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Response to Review no. 509

I am grateful to Professor Atkinson for his thoughtful and sympathetic review of my anthology. Not all historians of Australia are willing to give the concept of genocide a hearing if it is applied to their country of research, preferring to regard it as a pathology that afflicts Africa, the Middle East or wartime Europe. And yet, despite this ambivalence, lately they have been subject to a relentless campaign by right-wing media commentators who accuse them of having supposedly tarnished the nation’s honour with exaggerated claims of frontier conflict and stolen Indigenous children. In the most recent chapter in the ‘history wars’, even the residual legal rights of Indigenous people to some of the land (native title), and the historians who have documented its existence, have been subject to sustained attack. Typical of the ferocity is a new book by Michael Connor published by the press owned by Keith Windschuttle, the freelancer whose The Fabrication of Aboriginal History unleashed a bitter debate when it appeared in late 2003. Here is how he describes the state of the literature:

A diseased and senile historiography, accepting any evidence, without scepticism, without the enthusiasm to test its truthfulness or accuracy, produces exactly the sort of late twentieth century history writing we are chained to. This almost corpse (there is still a beating heart – the pace-maker funded by grants), which we are dragging into the new century needs revisionism, freedom from political bonds, new writers. (Michael Connor, The Invention of Terra Nullius: Historical and Legal Fictions on the Foundation of History [Sydney: Macleay Press, 2005], pp. 154f)

Professor Atkinson himself, although hardly on ‘the left’, is set upon by Connor with similarly venomous gusto. Most academic historians in the field of Aboriginal history are, as well. The country’s only national broadsheet, The Australian, has enthusiastically promoted The Invention of Terra Nullius, ensuring that the public ‘debate’ consists of the sound of one hand clapping. We should not be surprised. This newspaper has cast a cold eye on the humanities and social sciences generally, accusing the ‘publicly funded intelligentsia’ of ‘woolly-mindedness’ and lacking a ‘moral compass’ because it is not signing up for the government’s so-called war on terror. ‘Having long ago substituted “critique” for reason, and even after everything that has happened during the past 3 1⁄2 years’, the editor wrote last year, ‘the intellectuals cannot grasp that the West and its democratic values are under attack from an insidious new fascism’ (The Australian, 16 March 2005). Plainly, the stakes are high – no less than the survival of western civilisation itself. Such a toxic public sphere is not one in which the results of historical research, let alone the ‘clash of civilisations’, can be discussed with sobriety.

The reputation of western civilisation in its Australian version is also the bone of contention in the genocide debate. For as a creation of international law, it necessarily imports moral categories into our judgements, indeed criminal categories that can ‘pollute’ a national past that hitherto had evoked pride. Are we recording angels or hanging judges, or both? Professor Atkinson is acutely conscious of this tension, or challenge, and it is good that his review is a vehicle by which historians beyond Australia can be made aware of these antipodean discussions. (Those interested in further work about these and other debates about colonialism and genocide may consult a book appearing this year that I have edited with Dan Stone called Colonialism and Genocide [Taylor and Francis, 2006]).

Regarding Professor Atkinson’s specific points, it is not the job of an editor to go into bat for individual contributors, but I do wish to address some of the more general issues raised in the review, as well as to venture a response to a criticism of my own chapter. Professor Atkinson suggested that Australian history was singled out as notoriously genocidal given the book’s appearance in a series called ‘Studies in War and Genocide’ dominated by collections on Nazi Germany. Surely Australia is not the next worst case after the Holocaust. Indeed it is not, and neither do I claim it is. Nor is there a suggestion of equating the British colonisation of Australia and the Holocaust. The series editor, Omer Bartov, and the publisher, Berghahn Books, seek to publish on all cases of genocide. Another book I am editing, Colony, Empire, Genocide, a 19-chapter anthology with a global remit, is about to go to press in that series. But the early inclusion of a book on Australia is entirely appropriate. There is virtually nothing written on the subject circulating in international historiography. Consistently, scholars in genocide studies abroad have to refer to outdated literature when venturing comparisons involving Australia. One of my aims in editing the anthology was to make available to them the latest research in the field.

A theme of Professor Atkinson’s review was the complexity of settler-state relations in the colonies. It is also a theme of the book. I should like to add that a number of the chapters seek to direct attention away from the state, where is customarily trained in genocide studies with its twentieth-century focus, to civil society, namely, to the congerie of economic imperatives and social ambitions incarnated in the frontier settlers. For, as we also read in the review, had not the Queensland government, for instance, deployed the Native Police to patrol the frontier (where they massacred untold numbers of Aborigines), the violence inflicted by the British squatters would have been greater. In that case, what is it about settler societies that leads to a situation of civil war? The books seeks to answer that question.

Regarding my own chapter, Professor Atkinson had a rather serious reservation. He wrote:

Throughout this book, there is insufficient acknowledgement of the fact that government, British or colonial, was not the motive force for most aspects of Australian settlement. Some authors, while posing this problem, also obscure it. Moses himself says, for instance, that colonial authorities in London ‘wrung their hands about the frontier violence [in Australia] and the tribal extinctions, they were unwilling to cease or radically amend the colonization project’. But after about 1790 it was wholly impossible for anyone in London to stop or ‘radically amend’ the colonisation of Australia in any way that would have made much difference at all. Such statements are seriously misleading as descriptions of the way the settlement of Australia took place, and of the relationship in Britain itself between government and people.

It was not as if I had not considered this problem. This is how I tried to solve it:

Certainly, colonialism in Australia, as elsewhere, could not be halted in the manner of flicking a light switch. The Colonial Office, for example, was only a small part of a massive state apparatus. Nonetheless, the rhetoric of Indigenous decline also served to mask choices open to policy-makers, choices they were not prepared to entertain because they fundamentally approved of the civilizing process in which they were engaged. The fact is that they did not take their own humanitarian convictions seriously enough to implement the radical measures necessary to prevent Indigenous deaths – negotiating over land rights, for instance – whether caused by massacre and starvation, for these measures would entail relinquishing control of the land and jeopardizing the colonizing mission. Talk of inexorable extinction reflected a racist theodicy as much as governmental impotence. The fact is that European colonial powers knew the outcome of their settlement projects. They were well aware of the choices, and were prepared to countenance their consequences. This awareness extended to the mass death caused by diseases like smallpox. Only an attenuated concept of intention would exculpate the European powers in these circumstances: after all, the disappearance of many indigenous peoples from the face of the earth was a natural consequence of their actions, and they knew it on the frontier, in the colonial capital, and back home at the imperial seat of power. Where genocide was not consciously willed, then it was implicitly intended in the sense of the silent condoning, sometimes agonized acceptance, of a chain of events for which they were co-responsible and were not prepared to rupture. (pp. 29ff)

I doubt that this answer would satisfy Professor Atkinson. I am happy to concede that in terms of Realpolitik it was practically impossible for London to intervene forcefully on behalf of the Indigenous peoples. But the rhetoric of humanitarian intervention was not invented in the 1990s after Yugoslavia, Rwanda and Kosovo. Western commentators were keenly interested in the treatment of Ottoman Christians in the second half of the nineteenth century, and the fate of the Bulgarians was also a matter of international concern. Why less concern with the Aborigines of Australia, or indeed the many millions who perished needlessly in famines India, as Mike Davis shows in his Late Victorian Holocausts? Trollope, Dilke and many other commentators did not shed many tears about the perceived ‘extinction’ of Indigenous peoples. In fact, for some of them, it was a marker of progress! My hope is that future research will gradually lessen the appeal of the theodicy that blinds us to the fatal entwinement of modernity, colonialism and genocide.