Daily Archives: 24 January 2020

Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu

Bruce Pascoe, Dark Emu (©2014, Magabala Press 2018)

tl;dr: ‘We are at the beginning – not the end – of understanding pre-colonial history’ (Dark Emu, page 60)

I gather that this book has recently been attacked by one of those pretend journalists who like misrepresent people and arguments and then condemn them. I gather that there’s a mostly anonymous website devoted to pointing out the book’s errors (though there are also people with names who have checked all its references and found them accurate). I gather that Bruce Pascoe has been accused of pretending to be Aboriginal for monetary gain, an accusation that has been amplified by one of the very few members of the Australian Parliament who boycotted Kevin Rudd’s 2008 apology to the Stolen Generations (and that the Australian Federal Police have dismissed the accusation out of hand).

So I gathered the book itself from my To Be Read shelf, and having read it I can do no better to address the attackers than this recent tweet:

I’m grateful to Andrew Bolt and Co for spurring me to actually read the book. It had joined Eric Rolls’ A Million Wild Acres (1981) and Bill Gammage’s The Greatest Estate on Earth (2012) on my Should-Read list because – all three being books whose contents you think you know by osmosis – it offered a radically revised story of the Australian land before and after 1788. Rolls is a poet farmer whose book was hard to find when I was looking for it 30 years ago (it was republished in 2011), and I’d been told by someone that Gammage’s book is essential reading but ‘the most boring book I’ve ever read’. I expected Dark Emu to be like that: a pleasureless duty read. But The Australian and Andrew Bolt made me think there was probably more to it than that.

And there is.

It’s lively and accessible, full of astonishing facts and a scattering of beautiful and/or intriguing illustrations. Pascoe’s central thesis is that the observations of early European explorers and settlers, and more recently the findings of archaeologists, palaeontologists and so on, give a very different picture of pre-settlement Australia from the one that still prevails in our mainstream culture. This is partly because the assumptions and agendas of the early observers led them to interpret what they saw in ways that now seem bizarre, even laugh-out-loud funny if not for the devastating consequences; and partly because so little attention is paid to those accounts by historians, and the mainstream pays so little attention to recent research findings.

It’s also a shaming book. In my early 20s I read the journals of most of the explorers that Pascoe cites: Sturt, Mitchell, Giles, Grey. I must have read the descriptions of clay-roofed buildings big enough for 40 people, of fish traps and park-like landscapes, of cheerful gatherings of large numbers of people in places where the explorers could find no food to sustain them. But if these descriptions contradicted my received version of Aboriginal people as nomadic hunter-gatherers who lived in primitive humpies – and they did – I can’t say that I had any shock of recognition. When the explorers described these substantial dwellings as hovels, I didn’t recognise the dissonance. I wasn’t thick enough to miss the arrogance that drips from many of the explorers’ pages (Giles has a wonderfully poetic passage lamenting the way Aboriginal people will be replaced by a race more favoured by God – that is, his own race). But those aren’t generally the passages that Pascoe highlights: he’s much more generous than that, treating his sources with respect and sympathy, even as he challenges his readers to see past colonialist prejudices.

Pascoe gives example after example from the early observers to illustrate his argument that Aboriginal people all over this continent were more than ‘simple’ hunter-gatherers; that many of their practices on land and water amount to farming; that they had substantial dwellings, some of stone; that they had a sophisticated understanding of the natural world and skills and technology to make use of it, while ensuring its wellbeing. And he pulls off the small miracle of keeping it interesting. (I do confess that, having got my head around just some of the archaeological terms when I read Mike Smith’s The Archaeology of Australian Deserts – blog post here – I missed phrases like the Last Glacial Maximum.) And then there’s the reason that some people attack the book, mostly I suspect without reading it, and the reason that it’s more than just a fascinating piece of historical revisionism: it offers a broad swell of argument that it’s untenable to think of Australian history as having begun in 1788, or 1770, or 1606. This is how the book ends, and I’m happy to end this blog post this way too (note his use of ‘we’ in the first sentences):

It seems improbable that a country can continue to hide from the actuality of its history in order to validate the fact that having said sorry, we refuse to say thanks. Should we ever decide to say thanks, the next step on a moral nation’s agenda is to ensure that every Australian acknowledges the history and insists that, as we are all Australians, we should have the opportunity to share the education, health and employment of that country on equal terms. Many will say that equality is insufficient to account for the loss of the land, but in our current predicament it is not a bad place to start.

The start of that journey is to allow the knowledge that Aboriginal people did build houses, did cultivate and irrigate crops, did sew clothes, and were not hapless wanderers across the soil, mere hunter-gatherers. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were intervening in the productivity of this country, and what has been learnt during that process over many thousands of years will be useful to us today. To deny Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander agricultural and spiritual achievement is the single greatest impediment to intercultural understanding and, perhaps, to Australian moral wellbeing and economic prosperity.

Added later (12 June 2021): The right wing culture warriors aren’t the only ones casting aspersions on Bruce Pascoe’s version of pre-1788 life in Australia. For a fascinating account of these challenges, see this lnk.