Australian Journal of Politics and History: Volume 52, Number 3, 2006, pp. 439-454.
A Prehistory of Australia’s History Wars: The
Evolution of Aboriginal History during the 1970s and
Australian National University
While an extensive debate has recently addressed more contemporary contributions to historical scholarship, the historiographical background to Australia’s History Wars has rarely been appraised. This article proposes an interpretative narrative of the evolution of Aboriginal history during the 1970s and 1980s. While before the late 1960s a systematic historiography of Aboriginal-white relations did not exist, these decades have witnessed the emergence and consolidation of Aboriginal history as an established academic discipline. The 1970s saw the “detection” of Aboriginal persistence and resistance and the historiographical tradition established during this decade insisted on the contested nature of the invasion process. Conversely, during the 1980s, an interpretative tradition stressing Indigenous agency, transformation and adaptation shifted the focus of historiographical attention.
During the 1970s and 1980s what had previously been considered the domain of anthropologists, ethnologists and archaeologists became an interest of historians as well.1 While initially historians concentrated on challenging the image of Australia as the “quiet continent” and unqualified descriptions of Aboriginal destruction, a second moment of historiographical reinterpretation shifted the focus of historiographical attention towards Aboriginal-white relations after the end of the hostilities on the Australian frontier.2 Throughout a recent outbreak of Australia’s “History Wars”, Keith Windschuttle assumed that practitioners of Aboriginal history form a coherent group in their thinking. However, these “wars” were preceded by a long, complicated and strongly contested process of historiographical transition.3 This article shows how many contributed to the development of the discipline, that there were many 1
See D.J. Mulvaney, “The Australian Aborigines, 1606-1929; Opinion and Fieldwork, Part 1 and Part 2”, in J.J. Eastwood and F.B. Smith, eds, Historical Studies: Selected Articles (Melbourne, 1964), pp. 1-56.
See P. Read, “Unearthing the Past is not Enough”, Island, Vol. 52 (1992), pp. 49-53; B. Attwood, “Aborigines and Academic Historians: Some Recent Encounters”, Australian Historical Studies, Vol. 24, 94 (1990), pp. 123-135; B. Attwood, “Aboriginal History”, in John A. Moses, ed., Historical Disciplines in Australasia: Themes, Problems and Debates, a special issue of Australian Journal of Politics and History, Vol. 41 (1995), pp. 33-47; B. Attwood, “Historiography on the Australian Frontier” in B. Attwood, Stephen G. Foster, eds., Frontier Conflict: The Australian Experience (Canberra, 2003), pp. 169-184; and B. Attwood, S. Foster, “Introduction”, in Attwood and Foster, Frontier Conflict, pp. 1-29.
See R. Manne, “In Denial: The Stolen Generation and the Right”, Quarterly Essay, 1 (2001); K. Windschuttle, The Fabrication of Aboriginal History: Volume One, Van Diemen’s Land, 1803-1847 (Sydney, 2002); R. Manne, ed., Whitewash: On Keith Windschuttle’s Fabrication of Aboriginal History (Sydney, 2003); S. Macintyre, A. Clark, The History Wars (Melbourne, 2003). © The Author.
Journal compilation © 2006 Department of History, School of Political Science and International Studies, The University of Queensland and Blackwell Publishing Asia Pty Ltd.
incremental interpretative steps and that Windschuttle crucially ignored the shifts, diversity and subtleties of the debates of the 1970s and 1980s. This is a significant dynamic and should not be overlooked. Bain Attwood has recently and compellingly noted in Rights for Aborigines how the historiographical activity of the 1960s and 1970s was essential in providing a story, written narratives of Aboriginal history, to...
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