News article reignites Australia's 'history wars'

Sydney paper slams university guideline to refer to arrival of British settlers as 'invasion'

In a relatively young and conflict- free country such as Australia, history can still prove to be a prickly and fiercely contested topic.

Tensions surrounding the nation's so-called "history wars" were reignited after a mass-circulation newspaper last week ran a front-page story criticising descriptions of the arrival of British settlers in Australia as an "invasion".

The article referred to language guidelines issued by one of Australia's top universities, the University of New South Wales (UNSW), which advised students and staff on how to discuss Australian history without offending the country's Aboriginal people.

The guidelines advised students and staff to describe the British who began arriving in the late 18th century as having "invaded, occupied and colonised" the land. The advice was an attempt to acknowledge that lands were stolen - often forcibly - from the Aboriginal people.

"Describing the arrival of the Europeans as a 'settlement' attempts to view Australian history from the shores of England rather than the shores of Australia," the guidelines stated.

The guidelines also recommended that the famous British 18th-century explorer Captain James Cook should not be described as having "discovered" Australia.

"Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were in Australia long before Captain Cook arrived; hence it was impossible for Cook to be the first person to 'discover' Australia," the guidelines stated. "Most Aboriginal people find the use of the word 'discovery' offensive."

The guidelines were apparently four years old and appeared to have largely gone unnoticed when they were first issued. But their appearance on the front page of Sydney's Daily Telegraph - under the headline "Whitewash" - sparked vigorous debate. The newspaper said the university was rewriting history and seeking to "scrub out" Captain Cook's contribution to Australia.

The story hit a nerve that remains raw in this 115-year-old nation, and stoked persistent tensions over the interpretation of Australia's pre- federation history, particularly the treatment of the Aboriginal people during the British colonisation.

The debate, which has tended to pit conservatives against progressives, has largely revolved around the extent to which Aboriginal people were subject to brutality, violence and even genocide.

Prominent right-wing radio host Alan Jones said that the guidelines were politically correct "rubbish".

"One student might well argue in favour of invasion and another in favour of settlement," he said.

"The argument should be judged on its quality. But prejudice and political correctness are anathema to genuine scholarship and learning."

Most historians sided with UNSW, noting that describing Captain Cook as having "discovered" Australia was historically incorrect because the country was already occupied by the Aboriginal people.

The university said it was not "dictating" to students but was providing guidelines on appropriate language use when discussing Aboriginal people, history and culture. It said the document was a guide and that teachers could choose whether to use it as a resource for classes.

"The guide does not mandate what language can be used... We always encourage students to form their own opinions so to suggest that such a guide would stifle open debate in any way is plainly wrong," UNSW said in a statement.

But the debate itself pointed to the extent to which the nation's history remains a source of friction.

Many Aboriginal people, for instance, refuse to celebrate Australia Day - an annual holiday on Jan 26 which commemorates the arrival of the British settlers in 1788 - and refer to it as Invasion Day.

Though the Aborigines were in Australia long before the arrival of the British and subsequent immigrants from Europe, Asia and beyond, they are now a small - and socially disadvantaged - minority.

And so academic debates over history can often seem a proxy for a more expansive debate over the extent to which the nation has properly addressed - or atoned for - the continued suffering of the Aboriginal population.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 09, 2016, with the headline 'News article reignites Australia's 'history wars''. Subscribe