I’m not Christopher Sheil, and I never will be

Being rather unfamiliar with the whole History Wars imbroglio, it’s maybe a little stupid of me to enter the fray, but what the hell. I’m going to make a few observations about the Quadrant article by Keith Windschuttle that Ken Parish linked to below. I should make clear that I have not read Fabrication [though I recently read Whitewash], so please excuse any inadequacies in what follows.


One of the noticeable things about Windschuttle’s Quadrant essay is that it is not footnoted, and many quotes aren’t even informally sourced. This is rather odd, given the comments Windschuttle made in praise of the footnote when he reviewed Anthony Grafton’s The Footnote: A Curious History, and also given his criticism of others for sloppy footnoting. The lack of either footnotes or sources is occasionally confusing; for example, Windschuttle describes Robert Manne’s:



…obvious chagrin over the degree of media coverage Fabrication has attracted. He claims The Australian newspaper supported my book as part of a wider neo-conservative agenda demanded by proprietor Rupert Murdoch. “While The Australian was championing Windschuttle,” he writes, “it was also providing — alongside all Murdoch newspapers — unambiguous support for Anglo-American preparations for war against Iraq.” Hence The Australian, Manne claims, “has become this country’s first genuinely neo-conservative newspaper”.

The truth is The Australian has run just as many stories and opinion pieces critical of my work as it has in favour of it. It commissioned the first review from Henry Reynolds and gave him a double-page spread.

From where is Windschuttle quoting Manne? You would assume, as I did, that Windschuttle is referring to Manne’s introduction from Whitewash [helpfully reproduced, though interestingly enough also sans footnotes, here]. Manne’s introduction in Whitewash does makes mention of Fabrication’s coverage in The Australian, but I could find no reference to Iraq. Upon googling, it seems the reference is actually to one of Manne’s columns. So why quote from The Age when Windschuttle could’ve quoted from the book about which he is actually talking?


It doesn’t take a genius to figure this out. In his introduction, as opposed to his column, Manne acknowledges pretty much everything that Windschuttle says about the coverage in The Australian:


It was certainly not the case that in their sponsorship of the ‘sorely needed’ Windschuttle debate The Australian published only articles favourable to Fabrication. In the coming weeks it would publish a review by Henry Reynolds, a self-defence by Lyndall Ryan and contra Windschuttle pieces by Bain Attwood and Dirk Moses as well as pro Windschuttle commentaries by Roger Sandall, Peter Ryan…Geoffrey Blainey, Janet Albrechtsen and Windschuttle himself. Yet it was also obvious to anyone following the coverage of the controversy in The Australian where the sympathies of the paper lay. The Australian twice editorialised favourably on Windschuttle. It pursued Windschuttle’s targets with real tenacity…It dismissed the claim that Windschuttle, the defender of old-fashioned scholarly standards, had copied out or lightly paraphrased a number of passages from the American anthropologist, Robert Edgerton, as ‘a diversionary tactic‘. And it recycled a 7000 word personal attack on the academic who had noticed the borrowings (a certain Robert Manne), which was written by the wife of the editor-in-chief of The Australian, Chris Mitchell, and which had been published in The Courier-Mail eighteen months before. Chiefly because of the promotion by The Australian, the publication of the first volume of Fabrication became a major cultural event.

Manne is making a serious argument here about The Australian’s coverage of the History Wars. Rather than engaging with it, or maybe arguing against it, Windschuttle ignores it. It’s a minor point, obviously, but if Windschuttle wants to pimp his Quadrant essay as a response to the arguments in Whitewash, it would help if he actually responded to the arguments in Whitewash, not the arguments presented, only as sketches, in newspaper columns.


Indeed, this is by no means the only example of Windschuttle avoiding what is said in Whitewash. In Quadrant, Windschuttle observes that:


In Whitewash, Reynolds does not defend his views about either genocide or extermination. Yet this is supposed to be the place in which he and Ryan answer my major charges against them. This is very telling. I take their complete silence on this issue as an admission that their earlier claims are unsustainable.

As others have noted, Reynold’s views about genocide aren’t really that different from Windschuttle’s, and in any event, Whitewash’s best essay, Martin Krygier and Robert van Krieken’s “The Character of the Nation”, contains some discussion of the genocide question. On this issue Krygier and van Krieken essentially say that the whole genocide question depends on whether “genocide” is thought of narrowly or broadly, and they point out that discussion of it is mostly beside the point, since a finding of no genocide would [p. 97-8 of Whitewash]:


…not in any way diminish the need to recognise what remains problematic about the Lockean approach [justifying dispossession on the grounds that Aborigines only occupied, and did not “possess”, what was taken from them] and what remains violent and destructive about otherwise civilised settler-colonisation in the name of the rule of law.

Which is all well and good, but what I’m interested in is the off-handed way in which Windschuttle suggests that the silence of Reynolds and Ryan is “an admission that their earlier claims are unsustainable”. There are many arguments in Whitewash that Windschuttle’s Quadrant essay does not respond to, or ever mention. Since it is billed as a response to Whitewash, then by his own standard, we now have an “admission” by Windschuttle that much of Fabrication is “unsustainable”.


Take for example the question of standards of proof. Shayne Breen puts the matter succinctly [p. 145 of Whitewash]:

Windschuttle fails to adhere to the standards he seeks to impose on others. He argues, for example, that a direct quotation from an Aborigine is necessary evidence for any claim that they were defending their country, but he provides no direct quotation from any Aborigine, or any linguistic evidence, that they regarded themselves as robbers, murderers and arsonists.


The robbers-and-murders characterisation of Tasmanian Aborigines is an important conclusion for Windschuttle, because it shows that when Aborigines killed settlers they were not motivated by anything as high-minded as defence of territory. This discrepancy in standards of proof is most revealing. It points in particular to a deficiency in the robbers-and-murders characterisation, and more generally to an inconsistent approach to standards of proof. The Quadrant article addresses neither of these issues.


Windschuttle makes a lot out of the failure of other historians to live up to the standard of proof he imposes on them. A related issue here is what Windschuttle thinks this failure implies. As Krygier and van Krieken put it [p. 90 of Whitewash]:


If massacres cannot be unequivocally shown to have occurred, according to rather strenuous conditions of proof, then the verdict in Fabrication is not the Scottish ‘not proven’ but ‘non-existent’.

Henry Reynolds makes a similar point with respect to the issue of Aboriginal “ownership” of ancestral lands. He argues that the limited linguistic evidence Windschuttle provides does not show that there existed among Aborigines no word for “land”. Simply put, even though Windschuttle can find no such word in the records he consults, there is an unknown number of Tasmanian Aboriginal words that were not recorded for posterity. In other words [p. 111 of Whitewash]:


All Windschuttle can legitimately say is that words for land don’t appear in the vocabularies printed in Roth.

That is, Windschuttle cannot say that these words did not exist, merely that on his evidence their existence isn’t proven. In Quadrant Windschuttle does not discuss the difference between “not proven” and “non-existent”, indeed, as the following quote from the Quadrant essay shows, Windschuttle persists in his belief that they are the same [emphasis added]:


So the diary entry on which both [James Boyce and Ian McFarlane] place so much faith [which provides some evidence of killings not recorded by Windschuttle], and which they pretend I was unaware, is itself seriously undermined by two quite separate pieces of information. That is why this incident does not appear in my book.

The logic is clear; Windschuttle will simply expunge as “non-existent” what is in reality only “not proven”. It goes without saying that in Quadrant Windschuttle provides no explanation for his failure to uphold this distinction.


Consider also Windschuttle’s comments that [p.402 of Fabrication]:


There is a world of difference between historians who go to the past to investigate the evidence about their subject and those who go to vindicate a stand they have already taken.

Many of Whitewash’s contributors make the obvious point that Windschuttle would appear to fall on the “vindicator” side of this dichotomy [see e.g. p. 46 and 104 of Whitewash]. As Manne points out in his introduction [without making specific reference to vindication v. investigation]:


Having convinced himself in a few months in 2000 that no significant killings of Aboriginals had occurred on the Australian frontier, and having staked his reputation on the conclusion already reached, Windschuttle now embarked upon the necessary archival research…

The result being Fabrication, and I would add a pretty clear example of vindicative [bam] methodology. In Quadrant Windschuttle has nothing to say about his apparent failure to live up to his own investigative standard.


All of these arguments in Whitewash — the standard of proof, not proven v. non-existent, vindication v. investigation — are to do with fundamental principles of historical research and analysis. It is difficult to imagine why anyone would take Windschuttle seriously as a historian if any of these arguments stand. As it is, Windschuttle’s Quadrant essay ignores all of them. His “complete silence” here is quite an “admission”.


Maybe if I can be bothered, I might do a couple more posts on this topic, one providing a sampling of less theoretical issues that Windschuttle avoids, and another analysing what the Quadrant article actually says. That’s if I can be bothered, because this post did take a bit longer to write than I thought it would. Also, apologies in advance to Ken Parish.

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12 Responses to I’m not Christopher Sheil, and I never will be

  1. Craig G. says:

    I could be wrong but I understand that Quadrant does not always append a full set of footnotes, but that such can be obtained on request.

  2. Dave Ricardo says:

    Interesting that Martin Krygier —

  3. James Hamilton says:

    “by the likes of Keith Windschuttle”

    Help me keep up, can someone tell me what sort of people “the likes of Keith Windschuttle” are? I seem to be lagging behind the consensus on this one.

    In fact that whole last sentence seemed seems alarming, “magazine to be used…in this way” is an interesting one too, it conjured up images of some kind of drug and alcohol fueled unclad cavortings but that is probably just me. I live in Perth.

  4. Anthony says:

    I don’t think Quadrant’s ever been used in *that* way, James. As for the unclad cavortings … reminds me I need to visit Perth.

  5. jozef says:

    Power comes to those who own our myths … Sovietologists knew all about that.

    The role of historians – who are scientists of the human – is to unscramble myths,
    · not make them… [SMH ]

    I strongly second that notion!

  6. bailz says:

    I’m not Christopher Sheil either dude.

  7. parallel says:

    Roop,

    I’m not Chris Sheil either, for which we are both profoundly grateful.

    I haven’t yet had the pleasure of reading Whitewash, though I have tackled Fabrication and much of the anti-Windschuttle writings (some on this blog) so I cannot comment on how Windschuttle vs Almost Everyone Else will turn out.

    But from the quotations you have supplied above, I would strongly caution you against accepting as valid their characterisation of Windschuttle’s position.

    I would also warn against double standards: suggesting that a book prepared over a year by a dozen people to rebut a serious attack on their historical position – and which (apparently) fails to address significant parts of that attack – is the same thing as an essay prepared by one person over a week or so responding to that rebuttal. Most of what Windschuttle had to say is in the original work, after all.

    I might also point out that footnotes referring back to original sources of historical knowledge going back two centuries are somewhat more important – in fact, mandatory – than those referring to an ongoing public debate where Google can turn up the reference in a few seconds.

    I also note that you – or perhaps it is the authors of “Whitewash” – seem to misunderstand the notion of historical evidence. It is all very well to point out that just because there is no record of an aboriginal word for “land” does not prove that they had no such word. But the problem is the inverse – it is that historians such as Sharon Morgan make claims about the relationship of aboriginals to the land ON NO BASIS WHATSOEVER. (footnote: FoAH pp. 110-111). The onus is on Morgan to justify her claims, not on Windschuttle to prove her wrong – unless, that is, you accept the proposition that anything an historian cares to write purely from their imagination is to be accepted as true until conclusively proven false.

    Because that is what Windschuttle’s book is all about. He claims that much of what passes for Tasmanian history has no basis in evidence, and was in fact more or less fabricated. He has also put up his own interpretation of what evidence there is and his own reconstruction of what actually happened. How accurate this reconstruction is certainly debatable, but the terms of that debate have been set: claims must be supported by evidence or logical argumentation, not merely by assertion as in the past.

    In fact, some of this debate has gone on in this very blog – a discussion about how and whether a particular documented event actually happened. The discussion ranged over vintage firearms, irregular tactics, veracity of historical personages, the chain of evidence… I don’t know who won but I enjoyed it and learned a lot, and I trust the other participants and readers did as well.

  8. roop says:

    “I also note that you – or perhaps it is the authors of “Whitewash” – seem to misunderstand the notion of historical evidence. It is all very well to point out that just because there is no record of an aboriginal word for “land” does not prove that they had no such word. But the problem is the inverse – it is that historians such as Sharon Morgan make claims about the relationship of aboriginals to the land ON NO BASIS WHATSOEVER. (footnote: FoAH pp. 110-111). The onus is on Morgan to justify her claims, not on Windschuttle to prove her wrong – unless, that is, you accept the proposition that anything an historian cares to write purely from their imagination is to be accepted as true until conclusively proven false.”

    from whitewash [p 109-10]:
    “[Windschuttle] begins at a high level of generalisation. Unless it can be proved to the contrary, it must be assumed that hunters and gatherers have no sense of land ownership. It’s a heroic claim which flies in the face of 200 years of jurisprudence and at least 150 years of ethnography. Windschuttle provides no evidence, no references to ground this heroic proposition. We are expected to receive it as an axiom that is beyond argument.”

    i think you misunderstand the notion of historical proof. suppose that windschuttle is correct to say that sharon morgan’s account of the relation of aborigines to the land is not evidentially substantiated in morgan’s writings. if true, this is a failure of morgan’s scholarship, but it does not prove that there was in fact no strong relationship between the tasmanian aborigines and the land. the existence of such a relationship can be proved [as it is in whitewash] based on evidence morgan does not cite. if windschuttle wants to show that morgan is a sloppy historian, well, assuming he is right about morgan’s lack of sources, this will not be controversial. but if windschuttle wants to show that morgan’s interpretation/narrative is wrong, then in addition to pointing out morgan’s sloppiness, windschuttle has to prove his own case. which means he has to explain away, in brief: the existence of aboriginal words roughly equating to “country”, the opinions of settlers who had contact with aborigines, statements of the governor etc.

    “claims must be supported by evidence or logical argumentation, not merely by assertion as in the past.”

    makes sense.

    Because that is what Windschuttle’s book is all about. He claims that much of what passes for Tasmanian history has no basis in evidence, and was in fact more or less fabricated. He has also put up his own interpretation of what evidence there is and his own reconstruction of what actually happened.

    it’s an interesting question, how would windschuttle’s book have been recieved if it merely pointed out poor scholarship among the “orthodoxy”, and refrained from offering an alternative history? i submit to you the reception would’ve been much nicer, and the book would’ve been much more difficult to refute.

    also, most of your other points are fair enough, on account of it being true that i haven’t read fabrication.

  9. Ken Parish says:

    An excellent summary, Roop. The only thing perhaps worth adding is anthropologist Ron Brunton’s assessment of Windschuttle’s claims about Tasamanian Aborigines and whether they had a concept of “land” or “territory” or similar. Brunton is anything but a member of the “black armband” brigade, so it’s surprising that someone like Parallel (who’s been following this debate for a long time) would persist in giving credence to this aspect of Windschuttle’s argument. It tends to confirm (if any confirmation is needed)that Parallel’s views on this issue are impervious to either evidence or rational argument. Brunton says:

    “Arguing against Henry Reynolds’ claim that Tasmanian Aborigines fought a guerilla war to defend their country, he rejects the possibility that they had any concept of trespass or rights in land.

    He makes the unjustified assertion that such concepts derive only from agricultural societies and that they are alien to hunter-gatherers.

    Windschuttle says that none of the lists of words and phrases in Tasmanian languages collated by the 19th century scholar H Ling Roth contain terms for “land”, “own”, “possess” or “property”, or any of their derivatives. But this gets him into an awful mess because, as part of his argument about the conflict, he is forced to accept that the Tasmanian Aborigines believed “game and other fruits of the land belonged to them”.

    In other words, they did have the notion that they could “own” or “possess” things, without the specific terms appearing on Ling Roth’s lists which, in any case, are almost certainly limited. …

    He also appears to have misunderstood the analysis that archaeologist Rhys Jones made of Tasmanian tribal movements, as he is seemingly unaware of the circumstances and protocols under which mainland Aboriginal groups accessed each other’s territories.

    Windschuttle rightfully criticises the one-dimensional view of white settler attitudes that emerges from some historians’ accounts. But he holds an equally crude view of Aboriginal motivations and capacities.”

  10. parallel says:

    Roop –

    Thanks for taking the time to respond.

    The quote you offer from Whitewash is illuminating – since KW (his name is too long to repeat all the time!) does offer evidence (I would not call it proof) for his position. Apparently Whitewash contradicts some of this evidence, in the matter of the aboriginal vocabulary. This criticism has arisen before, and been countered by KW previously (he claimed that words supposingly meaning “country” were more accurately rendered as “dirt” or as descriptions of topography.) Was there a further rebuttal?

    As for other evidence – great! I wasn’t aware that it existed – but that doesn’t make me ignorant of the notion of historical proof.

    I find it interesting that the writer refers to “jurisprudence” and “ethnography” – it seems perilously close to argument by authority. Jurisprudence – based as it is on thousands of years of experience in settled agricultural societies – is simply not relevant to a factual question about aboriginal culture, while ethnographic assumptions have been overthrown before (for example, Margaret Mead’s Samoan fantasies.) I will reserve judgement whether this is offered as a bolster to an otherwise weak argument until I read the book.

    The fundamental point that there is every reason to expect that a nomadic hunter gatherer society will have different attitudes to land than one where, in the not too distant past, the majority of the population farmed the land and where issues of land care, use, ownership, inheritance, community property, etc. were critical. In my opinion, this is not an heroic proposition requiring heroic levels of evidence, rather the contention that attitudes are essentially the same between the two societies is heroic. Ken will correct me if I am wrong, but as I recall the Mabo decision actually was resolved on the basis that the Murray Islanders had farms or gardens which were “owned” by families, and hence established title under common law.

  11. Parallel,

    The quote you offer from Whitewash is illuminating – since KW (his name is too long to repeat all the time!) does offer evidence (I would not call it proof) for his position. Apparently Whitewash contradicts some of this evidence, in the matter of the aboriginal vocabulary. This criticism has arisen before, and been countered by KW previously (he claimed that words supposingly meaning “country” were more accurately rendered as “dirt” or as descriptions of topography.) Was there a further rebuttal?

    I’m reminded of a passing joke in Harry Harrison’s The Stainless Steel Rat Saves the World about “Ancient Dirt” the legendary planet where the human race originated. Not sure why.

    The fundamental point that there is every reason to expect that a nomadic hunter gatherer society will have different attitudes to land than one where, in the not too distant past, the majority of the population farmed the land and where issues of land care, use, ownership, inheritance, community property, etc. were critical. …

    In either Frontier or The Other Side of the Frontier (I’m reading both at the moment, so I tend to get them a bit mixed up) Reynolds points out that the pattern of exclusive ownership of land which we are mow used to, was only just beginning to emerge in England. A quick Google reveals, among other things, that the English Parliament passed the first Enclosure Act in 1710.

    In The Other Side of the Frontier, Reynolds discusses the pattern of Aboriginal land-use, citing evidence of yam fields in north-western Australia, the herding of kangaroos and emus into corrals by native hunters, and aquaculture in Western Victoria. And of course there’s the small matter of “fire-stick agriculture”; the use of fire to create a landscape where the animals the natives preferred to hunt would flourish.

    In my opinion, this is not an heroic proposition requiring heroic levels of evidence, rather the contention that attitudes are essentially the same between the two societies is heroic.

    Reynolds also notes that the Aboriginal pattern of land use very strongly resembled a pattern of land use which also existed in Europe and still exists there today; the ownership of hunting preserves, salmon and trout streams etc. The proprietors of these pieces of prime real estate don’t cultivate the land and in fact go out of their way to prevent any cultivation which might interfere with stocks of game. No heroic assumption is required; merely the capacity to recognise that though different societies might have differ in many respects, there may be areas where attitudes and values are very similar. Or you can go to the extreme of saying that two cultures are so radically different as to make their members incomprehensible to each other.

    Ken will correct me if I am wrong, but as I recall the Mabo decision actually was resolved on the basis that the Murray Islanders had farms or gardens which were “owned” by families, and hence established title under common law.

    After a quick look at the Mabo decision, I’d say a correction is very likely. Here’s my pick for the “money quote”:

    BRENNAN J:

    28. The proposition that, when the Crown assumed sovereignty ovER an Australian colony, it became the universal and absolute beneficial owner of all the land therein, invites critical examination. If the conclusion at which Stephen C.J. arrived in Attorney-General v. Brown be right, the interests of indigenous inhabitants in colonial land were extinguished so soon as British subjects settled in a colony, though the indigenous inhabitants had neither ceded their lands to the Crown nor suffered them to be taken as the spoils of conquest. According to the cases, the common law itself took from indigenous inhabitants any right to occupy their traditional land, exposed them to deprivation of the religious, cultural and economic sustenance which the land provides, vested the land effectively in the control of the Imperial authorities without any right to compensation and made the indigenous inhabitants intruders in their own homes and mendicants for a place to live.
    Judged by any civilized standard, such a law is unjust and its claim to be part of the common law to be applied in contemporary Australia must be questioned. [my emphasis]

    Time to go back to work on my impulse control. *Sigh*

  12. mark says:

    No, parallel, that’s not the case. What evidence that the Murray Islanders had a concept of land ownership showed was that, if TN applied, it would not apply to them. But TN was shown not to have actually existed anyway.

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