The Launceston Conservative Speakers' Club

Genocide in Tasmania?

At the August Meeting

Mr Malcolm Nicholson, BA, GradDipLib, DipEd

Will give a Review of Keith Windschuttle's

The Fabrication of Aboriginal History

Wednesday, 27 August 2003, 7.30pm Max Fry Hall, Trevallyn



Genocide in Tasmania

A Review of Keith Windschuttle’s 

The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, Volume One, Van Diemen’s Land  1803-1847

Edited transcript of an address given by 

Malcolm Nicholson 

at the Launceston Conservative Speakers Club on August 27, 2003.

(All page references are from The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, Volume One, 2002, unless otherwise indicated.)


The Fabrication of Aboriginal History by Keith Windschuttle is probably the first book to seriously challenge the assumption that the British colonists committed genocide in Tasmania and it is supposed to be one of the worst cases of genocide in history.

Keith Windschuttle used to be a lecturer in Australian History and Social Policy at the University of News South Wales . Back then he agreed with historians like Henry Reynolds and Lyndall Ryan and he taught his students that what the British did in Australia was worse than what the Spanish did in America .

He changed his mind in 2000 when he was asked to review a book Massacre Myth by Rod Moran, about a massacre of up to 100 Aborigines by the police at Forrest River in Western Australia in 1926. Moran argued that there was no evidence that the massacre had really taken place. There were no witnesses, no bodies and several Aborigines, who were supposed to have been killed, later turned up alive. This led Windschuttle to examine the credibility of other accounts of Aboriginal massacres.

In December 2002 he published The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, Volume One, about Tasmania . This is intended to be the first of three volumes. The other two will deal with mainland Australia .

This review will concentrate on the two most important issues in his book, fabrication and genocide, and will summarize what he said.


Windschuttle’s most serious charge is that many of the accounts of massacres and killings of Aborigines in history books are not reliable. There is no evidence for them. They appear to have been fabricated.

Windschuttle did not make this distinction himself, but I have classified his research into two categories. The first category is the claims about massacres and atrocities by modern historians when there is no contemporary evidence from the 19th Century that they ever happened in the way that they have been described. It looks like the historians have just made them up. The second category is the claims for killings for which there is some historical evidence from the 19th Century, but Windschuttle doubts the evidence is authentic or believes it has been exaggerated.

The modern historian, Windschuttle puts the boot into the most, is Lyndall Ryan, author of The Aboriginal Tasmanians, which could be described as the definitive politically correct history of the Tasmanian Aborigines. In her book Ryan writes how massacres and killings took place and she includes footnotes, which are supposed to provide the sources, the historical evidence, such as diaries, reports and newspapers, to support what she says happened. But Windschuttle looked up her sources and found they did not say what she claimed they did. He said he found 17 cases where Ryan had invented killings and provided false footnotes and another seven cases where she exaggerated the number of Aborigines killed or captured.

Ryan wrote that by 1808 over 100 Aborigines and 20 Europeans had been killed in conflicts over kangaroo hunting. Her source for this claim is the diary of Reverend Robert Knopwood, the first Anglican Chaplain in Tasmania . Windschuttle checked Knopwood’s diary and it said that by 1808, only four, not 100, Aborigines and two Europeans had been killed. The only other casualty was Knopwood’s dog Spott who was killed by a spear (p 49) .

On the Sunday program on Channel Nine when Ryan was challenged about why she wrote Knopwood said 100 Aborigines had been killed, when he only said four, she replied, “Historians are always making up figures.” (

Ryan wrote that in 1826, 14 Aborigines were killed and 10 captured near Sorell. The event she is referring to is apparently the capture of Black Tom, an Aborigine who Windschuttle describes as simply a black bushranger ( p 70). But none of the sources in her footnotes for this event say anything about 10 Aborigines being killed when Black Tom was captured ( p 135).

Ryan wrote that in December 1827 there was a massacre of Aborigines near Cressy. Again, none of her sources say anything about this massacre ( p 139-142).

In 1828 Lt. Governor Arthur formed seven roving parties to search the bush and capture Aborigines. Ryan wrote that between 1828 and 1829 the roving parties had killed about 60 Aborigines and captured 20. None of her sources say the roving parties killed 60 Aborigines. Windschuttle found that the roving parties only killed two Aborigines between them and captured 19 ( p 153-158).

Ryan wrote that in January 1829 settlers ambushed and killed 10 Aborigines at Moultling Lagoon on the east coast. Again there is nothing in the sources she cites about 10 Aborigines being killed at Moultling Lagoon. Windschuttle suggested that in this case what Ryan wrote was actually based on a massacre in December 1828 when soldiers killed 10 Aborigines at Tooms Lake , between Oatlands and the east coast. There are several pieces of evidence for these killings and Windschuttle believes this is a genuine case of a mass killing of Aborigines but other historians have ignored it ( p 159-161).

Lloyd Robson wrote the two volume, A History of Tasmania, which is arguably the definitive history of the state. Robson wrote that in 1830 a settler named James Hobbs said he had seen Aborigines kill 300 sheep at Oyster Bay in 1815. In retaliation soldiers killed 22 Aborigines. In fact James Hobbs did not claim to have seen this as Robson wrote. He only said he heard about it. In 1815 Hobbs was living in India . Windschuttle said that not only is there no corroborating evidence for these killings, such as a report by the soldiers, but there was no European settlement at Oyster Bay in 1815. The first land grant there was in 1823, so there could not have been 300 sheep at Oyster Bay in 1815 for the Aborigines to kill ( p 143-6).

Another case of a historian apparently inventing an atrocity comes from Rhys Jones in the documentary, The Last Tasmanian. This claimed that someone kicked an Aboriginal baby’s head off in front of its mother. Windschuttle said that not only is there no evidence that this ever happened but he suggested that it is physically impossible to kick a baby’s head off. Rhys Jones appears to have just made it up (p 42).

The second category is those accounts of massacres and atrocities for which there is some evidence from the 19th Century, but Windschuttle doubts the reliability of the evidence or believes it has been exaggerated.

It is widely believed that in 1804 at Risdon Cove, the site of the first European settlement in Tasmania , soldiers fired a cannon at an Aboriginal hunting party and killed about 50 or up to 100. Also, Lt. Moore, who ordered his troops to fire, is supposed to have been drunk at the time. ( p 20-21)

Windschuttle does not deny there was a confrontation and Aborigines were killed, however the earliest reports of what happened gave a much lower number of Aborigines killed. Lt. Moore said two were killed and several wounded ( p 17). In a report to Sydney Lt. Governor Collins said three had been killed ( p 19).

Even Lyndall Ryan only wrote that at least three were killed at Risdon (Ryan, 1996, p 75).

The claim that about 50 had been killed was first made 26 years later in 1830 at a committee of inquiry into Aboriginal violence. Captain James Kelly said 40 to 50 had been killed; however he was only 12 years old at the time and was not at Risdon. The committee did not regard him as a reliable witness (p 19,21).

Another witness was Edward White, a former convict, who was at Risdon, but he was too far away to see what happened. He said a “great many” had been killed, but he did not know how many ( p 19,22).

The claim that Lt. Moore had been drunk first appeared in James Bonwick’s book, The Last of the Tasmanians, published in 1870, over 60 years later. There is no mention of it before then.  Bonwick wrote that a settler of 1804 told him this, but no settlers, who had been at Risdon in 1804, were still in Van Diemen’s Land in 1841 when Bonwick arrived. There were no eyewitnesses, who could have told Bonwick this, so Windschuttle suggests he just made it up ( p 25).

Another famous massacre is said to have taken place in 1828 at Cape Grim on the Woolnorth property when four convict shepherds, working for the Van Diemen’s Land Company, shot 30 Aborigines and threw their bodies over a cliff.

The Cape Grim massacre was first mentioned in 1966; apparently no book on the Tasmanian Aborigines published before then mentions it. (p 251)

Then in 1966, Brian Plomley, who has written more about the Tasmanian Aborigines than anyone else, published the book, Friendly Mission; George Robinson’s diaries from 1828 to 1834, describing his expeditions rounding up the last of the Aborigines before taking them to Flinders Island. They recorded how in 1830 Robinson visited Woolnorth and interviewed both the shepherds and some Aboriginal women who said about 30 Aborigines had been shot 2 ½ years earlier.

There had been two earlier confrontations between the shepherds and the Aborigines which Windschuttle does not dispute. There was a conflict over some Aboriginal women which the shepherds tried to entice into their huts. One shepherd was speared and an Aboriginal was shot. A few weeks later the Aborigines retaliated by driving a flock of sheep into the sea and killing them. In the third incident, the Cape Grim massacre, the shepherds are said to have retaliated by killing 30 Aborigines. On the surface, the massacre sounds credible with both sides apparently corroborating each other.

Windschuttle believes there was a third incident and Aborigines were killed, but like Risdon, he believes the number of those killed has been exaggerated. He believes six were killed at Cape Grim. He based this on the reports of Edwin Curr, manager of the Van Diemen’s Land Company. He wrote that about a week or two after they had killed the flock of sheep, the Aborigines attacked the hut of the four convict shepherds. There was a “long fight” and six Aborigines were shot. Windschuttle tries to explain away the claim that 30 were killed by claiming the convict witnesses were unreliable and could not be trusted, and he accuses Robinson of putting words into the mouths of the Aboriginal women ( p 261-4).

Windschuttle suggesting that Robinson made it up or exaggerated is not the same thing as when he shows that historians like Ryan wrote about killings when there is no evidence for them. It is not as convincing or conclusive. It is possible that more were killed at Risdon or Cape Grim. You just cannot prove it.

The real problem with Cape Grim Windschuttle argued is that 30 Aborigines could not have been killed in the way it has been described on logistical grounds. There were supposed to have been 30 Aborigines and four shepherds with single shot muskets which would have taken between 30 seconds and a minute to reload. Assuming that the convicts managed to reload as quickly as possible, about 30 seconds, then shoot, hit and not miss, kill and not just wound an Aborigine with every shot, then it would have taken a minimum of seven to eight minutes to kill 30 of them. Which begs the question – after the first four had been shot, why didn’t the surviving 26 either run away or rush them while they were reloading? Are we supposed to believe they simply stood there for seven to eight minutes waiting to be shot? It does not sound believable. ( p 260-1)

Windschuttle does not like Robinson. He accuses him of inventing or exaggerating atrocities to justify his plan to separate the Aborigines and take them to Flinders Island to protect them from violence by Europeans (p 44-8, 216-221, 270).

There are other reports of killings in Robinson’s diaries which Windschuttle thinks are doubtful. He does not believe Robinson invented all of them. Rather, he unquestioningly wrote down rumours and tall stories that he had been told by others.

Robinson was told how a stock-keeper called Paddy Heagon shot 19 Aborigines with a swivel gun loaded with nails. Ryan mentions this in her book. First of all, Windschuttle could not find any evidence that this person Paddy Heagon ever existed. Also, a swivel gun is a small naval cannon which is usually mounted on the bow or stern of a boat. So, even if Paddy Heagon did exist, or they got the name wrong, what was a convict doing with a cannon in the Tasmanian bush ? It was not as though the colonial authorities gave convicts their own artillery pieces. It is simply not believable and it sounds like something someone just made up.  (p 271-3)

Lyndall Ryan has written that even if half the stories about Aboriginal killings recorded in Robinson’s diaries are true, then 700 Aborigines were shot. She is apparently suggesting that Robinson’s diaries said 1400 Aborigines were shot by Europeans.  Windschuttle went through Robinson’s diaries and found that he mentioned 53 incidents in which Aborigines were killed. He calculated that a total of 188 Aborigines were killed in these incidents, not 1400 (p 234-5). He concluded that 50 of these 188 killings were plausible. The rest were either made up or could not be proved. Windschuttle gives an example of how Robinson was told how an Aboriginal woman was kept by a stock-keeper for a month, then shot. There are no details about who was involved, when and where it was supposed to have happened, so Windschuttle argued that it was not a plausible record of a killing ( p 286,289). Of course it is quite possible that this did happen. There is just not enough evidence to prove it. So perhaps, more than these 50 killings described by Robinson, which Windschuttle thinks are plausible, really did happen, but there is not enough evidence to be sure.


The second main argument in Windschuttle’s book is the question of genocide. Did the British colonists intend to exterminate the Aborigines? How many did they kill? And if they did not kill enough to exterminate them, what caused the extinction of the full-blooded Tasmanian Aborigines?

Regardless of what politically correct historians might say today, Windschuttle argued that it was not British colonial policy to exterminate indigenous people. He said that according to international law at the time there were three ways a European power could establish a colony.

Firstly, they could buy or lease land from the indigenous inhabitants.

Secondly, they could persuade them to submit to European law.

Finally, they could declare possession, that they now owned the land by right of first discovery and occupation.

When the British came to the Australian mainland and Tasmania, they could not identify any political authority among the Aborigines to negotiate with. Because the Aborigines did not develop the land, build on it or cultivate it, the British believed they did not own it, so they had the right to claim it. This is not a very politically correct idea any more, but it was considered legal and proper at the time (  p 184-5).

The reason why the British made a treaty with the Maoris next door in New Zealand was because the Maoris had houses. Therefore, they owned the land and should be negotiated with.

But once the British did declare their sovereignty over the land that they now owned it, and then everybody in it, both Aboriginal and European, was subject to British law and protected by it. Windschuttle quotes from the orders given to David Collins by the Colonial Office. They did not order him to invade Van Diemen’s Land, exterminate the Aborigines and take their land. Instead, he was ordered to build good relations with the Aborigines and to punish any crimes committed against them. Windschuttle also quotes from the proclamations of Collins, his successors, Davey, Sorell and Arthur, all saying that the Aborigines were protected by the law and crimes against them were to be punished. It hardly sounds like a pack of racists out to commit genocide. (p 188-190)

Historians like Lyndall Ryan claim these statements of equal protection were hypocritical and no European was ever charged or punished for assaulting or killing an Aborigine. This is not true. Windschuttle mentions a case of a convict charged with manslaughter of an Aborigine and another convict charged with “indescribable brutality” to Aboriginal women. He suggests there could be more cases, bit no one has done the research yet (p 199-1).

But in spite of these good intentions on paper, by 1833, 30 years after the first settlement there were only 330 Aborigines left. What happened to the rest?

The first step in working out what happened to the Tasmanian Aborigines, what caused their population decline, is to work out how many there were in the first place before the arrival of the Europeans in 1803. Both Lloyd Robson and Lyndall Ryan have estimated there were between 3000 to 4000. Brian Plomley said there were 4000 to 6000 (p 364). However, these estimates present a problem for those who believe the Europeans exterminated the Aborigines because there is no evidence they killed anywhere near that number, i.e. In The Aboriginal/Settler Clash in Van Diemen’s Land 1803-1831, Brian Plomley said there were 5000 Aborigines in1803. Seven years later, by 1810, it had dropped to 4000. By 1820, it had dropped to 2000 (Plomley, p 29). So, according to Plomley, 3000 Aborigines had died by 1820. But in the same book, Plomley, lists the clashes with Aborigines and by 1820 only 10 were listed as being killed (Plomley, p 54-58). This does not include those killed by sealers or the Van Diemen’s Land Company. Either these 3000 Aborigines died some other way, such as from disease, or historians like Plomley have overestimated the Aboriginal population and there never were 5000 in the first place.

Windschuttle, on the other hand, believes there were probably less than 2000 Aborigines in 1803 (p 371). When he worked out how many were killed, he started by adding up the number of Aborigines killed in Plomley’s The Aboriginal/Settler Clash. This came to 109 deaths between 1803 and 1831, which averages at four killings a year. Windschuttle commented, “ Tasmania is supposed to have been one of the world’s worst examples of genocide”, but four deaths a year “must rank at just about the lowest rate of violent deaths ever meted out to indigenous inhabitants anywhere.” (p 362) Windschuttle added some killings which Plomley missed and came up with 118 Aborigines killed by Europeans up to 1831. During the same period 187 colonists were killed by Aborigines (p 364).

Some critics of Windschuttle have argued that there were more than 118 Aborigines killed because convicts and settlers killed them out in the bush and never reported it. I agree there probably were some unrecorded killings. 118 should be treated as a minimum number of Aborigines killed. Lyndall Ryan has claimed there were over 400 unrecorded killings in the 1820s (Ryan, 1996, p 174).  But if more killings were unrecorded, so there is no evidence for them, then how does she know they happened? The seven roving parties only managed to kill two Aborigines between them, which suggests that Europeans were really not that good at finding Aborigines in the bush and killing them. So, I doubt there could have been very many unrecorded killings which we do not know about.

Of course, if settlers and convicts were killing Aborigines out in the bush and keeping quiet about it, that suggests they must have known their actions were illegal and they would have been punished if they had been found out. So, there could not have been a policy of genocide (p 358-361).

What happened to the rest of the Aborigines if the British did not kill them? Windschuttle believes there are two explanations; disease and the removal of Aboriginal women.

Like in other parts of the world, when the Europeans arrived, they brought with diseases for which the indigenous people had no immunity. The Tasmanian Aborigines were especially vulnerable to respiratory diseases, colds, influenza and pneumonia (p 373). He suggests that Bass Strait sealers first introduced these diseases to Tasmania, starting in 1798, and Aborigines were already dying from them before European settlement in 1803 (p 375).

George Robinson rounded up the Aborigines supposedly to protect them from violence by the Europeans, but those Aborigines in his care were dying from European diseases at an alarming rate. His first mission to the Aborigines was on Bruny Island and 22 out of the 40 Aborigines died from disease there in just one year. There were 350 Aborigines left in 1831 that had been rounded up. This had dropped by one third in two years to 220 in 1831, then down to 123 in 1835. The population had dropped by two thirds in just four years and down to 46 in 1847. They were not being deliberately exterminated. They were dying from disease. And short of then all going back to England, there was really nothing the British could do about it.

Windschuttle believes the other cause of the population decline was the removal of Aboriginal women from the tribes. Many of them were abducted by Bass Strait sealers. For every Aboriginal woman, that was taken out of Aboriginal society, that was one less woman to reproduce and keep the race going (p 386-7).

It also appears that convicts and whalers spread venereal diseases among Aboriginal women, including Trugannini, and rendered them sterile, resulting in even fewer Aboriginal women capable of bearing children ( p 375-6).

In 1793 French explorers visited southern Tasmania. They found an Aboriginal tribe which consisted of 42 people. 15 were adults and 27 were children, meaning about two thirds of the tribe were children. In contrast, in 1835 there were 123 Aborigines on Flinders Island. Only 14 were children. If the ratio of children to adults had been the same as 40 years earlier, there should have been over 200 children. Whether it was caused by fewer women or diseases killing young children or the social upheaval brought about by the arrival of the Europeans, there were clearly much fewer Aboriginal children being born and growing up. Any society, which can no longer reproduce itself, is going to die out.

So, while the British did not deliberately exterminate the Aborigines, it is safe to say that by introducing diseases and removing a lot of the woman, British settlement caused the population decline. If they had not come here, the full-blooded Aborigines would not have become extinct when they did.

Conclusion – History and Postmodernism

I want to conclude by looking at the motives of historians like Lyndall Ryan and why they write things which are apparently not true.

One critic of Windschuttle, Alan Atkinson, accused him of wanting to “take the discipline back to some golden age, when it was all about facts.” (Australian Book Review, February 2003, p 4 ). This sounds bizarre. We assume history books describe facts and are based on facts. If history is not supposed to be about facts and not based on facts, then what are you supposed to base it on?

 This is an issue, which Windschuttle addressed in an earlier book The Killing of History and in several articles on his webpage, The Sydney Line, about history and postmodernism. As the word suggests, postmodernism means what comes after modernism. Modernism, in this context, means the belief that it is possible to find out the facts, to know what is true. Postmodernists believe that it is impossible to know the facts and find out what really happened in the past. They believe everyone is so politically and culturally biased that it is impossible not to be biased and to see things objectively as they really are, so the truth and facts are unknowable. They believe the traditional writing of history, based on facts and evidence, has been used to oppress women and ethnic minorities. So they believe the new purpose of history writing should be to be deliberately politically biased and write history that supports a political agenda, that is, propaganda, in favour of the oppressed minority, such as Aboriginal land rights in this context. Rather than basing what they write on the evidence, they twist or invent the evidence to support their political agenda, much in the same way that Communists used to rewrite history and make events disappear to make history fit their Communist ideology.

Windschuttle quotes Henry Reynolds as saying his books are not supposed to be objective or detached, but are deliberately biased, so that they promote what he sees as in the interests of the Aborigines (p 6, 400-402).

I think postmodernism goes a long way to explaining Lyndall Ryan’s writing. She invents or exaggerates killings to justify land rights for Tasmanian Aborigines today as compensation for how they suffered in the past. If they are given a choice between a low number of Aborigines killed and a high number, politically correct people will usually pick the higher number, not necessarily because of the better quality of the evidence, but because it makes the case for land rights and compensation higher.

Windschuttle has said that he does not have a problem with writing a history of the Aborigines and how thew arrival of the Europeans affected them, or the history of any other minority group, as long as they base what they write on what the evidence says happened, not on what their political agenda would like to believe happened.

Postmodernists try to justify their bias and creative writing to make up for the way Aborigines or other minorities have been mistreated in the past. However, if they do not believe there are facts and it is impossible to know what really happened, then how can they know the minority group was mistreated or oppressed in the first place?  Whatever our political agendas, what we believe about history has to be based on the evidence, not on what we would like to believe happened.

Top of Page | Home Page

©-free 2003 Adelaide Institute