The Black Armband Debate

The Black Armband Debate

The black armband debate concerns whether or not accounts of Australian history gravitate towards an overly negative or an overly positive point of view. The black armband view of history was a phrase first used by Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey in his 1993 Sir John Latham Memorial Lecture to describe views of history which, he believed, posited that “much of [pre-multicultural] Australian history had been a disgrace” and which focused mainly on the treatment of minority groups (especially Aborigines). This he contrasted with the ‘Three Cheers’ view, according to which: “nearly everything that came after [the convict era] was believed to be pretty good”. Blainey argued that both such accounts of Australian history were inaccurate: “The Black Armband view of history might well represent the swing of the pendulum from a position that had been too favourable, too self congratulatory, to an opposite extreme that is even more unreal and decidedly jaundiced.”

 

The lecture was subsequently published in the political and literary journal, Quadrant,[21] which at the time was edited by Robert Manne and is now edited by Keith Windschuttle, two of the leading “history warriors”, albeit on opposing sides of the debate. The phrase then began to be used by some commentators pejoratively to describe historians viewed as writing excessively critical Australian history ‘while wearing a black armband’ of “mourning and grieving, or shame”. New interpretations of Australia’s history since 1788 were contested for focussing almost exclusively on official and unofficial imperialism, exploitation, ill treatment, colonial dispossession and cultural genocide and ignoring positive aspects of Australia’s history.[9] Manning Clark was named by Blainey in his 1993 speech as having “done much to spread the gloomy view and also the compassionate view with his powerful prose and Old Testament phrases.”

 

The Howard Government’s responses to the question of how to recount Australian history were initially formulated in the context of Paul Keating’s characterisation of the subject. John Howardargued in a 1996 Sir Robert Menzies Lecture that the “balance sheet of Australian history” had come to be misrepresented:

“              The ‘black armband’ view of our history reflects a belief that most Australian history since 1788 has been little more than a disgraceful story of imperialism, exploitation, racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination. […] I believe that the balance sheet of our history is one of heroic achievement and that we have achieved much more as a nation of which we can be proud than of which we should be ashamed. In saying that I do not exclude or ignore specific aspects of our past where we are rightly held to account. Injustices were done in Australia and no-one should obscure or minimise them. […] But […] our priority should […] [be] to commit to a practical program of action that will remove the enduring legacies of disadvantage.

 

In 2009, Howard’s successor Kevin Rudd also called for moving away from a black-arm view:

“              Time to leave behind us the polarisation that began to infect our every discussion of our nation’s past. To go beyond the so-called “black arm” view that refused to confront some hard truths about our past, as if our forebears were all men and women of absolute nobility, without spot or blemish. But time, too, to go beyond the view that we should only celebrate the reformers, the renegades and revolutionaries, thus neglecting or even deriding the great stories of our explorers, of our pioneers, and of our entrepreneurs. Any truthful reflection of our nation’s past is that these are all part of the rich fabric of our remarkable story…

 

Stephen Muecke, currently Professor of Writing at the University of New South Wales, contributed to the debate by arguing that black armband events bring people together in common remembrance and cited Anzac Day as an example; while Aboriginal lawyer Noel Pearson argued that whilst there was much that is worth preserving in the cultural heritage of non-Aboriginal Australia, “To say that ordinary Australians who are part of the national community today do not have any connection with the shameful aspects of our past is at odds with our exhortations that they have connections to the prideful bits”

The notion of the ‘white blindfold’ view of history entered the debate as a pejorative counter-response to the notion of the “blackarmband school”.

 

In his book Why Weren’t We Told? in 1999, Henry Reynolds referred to Stanner’s “Great Australian Silence”, and to “a ‘mental block’ which prevented Australians from coming to terms with the past”.  He argued that the silence about Australia’s history of frontier violence in much of the twentieth century stands in stark contrast with the openness with which violence was admitted and discussed in the nineteenth. Reynolds quotes many excerpts from the press, including an article written in the Townsville Herald in Queensland as late as 1907, by a “pioneer” who described his part in a massacre. Reynolds commented that violence against Aboriginals, far from being hushed up or denied, was openly talked about.

The nature of the debate began to change in 1999 with the publication of a book Massacre Myth by journalist, Rod Moran, who examined the 1926 Forrest River massacre in Western Australia. Moran concluded that the massacre was a myth inspired by the false claims of a missionary (possibly as a result of mental health issues).

 

The principal historian of the Forrest River massacre, Neville Green, describes the massacre as probable but not able to be proven in court. Keith Windschuttle, an Australian historian, said that reviewing Moran’s book inspired his own examination of the wider historical record.  Windschuttle argues that much of Australian Aboriginal history, particularly as written since the late 1970s, was based on the use of questionable or unreliable evidence and on deliberate misrepresentation and fabrication of historical evidence. He based his conclusions on his examination of the evidence cited in previous historical accounts and reported incidences of non-existent documents being cited, misquoting and misleadingly selective quoting from documents and of documents being cited as evidence that certain events took place when his examination concluded that they do not support those claims. Windschuttle reported his conclusions in a number of articles published in Quadrant and in 2002, he published a book, The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, Volume 1, Van Diemen’s Land 1803 – 1847, which focussed on Tasmanian colonial history.

Historian Geoffrey Blainey argued in a 2003 book review of Fabrication, that the number of instances when the source documents do not support the claims made and the fact that the divergences overwhelmingly tend to support claims of violent conflict and massacres indicates that this is not a matter of mere error but bias.

The debate had therefore changed from an argument over whether there was an excessive focus on negative aspects of Australian history to one over to what extent, if at all, Australian Aboriginal history had been based on questionable evidence or had been falsified or fabricated and whether this had exaggerated the extent of violence against Aborigines. Particular historians and histories that are challenged include Lyndall Ryan and Henry Reynolds and the histories of massacres, particularly in Tasmania but also elsewhere in Australia. Windschuttle’s naming of historians whom he accused of misrepresentation and fabrication of the historical evidence, created considerable controversy and produced a range of responses including condemnation of as well as support for his work.

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