The Fabrication of Aboriginal History: Volume one, Van Diemen’s Land 1803–1847
Macleay Press, $49.95 hb, 472 pp, 1876492058
Keith Windschuttle seeks to undermine a ‘mindset’ among historians of Tasmania that started in Henry Melville’s History of Van Diemen’s Land (1835) and continues in Henry Reynolds’s An Indelible Stain (2001). Mindsets, or ‘interpretive frameworks’, sensitise historians to ‘evidence’ that fits their ‘assumptions’. While ‘often very productively’ applied, Windschuttle concedes, some mindsets have ‘overt political objectives’. Recent authors of the orthodox view of Tasmania’s colonisation, such as Reynolds and Lyndall Ryan, ‘seek to justify “land rights” and the transfer of large tracts of land to the descendants’ of Aborigines.
Violence features in their Tasmanian orthodoxy. (Some even call it ‘genocide’, but Reynolds, in An Indelible Stain, argued that that was not the policy of Tasmanian authorities.) Windschuttle’s estimates of Aborigines slain by colonists are low. Armed with stated criteria of ‘plausibility’, and building on Brian Plomley’s research, he reviews written sources on ‘Aborigines killed by whites’ from 1803 to 1834, enumerating 118 ‘plausible’ killings, most of them from 1827 to 1834. We find much higher estimates in Reynolds and Ryan, though these two authors have different approaches to estimating unrecorded deaths.