QUARTERLY ESSAY 23 The History Question



John Hirst

I agree with much in The History Question, especially the strictures on Kate Grenville and her Secret River and the doubts about supplying schoolchildren with a single narrative history of Australia. Not surprisingly, I do not agree with Clendinnen’s strictures on my essay “How Sorry Can We Be?”, which I published recently in Sense & Nonsense in Australian History

A strange fate has befallen me. Inga Clendinnen, the brilliant interpreter of deeds and words in the past, misunderstands me, alive, now, in Melbourne. When she deals with the opening of my essay, she misunderstands both me and Rudyard Kipling.

In response to an Australian critic of the misdeeds of the British Empire, Kipling gave an opinion which I endorsed: 

A man might just as well accuse his father of a taste in fornication (citing his own birth as an instance) as a white man mourn over his land’s savagery in the past.

Clendinnen interprets Kipling to be saying that “the child, the issue of the fornication, having had no voice in the business of his making, is born ‘clean’”. He is not saying that. He is saying that your origins lie in dirty deeds, but you cannot regret or be sorry for them because without them you would not exist where you now do. Or, as I put it after the quotation: “The critic only exists because of the deed he criticises.” Clendinnen’s misunderstanding of this point throws out her whole assessment of my essay.

I identified two attacks on the Aborigines: the first which deprived them of their land and the second which deprived them of their civil rights. The first was the action of British settlers; the second of the Australian nation. Because the second was a gratuitous act of the nation is one reason why I think it should be apologised for. Clendinnen then takes me to be saying that I am not willing to apologise for the first attack because it was not the deed of the nation. In fact I say the opposite: because it was not the work of the nation is not a let-out. We might be tempted, I say, to shift the blame to the British settlers, but we cannot because we are the beneficiaries of their deeds. Here are the two passages in question (mine and hers) so that readers can see how Clendinnen’s initial misunderstanding makes her incapable of giving a fair account of my subsequent views.


So why does the second attack on the Aborigines warrant an apology and the first one not? Though the High Court judges in Mabo spoke of the Australian nation expropriating the Aborigines, this is not so. The settlers were English, Irish and Scots who invaded Aboriginal lands with the sanction of the British state. Only subsequently was the Australian nation formed by those settlers and their children. It is true that the nation was only made possible by this expropriation, which is why I consider it cannot be apologised for. Some might be tempted to point the finger at the British, but settler Australians are the beneficiaries of their deeds. The second attack on the Aborigines was an attack by the Australian nation (though the agents were the various state governments) in pursuit of a national ideal. I accept what Rai Gaita has argued that if a nation can feel pride at its past achievements it can properly feel shame (though not guilt) for its past misdeeds. Forcibly removing Aboriginal children was undoubtedly a misdeed. What finally makes the case for apology compelling in this instance is that some of the victims are still alive. 


Hirst argues there can be no apology for the first attack: the conquest. Why not? Because that first offence was committed not by “Australians”, but by “the settlers … English, Irish and Scots who invaded Aboriginal lands with the sanction of the British state. Only subsequently was the Australian nation formed by those settlers and their children.” The nation made possible by that expropriation is not implicated in the injury, therefore the nation cannot apologise. By contrast, “the second attack was an attack by the Australian nation … in pursuit of a national ideal.” 

Why I do not want to apologise for the first attack is made clear at the opening of the essay with the Kipling quotation. Here I repeat the point: “the nation was only made possible by this expropriation, which is why I consider it cannot be apologised for.” Clendinnen, not understanding that point, renders it as: “The nation made possible by that expropriation is not implicated in the injury, therefore the nation cannot apologise.” Not implicated in the injury is her misreading. Of course settler Australians are implicated in the original injury. Our dilemma, as I see it, is that we cannot disown it. 

From these misreadings comes Clendinnen’s supposition that I accept no obligations to the Aborigines arising from the original dispossession. Since I told her this was a misreading (for this public argument continues what began in private), she now adds: “I could well have him wrong here but this is what his words say to me.”

My words on this matter in this essay were:

A position of hard realism about the nation resting on conquest certainly does not require that we abandon sympathy for Aborigines as fellow humans. We must understand what Aborigines have experienced since 1788 if any policy-making in Aboriginal affairs is to be effective. 

In the previous essay in Sense & Nonsense in Australian History, I wrote:

Australians owe a moral debt to the Aborigines. It is determined by the standards we set ourselves today and the current position of the Aborigines. It does not depend on a condemnation of the first Europeans who settled the country, just as our compensatory action cannot be directed to restoring the status quo ante. 

The penultimate essay in the collection is a critique of current policy in Aboriginal affairs and recommendations for improvement.

With all this evidence to hand I am puzzled at Clendinnen’s giving any space to a supposition of my heartlessness and indifference.

The worst offence in the second attack on the Aborigines was the removal of Aboriginal children from their mothers. I wrote:

This was cold-blooded cruelty planned by a distant Bureau in pursuit of the ideal of racial purity. Humankind has been very inventive in its cruelty, but cruelty of this sort did not appear until the early twentieth century. We are still struggling to come to terms with it. 

Clendinnen quarrels with this, saying that “it is difficult to recall a more bureaucratised cruelty than that exercised, with chilling dispassion, by the Spanish Inquisition.” I did intend all the words in my sentence to count. The Inquisition might be allowed to be a bureaucracy, but it did not operate at a distance from its victims and it certainly was not pursuing racial purity. The pursuit of racial purity is a special cruelty because the victims are identified not by their deeds, their words, their allegiances or their location, but by their blood. They cannot escape – unlike the targets of the Inquisition, who could recant their views. Clendinnen completes what she takes to be a refutation of this passage by saying “Humans have always been good at cruelty” and so echoes my own remark: “Humankind has been very inventive in its cruelty.”

Clendinnen wants to resist my identification of two attacks – and two moral responses to them. If the second attack was the work of the nation, how, she asks, can I be certain when the nation came into being? I seem to be adopting a “remarkably crisp periodisation”. Of course national consciousness rose unevenly, but the second attack on the Aborigines is prima facie evidence of its existence. A minority of Aboriginal natives was not an anomaly in British colonies; they were a threat to a nation that conceived of itself as young, pure, fresh and white. 

The first attack on the Aborigines was necessarily violent. I insisted on this as against what I called the liberal fantasy, the belief that the Aborigines could have been expropriated nicely if only there had been better communication or a treaty. Clendinnen criticises my approach on the ground that it avoids the moral difference between those settlers who were killers and those who were not. There were differences in approach by the settlers, which do interest me. Broadly there were two options: drive the Aborigines off the run or bring them to headquarters and make them dependents. But there are difficulties in making moral judgments as between settlers. Notice that they all believe that they have the right to invade and seize Aboriginal land, which one way or another will usually lead to Aboriginal violence, which someone has to cope with if settlement is to remain secure. 

Clendinnen is interested in the choices settlers made. So consider: a squatter chooses not to be a killer; but what will happen when this choice runs up against his choice to make money by running sheep on Aboriginal land? There were squatters who never killed, but there are not many records of squatters frustrated by Aboriginal violence giving up the enterprise. The thing about the frontier is that decent men end up doing indecent things. How much killing they end up doing will depend on chance or circumstances that they do not control or do not understand. The well-disposed settler may unknowingly make camp on a sacred site; he might think it right to reward only those Aborigines who work for him and resist the demands of the rest: both these actions are likely to lead to trouble. His shepherd might be speared because he took the Aboriginal woman offered to him without realising that he now had incurred obligations to her kin. The Aborigines think the spearing has settled the matter; the squatter thinks the Aborigines must be taught a lesson. Across cultures proper behaviour does not have the usual consequences. Morality gets tricky for the participants and for us. The lore of the hard or hardened men on the frontier said that settlers who treated Aborigines well could still be attacked by them – which we can understand to be true. 

It is a relief to be treating a subject where there is genuine difference between us, but odd for me to be reminding Clendinnen about the complexities of culture clash, on which she is an expert. Her concern here for moral judgment and looking at particular cases is leading her in the direction of liberal fantasy – if all the settlers had decided not to be killers, then the conquest would have occurred without killing. I don’t think so.


John Hirst teaches history at La Trobe University. His books include Convict Society and Its Enemies, The Strange Birth of Colonial Democracy, The Sentimental Nation, Australia’s Democracy: A Short History and Sense & Nonsense in Australian History.


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 23, The History Question. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 24, No Fixed Address.


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