We had an Aboriginal speaker visit my workplace on Friday. His theme was the challenges facing young Aborigines today, but much of his speech was a rant about the treatment of Aborigines in colonial times.
I use the word "rant" deliberately. There was little effort to be factual or balanced. The picture he presented was of settlers who had genteel parties at which shooting or poisoning Aborigines was a favoured past-time. I was most angry when he claimed that at some of these parties the white settlers buried Aboriginal babies up to their necks and then kicked off their heads to see who could make them go the furthest.
Where does this extraordinary claim come from? I looked up Keith Windschuttle's book, The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, and found the answer on pp.41-42. The claim about babies was made in a PhD thesis by a student named Rhys Jones in 1971. Jones was no unbiased observer - the relevant chapter of his PhD thesis about the establishment of a British colony in Tasmania is titled "The arrival of the Yahoos".
Jones claimed in his thesis that the settlers were psychopathic sadists and he listed the head-kicking of babies to prove his point. But he never mentioned where or when such incidents happened and he never cited any documentary evidence. In a 1978 TV documentary he repeated his claims and finally pointed to his evidence: letters presented to the 1830 Committee for the Affairs of the Aborigines.
Windschuttle made the effort to read through every document placed before this committee and found no mention of the kicking of babies' heads. So Jones's claim has no evidence and would appear to be another fabrication.
This is exactly what a reasonable person would have expected. Although some of the convicts sent to the colonies were violent men, the settlers themselves were both Christian and cultured. To believe that they would have cheered on a game of baby head-kicking shows a monstrous lack of understanding of the past. (Windschuttle also states in his book that you would have to be "unusually gullible" to believe this particular atrocity story).
When I spoke to my colleagues after the speech to gauge their reactions, I found that they had no feelings about the issue. They were emotionally detached. When I asked them directly if they thought it might be true that settlers had baby head kicking competitions, they shrugged and said they didn't know. They didn't share my indignation.
If you feel a connection to your own ancestors - to your own family going back in time - then you're likely to feel anger when they are unjustly maligned and accused of inhuman crimes they did not commit. It is a natural reaction to have.
I have to assume that many of my colleagues have lost this particular point of connection in life; that they don't see themselves as having a history stretching back through the generations.
Perhaps this is their way of coping with all the claims about colonial wrongdoings. If so, it's a poor strategy. It's better to insist on a more balanced account of colonial history, rather than to divest yourself of any emotional involvement in the issue.