How Keith Windschuttle Is Using Numbers to Obscure the Suffering of Australia's Aborigines

Roundup: Talking About History

Kevin Meade, in the Australian (Sept. 9, 2004):

A PROMINENT Queensland archeologist entered the "history wars" debate yesterday, accusing controversial historian Keith Windschuttle of using statistics to hide the suffering of Aborigines in colonial Australia.

The principal archeologist with the Queensland Department of Natural Resources, Mines and Energy, Mike Rowland, said Mr Windschuttle had a right to take historians and others to task for errors in research.

But he said Mr Windschuttle and others also must be taken to task for reducing the debate to questions of numbers and semantics, and hiding "the enormous and wide-ranging suffering of the people behind the numbers".

Mr Windschuttle ignited the so-called history wars debate by accusing Henry Reynolds and other historians of exaggerating reports of large-scale massacres of Aborigines during colonial times.

Speaking at the Queensland Museum as part of its "Queensland Connections" lecture series, Mr Rowland used the little-known story of the mistreatment of Aborigines on the Keppel Islands off central Queensland to illustrate his argument.

The islands are known to most Australians through the popularity of the tourist resort on Great Keppel Island, once advertised as the place to "get wrecked". But, as Mr Rowland pointed out, the Woppaburra people of the Keppel Islands suffered a 40-year regime of murder, beatings and virtual enslavement under the islands' 19th-century owners, Robert Ross and James Lucas, who ran grazing properties there.

Mr Rowland, who has spent more than 20 years doing archeological and historical research on the islands, said there was a high probability that at least seven Woppaburra males were shot on North Keppel Island in 1865.

In 1883, he said, a number of Woppaburra were forcibly taken from the islands, leaving mainly women and children behind....

"Many of those taken to the mainland died from starvation or were poisoned. Those left on the island were worked as 'slaves' by Ross and subsequently by Lucas. They were poorly fed and clothed, harnessed to ploughs and chained up in a tidal cave for punishment," Mr Rowland said.

"They were sexually abused by Lucas and others from the mainland, and a number contracted venereal disease."

He said that the Woppaburra were reduced from a population of about 60-85 in 1865 to just 17, mainly women and children, by 1900.

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