Well this is really quite embarrassing. I have never read more than snippets by a notorious right-wing Australian historian, Keith Windschuttle, and those I have read have been mostly quotations found in the works of his critics, but I know I have been strongly opposed to whatever Windschuttle has written about the history of the clashes between white settlers in Australia and the land’s aboriginal peoples. Politically I have long been a bit of a lefty because it is my conviction that the left is on the side of humanity. Human rights and social justice causes — including of course those of Australian aboriginals — have as a rule been very close to my heart and my energies.
Historian Keith Windschuttle has long been publicly associated with that epitome of all that is opposed to anything leftish and against any idea that white Australians owe Australian aboriginals anything (least of all an apology), former Prime Minister John Howard.
So what am I to do when, in expanding my knowledge of the principles historians use with respect to oral history, I discover that all for which I have been arguing vis a vis the methods of historical Jesus scholars, is on the side of my political arch-nemesis Keith Windschuttle?
I have had to concede that historians who have buttressed my political views may very well have been lacking when it comes to specific details of the history of white and black relations in Australia. I am not conceding that the picture is, well, black and white (apologies for the unintended pun) since the historical evidence is multifaceted and there are still details of Windschuttle’s arguments that I do question. But as far as his point about historical methodology and the use of oral history is concerned, I have to concede, ouch! that in this instance the politically right is methodologically right, too. Even my own beloved left can be wrong once or twice.
This experience serves to remind me how difficult it must be for nationalistic or ethnically-oriented Jews and any Christian with religiously grounded sympathies for Israel to accept the findings of modern archaeology and the “minimalists” that question the very historical existence of biblical Israel. Not to mention how hard it clearly is for believing Christians and committed historical Jesus scholars to accept the basic norms of historiography even when quoted and placed right beneath their noses.
Reading the debate about methodology is like reading a debate between myself and a historical Jesus scholar. If nothing else it reminds us that history is one of the most ideological of disciplines, and if so, surely biblical studies is the most ideological. No wonder postmodernist notions so easily white-ant both fields.
When oral history lacks any independent external corroboration
From “Doctored evidence and invented incidents in Aboriginal historiography” by Keith Windschuttle (Ouch! quoting KW really does hurt!! But I cannot deny that the criticism of KW’s words such as these do side-step entirely the supporting evidence he supplies for his arguments. And no, I am by no means saying I have now been converted to the Right, but facts is facts and valid argument is valid argument.) (My own emphases etc as always.)
Unfortunately, the fictions and fabrications of our academic historians are more than matched by those created by the Aborigines themselves. Because Aborigines in the colonial period were illiterate and kept no written records, we are urged today to accept the oral history of their descendants as an authentic account of what happened in the past. My view is that Aboriginal oral history, when uncorroborated by original documents, is completely unreliable, just like the oral history of white people. Let me illustrate this with an account of the infamous Mistake Creek Massacre in the Kimberley district.
There are at least four versions of Aboriginal oral history about this incident that have made their way into either print or television, and all of them are different. The former Governor-General, Sir William Deane, used his last days in office to apologise to the Kija people for this incident and for all those that Aborigines had suffered at the hands of white settlers. Deane said:
What is clear is there was a considerable killing of Aboriginal women and children … It’s essential that we hear, listen to and acknowledge the facts of what happened in the past, the facts of terrible events such as what happened here at Mistake Creek in the 1930s, which is in my lifetime.
However, what actually is clear is that by relying upon Aboriginal oral history, Deane got the facts of the case completely wrong. According to the Western Australian police records, the incident took place in 1915, not the 1930s. It was not a massacre of Aborigines by white settlers at all, but a killing of Aborigines by Aborigines in a dispute over a woman who had left one Aboriginal man to live with another. The jilted lover and an accomplice rode into the Aboriginal camp of his rival and shot eight of the people there.
Aboriginal oral history later implicated the white overseer of the station concerned, a man named Mick Rhatigan. This is the same oral history that Deane relied upon to say the event took place in the 1930s. However, it would have been difficult for Mick Rhatigan to have been one of the killers at this time. According to both his family and the headstone on his grave at Wyndham, he died in 1920, ten years before the date the Aborigines claim the event occurred.
Another version of this same oral history was provided on ABC Television’s 7.30 Report. A woman named Peggy Patrick said her mother and father and brothers and sisters had all been massacred in this incident. The program’s presenter, Kerry O’Brien, said she was 70 years of age. This means she was born in 1930 or 1931. But the killings took place in 1915, which means she was born fifteen years after the death of her parents, which must be a world record for a posthumous birth.
By relying on Aboriginal oral history, and by failing to do the most elementary research into this matter, Deane made a fool of himself in what was supposed to be the final, grand reconciliatory gesture of his term of office. I would suggest that anyone else who relies upon uncorroborated oral history of Aborigines — or indeed the oral history of anyone else — is likely to embarrass themselves in exactly the same way. Stories passed down orally over three or four generations are more likely than not to get some of their facts wrong, whatever the ethnic background of the story tellers. Once the facts have gone awry, so will the interpretations.
By pretending to Aborigines that their oral histories have some kind of historical authenticity, academic historians do them no favours. It is in nobody’s interest, and certainly not those of Aboriginal people, for completely false stories like the one about Mistake Creek to continue to be taken seriously, generating an unwarranted bitterness on one side and a sanctimonious sense of blame allocation on the other.
No, I am not suggesting that there were no massacres of aboriginals by whites. Of course there were and there is much evidence for this. But critics of Winschuttle do not do our cause any good when we walk away from the specific supporting evidence he uses in support of arguments for specific incidents.
But look at Deane’s own response to KW’s uncovering of the methodological shoddiness of his work. This is from the review of another abhorrent extreme right-winger — what a painful way for me to start my day! — Paul Sheehan (it hurts to even type the name):
Deane has qualified his accusations by stating, as he did in his book, Directions: A Vision For Australia (2002): “It matters not whether this particular story is accurate in all its details, for the elements undoubtedly occurred in many parts of our nation in the 211 years of European settlement.“
Now how like Dale C. Allison this sounds when he writes, as paraphrased by Dr McGrath:
Even fabricated material may provide a true sense of the gist of what Jesus was about, however inauthentic it may be as far as the specific details are concerned. (Review of Dale Allison, Constructing Jesus)
Or more directly from Allison himself in Constructing Jesus: memory, imagination and history
All this is why fictions may convey facts; an accurate impression can take any number of forms. Even a work of make-believe as the Alexander Romance sometimes catches the character of the historical Alexander of Macedon. Similarly, tales about an absentminded professor may be apocryphal and yet spot-on because they capture the teacher’s personality. The letter can be false, the spirit true. One student of human memory has justifiably asserted that “the gospels are more likely to be deeply true than superficially exact. (pp. 13-14)
KW responds in turn:
But, of course, it does matter greatly whether stories about crimes of this magnitude are accurate in their details, and it is most surprising to find a former judge of the High Court thinking otherwise. If the factual details are not taken seriously, then people can invent any atrocity and believe anything they like. Truth becomes a lost cause.
Yes, history is surely the most ideological of disciplines. I am sure the same laxity and violation of basic principles as I have quoted from such basic handbooks as those of Howell and Prevenier and Vansina in recent posts would not be overlooked for a minute by these historians if the subject were not so ideologically close to their hearts.
In the same article Keith Windschuttle savages postmodernist views of historiography but I won’t repeat any of those arguments here.
He gives other examples of the poverty of reliance upon oral history without external controls:
In 1995, David Roberts published the results of his research into the Bells Falls Gorge Massacre, which legends in the Bathurst district of New South Wales say took place in the 1820s. He found there was no contemporary documentary evidence for it. Roberts nonetheless argued that, because there were other recorded conflicts in the region around that time and because legends about the Bells Falls Gorge event could still be found among the local white community, this should be taken as evidence that something like a massacre did take place, at least somewhere in the district at the time. He has more recently written:
They [local residents] maintain a solemn understanding that Aborigines were once rounded up at the local landmark and were forced to jump to their deaths under fire. (Countless rural communities across Australia will recognise the story in different forms.)
The problem with this argument is precisely the fact that countless rural communities do, indeed, tell similar stories about spectacular local landmarks. In fact, landmarks like this, especially those with very high waterfalls, seem to almost irresistibly conjure up myths that have an uncanny similarity wherever they are found.
There is a comparable tale still told in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, where legend has it that the place called Govett’s Leap was named after a bushranger named Govett who was pursued under gunfire from troopers to the edge of the waterfall there. Rather than be shot or captured, he spurred his horse over the precipice to his doom. When I was a child, my parents told me this piece of oral history in all seriousness. The local Chamber of Commerce has since erected on the main road a statue of Govett on his horse to capitalise on the location as a tourist attraction.
However, this particular legend has no connection with historic events of any kind. The real Govett was not a bushranger but the government surveyor who named the site, and ‘leap’ is an old Scottish term for a cataract or waterfall.
How many times do we need to learn the same lesson? Old legends and oral history, unless they are corroborated by original documents, are worthless as historical evidence, whether told by blacks or whites. Historians who go down this road leave the search for truth behind.
Now is a good time to point out that Keith Windschuttle (Ouch!! I never imagined I would ever be quoting this name favourably!! I really still do hate his politics!) does not dismiss oral reports out of hand.
Contrary to Manne’s assertion, I do not confine the evidence of Aboriginal deaths to official documents, nor do I exclude Aboriginal oral, testimony. Fabrication contains a large volume of Aboriginal testimony, not only about killings but many other aspects of black and white relations. In Tasmania, there is probably more direct Aboriginal testimony available than anywhere else in Australia at the same time. This was all recorded by white observers, of course, but usually by people sympathetic to the Aboriginal plight such as George Augustus Robinson.
Note that we are speaking here of “oral testimony” — reports of eyewitnesses. Here is another quotation that demonstrates when oral testimony is found to be valid. It is from “The Myths of Frontier Massacres In Australian History, Part I: The Invention of Massacre Stories” by KW in the October 2000 edition of the right-wing Quadrant magazine that I despise ideologically with all my being (and I’m suffering like hell as I find myself bloody well quoting from it!!!) . . . .
40 to 50 years is too, too late
Some of the evidence Cribbin uses to reconstruct his account of the second expedition comes from Aboriginal oral history recorded forty to fifty years later by him and other; unconnected, researchers. Normally, events recalled at this distance would be highly suspect, no matter whether the informant was Aboriginal or European, and would be too unreliable for the historic record. At Forrest River, for instance, Rod Moran shows that some historians have accepted the most incredible tales from recent oral testimony given by alleged eyewitnesses and descendants of the locals. However there were five sets of interviews about Coniston made in 1971, 1977, 1980, 1981 and 1983. Each of them questioned different members of the remaining Aboriginal clans, as well as one of the half-caste Aborigines who accompanied Murray and Morton. In each case, the interviewees, some of whom were children who witnessed their fathers being shot, reported the names, locations and sequence of the major events accurately. Since the interviews confirm each other and are also consistent with the published evidence, there is no reason, in this case, to doubt they are true. This means that, in addition to the thirty-one Aborigines Murray admitted shooting, Cribbin’s evidence establishes that at least another twenty-one should be added to those killed during his two expeditions. Hence at least fifty-two Aboriginal people were massacred at Coniston station in 1928.
There was only one positive result of this affair. Because of the publicity initiated by Athol McGregor men like Murray and Morton knew that in future their actions would be under public surveillance. Since 1928, there have been no reports of whites killing bush Aborigines under the kind of pretence used at Coniston station.
Note above not only the need for external controls but also the understanding that accounts 40 to 50 years after an event are normally to be considered “highly suspect”. Yet the earliest supposedly independent control for the life of Jesus advanced by HJ scholars is Josephus, some 60 years after the supposed events. And some professors like Dr McGrath insist that Josephus is as good as any other “contemporary record” and at the same time insist they do history like other historians. Not so.
Critics and Holocaust Deniers
So what have my beloved left-wing critics had to say about our political enemy?
I am embarrassed and ashamed. One even resorted to comparing Windschuttle to being a Holocaust denier. Here is a passage from a critical review of KW’s controversial book:
Perhaps the weakest point in Whitewash is A. Dirk Moses’s concluding chapter, in which he compares Windschuttle to the Holocaust denier David Irving. This is neither helpful nor relevant. (Rebe Taylor, Whitewash: On Keith Windschuttle’s Fabrication of Aboriginal History, Oct 25, 2003 — from the Sydney Morning Herald)
But no matter, I have been with lefties long enough to know we are a motley bunch of good and bad, competent and incompetent, and all the rest.
How often has one heard that word uttered by the anti-mythicist brigade. Here it is again used in another ideological war where, really, in the end valid methodology is going to have to trump ideology:
This is not an exercise in denialism. As Windschuttle argues: “If Australians of Aboriginal and European descent are to look one another straight in the eye, they have to face the truth about their mutual history, not rely upon mythologies designed to create an edifice of black victimhood and white guilt.” The strength of Windschuttle’s book is in the mass of details. The three volumes of Fabrication will not be the last word on genocide, far from it, but will provide what has been lacking for so long – a devil’s advocate view unintimidated by the prevailing ideological orthodoxies inside the academy and the media. Windschuttle follows paper trails, checks original sources and supplies names.
And the most ironic cut of all!
So what does a politically ideological historian do when he is caught out breaking the basic rules of applying external controls to oral testimonies and traditions? Why, he turns around and says “everyone is doing it” — Everyone?? He has to find some accomplices quick — Ah, there they are, over there in the New Testament Studies Department!!!
Stuart Macintyre has all the right (that is, left) political credentials, but I have to suffer the fact that he is misrepresenting, grossly distorting, Keith Windschuttle’s methodological argument when he writes:
When Windschuttle accuses them of ‘white vanity’ and presuming them to ‘play God’, he dismisses the significance of Aboriginal memory. His view is that ‘Aboriginal oral history, when uncorroborated by original documents, is completely unreliable, just like the oral history of white people’. (Macintyre blatantly confuses the simple fact of everyday memory, even that of eyewitnesses, with ‘oral traditions’ and completely sidesteps the independent and external controls at Thucydides’ disposal.
Just like the oral history of white people? Historians have relied on memory ever since Thucydides drew on his own recollection and the recollection of others to relate the history of the Peloponnesian war. No-one recorded the speeches given by the Athenian leader Pericles on the values and aspirations of his city-state, and the version given to us by Thucydides is an early example of oral history. Would Windschuttle have us set this oratory aside as uncorroborated by original documents? If so, he would leave a gaping hole in western tradition of civic patriotism. The same is true of the New Testament gospels: all of them are products of oral history. (pp. 45-46 of The History Wars by Stuart Macintyre and Anna Clark, 2003.)
Note in the above quotation the same logical fallacies one has so regularly heard from the anti-mythicist HJ scholars. Appeal to the consequences to justify an argument; appeal to ignorance and lack of imagination by reliance upon rhetorical questions as a substitute for an argument.
So the methodological miscreants and ideologically committed — the left-wing view of Aboriginal history in Australia and the New Testament scholars of the historical Jesus — hold hands in mutual support as they seek to defend themselves with every ad hoc argument and logical fallacy they can muster.
(Here’s hoping my politically-minded friends won’t kick me out next time I catch up with them in the Irish club.)
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