The week before I began writing this introduction, Australian settler colonialism was once again in the news. On Thursday September 25, 2003, a group of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians gathered to remember the last officially documented massacre of Aboriginal people in Australia. In 1927, the killing of a white dingo-trapper by an Aboriginal assailant had precipitated a series of reprisals led by Constable William Murray of the Commonwealth police. As a result, at least 30 Aboriginal women and men were killed in retribution for the murder. In an attempt to hide the evidence, their bodies were burned and the charred remains hidden in a dry riverbed. During a ceremony of remembrance held seventy-five years later near the site of the massacre at Coniston Station in the Northern Territory, descendants acknowledged their shared if divergent relationship to this event. Warlpiri woman elder Jean Herbert stated that ‘This ceremony is about healing the past and walking together in the future. We want to let the spirits rest in peace.’ And Liza Dale-Hallett, great-niece of Constable Murray, responded on behalf of non-Indigenous Australians: ‘We share this past. We also share the future. I feel very privileged to be here with you, face to face, feeling these unjust, painful and tragic events.’1
Around Australia, newspapers announced the Coniston commemoration as evidence of a larger sentiment of national reconciliation. ‘A new chapter was being written in the desert’, The Australian promised its predominantly southern readership, and one ‘with different hearts’ than in the past.2 Where once frontier vigilantes had been bent upon the ‘dispersal’ of Aborigines, their descendants expressed regret. And where once Indigenous witnesses had been excluded from government investigation,3 now, in 2003, their voices were being heard. Just as the past is often constructed as a foreign country, then in the logic of national commemoration, Coniston was to be remembered as distant in sentiment, time and space.4
While this kind of national commemoration, however distancing, reflects something of the recent shifts towards acknowledging settler colonial histories of violence and injustice against Indigenous people, in Australia today settler colonial history remains highly contested. Questions of apology for child removal, acknowledgement of Indigenous sovereignty rights, or treaty with Indigenous communities, have given way to the more recognisably assimilationist line of previous decades as a politics of denial has gained legitimacy.5 History has become a battleground between those wishing to reinstate a unified, progressive account of the past, and those finding in its contested and fragmented present a way forward. While the History Wars are waged in particular form in Australia, they witness a global trend. As with critical historians of empire and colonialism elsewhere, those seeking to disrupt national narratives of benign settlement in Australia have been accused of ‘revisionism’, ‘political correctness’, and ultimately of the ‘fabrication of history’ itself.6
On one level, these accusations reflect fears concerning the status of evidence.7 In the Australian case, renewed dispute over empiricism has been most evident in disagreements concerning frontier violence in Australia. 8While counting the dead has become pivotal to determining the ‘truth’ about Australian settler colonialism, as we can quickly recognise, numbers provide no escape into ‘fact’.9 In the Coniston case, for example, the number of dead remains in dispute: where official contemporary records claimed only 31, Aboriginal community memory asserts that at least sixty people died. For some, discrepancies between ‘official’ and ‘hearsay’ accounts provide the grounds for the dismissal of an Indigenous perspective, despite the glaring partiality and incompleteness of the official archives. Simple assertions of reliance on the ‘facts’ are desperately inadequate if an informed public discussion about Australian settler colonial culture is to emerge.10
At another level, the dispute over settler colonialism reflects a destabilisation of national history. As Indigenous scholar Larrissa Behrendt has pointed out, the History Wars are not about Aboriginal history at all, but about a growing crisis in white identity in Australia. 11Leading historians working to bring Indigenous and non-Indigenous settler colonial histories into greater dialogue, often through oral histories and other non-official sources, have confronted the fallibility of the national archives and the shaky foundations...