History Wars and Culture Wars: Some Thoughts on Henry Reynolds

Truth-Telling: History, sovereignty and the Uluru Statement: Amazon.co.uk: Henry  Reynolds (author): 9781742236940: Books

The Uluru Statement and History

I’ve just finished Henry Reynolds’ book: Truth-Telling. The book is a response by one of Australia’s greatest historians to the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

The Uluru Statement is a declaration of sovereignty by a constitutional convention, convened in 2017 by a broad coalition of First Nations groups – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples “from all points of the southern sky”. They declare native ownership and sovereignty over the land of the Australian continent, which “has never been ceded or extinguished, and co-exists with the sovereignty of the Crown”.

Reynolds demonstrates the solid legal basis of this claim – not, importantly, according to modern notions read backwards into history but according to the soundest principles of law and jurisprudence accepted at the time of Australia’s colonisation. At that time, for instance, it was broadly accepted that a people who consistently occupy and use an area of land for hunting have ownership over it, until this is ceded by treaty or purchase – neither of which occurred for the vast majority of Australian land.

What permitted Britain to claim ownership of eastern Australia was the famous terra nullius quibble: the bogus notion that most of the land claimed was neither owned nor occupied by any indigenous people. This was based largely on an erroneous judgment by the botanist Joseph Banks, who accompanied Captain Cook on his voyage to Australia. Banks concluded on the basis of casual observation that the number of indigenous Australians was very small, and the groups were highly nomadic. If Britain established a colony on the coast, the indigenous populations would simply move around it without losing anything of significance. This was known to be false from the landing of the First Fleet. Arthur Phillip, sent by the Crown to establish the first penal colony in Australia, wrote two letters back to his commissioners, expressing his concern that the number of indigenous people was far larger than he had been led to expect, and also that different groups seemed to be attached to particular pieces of land, thus exercising ownership by occupation.

The British claim to the land therefore cannot have extinguished the native claim to ownership, which, by admission of the Empire’s own lawyers, could have come only from “Cession or Purchase”. Sovereignty, on the other hand, might have been extinguished through conquest. But generally this occurs only when a conquered power officially surrenders in a treaty. Even if Britain can be said to have wrested sovereignty through conquest, the law at the time ruled that a conquered people retain ownership of their land and property.

Much of the rest of the book concerns the frontier wars through which the north was conquered in the nineteenth century. This was the topic of much of Reynolds’ early work and earned him a place among those known as “black armband” historians within conservative circles. Reynolds presents the archival evidence compiled by several generations of historians here, demonstrating that a conservative estimate of the number of indigenous Australians killed in those wars is around 100,000; a shocking revelation when we still tend to be taught that the number killed across the whole continent is around 20,000. The number of colonists killed was perhaps around 2000.

Here Reynolds asks another legal question: what was the legal status of these killings? Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were British subjects. They were killed, not by an occupying army but by other British subjects: settlers and the colonial police forces, acting on instructions to “disperse” gatherings and adding the interpretation “by shooting them”. Although the colonists had superior military technology, the native inhabitants knew the country, in many cases outnumbered the colonists, and were capable of waging a damaging guerrilla war. The colonists, failing to understand the culture of their enemies, aimed at intimidating them out of further attacks through massive reprisals, not realising that in doing so they were only escalating a blood feud.

The “frontier war” characterisation comes from the Aboriginal side. First Nations consistently saw themselves as fighting against an invasion. From the colonists’ side, it was simply murder of Australian citizens – murder that the legal authorities declined to punish. Reynolds proposes that the nearest analogy is probably with the lynchings in the American South after the Civil War: murders that went unprosecuted on account of racial prejudice.

The History Wars

Reynolds returns here to material that occupied Australian politics during the “history wars” of the 1990s and 2000s. Here I think there is a warning for the rest of the world. Australia did “culture wars” before it was fashionable.

The account of Australian history given by Reynolds and others was challenged by Prime Minister John Howard: “The ‘black armband’ view of our history”, he explained, “reflects a belief that most Australian history since 1788 has been little more than a disgraceful story of imperialism, exploitation, racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination”.

Howard took for his court historian Keith Windschuttle, who argued against Reynolds and others in The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, Volume One. Windschuttle disputed the amount of killing and the “frontier war” interpretation: many of the indigenous Australians who attacked colonists, vandalised their property, and killed or released their livestock were, according to Windschuttle, mere criminals – “black bushrangers”. They were simple opportunists, motivated by the gains of theft rather than the foreign invasion of their land, to which they were apparently indifferent. Windschuttle also has to bring the numbers way down from those estimated on the basis of police reports, since even John Howard would struggle to believe that 100,000 criminals were brought deservingly to vigilante justice.

Looking back on the History Wars, I notice some patterns that show up in culture wars elsewhere – for example the debates about empire in Europe and slavery and its legacy in America. The conservative side in these culture wars tends to play the same strategies. For example:

(1) The ongoing relevance of the past is denied. What happened is in the past. Now is the time for reconciliation and moving forward. Yet there is no reconciliation without truth. It was ludicrous of Howard to claim on one hand that “Injustices were done in Australia and no-one should obscure or minimise them” while also giving full-throated endorsement to a historian who positioned himself at one extreme end of the debate about the scale of crimes against indigenous Australians, going against the vast majority of experts. Moreover, what happened in the past carries direct legal consequences for the future. Unless we can show it to have been extinguished or ceded, the sovereignty and ownership claimed in the Uluru Statement makes its demand for treaties unavoidable. Likewise for debates about race in the United States: getting the history right determines how we must view the claims for reparations made by some descendants of slaves. The case made by Sandy Darity and Kirsten Mullen depends not only on what happened during the time of slavery but also on the repeated failures of the United States government in subsequent decades to take the available opportunities to move towards a basis of racial equality.

(2) The claims made by historians and scholars are turned into moral judgments that they never made. Neither Henry Reynolds nor any other historian I have read claims that, as Howard put it, “most Australian history since 1788 has been little more than a disgraceful story of imperialism, exploitation, racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination”. The idea that we could characterise most of the history of a continent over two centuries as having one particular moral character is absurd, and historians are the best placed to recognise its absurdity. Sathnam Sanghera, author of Empireland, ridiculed the idea of giving a rating out of five stars to the British Empire. It is only ideologues who want to do things like that, and their motivations are ideological, not historical. In Truth-Telling, Reynolds goes beyond the historians’ task of trying to learn what happened, but not to give a big moral thumbs up or thumbs down to Australian history. Rather, what happened is directly relevant to certain legal questions around the Uluru Statement. If First Nations retain any sovereignty they didn’t cede, and the British Empire acquired ownership only of land that it purchased or acquired by treaty, then we had better look to history to see which of these things happened and when.

(3) Attempts to tell the historical truth are characterised as divisive guilt-tripping. It was very difficult for the Howard government to believe that Reynolds and other historians were only trying to learn what had really happened. Since much of what happened was shameful, the intention of the historians must have been to cause shame. The idea must have been to make white Australians feel guilty and to inculcate a crippling “victim mentality” in black Australians. In fact, as Reynolds points out, the story he tells is empowering to both groups. It shows that the First Nations were not helpless victims; rather, they fought a courageous war against an invading power armed with vastly superior military hardware, and they held out for a long time. Reynolds asks why the fallen of these wars, who outnumber the Australian soldiers fallen in every overseas war combined, are not honoured in the National War Memorial. But his story also restores agency to non-indigenous Australians. We have the power to begin a process of genuine reconciliation with our history – a process that must begin with the truth. The refusal of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to acknowledge the Uluru Statement was a missed opportunity to acquire some agency. We can’t change the past, but we have some power over it if we choose to face it.

(4) What one generation learned in school becomes “elementary knowledge”. For example, there was a popular and convenient idea in the 1970s that no treaty with First Nations could have been possible, given the diversity of nations. A member of the public resurrected this argument to Prime Minister Paul Keating on a 1992 radio programme following the dramatic Mabo ruling on native title. Reynolds shows that it was known even in the eighteenth century that this was not the case, and famous jurists including Jeremy Bentham warned of the endless damage it would do if the Crown failed to pursue a treaty. A lot of the animus behind culture wars comes, I think, from an inability to distinguish between things we learned in school that have now been superseded and things we learned that nobody learns anymore, because of declining educational standards. Some of this is due to the un-nuanced way that we teach, no doubt. But there’s also insecurity. Finding that your school-knowledge is superannuated is an unwelcome reminder of age. Believing that the young learn different things than you learned because of some conspiracy against truth, rather than because knowledge has progressed, pays you some emotional compensation for a feeling of decreasing relevance. Keating replied to the caller: “thanks for the anthropology lesson”, probably deepening the underlying insecurity. But Keating wasn’t elected for tact.

(5) The weirdest strategy is to associate unwanted historical scholarship with truth-shunning “postmodernism”. Before his Fabrication of Aboriginal History, Keith Windschuttle wrote The Killing of History: How a Discipline is Being Murdered by Literary Critics and Social Theorists – an attack on postmodernist relativists who reject objective truth. This includes not only the fancy Frenchies – “Paris Labels and Designer Concepts” – but any historian who might qualify as revisionist – anyone, that is, who questions the established record laid down in official histories. The only possible reason Windschuttle can imagine for anyone to question the established record is that they are committed to some Nietzschean idea that there are no facts, only “perspectives”. Windschuttle doesn’t explain why the historians he regards as “postmodernists” spend so much time citing, or perhaps forging, archival records: why not just assert whatever they want as “true relative to their perspective”? Why not say that within their subjective episteme a lack of evidence is the marker of truth? Nor does Windschuttle acknowledge the difference between an error in the official record and a gap. Reynolds points out that when he began teaching the history of Queensland, the set textbook scarcely mentioned Aboriginal people at all – “they did not even have an entry in the index”. No wonder Windschuttle concludes that Aboriginal history must have been fabricated. Since it doesn’t appear in the existing history books, it cannot exist. Il n’y a pas de hors-textbook.

These were some of the tactics developed in that other forgotten war – the Australian History Wars of 1996-2002. I’m posting this for people now experiencing their own culture wars, who might recognise the same things again.

What seems to prompt culture wars is a fear of what Reynolds calls truth-telling. “Truth-telling”, he writes, “is the ultimate gesture of respect. It indicates a willingness to listen, to learn and to concede that the stories should be heard of those who have been victims of great wrongs.” Why would anyone want to resist that? People seem to be afraid that their national and cultural pride will be threatened by it – that the story of the country they love will become, as Howard put it, “a disgraceful story”. It is as if they believe that a nation that hears, acknowledges, and faces up to its true history will be shamed off the world stage.

But, on the contrary, it is the nations that refuse the truth that appear the most shameful. If truth-telling is the ultimate gesture of respect, that includes selfrespect. The fear that exposing a dark history will disgrace a country deprives that country of agency. If we really need to think of countries as “good” or “bad” then surely what makes the difference is not their past but how they deal with it.

One thought on “History Wars and Culture Wars: Some Thoughts on Henry Reynolds

  1. Really fascinating overview – as someone just learning about the Uluru Statement this was a useful historical and philosophical grounding. Thanks!


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