Australian politics, society & culture

Comment

Keith Windschuttle

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Robert Manne

Medium length read3300 words
 

Late last year, to a strangely muffled fanfare from his friends, the third volume of Keith Windschuttle’s self-published magnum opus, The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, appeared. Its subject is the stolen generations. Windschuttle must have regarded its publication as urgent. This is quite possibly the first occasion in the history of publishing where Volume Three of a single-authored history has preceded Volume Two. While from a narrow political point of view Windschuttle’s book is probably irrelevant – most Australians have accepted the justice of the Rudd apology; most of the right-wing commentariat, with the singular exception of Andrew Bolt, have “moved on” – from the historical and ideological points of view it ought not to be ignored. The question of the stolen generations has been one of the most important fronts in the Australian History Wars. Windschuttle’s book is the most ambitious statement of the right-wing case we are ever likely to see.

Windschuttle’s argument can be summarised like this. While there were many separations of Aboriginal children from their mothers, families and communities during the course of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the numbers have been wildly exaggerated by the “orthodox” historians and by the authors of the 1997 Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission’s report Bringing Them Home. More importantly, the Aboriginal children removed by force were not “stolen”. They were removed for the same welfare reasons neglected white children were. While some of the compounds or “half-caste” institutions to which the children were removed were not ideal, others were no worse and indeed often better than the equivalent institutions that housed white children at the same time. Anti-Aboriginal racism played virtually no part in the removal process. Even though Windschuttle now accepts that the Protectors in interwar Western Australia and the Northern Territory advocated a program known as “breeding out the colour”, it was neither an instance of eugenics nor at any time a formal government policy. Nor was it even connected to their child-removal practices. Far from being concerned to destroy Aboriginality, let alone perpetrate genocide on the Aboriginal people, the removals were almost always justified and motivated by good intentions. For all these reasons, Windschuttle regards the idea of the stolen generations as an un-Australian left-wing myth, whose purpose is to defame both the many decent Australians who worked selflessly on behalf of Aboriginal children and, even more importantly, the nation.

Windschuttle’s book is based on astonishing ideological blindness, especially to racist ways of thinking. In one passage he quotes from a New South Wales Aborigines Protection Board report: “these children, a number who are half-castes, quadroons and octoroons, are increasing with alarming rapidity.” Nine pages later he tells us that “there is no evidence that the Aborigines Protection Board saw a growing Aboriginal population as a menace.”[i] Windschuttle must be the only historian who fails to see racism in the attitudes that prevailed in interwar Australia concerning the menace posed to the White Australian ideal by the high birthrate among the “half castes”, which one newspaper called a “sinister third race”.[ii] And he must be the only historian who is not repelled by the quasi-zoological terminology – “quadroons”, “octoroons”, “cross-breeds” – universally deployed. Almost all historians who use these words in their work place them in inverted commas, to distance themselves from their plainly racist meaning. Windschuttle does not. No doubt he would regard this as political correctness. It is as if in writing a revisionist history of the Jim Crow regime of the southern United States, a historian used the term ‘nigger’ without inverted commas throughout. In 1909 the Western Australian Travelling Inspector, James Isdell, wrote: “I would not hesitate for one moment to separate any half-caste from its aboriginal mother. They soon forget their offspring.” This comment takes us to the heart of racism. Yet Windschuttle chides the orthodox historians for “mocking” Isdell’s racism.[iii]

Despite its imposing-looking 600 pages and its many footnotes, Windschuttle’s case is actually based on surprisingly inadequate research. The only real archival work he has done is in New South Wales. The evidence of the policy and practice of Aboriginal child removal found in the Northern Territory, Western Australian, South Australian and Queensland archives is almost completely unknown to him. There are also scores of relevant articles, books and doctoral theses that he clearly has not read. Although, for example, he defames Sir Ronald Wilson, the president of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, on several occasions, he has not bothered to read the outstanding biography of him by Antonio Buti.[iv] In my own case, he has not read either a chapter on the question of genocide and Aboriginal child removal before 1940 that I contributed to a monograph published in New York,[v] or even a 40,000-word document collection on the stolen generations that proves many of his empirical claims to be misleading or entirely false, which has been available on the Monthly website for more than three years.[vi]

Even more tellingly, although he pronounces confidently throughout his book on the conditions confronting Aboriginal children in the institutions to which they were consigned, his book reveals that he has not bothered to read even one of the 340 mainly Indigenous stolen generations oral-history testimonies held in the Australian National Library.[vii] Nor has he read most of the relevant Aboriginal memoirs bearing on child removal – Bob Randall, Doris Kartinyeri, Donna Meehan, Rosalie Fraser, Evelyn Crawford, Ruth Hegarty and many more.[viii] One of the great contributions of the authors of Bringing Them Home was to give Aboriginal Australians a voice. In Windschuttle’s Fabrication Aboriginal voices are effectively silenced once again, except in those instances where they support his case. As a consequence, what he has provided is an apologetic pseudo-history of Aboriginal child removal written almost exclusively from the removalists’ point of view.

Much of Fabrication is false. Take the case of the numbers of removals, which Windschuttle regards as the most crucial question of all. In 1994 the Australian Bureau of Statistics conducted a survey among Indigenous Australians. It discovered that 1.6% of Aborigines under 14 years, 4.6% between the ages of 15 and 24, but more than 10% of those older than 25 had been taken away from their natural families.[ix] Anyone who studies Aboriginal child removal must be aware that every state and territory had a different set of policies and practices bearing on Aboriginal child removal, and that even in these states and territories, policy and practice varied from decade to decade. Because for very many of these removals records are not obtainable or do not exist, the ABS study remains the most reliable source of information on the number of removals. It suggests that between 1900 and 1970 approximately 20,000 to 25,000 Aboriginal children were separated from their natural families. By use of a methodology that is for the most part obscure, Keith Windschuttle calculates rather that only 8250 were placed “in care”.[x]

The poverty of his method is most easily demonstrated in the case of Queensland. In his doctoral thesis Mark Copland examined all the available evidence. He discovered only 660 removals of unaccompanied children to missions or stations. In Queensland there were no separate “half-caste” institutions. Even though Windschuttle claims to have read the thesis, he argues that Copland’s 660 figure includes dormitory separations. It plainly does not. Far more importantly, however, Copland calculated that there were 3572 separations in dormitories, 3353 removals to other child institutions and 10,729 employment separations. While Copland calculates 18,313 Aboriginal child removals in Queensland by 1971, Windschuttle guesses that 250 were taken into care.[xi] Because he has not gone near the Queensland archives, Windschuttle knows nothing about the very active removal policy pursued by the early Protector Walter Roth. As Roth pointed out in his 1905 report, in the past five years 167 “half-caste” children in Queensland had been removed to missions. This means that two-thirds of Queensland child removals acknowledged by Windschuttle had occurred by 1905. But the problems do not end there. Windschuttle is aware that under a Queensland law of 1865 having an Aboriginal or half-caste mother was in itself legal proof of “neglect”. In his characteristically confident tone he pronounces: “No one has found evidence that any child was removed simply because it was born to an Aboriginal mother”. If he had gone to the archive, he would have discovered that all the children Roth sent to the missions had been “charged” under the Industrial and Reformatory Schools Act of 1865 and found guilty of neglect simply because of the race of their mother. [xii]

Another example of Windschuttle’s ignorance of the archival evidence over numbers concerns Chief Protector AO Neville’s regime in Western Australia. Windschuttle claims Neville was unable to remove more than a handful of “half-caste” children each year because of lack of resources.[xiii] He is apparently unaware that in 1919 when Inspector Drewery of Broome complained bitterly about the way Neville was forcing police to play an “obnoxious” and “inhumane” role in the “seizing and removing” of children from loving mothers without “cause shown”, Neville replied: “If the duty of bringing in half-caste children is obnoxious to the Police, it is strange that this Department has not previously been advised of this, in view of the hundreds of cases that have had attention.”[xiv] Anna Haebich’s caution concerning the question of the number of Western Australian removals, which Windschuttle derides, is far more to be relied upon than his own ignorant dogmatism.[xv]

If anything, Windschuttle’s chapter on the question of the relation of the interwar Northern Territory and Western Australian policy of “breeding out the colour” and their child-removal policies is even more misleading than his discussion of the removal numbers. Windschuttle claims that the “breeding out the colour” policy was exclusively connected to marriage and had nothing to do with child removal.[xvi] This betrays astonishing misunderstanding. Both the Northern Territory Chief Protector, Dr Cecil Cook, and AO Neville were convinced that unless “half-caste” girls were removed early from the “degraded environment” of the blacks’ camp and raised to what they called “white standards”, they would not be suitable material for marriage, even to lower-class whites. Dr Cook, for example, explained in a letter to the Reverend W Morley of 28 April 1931: “The half-caste policy in the Territory embraces the collection of all illegitimate half-castes under the age of 16 years … the girls are taught domestic arts, and dress and clothing making, to fit them for a higher station as wives of higher grade half-caste males, or whites.”[xvii] In 1937 Neville explained to the Canberra Conference of Aboriginal administrators that the biological “absorption” of the “half-castes” was only possible if the children were brought in “at the age of six years. It is useless to wait until they are twelve or thirteen years of age.”[xviii] For both Cook and Neville the policy of “breeding out the colour” was premised on the policy of child removal. It beggars belief that Windschuttle seems not to grasp so obvious a point.

Windschuttle not only misunderstands the connection between biological absorption and child removal. He also claims that “breeding out the colour” was never a formal Commonwealth government policy covering the Northern Territory. In a memorandum of 25 May 1933, JA Carrodus unambiguously described “breeding out the colour” as Commonwealth government “policy”.[xix] So did the Minister of the Interior, JA Perkins, in a cabinet discussion paper of 31 July 1933 which Windschuttle reproduces but misrepresents.[xx] Indeed, until 1939 “breeding out the colour” remained formal Commonwealth government policy. In December 1938, in response to a South African question on “mixed marriage” in Australia, Carrodus explained that “half caste girls are encouraged to marry white men approved by the Chief Protector.” Pretoria was sent a copy of Cook’s “breeding out the colour” June 1933 memorandum.[xxi] Windschuttle believes that the supposed non-policy of breeding out the colour was vetoed by the minister in parliament in August 1934. This is based on yet another clumsy misreading. Perkins did not veto the policy. All he did was refute the false claim that had been made by a Labor parliamentarian that under Cook’s policy the half-caste girls were being “forced” to marry white males.[xxii]

Windschuttle argues that because the policy of “breeding out the colour” encouraged a certain form of miscegenation, it had nothing to do with eugenics. Those who think it did only display the “low standards” of Australian academic life. He is unaware that, while in Europe and the United States most eugenicists were opposed to miscegenation, in both Mexico and Brazil in the interwar years some eugenicists argued in favour of what has been called either constructive or positive miscegenation. Edgar Roquette-Pinto, president of the First Brazilian Congress of Eugenics, even advanced a breeding program for whitening the Brazilian racial stock.[xxiii] Cook was almost certainly the inventor of the Australian policy for “breeding out the colour”. Windschuttle thinks he was uninfluenced by eugenics. He is wrong. On one occasion Cook pressed unsuccessfully for the sterilisation of “mentally defective” Aborigines.[xxiv] On another he suggested that an admixture of even a small amount of Aboriginal blood would create a skin type resistant to cancer. Windschuttle also claims that Neville’s famous question to the 1937 Canberra Conference – “Are we going to have a population of 1,000,000 blacks in the Commonwealth, or are we going to merge them into our white community and eventually forget that there were ever any Aborigines in Australia?” – which combined the aspiration to breed out the colour of the “half castes” with the certainty that the “full bloods” were doomed, is no genocidal thought. He claims Neville did not “subscribe” to the belief that “the full blood Aboriginal population was destined to die out”.[xxv] Once more he is simply wrong. In May 1937 the Brisbane Telegraph reported that “Mr Neville holds the view that within one hundred years the pure black will be extinct.”[xxvi] I am not alone in interpreting Neville’s thought as genocidal. So did one of his contemporaries, the Western Australian missionary the Reverend RS Schenk. After reading the verbatim transcript of the Canberra Conference, Schenk described Neville as the author of the “die out” and “breed out” policy.[xxvii] Windschuttle chides me and other “orthodox” historians for failing to understand the impracticality of the “breed out the colour” policy. In 2004, I argued in some detail why the Cook–Neville absorption policies were always “fanciful”.[xxviii]

This is not the only occasion where Windschuttle either falsely represents the position of the “orthodox” historians or exaggerates their conformity. Many do not accept the way Bringing Them Home arrived at its genocide conclusion. Yet Windschuttle’s accusations concerning the orthodox historians’ acceptance of the charge of genocide operate throughout like a kind of nervous tic. Most accept that the child-removal policies were exclusively aimed at Aborigines of mixed descent. Most accept that many of the people involved in the Aboriginal “half-caste” institutions and the children’s homes were people of good heart. Many accept that Bringing Them Home did exaggerate the numbers.[xxix] Falsely, Windschuttle denies that any of this is the case. Without systematically parodying the positions of his enemies and turning them into a solid loathsome block, Windschuttle would not be able to compose his history. It is his source of psychic energy and his basic motivation.

Very many of Windschuttle’s claims are more straightforwardly simple misrepresentations. He argues that one of the main purposes of those who wrote Bringing Them Home was to familiarise Australians with the term “the stolen generations”. It is not a term its authors use except when quoting others.[xxx] Windschuttle argues that the Aboriginal singer Harold Blair was defamed by Bringing Them Home when it claimed that he was hoping to use his 1960s Queensland holiday scheme as a means for creating fostering opportunities. Windschuttle fails to mention that in his letter to Queensland authorities, which suggested the scheme, Blair wrote about the “possibility of, and procedure for, procuring children for fostering and adoption”.[xxxi] Windschuttle deals with the testimony of certain Northern Territory patrol officers in detail without mentioning that one of them called the child-removal policy “very traumatic”, another “a rather cruel sort of business”, while yet another spoke of women screaming and babies being pulled from the breast.[xxxii] While Windschuttle claims that removals were almost exclusively of primary school-age children, he fails to mention that the minister responsible for the Northern Territory, Paul Hasluck, set Northern Territory policy in 1950 on the principle that “the younger the child is at the time of removal the better for the child”.[xxxiii] Windschuttle records the opinion of Justice O’Loughlin that there was no general policy of “half-caste” child removal in postwar Northern Territory. Somehow he fails to tell his readers that in the 1930s, although the aspiration was not realised, the policy in the Northern Territory regarding “half-caste” child removal was indeed general and expressed time and time again according to the following formula: “It is the policy of the Administration to collect all half-castes from the native camps at an early age and transfer them to the Government institutions at Darwin and Alice Springs.”[xxxiv] What Windschuttle has written is in short a hopelessly partial and partisan account.

On 13 November last year Kevin Rudd apologised for the suffering experienced by the 500,000 Australians over the past century who had been separated from family and community and raised in institutions or foster homes. The apology was uncontroversial. Virtually no one contested the estimate of numbers or doubted the general truthfulness of the stories of loneliness and abuse they told or objected to the term that was applied to the victims – the “forgotten generations”. By contrast, because the question turns on the blind spot in the national psyche – the stunning injustice and racism meted out to the Indigenous people the British settlers dispossessed – for 12 years the struggle over the interpretation of the episode called the “stolen generations” has provoked one of the fiercest battles of the Australian History Wars. Windschuttle’s Fabrication Volume Three is the most recent right-wing cavalry charge on this front. I hope that it is also the last.

Robert Manne

Robert Manne is Emeritus Professor and Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow at La Trobe University and has twice been voted Australia's leading public intellectual. He is the author of Left, Right, Left: Political Essays, 1977–2005 and Making Trouble. Visit his blog. See also The Stolen Generations - a documentary collection

More by Robert Manne