›The Australian‹, terra nullius, and the Australian History War
Michael Connor does not write sine ira et studio. The desk of ›The Australian‹ knows this as well as any reader of his book ›The Invention of Terra Nullius‹. Nevertheless, it is not only dealt with as a serious study, but ›The Australian‹ also joins in the mudslinging practised there.
Michael Connor’s book is infamous, insulting, distasteful, and tendentious. Infamous, because he is mixing inconsistencies and diversities in interpretation with his own brew of an alleged intellectual conspiracy against the country and its people. Insulting, because he alleges that the professorial addressees of his critique would not even be capable to make use of the basic instruments of historiography drummed into the heads of every fresher. Distasteful, because he blames the critical historians stating that they have gained well paid academic positions with invented genocides of the Aborigines and the suppression of the suffering of whites. Tendentious, because he silently requests to terminate these intrigues and to give the boot to the whole perfidious mob.
His promoter Christopher Pearson puts it (in ›The Weekend Australian‹, 28/29. 1. 2006) more drastically: »people who have built empires on impugnable scholarship should lose them«, »they should become unemployable«.
›The Australian‹ ranks on the same level as Connor. Janet Albrechtsen (1. 2. 2006) has found »a brand new history text book« with »more than 30 pages devoted to the politics of shame«. She suggests that those responsible should have their headquarters in universities and teachers’ unions. They produce and propagate »history pressed into the service of progressive politics« instead of teaching the pupils that even historians could slip up (especially in writing on the genocidal politics towards the Aborigines). »[M]uch work« would still have »to be done in undoing the progressive curriculum foisted on Australian schoolchildren«.
Christopher Pearson has used similar means in his presentation of the book (in ›The Weekend Australian‹, 3/4. 12. 2005) already. He backed up the author even earlier (see 231 ff. – all page references are to ›The Invention of Terra Nullius‹. Paddington: Macleay Press 2005). Now he uses quotations of his work to suggest that critical Australian historians would be »Business Class Radicals«, scraping together reputation and revenues by using manipulated facts and the misery of Aborigines. At the same time they are said to have let the fatally ill Eddie Mabo go on the long trip home from Canberra to Townsville by bus, while they were busy making extra carrier capital out of the judgement. Their efforts toward a critical consolidation of Australian history are summarized as a combination of ›shambolic work‹ (Connor) and ›artless self-promotion‹ (Pearson).
For obvious reasons Connor’s campaign, that of the ›The Australian‹, and others (like his publisher Keith Windschuttle), against a respectable number of prominent defendants, is also searching for a ringleader. In ›The Weekend Australian‹ (3/4. 12. 2005) Christopher Pearson is convinced that »[o]f all the historians discussed, [Henry] Reynolds is the one whose reputation […] will be most damaged«. A good month later Bernard Lane (in ›The Australian‹, 18. 1. 2006) is able to report that a scholar of the research school of social sciences at the Australian National University believes, »Henry should comment on this […]. His reputation is in question«.
It was not astonishing, then, that the newspaper was somewhat unhappy with the review of Connor’s book by Wilfrid Prest (in ›The Australian‹, 18. 1. 2006). He criticized the »[u]nboundes contempt«, »unrestrained ad hominem abuse und hyberbolic denigration« of Connor’s attacks on distinguished historians.
With the outcry »[l]ong may this war rage« Christopher Pearson (in ›The Weekend Australian‹, 28/29. 1. 2006) bawled out the reviewer – »his call for civility« would proceed »from self-interest«. At the same time he gave an edge to his harsh criticism directed against Henry Reynolds and maintained that, »even in the cosy world of Aborigional history, pressure is mounting for Reynolds to give an account of himself«. As a reference for this knowledge he could only instance the researcher already quoted by Bernard Lane.
To support the attack, the newspaper fuelled the fire and published extracts of Connor’s book (in ›The Weekend Australian‹, 4/5. 2. 2006). The headline of the article elucidates what is at stake. It reads: »High Court Challenged« and an addendum explains: »The High Court cited terra nullius in ruling in favour of land rights in 1992. Historian Michael Connor […] says the judges were wrong and damaging to do so in the Mabo decision«.
The article which followed did adequate justice to Connor’s contribution to Australian history but minimized its aggressive, un-objective and rhapsodic manner. He claims 1) that ›terra nullius‹ is a juridical construction of the late 19th century and has nothing to do with the colonisation of Australia; 2) that modern lawyers and historians took up this concept »to create a law of the land that could be smashed in order to achieve legal recognition of communal Aboriginal land rights«; and 3), that in doing so the historians, first and foremost Henry Reynolds, converted into obsequious accomplices of the lawyers, instructed »to develop a mirror-image history to fit the legal arguments«.
The two lines of argumentation of Connor’s attack are obvious. In his book they heat up and lead to an overkill of offensive insinuations. On the one side a generation of career-minded and unscrupulous young academics are said to have taken advantage of the feeling of social uncertainty after 1968. In »a blitzkrieg« (40) they occupied important academic positions. There, until today, they behaved like the »Ceaucescus on their balcony« (325) and defended their sinecures by means of an »academic McCarthyism« (2). From this vantage point they converted the history of Australia into sheer »fiction« (81) of »blood, hatred, and lies« (117). (With all due respect: I have never read a comparable accumulation of so much absurd cheek in a scientific treatise).
On the other side historiography is said to have been part of ideological and political »strategy games« (55), organized to get the judges of the High Court around and sue Australia for Aboriginal land rights. The terra nullius conspiracy was successful. Terra nullius constituted »the basis of the Mabo judgment« (226). This was not only an error nullius, as Connor phrased it already two years before (in ›The Bulletin‹, 26. 8. 2003). As far as he is concerned, it also showed the wrong way to the politics of conciliation and did the Aborigines a bad turn. For Connor land rights meant »returning Aborigines to hunter-gatherer lifestyle« in the »imaginations« of »white intellectuals« and to »transform them into ancient regime landlords« in »the imagination of some black politicians« (31). (I have to correct myself: this is another one).
Except the miserable style of the argument, both considerations are based on weak arguments. The supposed plot of the intellectuals can not be verified at all. The giving of evidence is substituted by an arbitrary and unsystematic collection of references to real or alleged mistakes in the writings of reputed historians. Connor should have used his fussy rhetoric to say to himself: just one single document, at least, doctor!
To pass terra nullius off as a modern invention is only possible by largely fading out its prehistory. Instead of discussing the development of the meaning, Connor insists on the existence of the words.
The European colonisation of the world was accompanied by rituals of occupation and efforts of legitimisation. Even at the times of the first conquests, the school of Salamanca got down to develop a legal justification for the right of the Spanish to the land of the Americans. What was relatively easy for Francisco de Vitoria in those days, developed into a complicated matter after the increase of colonial powers. For their disputes concerning the discovery and appropriation of new territories, Hugo Grotius offered a contract based solution. However, the agreement of the colonizers was unsuited for their relations with the colonized. After some time, Emer de Vattel came up with a new legitimisation of colonial occupation which was based on John Locke’s theory of private property.
Connor’s comments on these aspects of the problem are short and weak (62 - 69). The proponent of the careful study of sources mentions six names (Hugo Grotius, Johann Gottlieb Heineccius, Sir William Blackstone, Georg Friedrich von Martens, Christian Wolff and Emmerich de Vattel), but he quotes only two of them and they are also the only ones listed in his bibliography. That does not prevent him from maintaining: »Not one of these writers wrote of terra nullius« (62). His one reaction to such a ›finding‹ would be a flood of questions: How does he know? By hearsay? Vicariously? And if they did not write the words, did they perhaps develop the meaning? They did.
As for that, Henry Reynolds has investigated the problem much more carefully than his would-be executioner. That applies to the judges of the High Court of Australia, too. They have read and taken into consideration Vattel in the opinion to Mabo. In doing so, they came to the decision that the colonisation of Australia was accompanied by an understanding and by using the meaning of terra nullius. From this they drew conclusions which Connor does not like. His reaction is judge-bashing.
His ignorance of terra nullius avant la lettre reveals itself in dealing with other judges and their treatment of terra nullius as well. When in 1824 Chief Justice Frances Forbes »described New South Wales as uninhabited«, Connor insinuates that the judge was not in his right mind and »must have recognised the nonsense of this« (281 f.), because there were many Aborigines visible in the streets of Sydney. Actually, Forbes was neither blind nor mad. As Vattel before him and Justice Brennan (and others) after him, he argued in the semantic field of terra nullius.
Connor’s notorious insisting on the right of discovery (246) betrays a similar lack of understanding. Discoveries before and after Grotius were not the same. The different efforts of settling to ward off expected French territorial claims show that the British Empire was aware of this. The British and Australian concerns about unused land, which led to the debate on the ›empty north‹, also belong to this context. It was founded on an understanding of terra nullius.
To contribute to an objective discussion of such a question, and to open its pages to competent participants, would have befitted a prestigious newspaper like ›The Australian‹. Unfortunately, it favours the subjective and defamatory style of Michael Connor and applies it itself. Instead of pushing a momentous discussion of terra nullius, it uses the words to produce political pressure. Such a method of terror nullius does not advance discussion any further. In fact, it threatens the personal integrity of the academics under attack. And, ›The Australian‹, too, stands to lose its reputation.
Diese Überlegungen wurden am 2. Februar 2006 formuliert. Schon wenige Tage später legte der 'Australian' nach. In seinem Beitrag "Is it time to sue over Mabo?" pflichtete der emeritierte Rechtsprofessor David Flint Connors Wortgläubigkeit bei: "The British annexed Australia [...]. They made no reference whatsoever to terra nullius - the term being than unknown to international law".
Zum Mabo-Urteil erklärte der Verfasser: "surely it is time that these stains were removed from the received history of our nation" ('The Australian', 10. 2. 2006). Er meinte damit den politischen Makel, Australien sei völkerrechtswidrig besiedelt und gegründet worden, und den wirtschaftlichen Makel noch nicht abzusehender Folgekosten für Landbesitzer, Minenbetreiber und Staat.
Die Diskussion wollte freilich trotzdem nicht recht in Gang kommen. Einerseits konnten die Herausgeber der Zeitung ausfürlich auf das Jubelbuch 'The Howard Factor' zum zehnjährigen Regierungsjubiläum hinweisen und dabei ihrem Premierminister bestätigten, er könnte stolz auf die "nationalisation of our society" (Paul Kelly, 'The Weekend Australian', 25/26. 2. 2006) sein und dürfte sich hinsichtlich seiner Sicht der australischen Geschichte eins mit seinem Volk wissen: "When Howard refuses to accept that Australian society is inherently racist, the vast majority agree with him" (Dennis Shanahan, a.a.O.).
Andererseits mußte in der selben Ausgabe Deborah Hope in ihrem Beitrag "Smokescreen nullius" auf der Grundlage der eigenen Berichterstattung und einiger telephonisch eingeholter Meinungen so tun, als gäbe es so etwas wie eine ernsthafte Diskussion der Thesen Connors. Immerhin gehörte zu den dabei mitgeteilten Informationen auch, daß Anthony Mason, chief justice des High Court von 1987 bis 1995 und wesentlich am Mabo-Urteil beteilgt, in einem Interview geäußert hätte "Connor has got it all wrong" und einige bedeutende Juristen den 'Australian' hätten wissen lassen, connors Argumente wären "a red herring", "confusing" und "a storm in a sherry glass". Das letzte Wort ihres Artikels überließ sie freilich Connors. Dessen Antwort auf die Kritik klang indessen eher wie ein Signal zum Rückzug: "We've both, historians and lawyers, got things wrong, and it needs looking at again".
Schließlich tat ihm doch noch ein kompetenter Diskussionspartner den Gefallen, näher auf seine Thesen einzugehen. Unter der Überschrift "Evidence tailored to fit an argument" ('The Australian', 15. 3. 2006) wies Andrew Fitzmaurice nicht nur auf die von Connors zu Unrecht ausgeblendete Bedeutung der Rechtsphilosophie für die Legitimation der Kolonialismus, sondern auch auf alternative Tendenzen hin, die es möglich machten, "to think about reconciling indigenous rights and Western democracy".
Wie zu erwarten war, fiel Conners Antwort mehr als eindimensional aus. "Null truth to academic accusations", befand er und erklärte in Fortsetzung seiner leiernden Argumentation: "My book is about two words and the role they have played in modern Australia" ('The Australian', 5. 4. 2006). Trotz dieser hermetischen Haltung resümierte der 'Australian' Connors Einlassungen einleitend mit der Behauptung, dessen Kritiker hätte "only added to the confusion with his inaccurate entry in the history war debate". Die Borniertheit der Journalisten steht derjenigen ihres Schützlings in nichts nach.
Gleichwohl konnte man gespannt sein, wie der 'Australian' auf Seven Lindqvists 'Terra Nullius' reagieren würde. Inga Clendinnen löste diese Aufgabe mit Bravour: sie verzichtete in ihrer Rezension einfach auf eine Auseinandersetzung mit dem Terminus. Statt dessen bescheinigte sie Linqvist, ein voreingenommenes und unauthentisches Buch geschrieben zu haben: "When I am with Lindqvist I am not travelling at all: I am being shown a pre-prepared slideshow with commentary. This is the travelling you do when you have no inclination of gambling your psychological, cultural and moral stability, which is what serious travelling, whether through words or in body, demands. There are no moments of disorientation, no queasy lurches in awareness or understanding. This is not a quest narrative at all. Lindqvist had decided what he would see before he came here. Then he came, and saw it" ('The Australian', 2. 5. 2007).
Nicht, daß europäische Reisende je ohne Informationen aufgebrochen wären. Gerade bei der Inbesitznahme Australiens fügte es sich gut, sich angesichts seiner Bewohner zuvor in der einschlägigen Literatur über herrenloses Land aufgeklärt zu haben. Wer freilich heute Informationen aus kritischer Lektüre bezieht, muß sich im 'Australian' vorhalten lassen, er hätte zwar "many books about European brutality and injustice to the Aboriginal people" gelesen, doch damit in Wirklichkeit Vorurteile produziert und sich gegen wahre Erkenntnis immunisiert: "Lindqvist doesn't need to talk to people because he already knows what he is looking at and what we readers must be made to see" (a. a. O.).