Mark Hearn: Australian Historians Duel Over Nation's Identity

Roundup: Talking About History

IN the 1990s, Australian history was preoccupied with defining the nation's past. In 1993, historian Geoffrey Blainey lamented the predominating influence of a "black armband" interpretation that assailed a previously optimistic tone. Australian historians had once patriotically given three cheers to a story of progress. Manning Clark "had done much to spread the gloomy view", he said.

Blainey revealed himself as a pessimistic conservative, observing Australia's once impressive economic achievements and vibrant democracy threatened by a poor work ethic and a low sense of individual responsibility in a rights-mad society.

Since the '60s, Blainey had led the cheer squad with impressive surveys and analysis of successful Australian enterprise conquering "the tyranny of distance" and charting the relentless expansion of the mining industry. Despite The Triumph of the Nomads, which praised Aborigines for exhibiting a kind of European skill in mastering the land, Blainey's work was a tale of white liberal progress, particularly celebrating the achievements won in rural towns and on the land.

In 1982 The Blainey View, a nationally broadcast television series, popularised his interpretation. Two years later Blainey's cheering turned to dark prophecy. In a speech, appropriately in the Victorian town of Warrnambool, Blainey warned that Australian culture was threatened by a rising tide of Asian immigration. Blainey's revival of the old fears of White Australia stirred great controversy and his work faced the full reaction of a revisionist scholarship that at times belligerently challenged his methodology, values and conclusions.
Blainey has been rivalled only by Keith Windschuttle in making the most decisive impact by a historian on the national narrative since Manning Clark and Henry Reynolds. Windschuttle published The Fabrication of Australian History (2002) to challenge the claims about the extent of frontier violence against Aborigines made by Reynolds and other historians.

Windschuttle accuses a politicised academic historiography of misleading the public with an account of "wilful genocide resembling the kind the Nazis perpetuated against the Jews". Analysing the conflicts between white and black Australians in Tasmania between 1803 and 1847, Windschuttle finds that few Aborigines were killed in direct violence with whites. He also disputes Reynolds's claim of 20,000 Aborigines killed in frontier violence across Australia.

Windschuttle argues that he simply seeks to identify the true facts of Australia's frontier history, freed from undue political bias. Many historians reject Windschuttle's arguments. Reynolds has responded with a searching critique of his methodology and aims. Reynolds argues that, ignoring key evidence, Windschuttle presents Aborigines with no concept of patriotism or of possessing land; they were criminals engaging in murder and theft, thus provoking a backlash from white settlers.

Windschuttle's historical interpretation clears the way, Reynolds suggests, for a highly politicised and sustained assault on the aims of "contemporary indigenous politics: land rights, self-determination, reparation, even the need for a prime ministerial apology".

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