Fate of a Free People

by Henry Reynolds

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Book Cover: Fate of a Free People

Critically acclaimed and award-winning work from one of Australia’s best known historians.

This award-winning and critically acclaimed book from one of Australia’s best known historians challenges the myth about the fate of Tasmania’s Indigenous people, vividly describing the extent of their resistance to colonisation, discussing the terms of the peace agreement under which they called themselves the ‘free Aborigines of Van Diemen’s Land’, and arguing that they weren’t defeated—but betrayed.
First published in 1995, Fate of a Free People won the NBC Banjo Award for Non-Fiction.
Henry Reynolds is an Honorary Research Professor, Aboriginal Studies Global Cultures & Languages at the University of Tasmania and one of Australia’s best known historians. His books include The Other Side of the Frontier (1981), The Law of the Land (1987), Why Weren’t We Told? (1999) which won the Queensland Premier’s Harry Williams Award for Literary Work Advancing Public Debate, Nowhere People (2005) and, with Marilyn Lake, the multi-award-winning Drawing the Global Colour Line (2008). His most recent work is Unnecessary Wars (2016).

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New Introduction from the author


Fate of a Free People was launched in 1995. It was controversial from the start. First Nation’s history was already contentious. It became much more so with the victory of John Howard’s coalition government the following year. The new Prime Minister took a personal interest in contemporary historical practice. He was strongly opposed to what he called ‘black arm band’ history and particularly the details of frontier violence. He believed that the new historiography made children ashamed of their history. He wanted them to feel ‘relaxed and comfortable’ about the past.


By 2002 the book had become a focal point of what became known as the ‘history wars’ which broke out with the publication of Keith Windschuttle’s polemical work The Fabrication of Australian History which was a radical re-appraisal of Tasmanian history. His most contentious assertion was that historians had ‘fabricated’ their interpretations by deliberate distortion of the available evidence and in the process greatly exaggerated the extent and the intensity of inter-racial violence. His principal targets were Lyndall Ryan and Henry Reynolds. The controversy raged for months. It found its way into the mainstream media and was the subject of intense debates before overflowing audiences in Hobart, Launceston, Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra.


The most enduring consequence of the history wars was that they stimulated a new generation of scholarship much of it focussing on colonial Tasmania. It has very largely confirmed the interpretation found in Fate of a Free People. The most challenging proposition dealt with in chapter five An Agreement With the Old Governor was that a treaty was negotiated between the First Nation’s leaders and the colonial government of George Arthur. This has now assumed a high degree of contemporary relevance. The Premier of the state Peter Gutwein appointed a small task force earlier this year to investigate the attitudes of the Aboriginal community to the possible ways to negotiate a modern treaty. The task force presented its report last week. The members were fully aware of the ongoing significance of that agreement with the old governor.


Henry Reynolds; 1/12/21

Published by Untapped: the Australian Literary Heritage Project

Once out of print, these lost Australian books have been brought back to life as part of Untapped: the Australian Literary Heritage Project. You can borrow them from your local library as ebooks, or buy from all major online booksellers.

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