The False Past

A Nietzschean Account of Australian Settler Colonialism

by R.B.E. Price (Author)
©2022 Monographs X, 178 Pages


Provocative and disconcerting, The False Past confronts what many generations hold near and dear about their memorials.
What if everything we know about colonial history is wrong? What if history is driven by vanity and unexamined moral claims? What if fabrication and corruption are so integral to history that it must be written anew? These questions, posed by Nietzsche, are answered in this exciting new work.
The False Past takes a disturbing escapade through Australia’s colonial past. Using a Nietzschean evaluation of how the eternal recurrence of suffering worked in practice, it announces a fresh vision for frontier history. And in the finest Nietzschean tradition, Price reveals the uncaring absurdity and inconsistency of settlers in the pioneer past as their supreme failing because it produces contemporary trauma.
The False Past evaluates claims to colonial nobility, too. Who were the souls aiming beyond humanity who rose up Down Under? Was its Übermensch a dark and moody genius with a taste for conquest, a supreme talent in pastoral profiteering, an Indigenous exemplar, or a cunning bushranger out on a mission? 
Awkward and confronting, bold and experimental, this book often says the unsayable. The False Past lays siege to nostalgia, piety, vanity and nihilism to explain how unfounded exceptionalism has come to rule our lives. A revisionist assault on settled history, The False Past promises to spark debate among readers for many years to come.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Openings
  • Part 1 Falsity, Trauma and Guilt
  • Chapter 1 Hankering for a Coast
  • Chapter 2 Speaking for the Palawa
  • Chapter 3 Wild Ducks and Dispersals
  • Chapter 4 The Limits of Nostalgia
  • Part 2 Claims Beyond Humanity
  • Chapter 5 Selecting Fictional Heroes
  • Chapter 6 Remembering the Wheeler-Dealer
  • Chapter 7 The Tiffs
  • Part 3 How to See Yourself
  • Chapter 8 Vanity
  • Chapter 9 Prospectus
  • Chapter 10 Rise above It
  • Closings
  • Index

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Every author thinks that they go to the page alone. Nothing could be further from the truth. I would like to pay special thanks to Tameeka Stewart, Melanie Stellmacher, Alex Phillips, Andy Gibson, Britta Dietrich, Angela Jones, Lirong Du Bill MacNeil, John Page, Philip Dunshea, and other colleagues in the editorial team past and present at Peter Lang, USA. Great thanks also to the helpful and friendly teams at the reference section of the State Library of Queensland and the Tasmania State Archives. A dear friend of twenty years remarked that, in 2021, when others were salvaging relationships, I doubled down on the manuscript. I have to take that on the chin! I hope that what I have cost others can find some sort of redress in these pages.

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We often think of morality as fixed. Nietzsche famously contended, ‘there are no moral phenomena, only moral interpretations of phenomena’.1 This suggests that most people choose their morality to advance self-interest. Morality’s relationship to truth is unstable. In this sense, nostalgia is akin to ‘alternative facts’ that people will swear are true without any moral concern for whether or not they are.2 From 9/11 to Charlie Hebdo, Charlottesville to Kenosha, how we give phenomena their moral dimension has become the contest of our age.

Nostalgia is knowing one’s rightful place. Nostalgics want a feeling that something is being done to protect them. A feeling of belonging depends on a political plan to keep things the way they are. It is a representation of what the forebears would reckon. But history sinks fast into its own sediment. To ride its desired crest, nostalgia constantly needs topping up. It is top-heavy. It is distorted. It is the last passenger to go down. The first to pipe up. Only celestial signs of the future can hold the edifice upright.

Nostalgia is tribal. Its influence on some tribes is stronger than on others. Group A wants to return to a way of life once thought to exist. It has no concern to right contemporary wrongs. It only looks toward the future as a place to re-enact the moral relations of the past to entrench the present. ←1 | 2→Those in Group B felt that they knew what the old way of life was really like. They declare that not enough has changed. Given the loss of social stability reported by many in both groups, on occasion, nostalgia serves to comfortably confirm their place in the world. What feels true must be true. What is received must be true. How else could I have arrived here? Storytelling plays a big role in the construction of inference. There was a time when the world yearned to be developed, requiring someone to do it. There was a group with a pure motive. They made a place where everyone understood what justice looked like, and so on. And so on.

How does Nietzsche come into this? Certainly, he made many useful reductions of morality, truth, and history. His unequalled ability to stare the tiger in the eye made him legendary. Nietzsche had a gift for gesturing toward what is widely thought to be ideal and then calmly dismembering it. He showed how false gods give us a lack of ambition to be better human beings. Nostalgia, and those heroes we hoist into admiration, make a false pantheon. This, nevertheless, is an instructive site. It allows us how to see inconsistency, corruption and immunity to satire in public life bring poverty to the great majority of the community. All the pantheon gives back are the ashes of our dedication.

This book proceeds from a simple premise: what if the aphorisms of Nietzsche were applied as a methodology for history? What would happen if one took the writings of Nietzsche at face value as a way to interpret the past? What if he meant to do more than poke at the soft spots of nostalgia? What if his categories of history are read as principles intended for the development of a historical method? A German satirist, Kurt Tucholsky, once joked: ‘Tell me what you need, and I’ll supply you with the right Nietzsche quotation’.3 A valid point, no doubt. What to do? Commandeer Nietzsche so that he lines up behind revolutionary Leninism one day and Donald Trump the next? Read Nietzsche with a volkish insistence on this narrow context or that? The approach here is to give the words their plain and ordinary meaning and to call out the racist stuff.

Let us proceed into history with cautious creativity in the light of a Nietzschean pronouncement. There are risks. These include its cut and paste abridgement and conflation over the years and wilful mangling by his sister and literary executor, Elizabeth. Not to mention generations of translated distortion. The proposed path forward, however, runs less of a risk than presuming his words to be the dead letters of a canon in German idealist philosophy. That’s a well-known school. No one should dare use Nietzsche ←2 | 3→unless possessing an unimpeachable Teutonic DNA! That is to say, those who are often taken to know philosophy best are the least inclined to employ it. Natürlich, diejenigen die ein Boot segeln, wollen es wettfahren. Ist das nicht so?

Should one wish to apply, instead, conventional Christian moral philosophy as a reading of colonial history, one would be hard-pressed to quantify the obscene human cost of nostalgic faith. Colonial policy is made visible in Nietzsche’s concepts as ‘judgements that must be believed to be true’4 or based on ‘reasons sought after the event’.5 Colonial settlers and administrators in this book are depicted like contemporary moral philosophers were by Nietzsche, preferring ‘a handful of certainties to a cartload of beautiful possibilities’.6 His belief in the policy force of invalidity believed to be true, and its equally operative function alongside valid judgements, shall be on centre stage throughout this work. It has been entirely overlooked in the literature that nostalgic invalidity generates and stokes colonial victim trauma. Hence, the confrontational tone of this work.

Nietzsche provided a loose taxonomy of history types, ranging from antiquarian and monumental to critical history. I say loose because it reads descriptively; the product of a migraine rather than a brainwave. An antiquarian seeks to ‘preserve and revere’ the past with little discernment.7 A monumentalist looks for great figures in history and their watershed deeds. Headache subsiding, Nietzsche comes out. He ventured nostalgia as a vulnerability. Hooray for the critics of the standard historiographies! They hack and stomp on ‘every piety’ of the antiquarians and monumentalists.8 Surely, nostalgia calls out to be reduced if it is to be understood. Even when it appears slippery, it follows a single, dull-hearted political purpose without fault. Some emphasise its permutations unconvincingly. Jacobson, for one, refused to label nostalgia as a good or bad thing while emphasising its multi-layered and multi-dimensional aspect.9

So what that nostalgia is often given a sociological description as a multi-modal creature. Detecting its role in the transmission of history is the name of the game. From one person to another, from one generation to another, it is in the service of winning hearts and minds. Politics makes the memory of certain people and events so sacred that critics challenging them must become heretics. Nostalgia could be nothing more than a way to fit up the past in a way that serves the needs of an elite in the present. Nostalgia is a shield. It makes nefarious motives less questionable. In response, Nietzsche’s idea of the will to power, and the role of nostalgia in its workings, should assume centre stage as a mode of critical history.

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What is nostalgia like? Is it a jungle lien, a filter, a dog whistle? Or is it a tall tale designed to amuse? If it is a story, how it deals with the awkward gaps will be important. Nostalgia must depart from truth by playing loudly with the plausible to make the silences less noticeable. Confirmed in their place on a bourgeoning tract of pastoral land, an Australian colonial settler put forward their further wants as necessities to the nation, or as Nietzsche observed, they ‘knew how to get [their] corruption accepted as law, as progress, as fulfilment’.10 Nostalgia, then, will be difficult to extricate cleanly from the pervasive reasonableness claims made in any age.

Many people yearn for a time when the world seemed more knowable. Filters of thought such as Christianity, civilisation, and national interest, have ordered experience in this past world to give it a palatable appearance. Nietzsche contended that such beliefs used an unhinged morality to force a system of ‘dominant relations’ on people.11 When we turn our minds to nostalgia as a species of morality, the biases it produces can be difficult to explain. Why is violence often presented as the hijinks of a white settler adventure? And, why is it often presented as unavoidable as though something to be expected from the clash of two great civilisations? Colonialism, not recognising Indigenous civilisation as a category, had nevertheless to appear like it gave the heathens of the plain a fighting chance. Such an anomaly calls on a historian, as Nietzsche put it, to ‘fathom the depths and to separate true knowledge from appearance and error’.12 Lofty as it sounds, unless this is the goal of history writing, most historians must do little more than peddle fairy tales about the past.

Nietzsche’s reputation as an exponent of ‘scientific historiography’ is most evident when he notes that monumental history turns its back on the cause and plays up ‘the effects in themselves’.13 Therefore, primacy must be given to the political role of nostalgia before any other interpretations of it. One of Nietzsche’s most direct attacks on nostalgia suggested that its opposition colluded with it. He held a suspicion that, if sceptics had ‘strength, flight, courage and artistic power’, they would have no desire to ‘go back’ or ‘get away’ because they ‘would want to rise’.14 They would want to expose nostalgia in the way that the hungry would dispose of an entrée. You know, something sprinkled with fish eggs or microgreens, in a foam.

Nietzsche averred that, in political effect, validity and invalidity enjoyed equivalence throughout history.15 Nostalgia is a dark art travelling down these lines. Its hidden invalidity should be watched closely to trip it up. It propagates a limited truth for a political reason. It orders our conceptions of virtue ←4 | 5→without telling the whole story. Nostalgia anoints heroes. Those who have failed to recreate themselves opt for bare political power over others using an obvious ploy. Playing the role of hero-maker depends on erecting a statue with as little scrutiny as possible. This usually occurs through the narrative device of historiography – the art of limiting what is acceptable to say or officially knowable. Boym termed such nostalgia ‘restorative’ – it is solemnly intended, nationalist in nature, and bound up with remembrance as a public and political act.16

Much in the events at Charlottesville could be attributed to a group remembering a time when a white middle-aged male without a college education slotted easily into prescribed management jobs in small-town dealerships free of competition. He sipped refreshments on a tranquil, leafy veranda during the summer. He ignored calls from inside to mow the lawn. Nostalgia comes strongest to people who feel they have lost something.

For its consumer, nostalgia is a pre-packaged holiday. The vacationer might never return from it. Anyone who feels its warmth, its appeal, will not be easily budged from it. As Henry Lawson, Australian colonial diarist, and nostalgist-in-chief, once conceded, ‘human mulishness … more often wearies and breaks down the opposition than the arguments of the intelligent’.17 Nostalgia looks back to days when there was time for thought (or so it seemed). It encourages envy for the people believed once to have had time and a clear set of commitments. Why did these people of the veranda and the fireside not explore the contradictions of colonial confrontation? They regarded any answer as precluded by the realm of the necessary, if considering it at all. They had their own version of nostalgia to recall and enact. Their sheaves to bring in. Their dirt floors to board over. Their reprisals to keep quiet.

‘The duller the eye’, declared Nietzsche, ‘the farther does the good extend!’18 This suggests that colonial participants relied on an untroubled mediocrity about the necessity of their actions. This was how they stepped over the threshold into the realm of evil, in the Christian sense, without quite knowing it. They generally kept on going in a contrived belief of their goodness. An Australian colonial settler held a self-contained belief in their own good confirmed by a few superiors.

Settler-led violence and depravity in colonial contexts produced an echo despite the desired hush. The amplitude of the resounding, who it reached, and how they responded, are questions decided in historiography. Who tells the story and what appears in it are acts of power executing a single will. Historiography in its antiquarian and monumental forms prevents history ←5 | 6→from becoming a senseless bloodbath. Historiography is calcified nostalgia – a stalactite recording every white drip that ever dropped. And at least some of the power of non-critical historiography lies in how easily its audience can be assumed receptive to it. As Bissel pointed out, in moments when the viability of a state is questionable or an economy shrinks, it is inevitable that nostalgia comes to be seen as a social disease.19

Nietzsche believed that Greek culture based itself on relentless internal and external competition. He pointed toward the sensual and dark unruliness of the Dionysian figure and the underlying tragedy in the Greek tradition of thought. This figure has been described as a ‘boundary stone’ of Greek culture that emphasised human-to-human connection and a strong sense of a group living toward the same ideal of rowdy ‘exemplariness’.20 There can be no time for nostalgia or concern for the past as an end in itself, if, like the Greeks, everyone lives in philosophy, or lives through it and enacts it in daily life. Yet, is this an acceptable standard or nostalgia itself by any other name? Shared visions of ideal living become grist for nostalgia even when no one is doing anything collectively to make their country great, again.

The first Attorney General of Queensland, Ratcliffe Pring, QC, said that ‘it is the duty of Magistrates to protect the Aborigines quite as much so it was their duty to protect the Europeans’.21 In his correspondence with the Colonial Secretary, the ex-Commandant of the infamous Native Police Force, Frederick Walker, noted that Pring had offered ‘a valuable admission but I would ask you what use are such truisms when it is notorious that they are ignored in practice’.22 In the colonial world, the valid occurred in theory, and the invalid regularly occurred in practice. Nostalgia transformed the invalid in practice so that it could be remembered as valid. When settlers had to think about their violence, and frame it in terms of stories that they could live with, nostalgia came to their rescue by emphasising the pioneering journeys and feats of courage amid adversity. It was all about how pioneers survived danger.


X, 178
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2022 (August)
Colonialism nostalgia revisionism Nietzsche trauma colonial violence Superman Übermensch eternal return eternal recurrence colonial biography critical history The False Past A Nietzschean Account of Australian Settler Colonialism R.B.E. Price
New York, Berlin, Bruxelles, Lausanne, Oxford, 2022. X, 178 pp.

Biographical notes

R.B.E. Price (Author)

R.B.E. Price BA, LLB, LLM (UTas) DPhil (NE) is an Australian historian born in Hobart, Tasmania. He lectures at Southern Cross University. A finalist in the prestigious Van Diemen Public History Prize (2021), Price has written several acclaimed books on colonialism from a philosophical perspective.


Title: The False Past