Inga Clendinnen

April’s Australian Review Of Books offered an array of perspectives of our past: on history in Australia (Stephen Matchett); race relations in Australian history (Keith Windschuttle, Glen McLaren, Alan Atkinson, Jack Egan); race relations as represented in a famous piece of Australian historical fiction (Garry Kinnane); and a Shandyesque slice of fictionalised history, including, we are promised, ‘psychotic episodes’, by the astonishing Cannibal Jack Diaper (Nicolas Rothwell). Who says history is dead? If some of the questions raised for discussion were close to vexatious, that is the way of it with lively issues. (Examples: If a body of whites armed with rifles are in control of the high ground and a body of Aboriginal warriors are up to their chins in a river, but still in possession of their spears, is what happens next a battle, or a turkey shoot? How many murders make a massacre? If the Native Police in Victoria in the first part of the 19th century didn’t kill anybody, does that mean that the Native Police in Queensland in the latter part of the century didn’t kill anybody either? And so on.)

Meanwhile, Egan’s letter reminds us that some very old questions are still not answered. As editor of the collection Buried Alive, Egan knows the early colonial documentation well, and he takes Henry Reynolds to task for too swift a judgment on one famous episode: the gruesome orders issued by governor Phillip to a punitive expedition sent out after the ambush-spearing of his convict gamekeeper John McEntire in mid November, 1790. The colony’s surgeons predicted that McEntire would die from his wound, which he duly did, there was no known provocation, the offence was wilful murder by persons unknown. In response, Phillip instructed his troops to capture any two male Aborigines found in the Botany Bay area, the probable culprit’s home territory, and to kill 10 more. The heads of those slain were to be cut off, put in the bags provided and brought back to the settlement, presumably for public display. Gruesome indeed. The premonitory shadow of Kurtz seems to fall over the Australian scrub.

Reynolds invokes the orders to help substantiate his claim that ‘practically all early governors advocated the use of terror to crush Aboriginal resistance’, and quotes Phillip’s own statement that he was ‘determined to strike a decisive blow, in order at once to convince [the Aborigines] of our superiority, and to infuse a universal terror’. Reynolds concludes with a challenge: How can arbitrary terror be consistent with Christian conscience and a high value placed on morality and law?

Egan questions Reynolds’s reading by reminding us that the expedition was a total failure, to no one’s particular surprise, and that Phillip’s overall record was good. So how to explain those scandalous orders? As a historian I have an abiding admiration for Reynolds, who in difficult territory somehow stays close to the ground and typically avoids simplification. On this particular issue, however, I think he nods.

If we look closely, we notice several odd things about that infamous expedition. First, the formally authorised violence was hedged about by a bristle of restrictions. The orders made clear that only soldiers were permitted to fire on any native, and then only if directly ordered to do so, or in self-defence. Phillip had no intention of tolerating, much less encouraging, white vigilantism. The troops were also instructed that at all times the specific reason for the punitive action had to be made clear, which, given the state of verbal communication at this early stage of contact, was a tall order. He also reminded everyone within earshot that all native property, often pilfered by convicts and soldiers alike for sale in the market for artifacts back in Britain, was sacrosanct, and enjoyed the full protection of British law.

The expedition was also out of character. Phillip had borne his own spearing three months before with fortitude and admirable anthropological ‘cool’, diagnosing the sudden aggression as no more than an individual expression of panic. (I think he was wrong there.) While he had not the least doubt that he and his compatriots were the legitimate new lords of the soil, he had gambled a great deal of time, patience and personal suffering to bring about friendship with the local tribe. He had long been anxious to persuade its members to come into the settlement, to live under British law and to absorb the benefits of British civilisation. Indeed, he had tried to effect this outcome by twice resorting to forcible kidnappings in the hope of finding a reliable go-between. (Against the odds, it worked: he bagged the wily ‘Bennelong’, as we call him.) He had also hoped such a rapprochement would put an end to the Aborigines’ apparently casual spearings of convicts in the ‘woods’. Seventeen British, nearly all of them unarmed, had been speared since first contact, some of them fatally, yet to that point Phillip had steadfastly refused to retaliate, insisting that the native attacks were provoked by convict misconduct.

With the McEntire spearing he knew the gamble had failed. A friendly accommodation had been reached with the local natives only a handful of weeks before when they had ‘come in’ to Sydney Town, in baffling response to his own spearing, yet the new friendship had not put an end to Aboriginal violence. And this attack was notably more sinister than those before it, being a planned, murderous assault, and its target an armed man. (The British needed to believe that all Aborigines were terrified of muskets.)

Furthermore, in Phillip’s thinking McEntire had a perfect right to be where he was, innocently hunting game in the open larder of the bush. Phillip’s Aboriginal friends had readily named the spearman, they had made soothing noises about bringing him in – and had shown not the least inclination to do so. Justice had to be done, and the Aborigines had to be brought to respect the rule of law. What to do next? What he did was order out the expedition – and select Watkin Tench to lead it.

Tench was famously sympathetic to Aborigines. Phillip also condescended to ask Tench’s advice regarding the reprisals. As we would expect, Tench softened the terms, urging that the British should content themselves with capturing six men, some of whom would suffer exemplary capital punishment while others could be released when their lesson in British justice was well-learnt. Phillip refined Tench’s suggestions further: if the new tally of six men could not be captured, six men were to be shot. If six were captured, he would hang two and send the rest to Norfolk Island. The sum was straightforward: if Tench used muskets six men might die; if he refrained from using muskets – if the focus was on capture, not killing – only two. Phillip knew Tench would be loathe to shoot. In the event, the ‘terrific procession’ of 52 men which came stumbling back after three days slogging through hard country and December heat brought not a single captive with them. They had sighted some fleeing natives, they had chatted with their friend Colbee who, despite Phillip’s efforts to dissuade him, had followed them to see the fun, and that was the total of their success. So what did Phillip do next? He sent out a smaller but still formidable expedition of 39 men on the same mission. This time they were to march at night, as Tench says with a carefully straight face, ‘both for the sake of secrecy and to avoid the heat of the day’. This time they saw not a single native. Their main excitement was when several men, including Tench, came perilously close to drowning as they floundered in a patch of quicksand.

When I first read this, I kept expecting Colbee and some grinning companions to step from behind the trees to rescue them. The British might have seen no natives, but the natives had surely seen them.

Tench’s attitude to these excursions was, throughout, one of irony. He knew that a mob of British soldiers crashing through the bush had minimal chance of sighting, much less seizing Aboriginal men on their home ground. Phillip must have known that too. He also must have borne some local ridicule, especially after the second weary, muddy expedition came straggling in. So what was he up to? I am exploring the fine detail of that elsewhere, but for the moment I suggest that he was no more hopeful than Tench of achieving his claimed objectives and that his primary concern was to stage a histrionic performance of the terror of British law in accordance with the fine late-18th-century tradition of formal floggings, elaborate death rites, and breathless last-minute reprieves and repentances.

I think the performance was designed to impress both the (increasingly restless) convicts and soldiers within the settlement, and the watching Aborigines inside and around it. In sum, my view is that Phillip sent out the troops, and then sent them out again, to remind British settlers and convicts that violence towards Aborigines was the monopoly of the soldiery and the prerogative of the state, while the tribes were given the opportunity to reflect on the tolerant Phillip’s capacity for organised violence if he were tried too far. He threatened them with collective punishment, in defiance of British protocols, not because he had a taste for racist terror but because he had a good anthropological eye. What the tribes cared about was their fighting strength, individual injuries being simply shrugged off. Phillip knew that if he could not teach the tribesmen to refrain from all violence against whites, he would not be able to protect them, and the wolves would be loosed upon them.

Racist terror came soon enough. Three years after his departure, Phillip’s ream of a unitary commonwealth of whites and blacks living peaceably under British law was dead. The war over the land had been declared. While some Aborigines lived reduced lives within the white colony, endemic violence flared along the boundary between the two societies, and ‘wild’ Aborigines plundered the new settlers along the Hawkesbury and around Parramatta.

Settlers’ huts were burnt almost as fast as they were built. In May 1795, whole families of natives were thought to be assembling near the Hawkesbury to raid the ripening corn on which the colony depended. (They probably were; the onset of winter was always a hard time.) The indefatigable chronicler, judge-attorney David Collins tells us what happened next:

Captain Paterson directed a party of the [NSW] corps to be sent from Parramatta, with instructions to destroy as many they could meet with of the wood tribe and, in the hope of striking terror, to erect gibbets in different places, whereon the bodies of all those they might kill were to be hung.

In the event, no bodies were strung up although Collins tells us that several natives were reported killed, and some prisoners – ‘a cripple, five women and some children’ – were taken and sent to Sydney. In February 1796, the governor issued further regulations.

While it remained forbidden to fire at natives ‘wantonly’, settlers were issued muskets and ordered to come to each others’ aid when there was threat of attack. There was nothing histrionic about this violence. Vigilantism was now licensed, indeed declared a matter of obligation; black bodies would hang from the trees.

In those few years we had come a long way from Phillip’s solemn pedagogical miming of the awful power of British law. Is it worth fussing over a single individual’s intentions when outcomes seem unaffected? I am persuaded it is, for two main reasons: we owe a moral duty of justice to our fellow humans, including the dead ones, and social analysts need to beware easy ascriptions of simple intentions if their disciplines are to retain their social utility. We need to remember, with Ivan Turgenev, that the heart of another is a dark forest, to be penetrated with alertness and steady curiosity. Of course, my analysis of Phillip’s motives runs counter to Phillip’s own crisp statement cited by Reynolds. But Phillip was a loner; a man unlikely to confide his deepest strategies. The intricacies of his intentions can be better retrieved from a close reading of his actions through time and changing contexts, modified by his own changing access to information, than from fragments from particular public texts. I don’t know how Christian Phillip was, but he was not a racist in any sense I understand. If I had to categorise him, always an unsatisfactory business with humans, I would call him an idealist of a flexible kind, being ready to modify strategies to achieve those ideals as new information came in.

While he recognised that Aborigines were certainly different from the British, he never doubted their common humanity. That confidence led him to believe that these ‘shivering savages’ would find comfort and security under the British umbrella, and in time would flourish there – if they could be persuaded to try the experiment. Not a racist, then, nor an assimilationist – he neither expected nor desired complete Aboriginal integration – but perhaps Australia’s first multiculturalist.

The tension between intention and outcome has come to dominate recent debate over Bringing them home, the report into the separation of part-Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, which was presented to Federal Parliament in May 1997, and now commonly known as the ‘Stolen Generations’ report. Given their lack of time, money and resources, the authors decided on a primary strategy of retelling some of the stories they had been listening to. As we would expect, the stories were impressionistic. They could not pretend to complete factual accuracy, much less to sustained legal relevance. Terrified children remember their own nightmare experiences, not the complicated actuality around them, and these particular children could not test their recollections against those of trusted adults because they had been taken from them. Nonetheless, the impact was powerful and the early response sympathetic. It was generally agreed that the authors had performed their central task well: they had brought the Government and the Australian people to awareness of a great wrong perpetrated against generations of Aboriginal families. Over the years the most manifest opinion seems to have changed, with increasingly bitter debate over the report’s methodology, its conceptual frame, its findings, its recommendations and its motives.

The battles have been fought on the small battlefields of literary and academic journals, and by self-selected champions in the opinion and letters pages of leading newspapers. The general population has remained by and large silent, although my guess is that it was the moral energies released by the report which fuelled the surge of middle-class Australians towards ‘reconciliation’, and set hundreds of people meeting and thousands of people marching at the end of 2000, with high hopes for the new millennium.

When I first read the Human Rights Commission report some months after its publication, I already knew something of its contents. I was nonetheless unprepared for its impact on me: for the power over my imagination exercised by the stories; and by the implications of their terrible cumulative meanings. I felt at once betrayed, ashamed, chagrined and, above all, stupid: much of what was done had been done in my lifetime, so how could I have let myself remain ignorant of it? I also felt helpless: how could such injuries ever be healed? I suspect that many Australians who had previously given little thought to race relations responded much as I did.

I was helped out of this unprofitable morass by Robert Manne’s essay on the stolen generations, first delivered as a lecture in November 1997, six months after the release of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission report, and reprinted in Manne’s The Way We Live Now (Text Publishing, 1998.) The essay was written in Manne’s characteristic window-pane prose and moral and intellectual lucidity. Given the complexities of the issues and the fragile nature of the written evidence, he was properly cautious, asking his readers ‘to regard everything I say as tentative and provisional’. He made some criticisms of the report, as in its estimate of the percentage of children taken. He also draws a subtle and essential distinction between the mere proclamation of good intentions, and our own critical evaluation of the subsequent actions: the old ‘words-versus-actions’ issue.

He judges the ‘social welfarist-good intentions defence’ of government policies to be in bad faith: ‘it is absolutely false to claim that the motives of those who made or executed the social policy were of a social-welfare kind. They were driven by altogether different motives.’ Their core motive, in his view, was to keep Australia white. The distinction blurs slightly when he allows that while ‘the policy makers and agents of the state viewed these [Aboriginal] children and the worlds from which they had come through racist spectacles they genuinely believed that in taking the children from their family and culture ... they were acting in the best interests of the child.’ Why, then, is the ‘social-welfarist defence’ vacuous? Blanket ascriptions of motives to whole categories of people make me nervous.

Manne also retraced the hard intellectual route he had followed to arrive at the acceptance of the word ‘genocide’ as descriptive of some phases and aspects of Australia’s Aboriginal policies. He remained unsure as to whether the commission had made the legal case for such an application, but he had decided, after reflecting on Raimond Gaita’s ‘sterilisation’ example – (a thought experiment which invites us to think of the ‘forcible sterilisation’ of a people aimed at their extinction) – that genocide could be effected without resort to murderous means. On murderous intentions, he wavers. He allows that ‘violence against Aborigines was only not used but was generally unthinkable to those who designed child-removal policies’, and that even in the Western Australia and the Northern Territory of the 1930s, the administrators who (briefly) implemented policies designed to effect the ultimate ‘elimination’ of people of mixed descent were not driven by race hatred, but by the conviction that ‘the elimination of `half-castes’ would constitute an unambiguous good’ – for, presumably, racist reasons.

But while he is no assimilationist, he grants (against the report’s arguments) that ‘socio-cultural assimilation does not seem to me to be describable as genocidal’, and that the charge of genocide for the whole period ‘remains contentious between people of good will’.

In his recent essay ‘In Denial’, the first publication of The Quarterly Essay (Black Inc, 2001), Manne still acknowledges the report’s defects, but his attitude to the critics of the report has hardened, because he believes that a concerted right-wing conspiracy centred on the literary journal Quadrant exists, with tentacles reaching out to embrace leading members of the conservative Government and some of the bigger players in mining and other ventures, and that this conspiracy has mounted a ‘serious and effective campaign’ against the Bringing them home report, its authors, its supporters and its emotional and political impact. And now he is ready to say that in the pre-1940 period in Australia ‘thinking of a genocidal kind’ occasionally emerged, most noticeably in the 1937 conference of Aboriginal administrators, when ‘genocidal thought and administrative practice touched’.

Manne also states that all the people who have clustered around Quadrant in the last three years have moved from ‘the promise of “genuine debate” on Aboriginal policy to the reality of atrocity denialism in the David Irving mode’. In his even more recent review of Paul Kelly’s book, 100 Years: The Australian Story, in the April issue of the Australian Book Review, in the course of chiding Kelly for moral shallowness, Manne makes clear that he is now convinced that the policy of Aboriginal child removal drew its strength from racism for its whole duration, and that during the ‘biological geneticism’ period of the ’30s it was genocidal as well. And because these conclusions have become so clear to him, he now judges those who reject them to be wilfully blind and thus intellectually and morally corrupt. The report’s charge of genocide has been revivified, and Orwell has transformed into Blake.

There are certainly more than a couple of rascals in the anti-report line-up, but what I hear most clearly as I reread their articles and letters – a task made easy by Manne’s impeccable chronicling of materials – is a simpler thing: outrage at the use of that word ‘genocide’, accompanied by the slamming-shut of minds. As an academic I sympathise with the analyst’s eagerness to assay such key terms: to trace their judicial and moral genealogy; to see how far they can be stretched without tearing.

Nonetheless, I remain persuaded that the persistent invocation of the term ‘genocide’ by the authors of the report and their later supporters to describe any phase of Australian policies to Aborigines was not only ill-judged, but a moral, intellectual and (as it is turning out) a political disaster. I am reasonably sophisticated in various modes of intellectual discussion, but when I see the word ‘genocide’ I still see Gypsies and Jews being herded into trains, into pits, into ravines, and behind them the shadowy figures of Armenian women and children being marched into the desert by armed men. I see deliberate mass murder: innocent people identified by their killers as a distinctive entity being done to death by organised authority. I believe that to take the murder out of genocide is to render it vacuous, and I believe with Orwell that it is essential to keep such words mirror-bright because, given the nature of human affairs, we will surely continue to need them. As for morality: in the task of reconstructing intentions (as in the earlier discussion of governor Phillip), motives must be distinguished from outcomes, and hunted down not only in words but in the details of actions in their varying contexts. They will not submit easily to labelling.

As for the political effects: I think the report’s use of the word ‘genocide’ was a political disaster because I don’t know what was gained by it, and a great deal was certainly lost. At least some of the resistance to its shaking stories and their seriously uncomfortable moral and political implications was facilitated by anger at that charge being levelled promiscuously against individuals who perhaps were less informed or less imaginative than they might have been, but who in many cases acted in good faith.

I have just been watching the video of the Good Friday, 1997 edition of ABC TV’s Compass made immediately before the release of the report. In the course of the program, a man named Bernie Clark was interviewed. He had gone to Darwin as a Uniting Church social worker in 1965 to help the older children from the recently closed Croker Island Mission to find jobs, and he had just submitted a report to the Human Rights Commission to explain how it was back then. In 1965 he had come in at the tail end of the more vigorous experiments in assimilation, and he had come to regret them profoundly. Nonetheless, and with fine honesty, he acknowledged that had he been an administrator in the ’60s he would have done the same thing. He said: ‘We wanted to help people to maximise their opportunities in life. Now I realise we were destroying their capacity to maximise their opportunities of life.’

Intentions matter. So, of course, do outcomes, but the connections are not always evident.

The vulnerability of children, combined with their apparent malleability, rouses powerful emotions in most of us, not all of them conscious, especially when we see the children as belonging to ‘us’. Social and moral catastrophes litter the history of child welfare. Consider the experience of the young Gitta Sereny, working for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration in the US sector of Germany in 1946 as a child-welfare investigative officer. The main task of these officers was to rescue ‘unaccompanied children’, whether displaced or orphaned or abandoned, from the streets and the camps.

There was another group, too: children selected by the Nazis in defeated Poland for their Aryan physical characteristics, taken from their parents, transported to Germany, and after a period of observation and testing for physical and social acceptability were adopted out to ‘worthy’ German families, which meant good Nazi supporters. The adopting families were told the children were German orphans recovered from the regained Eastern territories. The Nazis’ intention was to improve the war-depleted race with these ‘racially valuable’ children, who were, of course, destined to lose all contact and memory of their Polish kin. Perhaps 200,000 Polish children were abducted to Germany.

Sereny became involved in tracking down such children, taking them from their German families and returning them to their Polish ones. She gives an account of one such intervention in the magazine Talk for November, 1999. (I am indebted to Helen Garner for sending me Sereny’s article.) It is a painful story. The children, a boy and a girl, both about six, had been living with their Bavarian family for three years when Sereny arrived at the door. They were – transparently – happy, healthy and well-loved. The mother, intuiting why this official had visited them, was especially eager to demonstrate how well they were cared for: ‘You know now, don’t you, Fraulein, that they are ours? That they were given to us?’

Sereny did her duty. Persuading the mother to give her a Christmas photograph of the children taken soon after their arrival (the mother thought she wanted it because they were so pretty) they were identified as twins taken from a Polish couple living near Lodz. Meanwhile, Sereny had moved on. She had to ‘take’ only one child, a little boy, herself. She still remembers ‘the inconsolable grief of the couple who loved the five-year-old and the wild anger of the child, who had no memory of his birth parents or native language, and for whom his German parents were the world’. Sereny acknowledged that in all her experience in this period, she ‘never handled or heard of a single case in which the German foster or adoptive parents had treated the kidnapped child with anything but love’.

Some months later she accidentally met the pretty twins from Bavaria, Johann and Marie, in a holding centre where they were meant to be learning Polish before their repatriation. The once-lively Marie ‘was scrunched up in a chair, her eyes closed, the lids transparent, her thumb in her mouth’.

At six she was wetting her bed and taking food only from a bottle. But Johann responded. He rushed at Sereny, striking her with fists and feet, shouting ‘Du! Du! Du!’ Three days later the children left for Poland. About 25,000 Polish children of the 200,000 reported taken were retrieved and sent home.

Good intentions do not mean injury is always avoided, and not all injuries arise from bad intentions. Deciphering human motives, including one’s own, is a complicated business, and tracing outcomes even more so, but morality is made intelligent only by evaluating human intentions, and by tracing those intentions’ actual outcomes. Sereny again: ‘I have not solved the question of what was the best solution for these children – and I don’t think that anyone can.’

Politically, I am on Manne’s side, but I don’t like adversarial history, and I don’t like adversarial politics either. (When did you last change your mind because you lost an argument?) There has always been an impulse among certain kinds of politicians to reduce complicated matters to slogans in a familiar expression of contempt for the intelligence of ordinary people. In intellectuals the characteristic flaw is moralism, which discourages both subtlety in analysis, and patience and generosity in judgment. Along with a lot of other Australians, I am committed to a decent reconciliation between the indigenous population and the rest of us: to the recognition of the injuries they have suffered generation by generation, and to amelioration of the consequences of those injuries. Human dignity, both theirs and ours, demands it. Those ends can be achieved only by decisions arising from the informed understanding of seriously complicated issues by a substantial majority of the Australian people.

I have a tough politician friend who said of another friend, also in politics, ‘Well – his heart’s in the right place, but he can’t count.’ In a democracy it is necessary to be able to count.


First published in the Australian’s Review Of Books, 9 May 2001.


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 1, In Denial. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 2, Appeasing Jakarta.


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