: Songs From the Shed. Those interested in my existing CDs can read more at my other WordPress site >>>

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Good Planets are Hard to Come By

Posted in Natural Science, Political Economy by Ian MacDougall on February 7, 2010



GUEST POST: Good Planets are Hard to Come By – Andrew Glikson

ANU Earth and paleoclimate scientist Andrew Glikson puts an extraordinary amount of effort, well above and beyond the call of duty, into keeping the rest of us informed on the science behind the global warming issue.

The Earth’s climate system is commonly likened to a supertanker, meaning that in order to avoid disaster later in the 21st Century, we have to start turning the wheel now. Unfortunately there is a political problem in this, because the short-term interests of many in politics and business demand all ahead full.  –IM



 As sea level rises the planet is drowning in an ocean of untruths

 Andrew Glikson

Earth and paleoclimate scientist, Australian National University

We’re simply talking about the very life support system of this planet.  (Joachim Schellnhuber, Director, Potsdam Climate Impacts Institute, advisor to the German government.)

The sleep of reason produces monsters (Francisco Goya)

While Earth is undergoing a sixth mass extinction in its history, dominated by oxidation of hundreds of billion tons of carbon derived from fossil ancient biospheres, with consequent shift in the state of the atmosphere-ocean-cryosphere system, the feeble efforts of civilization to mitigate the climate is drowning in medieval conspiracy theories aimed against climate scientists by vested interests and fundamentalist man-over-nature ideologues.

The release of more than 320 billion tons of carbon (GtC) from buried early biospheres, adding more than one half of the original carbon inventory of the atmosphere (~590 GtC) to the atmosphere-ocean system, has triggered a fundamental shift in the state of the atmosphere at a rate of 2 ppm CO2/year, a pace unprecedented in the geological record with the exception of the effects of CO2 released from craters excavated by large asteroid impacts.

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The Serpent’s Alphabetical Directory

Posted in Uncategorized by Ian MacDougall on November 26, 2009
Carbon Abatement Submission (Senate Inquiry) CondensedThough air temperatures whether local or worldwide, daily or annual average, may for various reasons not reflect it, the world is none the less clearly warming. It is now possible to fulfill Lord Franklin’s dream and sail the Northwest Passage over the top of Canada from the Atlantic to the Pacific, at least for one month or so in the Northern summer. Possibly within the next ten years ships will be able drop anchor in an essentially ice-free Arctic Ocean, right at the North Pole. That together with the satellite altimetry data on sea levels  testifies to the rapidity of global warming, and of the onset of the positive feedback loops that can only further accelerate it. The safest assumption we can make, in short, is that we face a planetary climate emergency, requiring urgent economic reforms on a comparable scale to those which took place in Australia after the declaration of war in 1939…


Kangaroos, Thylacines and Aborigines 1As 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…


Kangaroos, Thylacines and Aborigines 2 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…

 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…


Kangaroos, Thylacines and Aborigines 3The 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…


Kangaroos, Thylacines and Aborigines 4…Windschuttle’s Australia is one where the Aborigines went quietly to their fate as fringe dwellers of the country towns, and in marked contrast to their aboriginal counterparts in the Americas and New Zealand.

If there was no ‘warfare’ of whatever category involved in this transition, then the attendant and marked depopulation of the countryside and Aboriginal population decline can only be due to starvation and/or disease. Windschuttle won’t have starvation, but at the same time there are problems with the disease hypothesis that beg for a remedy, an explanation, or at the very least, a Band-Aid: which leaves warfare of some kind hanging around in the background.

And so we come to the elephant in the parlour of Aboriginal history…


Night Vision and BipedalismThis raises the intriguing possibility that before the discovery of fire and the invention of the thorn-fenced kraal, our distant African ancestors attained their relatively longer legs by wading, swimming and climbing for shelter at night up or down rocky cliffs, bluffs and outcrops, where long non-grasping legs provide no great disadvantage. For the climbing of trees, they do. Getting to where the predators cannot reach you makes poor night vision less of a disadvantage…


Plimer’s Climatology 101Plimer says that nothing humans do can affect the climate of the whole Earth, and that if it is warming, it is a good thing anyway.  Others disagree, and contend that climate change is occurring because of CO2 emissions. These latter were not put into the air for the purpose of warming the planet. Like the radioactive waste from the nuclear industry, they are a by product of another project entirely, to be justified after the fact…

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Plimer’s Climatology 102 At a point in the long distant past someone extracted what was found to be useful fuel from a coal outcrop, and the coal industry was born. Only since the work of Arrhenius in the late 19thC have questions arisen about the basing of the steel, power generation and other industries upon it. Established industry has understandably reacted to the IPCC reports and scientific concern about greenhouse gases with counter-argument and delaying tactics regarding the transition to alternatives. Ian Plimer’s book and his talk to the Sydney Mining Club talk are best seen in this context… 

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Plimer’s Climatology 103The total yearly biomass production of the organisms on Earth is on one estimate at around 170 billion tonnes (164 billion tons)  of which a third is oceanic and two thirds terrestrial: say 60 billion tonnes oceanic. Assuming this roughly to be 10% of the total oceanic biomass brings the total mass of all marine organisms to 600 billion tonnes, or 600 Gt. The potential total CO2 addition to the hydrosphere of 4210 Gt (assuming it all finishes up in the oceans) is thus about 7 times the total biomass in the oceans. That is indeed significant…

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Plimer’s Climatology 104…a two degree rise due to CO2 will produce a further two degree rise due to water vapour, making four degrees in all. The next domino to fall in this situation is the methane, locked up in arctic permafrost in Siberia and Northern Canada, and below the deep ocean floors as methane hydrates. In all those locations, it has built up from slow bacterial decomposition of organic matter. Methane is 45 times as powerful a greenhouse gas as CO2, to which it oxidizes in about a year after release to the air. The warming produced by this gas may in turn release the final nightmare gas, hydrogen sulfide. Plimer does not mention these potentially disastrous knock-on effects of methane and hydrogen sulfide…

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Plimer’s Climatology 105: Lord Franklin’s Dream Turned NightmarePope aside, there’s no need to ask which embodiments of human stupidity Plimer might have had in mind. He has spent the preceding 483 pages denouncing them: ‘activists’, ‘environmentalists’, Greenpeace… but above all, Sir Nicholas Stern, Michael Mann, James Hansen, Al Gore, Ross Garnaut; other practitioners of the alleged quackery and pseudoscience of climatology, the IPCC, the Royal Society, the signers of the Kyoto Accord… If the book’s index was any good I could look them all up.

But that is only half of the last sentence. I have an uneasy feeling that behind the rest of it lies the profound theological thought that there will be no runaway greenhouse or climate catastrophe, because God will not allow it.


Plimer’s Climatology 106: His Lordship’s ListAt the end of his book, Ian Plimer hands over the keyboard to his lordship to deal with the question ‘What if I am wrong?’ In Plimer’s view Monckton (previously an economic adviser to Margaret Thatcher) had already dealt with it splendidly in a speech to the Local Government Association at Bournemouth, on 3 July 2008. So Plimer reproduces the speech in its entirety (with his lordship’s permission) on pages 489-493 of Heaven+Earth. We can take as noted the usual ‘ITS?’ (is that so?) in the margin against each one of the following points as they occur, and as well a ‘WIIFY?’ –  an abbreviated form of ‘what’s in it for you?’


Are Denialists in Denial?

Posted in Natural Science, Political Economy by Ian MacDougall on November 19, 2009

                                                                                                                                                                                      November 19, 2009

It is clear from these various facts, therefore, that a warmer planet than today’s is far from unusual. It is also clear that climate changes naturally all the time. The idea that is implicit in much public discussion of the global warming issue – that climate was stable (or constant) prior to the industrial revolution, after which human emissions have rendered it unstable – is simply fanciful. Change is what climate does.

Bob Carter, ‘Knock, Knock: Where is the Evidence for Dangerous Human-Caused Global Warming?’

The reader will recall that Faust, in Goethe’s play of the same name, was offered a deal by the Devil: a life of every pleasure imaginable in return for his soul. The deal was accepted, and became the classic a metaphor for shortsightedness; and subsequently the basis of one of the funniest films ever made: Bedazzled, featuring Peter Cook and Dudley Moore.

I try to avoid shortsightedness, but three times in my life I have found myself in the related condition of extreme denial: the result in each case of receiving serious bad news affecting me personally. Confronted with an elephant in the parlour, in the shape of an elephantine tragedy, one looks around it, over the top of it, and anywhere but at it. On each occasion, I started looking for whatever scant threads there were of hope. My conclusion from these experiences is that living in denial and hope is about the most futile state of existence there is, but we do it on occasions because at the time there appears to be no better alternative. Added in is the fact that acceptance of an apparently dismal reality can also become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So hope, furious, fervent and all too often futile, springs eternal.

Are those like Bob Carter, who deny that there is anthropogenic global warming (AGW) going on in this state of being in denial? (Read all you might want of their reasoning at Quadrant Online.)

Up to a point, we believe what we want to believe. This applies particularly to ideas which are in themselves beyond the scope of rationality and science, such as the propositions of the major religions; though devotees seeking consolation and grounds for hope in them also deny that this is the case.

I stumbled upon this issue thanks to the ABC Four Corners program Malcolm and the Malcontents,  put to air in Australia on Monday November 9, 2009. That dealt with the battle within the Liberal-National Coalition between AGW denialists and those who take a more alarmist and at the same time, truly conservative approach. It is tearing the Coalition apart and so ruining its electoral prospects. Their problem: how to deal with the Rudd Government’s policy on climate change. Then I happened to read George Monbiot’s Why the sudden surge in climate change denial? Could it be about something else altogether? published in the Guardian on November 2. It begins on the pessimistic note

There is no point in denying it: we’re losing. Climate change denial is spreading like a contagious disease. It exists in a sphere which cannot be reached by evidence or reasoned argument; any attempt to draw attention to scientific findings is greeted with furious invective. This sphere is expanding with astonishing speed.

Be that as it may.

Denialists are divided on what they deny. Most in my reading experience assert that the Earth is cooling, not warming, but add that whatever it is doing, humans cannot possibly be responsible. So if there must be GW, they want no A associated with it. But while I and many of my alarmist co-thinkers would be only too happy if they turned out to be right, we are not prepared to stake the lives of our children and grandchildren on it. By advocating a do-nothing policy with respect to CO2 emissions, the denialists finish up doing just that. This inevitably involves a dismissal or explaining away of evidence to the contrary. So they:

  1. look for flaws in the evidence on which AGW alarmism is based; and when I say ‘the evidence’ I mean all  the evidence. None of it can be allowed to pass;
  2. have to assert that any global warming detected post 1750 is purely natural, and part of a solar or other cycle or phenomenon.
  3. erect a straw man, then proceed to knock it down. (See the quote above from the prominent denialist Bob Carter. Does he seriously assert that the people raising the loudest alarm in the ‘public discussion’ – ie the bulk of the world’s climatologists – believe that the global climate only began to change after 1750 AD?)
  4. deny any useful role for computer models of climate;
  5. dismiss alarmist scientists for allegedly having venal motives, and being unable to see beyond their next  research grant. Given the extraordinary weight of scientific opinion now standing against the denialist case, this amounts to a full-blown conspiracy theory.
  6. dismiss any suggestion that they could have such motives themselves, or be influenced by any connections of individuals in their ranks to the fossil fuel industry;
  7. dismiss the Precautionary Principle or any sort of approach based on it as ill-advised;
  8. deny even the remotest possibility of runaway greenhouse establishing;
  9. assert (with Senator Nick Minchin et al) that AGW alarmism arises from the extreme left of politics; left causeless at the end of the Cold War;
  10. deny that anything humans do either way can possibly have any significant effect on the world’s climate;
  11. welcome the prospect a warmer Earth, arguing that our species only really got going in the last 10,000 years, after the retreat of the Pleistocene glaciers;
  12. assert that apart from its allegedly negligible greenhouse effect, carbon dioxide can have no significant effect on life in the oceans when it dissolves in water to form carbonic acid.
  13. admit of no possibility of their being wrong;
  14. nor admit of any serious consequence if they are wrong, particularly if their do-nothing approach has meanwhile become state policy.

Accordingly, every bit of data on which the alarmist case is based must in turn be challenged, leading the denialists to argue that:

  1. the last 100 years of thermometer-based surface temperature data is unreliable, thanks largely to the ‘urban heat island effect’ by which urban recording stations are influenced by waste heat from industry and automobiles, and the solar radiation absorbed and re-emitted by buildings and roads.
  2. at the same time, what little reliable data there is indicates that the Earth is cooling;
  3. as the ‘greenhouse effect’ of atmospheric CO2 diminishes logarithmically, from here on added CO2 will have minimal effect anyway (say perhaps raise average temperature by 0.1 degree Celsius.)
  4. the Precautionary Principle would actually have us keep on with business as usual, for by that principle, CO2 and other emissions must be assumed innocent until proven guilty.
  5. the complexity of the global weather system, and the difficulties implicit in attempts to isolate the effect of any one component (eg anthropogenic CO2 vs ‘natural’ CO2) are a point in favour of their do-nothing case.

Their use of such arguments, and their tendency to close association with the political Right, have not deterred major world scientific organizations and many governments from urging strong action at the forthcoming Copenhagen summit. One such is the Letter from the American Association for the Advancement of Science to the US Senate (link) which says to each US senator:

As you consider climate change legislation, we, as leaders of scientific organizations, write to state the consensus scientific view. Observations throughout the world make it clear that climate change is occurring, and rigorous scientific research demonstrates that the greenhouse gases emitted by human activities are the primary driver. These conclusions are based on multiple independent lines of evidence, and contrary assertions are inconsistent with an objective assessment of the vast body of peer-reviewed science. Moreover, there is strong evidence that ongoing climate change will have broad impacts on society, including the global economy and on the environment. For the United States, climate change impacts include sea level rise for coastal states, greater threats of extreme weather events, and increased risk of regional water scarcity, urban heat waves, western wildfires, and the disturbance of biological systems throughout the country. The severity of climate change impacts is expected to increase substantially in the coming decades. If we are to avoid the most severe impacts of climate change, emissions of greenhouse gases must be dramatically reduced…

As well as being sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Letter is endorsed by the American Chemical Society, the American Geophysical Union, the American Meteorological Society, the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics and 14 other scientific organisations. Whatever its advocates elsewhere may claim, denialism has not exactly won the day in the scientific community.

All of the above denialist wisdom will be found in the paper already referred to; by leading denialist Bob Carter, a climatologist and Adjunct Research Professor James Cook University, Townsville.


Independent scientists who have considered the matter carefully do not deny that human

activities can have an effect on local climate, nor that the sum of such local effects represents a hypothetical global signal. The key questions to be answered, however, are, first, can any human global signal be measured, and, second, if so does it represent, or is it likely to become, dangerous change outside of the range of natural variability?

The answer to these questions is that no human global climate signal has yet been measured, and it is therefore likely that any such signal lies embedded within the variability of the natural climate system. Meanwhile, global temperature change is occurring, as it always naturally does, and a phase of cooling has succeeded the mild late 20th century warming. (Carter 2008, 190)


That human-caused climate change will prove dangerous is under strong dispute

amongst equally well qualified scientific groups. The null hypothesis, which is yet

to be contradicted, is that observed changes in climate or climate-related phenomena

are natural unless and until it can be shown otherwise. (Carter 2008, 193)

If made the captain of the SS Null Hypothesis, a liner sailing on its maiden voyage in the North Atlantic, Carter would order full speed ahead until it could be proven beyond reasonable doubt that the ship was about to collide with an iceberg. .As I have argued in the ‘Plimer’s Climatology’ series on this site, the most compelling evidence that the planet is presently warming is to be found in the:

  1. worldwide retreat of glaciers and the loss of summer sea ice in the Arctic, and
  2. satellite altimetry data that shows a consistent global sea level rise of 3 mm per year ever since readings began in 1992.

Both the above features are of geographic scale, and screen out the ‘noise’ of the ‘urban heat island effect’ and with it all the other strands of denialist argument. It may of course be the case that (say) so far undetected solar flux or bursts of heart coming up from the Earth’s interior are responsible for the ice loss and ocean level rise. It may be a mere coincidence that the rise from 270 ppm pre-industrial 383 ppm in 2009 is happening at the same time as a completely unconnected process of global ice loss and sea level rise. But I’m not betting the farm on it.

But interestingly, Carter and the other denialists never say what would constitute the unambiguous evidence of AGW that they proclaim does not exist. One is forced to the conclusion that in their view it cannot exist; that there is no way the signal of anthropogenic CO2 induced warming can be separated from natural background climate change, and that for them, by its own inherent nature it is both theoretically impossible and practically unknowable. Thus for them, if humanity was heading into self-inflicted climate catastrophe it would be doing so completely, inevitably and incurably blind. Nobody on the Titanic could have an inkling of the looming disaster. Whether conscious of it or not, as passengers on this planetary ship, the denialists seem not the slightest bit concerned at this possibility, which is implicit in their own thoughts on the matter.

One of the leading denialist Ian Plimer’s most enthusiastic supporters is Cardinal George Pell of Sydney.  On 24 May 2009, Pell had a column in the Sydney Daily Telegraph supporting Plimer’s position on AGW. A critical response from Michael Mullins, editor of the Catholic journal Eureka Street testifies that Catholics are not united behind him on the issue. However, Ian Plimer saw fit to include a significant theological aside on page 493 of his purportedly scientific book Heaven and Earth.

Human stupidity is only exceeded by God’s mercy, which is infinite.

In the context, the ‘stupidity’ referred to is what Plimer has spent his preceding 492 pages attacking: the proposition advanced by climatologists and other scientists that the Earth is being unduly warmed by human activities. This leaves the reader open to the conclusion that for Plimer, God is the ultimate thermostat. Of the Earth. There will be no climate catastrophe, because He will not allow it.

Well, it has this going for it: it is the most powerful and convincing argument in Plimer’s whole book, and the safest refuge for the denialist.

Without the atmosphere, the surface of the Earth would not be its present average temperature of 14 °C (57 °F), but as low as −18 °C (−0.4 °F).  In order of abundance, the main greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are (with their contributions to the greenhouse effect in [square brackets] ):

  1. water vapour (H2O)                   [36–70%]
  2. carbon dioxide (CO2)                [9–26%]
  3. methane (CH4)                          [4–9%]
  4. nitrous oxide (N2O)                   [neg]
  5. ozone (O3)                                 [3–7%]
  6. chlorofluorocarbons (‘CFCs’)     [neg]

All except the CFCs are products of natural chemistry, and have been generated in and by the atmosphere and ecosystems of the Earth since life began. All are likewise generated by human activities like the burning of fuels and the pasturing of ruminant animals such as sheep and cattle. The effect of the ‘natural’ as distinct from the anthropogenic CO2, N2O and CH4 can only be surmised from the known properties of each compound and the calculated concentrations of each in the air. If however, a significant percentage of the air was (say) chloroform (CHCl3), we could say that that any particular greenhouse effect due to that was 100% anthropogenic, because chloroform does not occur in nature.

However, that is a card we have not dealt to ourselves.

At this stage it would appear that there is no way the Earth can avoid a two degree rise in average temperature this century. That is an order locked in, thanks to the carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that have been added to the atmosphere since around 1750. But a global average of two degrees involves a much higher rise of temperature in the high latitudes, threatening significant releases of methane from the Arctic permafrost and ocean floor deposits, which would in turn drive the temperatures still higher. While climatologists say that global warming involves an increase in the number of extreme weather events, it would be simplistic to attribute, say, a run of hot days in Adelaide in November 2009 to global warming alone, or to say that it even provides evidence of it. The global weather system is like a supertanker. Its momentum when underway is so huge and the time it takes to respond to alterations to engine speed and rudder settings so long that collision and running aground can only be avoided if anticipated well in advance of their happening. As all-too-often happens in shipping, those on the bridge are condemned to watching disaster steadily loom, knowing that the opportunity for taking evasive action is well past and gone. Vide the Exxon Valdez.

This year the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS) changed the start date of the Pleistocene from 1.8 to 2.588 million years BP. In the last 650 000 years, the Earth has experienced seven major cycles of glacial advance and retreat, as seen on the  graph at the following  source,  [and my apologies for not being able to cut and paste it ditrectly.]

 We are now approximately in the warmest phase of the 7th cycle to occur in the last 650,000 years. It will be seen that corresponding warm periods in interglacials occurred at 130 000, 225 000, 325 000, 400 000, 475 000 and 580 000 BP.

It will be seen also from the above cited graph that the glacial-interglacial cycle has not been regular. In the last half million years or so, the glacials have been getting steadily longer and the interglacials shorter, as if the Earth was shaping up to plunge into a freeze-lock. If it were to do so, it might take a considerable time emerging on the other side and warming up again.

We are at a strange conjunction in the history of the Earth, with icecaps at both poles and the two American continents forming a north-south barrier to oceanic circulation that extends almost from pole to pole. It is pretty safe to assume that without the icecaps there would be no great mass of methane trapped in the permafrosts of Siberia and northern Canada, and thus considerably reduced possibility of runaway greenhouse establishing.

Since the start of the Cambrian 542 million years ago, the mean temperature of the Earth has kept between the lower and upper limits of 10 and 25 degrees Celsius; except for two brief periods in the late Permian (at 251 million years BP) and the end of the Paleocene (at 55.5-54.8 million years BP) when it went as high as 27 degrees Celsius.

Both of those periods have distinct names: the Permian-Triassic Extinction Event, and the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum. Both involved massive reduction of life, and should be taken very seriously by those who would avoid another one in the very, very, very near future of geological time.

As the old proverb has it, there are none so blind as those who will not see. Elvis may have left the building, but the elephant is still here.

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)







November 29 and the Birth of Australian Democracy

Posted in History by Ian MacDougall on January 26, 2009


Ballarat and Choc Adelaide pictures 029

Bakery Hill, Ballarat today, with the Eureka flag flying near the spot where it was first raised. But for this initiative by the Ballarat City Council, there would just be the McDonald’s. Photo by the author.

On Thursday the 29th of November, 1854, near the Eureka lead of the Ballarat goldfield, a crowd of about 12,000 miners held a meeting, which they concluded with an extraordinary ceremony. The only eyewitness account is the one provided by the linguist turned miner Raffaello Carboni, who wrote it down in English, which was not his first language:

On that Thursday, November 30th, more memorable than the disgraced Sunday, December 3rd, the SUN was on its way towards the west: in vain some scattered clouds would hamper its splendour–the god in the firmament generously ornamented them with golden fringes, and thus patches of blue sky far off were allowed to the sight, through the gilded openings among the clouds. The ‘SOUTHERN CROSS’ was hoisted up the flagstaff–a very splendid pole, eighty feet in length, and straight as an arrow. This maiden appearance of our standard, in the midst of armed men, sturdy, self-overworking gold-diggers of all languages and colours, was a fascinating object to behold. There is no flag in old Europe half so beautiful as the ‘Southern Cross’ of the Ballaarat miners, first hoisted on the old spot, Bakery-hill. The flag is silk, blue ground, with a large silver cross, similar to the one in our southern firmament; no device or arms, but all exceedingly chaste and natural. Captain Ross, of Toronto, was the bridegroom of our flag, and sword in hand, he had posted himself at the foot of the flag-staff, surrounded by his rifle division. Peter Lalor, our Commander-in-chief, was on the stump, holding with his left hand the muzzle of his rifle, whose butt-end rested on his foot. A gesture of his right hand, signified what he meant when he said, “It is my duty now to swear you in, and to take with you the oath to be faithful to the Southern Cross. Hear me with attention. The man who, after this solemn oath does not stand by our standard, is a coward in heart. “I order all persons who do not intend to take the oath, to leave the meeting at once. “Let all divisions under arms ‘fall in’ in their order round the flag-staff.” The movement was made accordingly. Some five hundred armed diggers advanced in real sober earnestness, the captains of each division making the military salute to Lalor, who now knelt down, the head uncovered, and with the right hand pointing to the standard exclaimed a firm measured tone: “WE SWEAR BY THE SOUTHERN CROSS TO STAND TRULY BY EACH OTHER, AND FIGHT TO DEFEND OUR RIGHTS AND LIBERTIES.” An universal well rounded AMEN, was the determined reply; some five hundred right hands stretched towards our flag. The earnestness of so many faces of all kinds of shape and colour; the motley heads of all sorts of size and hair; the shagginess of so many beards of all lengths and thicknesses; the vividness of double the number of eyes electrified by the magnetism of the southern cross; was one of those grand sights, such as are recorded only in the history of ‘the Crusaders in Palestine.’

The history of The Crusaders in Palestine is as it may be. And somewhere in Australian literature, or the world’s for that matter, there might be a more moving account by a witness to a significant historical event. But I have yet to read it. The flag that fascinated Carboni and electrified all (except presumably the government spies among the diggers – it probably horrified them) was not the emblem of some state power over which the diggers had no electoral influence. That is, it was not the sort of flag they were used to. It was their flag. There were at least 25,000 miners on the whole Ballarat field at the time. The 500 who swore the oath were the armed contingent. They had mainly pistols, but their number included American mounted riflemen. Many also had pikes that had been made on the field. Carboni was an Italian. The 27-year old designer of the flag, ‘Captain’ Henry Ross, was a Canadian. Peter Lalor, the militant who took charge after the embarrassing failure of the Chartists’ moderate approach, was an Irishman (as were the majority of the diggers). The issues of the Eureka rebellion were straightforward, and it is not my purpose here to give a detailed account. (That has been done very well elsewhere, by John Molony and others: see the notes and links below.) All miners’ claims were subject to an onerous licence fee of 30 shillings a month for a 3.6 square metre claim – a hellish expense, particularly since it was payable whether gold was discovered or not. Storekeepers on the field likewise had to buy equally expensive licences. By contrast, the wealthy squatters who owned the colonial legislature paid little. (One miner pointed out to the government that the licence fee that he had paid would buy him the right to twenty square miles of land.) Every miner had to be able to produce his licence on demand at any time to any patrolling trooper who asked for it. A satirical contemporary song opened with the lines:

The morning was fine, the sun brightly did shine, The birdies were tweeting away, When the Inspector of Traps said: “Now my fine chaps, We’ll go licence hunting today.”

And so on in that vein. The money collected from those working on the goldfields in whatever capacity was revenue for the new colony of Victoria, split off from New South Wales in 1851. The main expense of the Victorian government was the maintenance of its army, needed in government perception to keep order on the goldfields. Licences in other words were sold to fund, at least in great part, the cost of troopers doing the licence hunts. State power was its own justification. The miners were well aware of this, and also that that the ordinary man only had two choices: either pay the fee and hope to strike it lucky down the hole, or resign himself to wage slavery in one of the jobs abandoned by those who had joined the rush. The Governor of Victoria, Charles Hotham, was born in Suffolk in 1806. He had joined the Royal Navy as a twelve-year old boy, and had gone on to become an officer of some distinction and a diplomat. His Resident Gold Commissioner, Robert Rede, who was responsible for the maintenance of law and order on the fields, also originated in Suffolk as the scion of local gentry. (To the manor born, as it were.) His father was a naval officer, and such connections were influential. He had spent his youth travelling in Europe and studying medicine, which he had abandoned to join the gold rush, working downwards in a hole as a digger for a period before joining the Gold Commission and working his way upwards in that. The Eureka rebellion showed clearly that both men had reached their level of incompetence, though admittedly they were called upon to handle an extraordinary situation. Hotham died in 1855 at the age of 49, but despite Eureka, Rede went on to advancement first in the constabulary and then in the military, and by 1878 was second-in-command in the colony. Diggers had come to the Australian goldfields from Europe, America and China, each hoping to make a fortune, or at least, enough to justify the arduous journey. The ‘self-overworking’ diggers knew all about the other kind of overworking. There could be famine in Ireland, China could be reeling under the impact of the Opium Wars and foreign penetration, the English political system could be languishing in corruption, the hopes of the European revolutionaries of 1848 could be dashed. But anyone with enough cash could take passage to the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand or South Africa and leave all that behind. The contemporary popular songwriter Charles ‘The Inimitable’ Thatcher put the following words into the mouth of a digger returned to London and spent out of gold:

Here purse-proud lords the poor oppress, But there it is not so. Give me the sound of the windlasses, And the cry: “Look out below!”

Earlier, on Saturday, the 11th of November 1854, a crowd of over 10,000 miners had gathered at Bakery Hill, and had formed themselves into a new organisation, which they called the Ballaarat Reform League (the spelling of the town’s name then in use). With the Chartist John Humffray chairing the meeting, they passed a resolution declaring that it was “the inalienable right of every citizen to have a voice in making the laws he is called on to obey, that taxation without representation is tyranny.” The meeting also resolved to secede from the United Kingdom if the situation did not improve. The miners’ demands of Governor Hotham were almost identical with those the Chartists had placed before the parliament in London: Manhood suffrage; abolition of property qualification for MPs and electors; payment of MPs; secret ballots; short term parliaments, and equal electoral districts (‘one vote, one value’). There were three additional demands specific to the goldfields: abolition of diggers and storekeepers licenses; reform of goldfields administration, and revision of laws relating to Crown Land, to make it more accessible to those of modest means. There were other issues, including the little matter of a prior dispute between a miner, James Scobie and the proprietor of the Eureka Hotel, James Bentley. Bentley had killed Scobie in a fight, was brought to trial, and acquitted. The response of the miners was a riot (on October 19th) during which Bentley’s hotel got burned to the ground. Nine diggers were arrested and put on trial for this, causing further outrage among the miners given vent to at a number of mass meetings. They demanded that those accused be immediately released. In the face the inherent challenge to his authority in this, Commissioner Rede abandoned what sympathy he had previously had for the miners, and responded with increased determination to “teach the diggers a lesson”. Political power, as exercised in 19th Century Victoria, was fast becoming what it had been for the previous century or so in Britain: ‘oligarchy tempered by riot’. A delegation of miners conveyed the Chartist demands to Hotham in Melbourne. His response was to refuse them all, and instead to offer one seat in the legislature to a goldfields representative. When the diggers back on the field were told of this they were outraged, and so began the train of events leading to the Eureka massacre. 88 years before, in 1776, “no taxation without representation” had been the cry of the American revolutionaries. But the concept had a much deeper history. The English nobility were given a written commitment to it by King John in 1215, in the document known as Magna Carta: “No scutage or aid may be levied in our kingdom without its general consent, unless it is for the ransom of our person, to make our eldest son a knight, and (once) to marry our eldest daughter. For these purposes only a reasonable aid may be levied. Aids from the city of London are to be treated similarly.” (‘Scutage’ was cash commutation of obligation to military service, and ‘aid’ was special exaction in times of emergency.) Once absolute power was denied the monarch, a further constitutional issue was automatically created: if a parliamentary approval was required before the king could spend any scutage or aid, who was to be represented in the parliament, and how? Should there be equal representation of all, or representation only of the most privileged? In 1215, the question was about as substantial in the minds of the barons as the Law of Gravitation. But it was there none the less, hovering in the background beyond their consciousness, getting ready to assert itself again and again down the course of parliamentary history. The scutage and aid paid by the barons to the king had its ultimate source in the people, whose descendants would incline to increasing claims to a role in deciding how it was to be spent. The history of the Parliaments of both Britain and Australia is thus of a long, drawn out battle in which decision making power is slowly and reluctantly yielded by the most privileged to the greater mass of the citizenry. The colonial legislatures of Australia began as bodies appointed by the governors, who were in turn appointed by the (unreformed) British Parliament. In 1850, the Australian Constitutions Act gave the legislatures part-election, and the power to make their own constitutions. Members were subject to property qualification, as were the voters who elected them. Chartism had begun in Britain in 1838, inspired by perceived deficiencies in Sir Robert Peel’s parliamentary Reform Act of 1832. The Chartists’ method was to collect signatures in huge numbers on petitions for reform, and to present these to Parliament, which they did in 1839, 1842 and 1848, claiming in 1842 to have collected over 3 million signatures. The MPs and Lords, however impressed, remained unmoved. So emigration out of Britain became one attractive option for disappointed Chartists. Return was not so appealing for disappointed diggers. There had been a clash on November 28th between armed diggers and army reinforcements on their way to the field from Melbourne. Back at Ballarat, the diggers were expecting trouble, and had erected an improvised stockade at Sovereign Hill, about 2 km away from Bakery Hill. Early on the morning of the following Sunday, a day that has lived ever since in infamy, a whole regiment of redcoats attacked the stockade when most of its would-be defenders, as faithful Irish Catholics, were in church. The Empire of Japan used the same tactic 87 years later at Pearl Harbour. The stockade fell in about 15 minutes, and the day is commemorated as Eureka Day, December 3rd. It is not celebrated, even by modern conservatives, as the triumph of law and order over an unruly mob in the course of defending all that is right and proper. Like Anzac Day, it commemorates a defeat in a battle for a cause agreed by all but a small minority to have been a just one. It is also rather interesting to ponder what a different course Australian history might have taken had the armed miners not been quite so naïve, and less trusting in the honour of the redcoats. After the stockade fell, redcoats and police carried out what has been described as an indiscriminate massacre, mutilating bodies and looting nearby stores. The subsequent Commission of Inquiry found that it was “a needless as well as a ruthless sacrifice of human life indiscriminate of innocent or guilty, and after all resistance had disappeared.” As at Culloden in 1746, many of the wounded lying on the field around the stockade were bayoneted to death by the victorious troopers. The flag was torn down, and troopers cut bits off for souvenirs of the day. Ross died at the foot of the flagpole. One trooper however, recognised the flag’s significance and kept the major part of it. His family eventually donated it to the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery, where it is kept to this day, in a small wing all of its own; dimly lit to preserve its colour: a most appropriate shrine for this relic of the birth of Australian democracy. (Ironically, the art gallery is on the site used for the troopers’ camp.) Digger casualties were 22 dead and 12 injured. 114 diggers were taken prisoner. The troopers lost 6 killed. But for Hotham it was a Pyrrhic victory and a public relations disaster. Massive protest meetings occurred in Melbourne when news reached the city, and within 6 months the government had conceded the diggers’ main demands. The expensive licenses were abolished, and replaced with Miners’ Rights costing a mere 20 shillings per year, rather than 30 shillings a month. With the Miner’s Right came also the right to vote. The activities of the Gold Commission were terminated, the ‘licence hunts’ stopped, and the diggers were given their own local governments and courts. All the Victorian fields together sent eight MPs to the Legislative Council. Writing in 1942 about Eureka, the eminent jurist, first Secretary-General of the UN, and federal ALP Leader Dr H.V. (‘Bert’) Evatt called it “the birth of Australian democracy.” Whatever else may be said of Evatt, he was not wrong there. An analogous place to Sovereign Hill, is perhaps Gallipoli. To find a counterpart of Bakery Hill we must go to Boston Harbour, where the first insurrectionary act of the Independence War occurred, or to Concord, Massachusetts, where on April 19th, 1775, there occurred the first armed clash: between those who wanted no taxation without representation and the redcoats fighting for the diametric opposite. Or perhaps to Independence Hall in Philadelphia, where the Declaration of Independence was signed by the delegates to the Second Continental Congress on July 4th, 1776. In its own way, that American shrine represents the response of the original 13 colonies to over-enthusiastic British taxation combined with hopelessly inadequate representation. Exactly what the Ballarat diggers were in revolt over. A close analogue to the Eureka Flag is the ‘Goddess of Democracy’, the styrofoam and papier mache statue erected on May 30, 1989 in Tienanmen Square, Beijing and destroyed by the inaptly named Chinese People’s Liberation Army on June 4 that year, amid massive bloodshed. The Tienanmen Square Protests had been organised by a movement consisting of many groups: people who went from protesting against corruption to calling for freedom of the press and an end to the Chinese Communist Party’s monopoly of power. In its own 20th Century Chinese way, and on a much larger scale, it was Eureka all over again. Bakery Hill today has a splendid flag pole on a site close by the spot where the original Eureka flag, now in the art gallery a couple of kilometres away, was first raised and flown. The original site is now a McDonald’s, right next to a busy intersection and roundabout. Perhaps this is appropriate in its own way, as a monument to political indifference: specifically, of the attitude shown by successive Victorian and Federal governments to the birth of Australian democracy. It also serves as a reminder of the difference between democracy and parliamentarism, and how the people who put themselves forward for democratic election all too often themselves turn out to be less than enthusiastic for democracy, if not overtly antidemocratic. Perhaps therefore it is also the best monument to the heroic Eureka miners who raised that brilliant banner on November 29, 1854. Two years ago the editor of the Age Review, Ray Cassin, wrote: “… the danger in the revival of interest in Eureka, for a politician of John Howard’s conservative stripe, is that it just might result in renewed demands for thoroughgoing change in the way we are governed. Such change – bottom-up politics, if you like – would be founded on the assertion in the diggers’ charter that the people are ‘the only legitimate source of all political power’”. Cassin in that article also remarked that the Australian constitution is atypical in that it contains no reference to the people as the ultimate power. This is probably due to its origin as an Act of the British parliament, and the fact that Britain has no written constitution at all; just a collection of traditions, conventions, and inertial institutions like the House of Lords. By way of contrast, the US Constitution begins with the statement: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” The struggle for democracy is ongoing. In the parliaments, alongside many fine and dedicated representatives, we have far too many careerist twerps, rorters, urgers, and old-fashioned honest-to-goodness bludgers. More importantly, politics is the art of what someone like Paul Keating or John Howard can get away with. As the old anarchist slogan puts it so well: no matter who you vote for, a politician always wins. In my opinion, the next stage of democracy involves increased frequency of referenda, which modern electronic data transmission makes possible as never before, with elected representatives becoming more like executives, and less like members of a company board. Just one example will suffice for now: how ‘representative’ will the representatives be when they exercise the ‘conscience votes’ coming up over stem cell research? Or will they just highlight the inadequacy of representative government vis a vis direct democracy in such decision making? Yet asking the parliaments to support the idea that such issues should be decided by referendum is like the parliament of Cromwell’s day asking King Charles I to reduce his own power. For my own part, I am indifferent to republicanism, but am with Rafaello Carboni in regarding the day the flag was first raised as being more important than the day it was torn down by that mob of bloodthirsty and ignorant troopers. So I do not celebrate Eureka Day. Rather, I honour November 29th, which I choose to call, in the absence of any generally recognised name, Bakery Hill Day. On that day, wherever I am, I raise and fly the Eureka Flag, and leave it flying until the morning of December 3rd. (The flagpole is inevitably, the radio aerial of our car.) Though various Australian groupuscules of fascists have attempted to hijack it, that flag continues to serve as a reminder of the real origins of our democracy, of the historic sacrifices others have made seeking it, and that the ongoing democratic project is not finished. In vexillological terms, the existing Australian National Flag is described as a ‘defaced British blue ensign’. That is, a ‘defaced’ State Ensign of the United Kingdom. But despite that, it has a history and legitimacy of its own in the eyes of the mass of the population. The Eureka Flag is a bit too controversial to replace it, short of quite extraordinary circumstances arising in future. But that is hardly the point. The Southern Cross was the emblem raised in the boldest and most effective democratic initiative ever taken in Australian history. That to my mind is a good enough reason to fly it perpetually in Ballarat, and to raise it on November 29th every year all over the land. Naturally, I commend the practice to others of like mind.

A postscript:

Some time ago I visited the park in Budapest containing the remainder of the ‘socialist realist’ statues put up in the time of the Soviet puppet regime. Only a few have been saved, as the bronze was deemed to be of greater value than the art. But maybe one day somewhere a Liberty Park will be set up, featuring replicas of the icons of the great struggles against oppression. Were I put in charge of such a project, I would include the original symbol of Christianity (a stylised fish: the cross only came to prominence about 250 years after the Crucifixion); a copy of Martin Luther’s 95 theses nailed to a replica of the front door of Wittenburg Cathedral; the tricolour flag, first flown the day the Bastille fell in Paris, July 14, 1789; the original star-spangled banner; the Eureka flag; the red flag of the workers’ movements (trade union, socialist and communist); the black flag of the anarchists; those flags raised in the Russian (perhaps), Chinese, Vietnamese and Cuban revolutions, and the Chinese Goddess of Liberty. Background music would include the three magnificent revolutionary anthems: Luther’s A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, The Marseillaise, The Internationale, and the haunting songs of the Spanish Civil War. I would also somehow include the (originally radical) Apostle’s Creed. Before exiting the park, visitors would be reminded that most of the icons and symbols they had seen had become in their turn symbols of oppression. Those few which never suffered such transformation include the Goddess of Liberty and the Southern Cross of the Eureka miners. Such is history.


Carboni, Raffaello Cassin, Ray, The Eureka Project is Unfinished Chartism Christian symbolism Concord, Massachussets memorial to first battle of Independence War Ensign, British blue, defaced Eureka Stockade (Wikipedia) Goddess of Democracy Hotham, Sir Charles; ability at both offending his opponents and discouraging his supporters Independence Hall, Philadelphia Molony, John, Eureka Rede, Robert Tiananmen protests of 1989 Tricolour

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