The Antipodean media establishment erupted recently with the ‘discovery’ of a University of New South Wales document on how students can avoid being offensive when discussing historical issues. In a glorious display of irony, many in the media misquoted and misunderstood their primary source before accusing the University of doing history badly. Rather typically, the likes of Keith Windschuttle, the doyen of Australian historical revisionism, were on hand to bemoan this tragic case of leftism gone mad.
The furore has raged mainly around the allegation that students were told not to say that Captain Cook discovered Australia, rather that Australia was invaded. Of course, the keen-eyed observer might note that under most definitions of the term Cook did not discover Australia – indigenous discovery of the continent predated his by 40,000 years or so, and even amongst Europeans Cook was beaten by the Portuguese, Dutch and even the odd Englishman before him. The University’s guidelines never actually stipulated that Cook’s explorations be termed invasion as the headlines suggested – they instead suggested that students say that ‘Captain Cook was the first Englishman to map the east coast of “New Holland”’, a statement about as historically accurate as can be.
In fact, the angst over the matter stems less from how to characterise Cook’s voyages, and more over the term ‘invasion’. The document goes on to note that ‘invasion’, ‘colonisation’ or ‘occupation’ are better terms to use than ‘settlement’, a term which:
ignores the reality of Indigenous Australian peoples’ lands being stolen from them on the basis of the legal fiction of terra nullius and negates the resistance of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The fact that most settlers did not see themselves as invading the country, and that convicts were transported against their will is beside the point. The effects were the same for Indigenous Australian peoples.
The reason this particular formulation set off such a spectacular reaction lies in the contested usage of the term ‘invasion’. It is perhaps the latest battlefield in the Australian ‘History Wars’, a conflict which emerged in the late 1990s with revisionist historians such as Windschuttle leading the charge against ‘black armband’ history supposedly aimed at making Australians feel bad about themselves, and has rumbled away in the background of national life ever since. A growing movement has attempted to rebrand ‘Australia Day’, the commemoration of the founding of Sydney as a penal colony in 1788, as ‘Invasion Day’. As such, it is this particular term which captured the public imagination in this case rather than the less emotive ‘colonisation’ or ‘occupation’.
Indigenous history is a passion of mine outwith my usual research, and its misuse is something that I’ve written about previously in similar circumstances. At this stage, my own partisanship in the ‘History Wars’ is probably quite clear. My position is rather emphatic: the colonisation of Australia, as with all colonisation projects, was inherently violent and relied upon dispossession and exploitation. As a country which has since benefitted massively from this process, we have a moral obligation to try and put things right with those who paid the price for our success – not just in a financial sense, but in a cultural sense, with an acknowledgement of what it was that happened. For this reason I personally support the use of terminology such as ‘Invasion Day’ as part of an effort to drive home the violent reality of our past instead of hiding behind euphemism and ducking the moral responsibility of having a modern, largely successful society based on the exploitation of a group that is still disadvantaged in just about every socioeconomic indicator yet invented.
A wider debate might be whether a university has any place telling students how to think and express themselves. Ignoring for the moment that the document in question provided guidelines rather than prescribed certain views or formulations, its provision is one that more universities ought to follow suit on. I recall as an undergraduate being perpetually uneasy about my own terminology, especially when dealing with primary sources that used terms that would be considered overtly offensive today. The potential for the uncertain implications of your words to undercut your intended meaning is a real one, and usually unintentional on the part of a student. It is not political correctness run amok to give them a guide to how to avoid expressing themselves poorly, especially when dealing with topics like Indigenous history that do require sensitivity and empathy.