Some Recent Links

• Noble Ingram on Christian Science Monitor: “History lesson: Scholars take aim at racist views of Middle Ages”

Fiamenco File: “OMG, She Cheered for White Men!” (16 minute YouTube video)

• Peter Wood on Inside Higher Ed.: “Anatomy of a Smear: Scholars should speak out against those who have weaponized the language of “safety,” “security,” “acknowledgment” and “inclusion” to silence anyone who disagrees with them”

• Jay Nordlinger on National Review Online: “One Gutsy Medievalist” (link to Ricochet podcast)

Open Letter for Rachel Brown

The National Association of Scholars has organized an open letter in support of Rachel Fulton Brown of the University of Chicago. If you would like to sign, click the link. Paul Halsall said it well:

I disagree with many of Prof. Brown’s political views (which are a mix of conservative, libertarian, and some classical liberalism) but after on and off electronic conversations with her since the 1990s I am convinced that she is neither a fascist nor a white supremacist. The series of attacks on her by Dorothy Kim (formerly of Vassar, now of Brandeis) are fallacious. I find the support given to Kim by some other academics very ill-founded.

The National Association of Scholars, a fairly conservative but still respectable (?) group has now organised an online petition in support of Rachel Brown. I’m not really in favour of this sort of petition, but in light of a continued barrage of attacks by Kim and a petition signed against Brown, I think some gesture of support is necessary.

I therefore urge other historians to sign this petition, especially those among us on the political left who believe that we can continue scholarly and social discussion without resorting to the the “us” and “them” binaries that seem so appealing on social media.

I support Prof. Brown without agreeing with her. I suggest you do the same.

Dare Stones

I have just discovered the existence of South’s version of the Kensington Runestone. From the Brenau Window:

In November 1937 as America clawed its way out of The Great Depression, a Californian man showed up at the history department of Emory University in Atlanta with a most peculiar object – a 21-pound chunk of rough veined quartz with some foreign looking words chiseled into its surface. The man said he found the rock in a North Carolina swamp, about 80 miles from Roanoke Island, while he was driving through on vacation. The strange stone caught the attention of one of the professors, Dr. Haywood Pearce Jr., who also served as vice president of Brenau, where his father was president. The inscription on the stone read “Ananias Dare & Virginia went hence unto heaven 1591,” and a message to notify John White of that news bore the initials of the author of the carved writing, EWD, presumably those of Eleanor Dare.

Although Emory’s historians weren’t interested, Pearce and his father certainly were. Perhaps they concluded that, if this chuck of rock indeed marked the graves of America’s “first white child” and her father, it might well be the thing to put their college on the map. They wound up paying the California man $1,000 for the treasure.

Anyone who has used tiller, plow or trowel in Appalachian dirt will swear the region grows rocks. But nothing plows better than cold cash. To make a long story short, over the next four years, similar rocks popped up all over the place, mostly found by four people. Pearce and his father over the years acquired close to 50 of the huge stones, all with similar inscriptions unearthed as far south as the banks of the Chattahoochee River near Atlanta. Although the Pearces’ fervent explorations and money never turned up graves or any other evidence to authenticate the stones, a team of Smithsonian Institution-commissioned historians – headed by the venerable Samuel Eliot Morison of Harvard – traveled to Gainesville and, in a preliminary report, assigned some validity to what had then come to be known as “The Dare Stones.”

David Morrison’s article notes that the Saturday Evening Post, in 1941, conclusively proved that most of these stones were forgeries, but what about the original one? From the Washington Post on July 5 (hat tip: Ron Good):

In the past few years, researchers have been taking another look. For one, the letters etched on the first stone look very different from the others. It doesn’t contain any suspiciously modern words as the others do. Plus, Dare was “moderately educated,” Schrader says, and her husband was a stonemason. It’s reasonable to think she may have learned the skill from him.

In 2016, Schrader had a sample of the stone analyzed by the University of North Carolina at Asheville, exposing the quartz’s bright white interior.

“The original inscription would have been a stark contrast to the weathered exterior,” science writer Andrew Lawler wrote for National Geographic. “A good choice for a Roanoke colonist but a poor one for a modern forger.”

Schrader said he would like to marshal the funds for an “exhaustive, geochemical investigation,” but first, this fall, a Brenau professor will assemble a team of outside experts to analyze the language more thoroughly.

“The type of English that’s on the stone was really only used for about a hundred years, so it’s a nice time marker to be able to study,” Schrader said.

It will be interesting to see how this pans out. (I make no comment on the use of “Virginia Dare” by white nationalists – if the rock is authentic, then it’s authentic, and if it’s fake, then it’s fake. What “uses” it is put to are beyond the investigator’s concern.)

More on Medievalism

Some followup to an issue referenced in Milo’s article.

1. Rachel Fulton Brown summarizes Eileen Joy’s problems with the International Medieval Congress at Western Michigan University, and the subsequent resignation of Larry Swain, administrator of a Facebook group devoted to the Congress, over the appearance of the expression “growed like Topsy” in the description of this group.

2. Richard Utz of Georgia Tech refuses to sign a letter of support of Joy’s BABEL working group.

The organizers of the world’s largest annual meeting of medievalists, the International Congress on Medieval Studies, or ICMS, at Western Michigan University, stand accused of “a bias against” or “lack of interest in” sessions dealing with “decoloniality, globalization and anti-racism”– allegations that made their way into Inside Higher Ed, the Chronicle of Higher EducationForbes and CampusReform and were summarized in a “letter of concern” medievalists were asked to support. Members of the steering committee of the BABEL Working Group, an innovative scholarly (para-institutional) collective of colleagues in premodern studies, are the authors of the letter. This letter was preceded by a Facebook post too undignified to be quoted here.

Normally, I would sign such a letter without hesitation. It promotes goals such as diversity, inclusion and metacritical scholarship for which I have advocated throughout my academic career, as an individual and together with the adherents of the International Society for the Study of Medievalism. But I did not sign because I know more than most observers about this specific congress: I attended for the first time as a student in 1986 and, with few interruptions, as a participant since 1990; I also served as chair of the English department at Western Michigan and was an affiliate faculty of the Medieval Institute between 2007 and 2012.

I know the Western Michigan medievalists and reject the dotted line the letter of concern insinuates between the faculty of the Medieval Institute, on the one hand, and the racist neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville, Va., on the other. That line was even more than dotted in some of the simultaneous social media posts about the issue.

3. Josh Eyler, new administrator of the Facebook group, responds at his blog.

First, [Utz’s article] positions the debate as the BABEL Group versus the world, and this is simply untrue. Yes, it was the BABEL steering committee that authored the letter, but the hundreds of additional signatures indicate that the concerns raised in the letter are shared by many. Second, the article suggests that the issue of inclusivity is limited to an inclusion of areas of study and/or viewpoints on the field. This is certainly one dynamic, and I want to address it before moving on.

To demonstrate that the ICMS really is inclusive of different fields, Utz first cites the many (and diverse) types of traditional sessions that the ICMS has offered in the past, which have been sponsored by groups like the Pearl Poet Society and Cistercian Studies. He then suggests that the ICMS has embraced more recent areas of study by saying, “The 2018 program, for example, features the term ‘race’ nine times, ‘disability’ nine times and ‘gender’ and ‘feminism’ 48 times.”…

The bigger issue, though, with respect to inclusion is one that the article barely even addresses, which is the degree to which scholars from traditionally underrepresented groups have felt included in both the ICMS and Medieval Studies. The call for ICMS to include more sessions about the state of the field is directly related to this larger point about inclusivity. It isn’t just a push for “progressivism” for its own sake but is a response to structures that have pushed people to the margins.

4. And Tom MacMaster responds to that (on the new Facebook group, Medieval Studies – State of the Field):

Hmm, I think he’s continuing to deliberately miss the point of much of the pushback to the Babylonians’ demands but accepting the frame that this is largely a dispute between, on one side, “inclusivists” who want to discuss a broader Middle Ages and white supremacists who want to preserve an all white (cisgendered, heterosexual, and male) scholarly community studying a exclusively all white Europe only Middle Ages. Unfortunately, while that might be comforting, I notice instead that the “two camps” seem to be largely made up of:

1) a group that doesn’t study the actual past but, instead, is centered in English Literature departments. And does largely reception studies of what happened in the southern part of one island (basically Beowulf, Chaucer, and friends) and is engaged in performative wokeness (well-off white liberals acting out what they envision as scenes of radical anti-racism to gain approval from other well-off white liberals and feel superior to the hoi polloi). They wish to force their activities on everyone else and demand that everyone else grant them status for being so woke online and in K’zoo sessions

and 2) a group full of people who are heavily from History and related disciplines who actually study actual medieval subjects and have been looking at these sorts of “big picture” issues for… their entire careers. Often, these are the people who read languages beyond English and its immediate forerunners and so, when told to “decolonize medieval studies” “look beyond England!” don’t apologize profusely for not having done so but return to their study of, say, medieval Iraqi texts, Mongolian expansionism, or the trans-Saharan slave trade. When they (we) are then shouted at for being wicked evil racist neo-Nazis for not thinking 100 sessions on “Medievalisms & transgendered POCs in WoW online” are the cat’s meow, a “camp” emerges.

The complaints that academic conferences covering the study of the Middle Ages are not spending enough time and energy on the study of the 20th and 21st century is the key complaint. Yes, many fantasy and historical fictions are set in the Middle Ages but no, they aren’t medieval; they are modern. And yes, some on the far right (as well as in the far left, center and everywhere else) use emblems in the middle ages.

But, among the Anglophone far right (and in these discussions, they are the only ones who count), the medieval is far less interesting than, say, the Second World War, the American Civil War, or the European Age of Imperialism and far less likely to be referenced. There are, of course, medievalist academics and others keenly interested in dressing up in costumes and carrying out violence in the name of early medieval ideals – that group of cosplayers led by an academic specializing in early medieval literature that took over Raqqa and Mosul comes to mind or the medieval references that litter the rhetoric of all sides in conflicts in the Levant (not to mention giant statues of medieval kings under construction by a party that has been accused of genocide); but none of those are of interest to this discourse. And why would they be?

The self-styled “progressives” and “anti-racists” in this discussion are only interested in Anglocentric and insular topics and seem to care little and know less about other fields.

It is all performance and it is frankly insulting to academics and anyone who isn’t an upper class white North American. It insults everyone outside the US by prioritizing the trivial and passing whims of American culture; it insults all non-whites by assuming that they need the patronizing protection of the benevolent and paternalistic (maternalistic?) woke white liberals and must be coddled and told comforting lies; it insults African-Americans by putting upper class Asians forward as the spokespeople of anti-racism and silences black voices; it insults all those concerned with truth, honesty and free and open debate by pushing a narrative devoid of evidence as the only true path.

The Latest

Milo Yiannopoulos weighs in on the recent kerfuffles on medieval studies. I like this paragraph [smiley face]:

The scholars causing trouble teach English; their targets tend to be historians. Medievalist researchers from English departments are more interested in literary criticism and tend to be in conversation with English professors working on other periods, preoccupied with postmodernism and post-structuralism; historians have to learn how to talk to other historians. Though literature-based medievalists do have language skills (most understand Old English, for example), the historians usually possess the more powerful and wide-ranging scholarly toolkits — and intellects.

Hindu Nationalism

Another misuse of history. From Reuters (courtesy Stephen Bartlett). Choice excerpts:

By rewriting history, Hindu nationalists aim to assert their dominance over India

By RUPAM JAIN and TOM LASSETERFiled March 6, 2018, 11 a.m. GMT

NEW DELHI – During the first week of January last year, a group of Indian scholars gathered in a white bungalow on a leafy boulevard in central New Delhi. The focus of their discussion: how to rewrite the history of the nation.

The government of Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi had quietly appointed the committee of scholars about six months earlier. Details of its existence are reported here for the first time.

Minutes of the meeting, reviewed by Reuters, and interviews with committee members set out its aims: to use evidence such as archaeological finds and DNA to prove that today’s Hindus are directly descended from the land’s first inhabitants many thousands of years ago, and make the case that ancient Hindu scriptures are fact not myth.

Interviews with members of the 14-person committee and ministers in Modi’s government suggest the ambitions of Hindu nationalists extend beyond holding political power in this nation of 1.3 billion people – a kaleidoscope of religions. They want ultimately to shape the national identity to match their religious views, that India is a nation of and for Hindus.

In doing so, they are challenging a more multicultural narrative that has dominated since the time of British rule, that modern-day India is a tapestry born of migrations, invasions and conversions. That view is rooted in demographic fact. While the majority of Indians are Hindus, Muslims and people of other faiths account for some 240 million, or a fifth, of the populace…

According to the minutes of the history committee’s first meeting, Dikshit, the chairman, said it was “essential to establish a correlation” between ancient Hindu scriptures and evidence that Indian civilization stretches back many thousands of years. Doing so would help bolster both conclusions the committee wants to reach: that events described in Hindu texts are real, and today’s Hindus are descendants of those times.

The minutes and interviews with committee members lay out a comprehensive campaign to achieve this, including the dating of archaeological sites and DNA testing of human remains.

Culture Minister Sharma told Reuters he wants to establish that Hindu scriptures are factual accounts. Speaking of the Ramayana, the epic that follows the journey of a Hindu deity in human form, Sharma said: “I worship Ramayana and I think it is a historical document. People who think it is fiction are absolutely wrong.” The epic tells how the god Rama rescues his wife from a demon king. It still informs many Indians’ sense of gender roles and duty.

Sharma said it was a priority to prove through archaeological research the existence of a mystical river, the Saraswati, that is mentioned in another ancient scripture, the Vedas. Other projects include examining artifacts from locations in scriptures, mapping the dates of astrological events mentioned in these texts and excavating the sites of battles in another epic, the Mahabharata, according to Sharma and minutes of the committee’s meeting.

In much the same way that some Christians point to evidence of an ancient flood substantiating the Biblical tale of Noah and his ark, if the settings and features of the ancient scriptures in India can be verified, the thinking goes, then the stories are true. “If the Koran and Bible are considered as part of history, then what is the problem in accepting our Hindu religious texts as the history of India?” said Sharma.

Modi did not order the committee’s creation – it was instigated by Sharma, government documents show – but its mission is in keeping with his outlook. During the 2014 inauguration of a hospital in Mumbai, Modi pointed to the scientific achievements documented by ancient religious texts and spoke of Ganesha, a Hindu deity with an elephant’s head: “We worship Lord Ganesha, and maybe there was a plastic surgeon at that time who kept the head of an elephant on the torso of a human. There are many areas where our ancestors made large contributions.” Modi did not respond to a request from Reuters that he expand on this remark.

This is nuts! I repeat my query: Is it not possible to value your country, and the truth, at the same time? Bartlett told me of another forum of this dispute, in which Hindu nationalists triumphantly claimed that a study of mitochondrial DNA proved that “the Aryan invasions never happened!” Unfortunately for them, this conclusion was overturned pretty quickly, since mDNA is passed down from mothers – but not by Y chromosome DNA, which marks for maleness. A study of that suggests, indeed, that (male) warriors arrived and procreated with local women.

My Hanson and Curtis world history text has an inset box dealing with a similar issue (page 69):

Whose History of Hinduism is Correct?

Historians of religion often have a different understanding of a given religions tradition than do its adherents. Studying documents and art objects from specific periods, historians see all religions as changing over time, and they often have evidence revealing that different groups – the illiterate and literate, men and women, rich and poor – understand the teaching of a religion in divergent ways. In contrast, believers sometimes maintain that since their own understanding of a religions tradition has been true since the founding of the religion, it is the only correct view. Pluralists see Hinduism as an evolving, changing set of beliefs, while the centralists lean toward the view that the Vedas have always been the primary texts of Hinduism, which they believe existed since time immemorial.

These two views have collided head-on in India. In 2010, Penguin Press published a book entitled The Hindus: An Alternative History, by a professor of religion at the University of Chicago, Wendy Doniger. The book offers a pluralist perspective, presenting materials in languages other than Sanskrit, the language of India’s high tradition, to highlight the experiences of women and untouchables. Because Hindus debate certain core beliefs of Hinduism, such as vegetarianism, nonviolence, and the caste system, Doniger argues that there is no single, correct teaching, or orthodoxy.

In 2011 a small Hindu group, called Shiksha Bachao Andolan (Save Education Movement), led by a retired school principal, filed a civil claim against Penguin in Indian courts. “The book is in bad taste right from the beginning,” the principal told BBC. “If you see the front page, the picture there is also objectionable since it portrays a deity in vulgar pose.” The book cover features a painting of the blue-skinned deity Krishna riding on a horse made up of multiple bare breasted women.

Choosing to settle out of court, in February 2013, Penguin India recalled all remaining copies of the book and promised to destroy them….

Source.

Sigh… I wish publishers would not be so willing to succumb to the heckler’s veto (cf. Yale UP’s decision to publish a book about the Danish Mohammad cartoons, without actually publishing the cartoons).

Medieval Academy

Device of the 93rd annual meeting of the Medieval Academy of America (2018), at Emory University.

The springtime meeting of the Georgia Medievalists’ Group was folded into something much grander: the 2018 annual meeting of the Medieval Academy of America, held this past weekend at Emory University (specifically, the Emory Conference Center Hotel – what you can do with Coke money!). This one was my third, after Minneapolis (2003) and Phoenix (2011). Phoenix, as I remember, was controversial – Arizona had recently passed an anti-illegal-immigrant law, and there was tremendous pressure on the Academy not to hold the meeting there. They went ahead with it anyway, largely for financial reasons, although they changed the theme, especially welcoming presentations dealing with medieval immigration and xenophobia. (My paper, on the Flemish weaving community of fourteenth-century London, which was decimated during the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, fit with this theme very nicely.)

This conference was not quite as controversial, although it threatened to be. Unbeknownst to most people, there has been some conflict in the medievalist world of late, with some people claiming that the entire field is inherently racist, and others objecting to this identification. This conflict has taken place largely over the Internet, with all the hyperbolic self-righteousness that such interaction usually entails. To address the issue, the conference organizers arranged for a plenary session of Medievalists of Color, whose presentations were actually pretty good and did not descend to the level of an Internet comment thread, despite occasional references to “white fragility”* or the notion that “research is violence.” They also avoided calling out their opponents by name, which was a nice gesture. (As much as I would love to see a revival of medieval-style academic debate, the topic here is so sensitive that the bad consequences would surely outweigh the good, if people who don’t believe that the field of Medieval Studies needs “decolonizing” were to be given equal time.)

As ever, it was good to see old friends and to make new ones, and most of the papers were pretty good. My favorite presentation was the final plenary, by Michael McCormick, of the Initiative for the Science of the Human Past at Harvard. Apparently researchers at SoHP can now deduce the atmospheric content of the past from the ice cores of Greenland or Antarctica without even melting them, and with a much finer granularity than previously (gleaning two million data points for a period twenty thousand years, for example). Thus have they determined that human metallurgy has been putting pollutants into the air for a very long time; it’s not just a function of the Industrial Revolution. Even more interesting is a partnership between the SoHP and the Max Planck Institute in Germany called Archaeoscience of the Ancient Mediterranean, which aims to reconstruct the human settlement patterns around the Mediterranean going back to the late Bronze Age. I was amazed to learn that teeth contain evidence of one’s diet up to age twelve or so. Pulp in the molars of corpses contains evidence of disease-causing bacteria; what researchers are now able to determine is how the DNA of a disease mutated over time (specifically, the Yersinia pestis bacteria of the plagues of Justinian in AD 541-42), which allows them to plot exactly where it appeared and when, and thus to reconstruct ancient trade routes. Fascinating stuff!

Other highlights of the conference included the facsimile of the Bayeux Tapestry, on loan from the University of North Georgia (with many copies of the pamphlet explaining it, by yours truly). The conference program was the most edifying I’ve ever seen: in addition to maps, the schedule, and the list of participants, it also featured short articles on the founding of Emory, Emory’s campus architecture, noted medievalists Kemp Malone, Stephen White, Thomas Lyman, and George Cuttino, the Candler School of Theology, the Pitts Theology Library, the Carlos and High Museums, and other things of local or medieval interest. Finally, I would be remiss if I did not point out the excellent heraldry of this conference! The Medieval Academy’s coat of arms is a wonderful thing, featuring a splendid rose-en-soleil. 

The Academy’s journal is Speculum, and its device features a hand holding a mirror – a punning coat of arms, since speculum is mirror in Latin (it has a different meaning now, of course).

Both of these coats of arms, I understand, were designed by Pierre de Chaignon la Rose, who also came up with Harvard’s heraldic system in the 1930s.

Emory University itself uses a fine, simple coat of arms, featuring a crossed trumpet and torch. It is based on the university seal, which dates from 1915.

* Thesis: anyone who interprets opinions he disagrees with as “violence against bodies of color” does not get to talk about white fragility.

Whitesboro, N.Y.

A followup to a post from 2015: the village of Whitesboro, N.Y., has modified its seal as of this past summer. The seal still illustrates the wrestling match between Hugh White and an Oneida chieftain, although it now shows the two as evenly matched; it does not show White actually winning. The landscape is also more interesting, and the clothing more historically accurate.

Wikipedia.

A Christmas Post

Interesting article on Intellectual Takeout:

The Myth of the Pagan Origins of Christmas

It’s generally accepted that early Christians adopted December 25th as the day of Christ’s birth to co-opt the pagan celebration of the winter solstice. Some believe this fact undermines Christianity.

But according to Professor William Tighe, this “fact” may actually be a myth.

Based on his extensive research, Tighe argues that the December 25th date “arose entirely from the efforts of early Latin Christians to determine the historical date of Christ’s death.” He also goes so far as to claim that the December 25th pagan feast of the “’Birth of the Unconquered Sun’… was almost certainly an attempt to create a pagan alternative to a date that was already of some significance of Roman Christians.”

In the Jewish tradition at the time of Christ, Tighe explains, there was a belief in what they called the “integral age”—that the prophets had died on the same days of their conception or birth. Early Christians spent much energy on determining the exact date of Christ’s death. Using historical sources, Christians in the first or second century settled on March 25th as the date of his crucifixion. Soon after, March 25th became the accepted date of Christ’s conception, as well.

Add nine months—the standard term of a pregnancy—to March 25th, and Christians came up with December 25th as the date of Christ’s birth.

It is unknown exactly when Christians began formally celebrating December 25th as a feast. What is known, however, is that the date of December 25th “had no religious significance in the Roman pagan festal calendar before Aurelian’s time (Roman emperor from 270-275), nor did the cult of the sun play a prominent role in Rome before him.” According to Tighe, Aurelian intended the new feast “to be a symbol of the hoped-for ‘rebirth,’ or perpetual rejuvenation, of the Roman Empire…. [and] if it co-opted the Christian celebration, so much the better.”

As Tighe points out, the now-popular idea that Christians co-opted the pagan feast originates with Paul Ernst Jablonski (1693-1757), who opposed various supposed “paganizations” of Christianity.

I have never heard of the notion of “integral age,” and it seems a dollop of fudge to claim that it was conceptually important for someone to die on the “same day as his conception or birth.” Well, which is it? Moreover, I have never heard of the observance of the Crucifixion being fixed on March 25, or on any other date for that matter – Jesus was executed at Passover, which is a movable feast against the solar calendar. In observance of this, the celebration of Christ’s death and resurrection has always been movable as well. Wikipedia on the Computus

Easter is the most important Christian feast, and the proper date of its celebration has been the subject of controversyas early as the meeting of Anicetus and Polycarp around 154. According to Eusebius’ Church History, quoting Polycrates of Ephesus, churches in the Roman Province of Asia “always observed the day when the people put away the leaven“, namely Passover, the 14th of the lunar month of Nisan. The rest of the Christian world at that time, according to Eusebius, held to “the view which still prevails,” of fixing Easter on Sunday. Eusebius does not say how the Sunday was decided. Other documents from the 3rd and 4th centuries reveal that the customary practice was for Christians to consult their Jewish neighbors to determine when the week of Passover would fall, and to set Easter on the Sunday that fell within that week.

At some point it became important for Christians to ensure that the celebration of Easter did not coincide with Passover – and anyone who calculated it differently, like the Irish, was committing a grievous error. But note that in either case Easter was still movable. March 25 is the feast of the Annunciation, certainly, but only in relation to December 25, the (non-movable) feast of Christ’s birth.

So I can’t say that I’m convinced. Tighe’s instincts might be correct – people have accused Christianity of being a mélange of paganism ever since the Reformation, but this question is not something you can give a blanket judgment about; you have to examine Christian beliefs and practices on a case-by-case basis, and provide real evidence for pagan influence, and not simply “parallels.” But sometimes paganism really has influenced Christianity, if only through competition, and I would say that that still seems to be the case here. 

Lachlan Macquarie

From the antipodean ABC, courtesy my friend Lachlan Mead, an article assessing the George Washington of Australia:

Fact check: Was Lachlan Macquarie a mass murderer who ordered the genocide of Indigenous people?

The claim

Lachlan Macquarie, governor of NSW from 1810 to 1821, is often remembered by history as a man of the enlightenment who brought civilisation to the colony.

Indeed, the plaque attached to his monument in Sydney’s Hyde Park reads: “He was a perfect gentleman, a Christian and supreme legislator of the human heart.”

But late last month Bronwyn Carlson, head of Indigenous Studies at Macquarie University, challenged this during an ABC RN Breakfast interview.

Asked if she would be satisfied with a different or additional plaque, Professor Carlson said: “Would people be satisfied to say this: ‘Here stands a mass murderer who ordered the genocide of Indigenous people’?”

Is this characterisation of Macquarie accurate? Did Macquarie commit mass murder? Did he order genocide? RMIT ABC Fact Check delves into a fraught and controversial part of our history.

The verdict

The issue is not cut and dried.

In April 1816, Macquarie ordered soldiers under his command to kill or capture any Aboriginal people they encountered during a military operation aimed at creating a sense of “terror”.

At least 14 men, women and children were brutally killed, some shot, others driven over a cliff.

Although Macquarie’s orders included an instruction to punish the guilty with as little injury to the innocent as possible, archival evidence shows he knew innocent people could be killed.

In addition, Macquarie explicitly instructed his soldiers to offer those Aboriginal groups encountered an opportunity to surrender, and to open fire only after meeting “resistance”.

These instructions appear to have been ignored. Historical records suggest the soldiers offered no opportunity to surrender, opening fire on a group of people ambushed at night and who were fleeing in terror.

Macquarie appears to have glossed over this failure in the weeks following the massacre, telling his superior back in England that his men acted “perfectly in Conformity to the instructions I had furnished them”, and claiming the soldiers had indeed encountered resistance before opening fire.

Macquarie was ultimately responsible for his men. By today’s standards, his actions — and lack of action in not bringing soldiers who disobeyed his instructions to account — would, as a minimum, likely be regarded as a war crime involving a disproportionate response that led to a significant loss of life.

And, depending on the definition, the incident might also be described as “mass murder”, perhaps akin to recent military massacres in which innocent civilians attempting to flee were killed.

The issue of whether or not the actions amount to genocide is a complex one. A legal definition of genocide did not exist until after World War II. It is questionable whether this can be applied retrospectively to Macquarie’s actions, which took place some 130 years before the UN General Assembly made genocide a crime under international law.

Furthermore, it seems unlikely that Macquarie set about deliberately to “destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”, as per the UN definition, however misguided and destructive some of his Indigenous policies might have been. It is, therefore, problematic to suggest that Macquarie, as an individual, was guilty of ordering genocide.

However, it can be argued that the impact of the wider conflict between Aboriginal people and Europeans (whether soldiers or vigilante settlers), combined with a range of other factors — the loss of land and food sources, the spread of disease, the removal of children, and alcohol abuse, for example — contributed to the large-scale loss of life and culture that resembled genocide.

Experts contacted by Fact Check acknowledged the nuance in the arguments, but differed in their interpretations of Macquarie’s actions and his culpability or otherwise.

Read the whole thing.