The Truth behind Australia's History Wars

August 29, 2006 (PRLEAP.COM) Education News
Melbourne, Australia — 29 August, 2006— Published by Blackwell Publishing in the September 2006 issue of Geographical Research, for the Institute of Australian Geographers, this paper aims to put Australian colonial relations in a broader perspective.

On the one side were humanitarians, who felt that colonization was all about bringing Christianity and “civilization” to Aborigines, Africans, Maori and Native Americans. On the other side were those who had left Britain to carve out new lives for themselves on colonial frontiers in each of these regions. They would have viewed indigenous peoples as a threatening presence that must either be removed from the landscape or “tamed”.

From this perspective, this paper also asserts that revisionists like Keith Windschuttle may have got things wrong in his denial of the extensive scale of the Aborigines’ mass murders, and his claims that colonial Britons in Australia were guided by humanitarian principles.

Lester maintains that to take this view is to overlook the fact that British settlers on all of the Empire’s frontiers, including Australia’s, were condemned by humanitarians for ignoring precisely these principles in their relations with indigenous peoples.

These prevailing contests over the treatment of indigenous peoples played a fundamental role in defining what it was to be British in the colonial world, and what the purpose of the Empire was.

Within this broader imperial context, Lester also takes issue with the revisionists over policies of Aboriginal assimilation. Windschuttle has accused early nineteenth century missionaries and humanitarians of devising policies of Aboriginal separation from “white” society. He blames various contemporary social ills on these policies. Lester points out that the imperial humanitarian network as a whole – including some of its branches in Australia – actually advocated the very policies of assimilation that Windschuttle promotes.

Said Alan Lester, “The problem with these polices in Australia was the same as that in other parts of the Empire: they were never worked out through consultation with indigenous peoples themselves, but consisted instead of foisting European ideas of progress and civilization on peoples who resented being so patronised.”

“Historical revisionists who suggest that British colonization in Australia was relatively ‘mild’ tend to assume that most colonial Britons behaved according to humanitarian precepts. This paper demonstrates that humanitarians actually had to campaign actively across a number of colonial sites, including Australian ones, to try to resist much more murderous settler notions of what it was to be British on colonial frontiers.”

Despite some successes in the 1830s, humanitarians had, by and large, lost their campaign for ‘milder’ forms of colonization in Australia and in other settler colonies by the late 1840s. Yet their assimilationist agenda lived on into the twentieth century and still informs the policies prescribed by revisionists.


This paper is published in the September 2006 issue of Geographical Research (Vol. 44, issue 3, pg 229-241). Media who would like to receive a PDF of the study or wishes to interview the author, please contact .