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Where truth lies

23 July 2010 1,286 views No Comment

Where truth lies

In my first year at Monash University in 1962 our wonderful history lecturer, Geoffrey Bolton, encouraged us all to read the London-born E. H. Carr’s provocative ‘What is History?’, which had been published the year before. This involved us thinking about the nature of historical truth and the complex relationship(s) between historians and the past. We were especially encouraged to confront the thorny issues of historical interpretation and of whether matters of fact and of value can clearly be differentiated.

Unlike Carr, Ann Curthoys & John Docker fundamental question is somewhat more limited. Yet in asking if history is fiction, they are obliged to explore whether or not historians can learn to tell the truth about the past and whether we can ever know if an historical narrative can provide us with a true account of what actually happened. That is to say, can we ever come to know the past, and if so, how?

Although we have never met, for decades Curthoys and Docker have been two of my favourite Australian scholars. One of the aims of this fascinating book is to show how historians from Herodotus to Thucydides and Benedetto Croce to R.G.Collingwood have “always pondered the problem of historical truth, and have always markedly differed over how to achieve it.”

In IS HISTORY FICTION? it is their very detailed and contemporary treatment of the so-called History Wars that I find especially challenging, and illuminating.

The reality is that most journalists and the general public expect historical scholars to know what is true about the past and to express these ‘ true historical facts’ clearly and simply. This especially applies to the crucial events in a nation’s past, including matters involving war, violence and colonial occupation.

To explore these thorny problems, Curthoys and Docker examine three key historical disputes: the heated debates in America about the bombing of Hiroshima in 1945, in Japan about the Nanjing (Nanking) massacre of December 1937 to March 1938, and most fascinating of all, the acrimonious disputes over the extent “of violence on the frontiers of settlement in Tasmania in the first three decades of the nineteenth century.”

The most important catalyst for the fierce debates about colonial history in Australia was Keith Windschuttle’s lengthy refutation of the accepted historical orthodoxy that in relation to indigenous peoples Tasmania (i.e. Van Diemen’s Land) had experienced a very violent frontier.

In volume one of his powerful tome, ‘The Fabrication of Aboriginal History’, published in 2002, Quadrant editor Windschuttle especially took aim at Lyndall Ryan, whose highly influential ‘The Aboriginal Tasmanians’ was first published in 1981 and reprinted in 1996. The feisty Windschuttle accused Ryan and other white frontier historians, including Henry Reynolds, “not only of making mistakes in their footnotes” but, even more damaging, of “ ‘fabricating’ their claims.”

In stark contrast to Ryan and Reynolds, Windschuttle suggests that the rapid indigenous population decline in Van Diemen’s Land from 1803 to 1847 wasn’t primarily the result of white violence (which he concludes only involved the violent deaths of at most 120 Aboriginals) but due to “the loss of reproductive capacity through venereal and other disease and the selling of indigenous women by their men to whalers, sealers, and settlers.”

As Curthoys and Docker explain, ‘The Fabrication of Aboriginal History’ was greeted with praise by conservative commentators and historians, most notably the widely respected Geoffrey Blainey.

While most indigenous people “refrained from entering into the details of the debate”, left-wing Australian historians took up their cudgels against Windschuttle.  Thus in 2003 two detailed responses appeared – ‘Whitewash: On Keith Windschuttle’s Fabrication of Aboriginal History’ edited by the ubiquitous Robert Manne, and, more importantly ‘The History Wars’ written by Stuart Macintyre and Anna Clark. Macintyre’s lucid analysis included some incisive discussion of Windschuttle’s text, but also of the work of Lyndall Ryan, who herself came to acknowledge that some of her footnotes were wrong. Significantly, when his conclusions were “frequently criticised for lacking compassion for those whose lives and society were so rapidly destroyed”, Windschuttle responded that the historians primary task was not to be ‘compassionate’, but to be ‘dispassionate’.

The History Wars here in Australia certainly show striking similarities with the American and Japanese examples dealt with by Curthoys and Docker. As in the passionate historiographical conflicts over the dropping the bomb on Hiroshima by the ‘Enola Gay’ and the role of the Japanese in the rape and massacre of the largely civilian population in Nanjing, our very own History Wars highlight both “the perils historians routinely face” and “how difficult it is to decide what constitutes reliable historical evidence.” They also remind us, as writers and as readers, that “where evidence is sparse and partial, our moral sympathies, political understanding, and cultural assumptions all affect what we judge as likely to be true.”

In particular, just as do the debates about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, our emotionally powered disagreements about key facts concerning the Aboriginal and European frontiers starkly remind historians  that “public audiences find the idea of historical disagreement difficult and unsettling.”

This probing yet good-humoured book certainly comes close to getting right the balance between uncovering historical facts which may help us try to view the past as it was and to face the unavoidable reality that, as historians, we cannot help but view the past through the eyes and mores of the present.  

This means that, in the pursuit of historical truth, absolute objectivity is impossible.  As Carr wrote almost 50 years ago, at the very least, history means complex and highly charged interpretation.

IS HISTORY FICTION? by Ann Curthoys & John Docker, UNSW Press, Sydney, 2010, pp 340, $39.95.
The Spectator Australia 24 July 2010