Recently I became aware of the work of Bruce Pascoe, described in an article in the Australian on September 8 as “our most influential indigenous historian”. In the article, Pascoe claims that:
not only did Aborigines invent democracy, pioneer humankind’s first complex fishing systems and bake the first loaf of bread, they were agriculturalists with skills superior to those of the white colonisers who took their land and despoiled it.
He further claims:
Aboriginal people, who invented government 120,000 years ago, decided that the worst thing they could do in a society was fight for land. [They] decided everybody would have a house, everybody would have enough to eat, everybody would take part in the culture.
And the final part of his thesis is that:
historical accounts of Aboriginal housing, farming and fishing were suppressed for most of the past 150 years. The myth that Aborigines were simple nomads was perpetuated to justify white occupation … and scholars who tried to argue otherwise were marginalised so effectively that it is rare to come across a text after 1880 that describes Aboriginal fishing systems or intensive grain and vegetable harvesting.
Pascoe’s publishers sent out review copies of the book that propagates his thesis, Dark Emu, with a promotional sheet that portrayed pre-1788 Australia as an Aboriginal nirvana, doomed for destruction by the arrival of white settlers:
Bruce methodically and carefully presents the now growing evidence, resulting from thorough research, that the original inhabitants grew much of the food they ate, built permanent houses, often lived in settlements of over 1000 people, created beautifully landscaped burial grounds, created elaborate aquaculture infrastructure, cultivated and harvested grains and managed the land in a way that prevented catastrophic wildfires.
The Aborigines had a larger area under grain cultivation than Australian farmers manage now … These huge areas of grasses and rice and the extensive yam daisy fields were deliberately destroyed by the early settlers or taken over and ruined by their sheep.
Dark Emu is has won considerable popular and critical acclaim. It has won Premiers’ awards for literature in New South Wales and Victoria. It is buttressed by an impressive bibliography of some 295 titles, suggesting a work of great authority.
However, almost two thirds of the titles are not actually cited in explanatory notes, making them the silicone implants of the academic world. Of the 264 notes that Pascoe provides, eighty-two of them are to the works of Rupert Gerritsen (twenty-two), Bill Gammage (fifteen), Charles Sturt (fifteen) and Thomas Mitchell (thirty). Gerritsen and Gammage are not primary sources. They are modern authors who support the idea of an agrarian Aboriginal society—indeed Pascoe concedes that “Rupert [Gerritsen] should have got all the credit for Dark Emu”, a sentiment that gets ready agreement from Gerritsen’s brother Rolf, a professor of economic and indigenous policy studies at Charles Darwin University. “Ninety per cent of Bruce’s book is taken from my brother’s research,” Rolf Gerritsen says with a chuckle, adding that this is not to belittle Pascoe’s considerable achievement in popularising complex issues and shifting the national conversation about indigenous history.
It seemed to me that Dark Emu was worth a closer look. Little did I know what I was starting. The result of my research was a book, Bitter Harvest: The Illusion of Aboriginal Agriculture in Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu. In it, I attempt to determine whether Dark Emu validates Pascoe’s claims.
The nineteenth-century explorers Charles Sturt and Thomas Mitchell are the two main authors that Pascoe draws upon for first-hand observation and they are the authorities he most often quotes when talking about the book. For his theory to hold up, it must hold up strongly in Sturt and Mitchell.
The piece in the Australian commences with one of Pascoe’s “yarns”, which tells the story of how he first stumbled across the evidence for his thesis. It seems he was summoned to a meeting with some unnamed academics in Canberra, who politely requested that he refrain from propagating his ideas about indigenous agriculture. As he tells it: “when I left that meeting, I got in my old beaten-up ute, and I was furious”. He says he drove straight to a second-hand bookstore and plonked down $8 for a copy of the journals of Sir Thomas Mitchell, which he opened while sitting in the driver’s seat. There his eyes fell on Mitchell’s eyewitness account of Aboriginal villages in Queensland housing more than a thousand people, and “haycocks” of harvested seed-grass stretching for miles, drying in the sun to make flour for native bread. It was then he knew he had his next book.
This must rank as divine intervention on a scale unheard of since the appearance of Our Lady of Fatima. The second-hand bookstore that he drove straight to just happened to have a copy of Mitchell’s journals. He just happened to open it at the page that described an Aboriginal village in Queensland, housing more than a thousand people, and “haycocks” of harvested seeds—information that, as luck would have it, went right to the heart of his thesis.
Thomas Mitchell made one expedition to Queensland—his fourth. His journal of that expedition comprises ten chapters of densely worded prose in which references to indigenous “agricultural” activities or dwellings number less than ten, spread across all chapters. I have read Mitchell’s journal of his fourth expedition several times and can find no reference to even one village housing more than a thousand people.
Pascoe sets great store by the idea of large permanently occupied villages of over one thousand people. He claims:
On the Darling River, explorers saw similar towns to those seen by Sturt and Mitchell, and estimated the population of each to be no less than a thousand. Peter Dargin estimated the population of the region as 3000 but the journals of Sturt, Mitchell and others reveal that they passed many such populous villages.
He is attempting to paint a picture of a sedentary lifestyle that debunks the accepted view of pre-colonial Aborigines as nomadic hunter-gatherers.
Pascoe doesn’t name the other explorers who saw these villages so we have to rely on Sturt and Mitchell. The most egregious deception Pascoe commits on this topic occurs very early in Dark Emu:
Mitchell also recorded his astonishment at the size of the villages. He noticed:
“some huts … being large, circular; and made of straight rods meeting at an upright pole at the centre; the outside had first been covered with bark and grass, and the entirety coated over with clay; the fire appeared to have been made nearly in the centre; and a hole at the top had been left as a chimney”.
He counts the houses and estimates a population of over one thousand. He’s disappointed that nobody’s home; it’s obvious they have only just left, and the evidence is everywhere that they have used the place for a very long time. [my emphasis]
In the complete extract from his journal, Mitchell does not “count the houses and estimate a population of over one thousand”. This is a fabrication. In fact, Mitchell recorded only: “we had noticed, this day, some of their huts”. In fact, having read them, I can assert that nowhere in the journals of Sturt’s three expeditions or Mitchell’s four expeditions is there any reference whatsoever to villages of “no less than a thousand”.
Peter Dargin, writing in the 1970s, did indeed estimate the population of the region around the Brewarrina fish traps at 3000 but he also noted that this population was dispersed: “The population of a camp could be 10 to 30 although larger communities were common along the main river frontage.”
The region Dargin was talking about, as detailed in his book, extends from Tilpa (north-east of Wilcannia) to Mungindi (north-east of Moree) a distance of over 500 kilometres, allowing for a linear population density of six persons per kilometre.
The idea of large, permanently occupied villages is a major, one might even say essential, plank of the theory that Aborigines were agriculturalists who tilled the soil, planted seed and tended the resultant crop rather than simply harvesting a naturally occurring food source. And, as I show in Bitter Harvest, it is just not true.
But that is not the only flaw in this very flimsy edifice. Almost every significant claim that Pascoe makes that is sourced, turns out to be either false or misrepresented. For example, at one point, as part of a narrative that Aborigines exercised a form of peaceable uniform government over the entire continent, he states that Charles Sturt had noted: “We seldom, if ever, saw weapons in the hands of the natives.” Sturt did say that, but Pascoe failed to complete the quote: “We seldom, if ever, saw weapons in the hands of the natives of the interior.” Dark Emu is littered with such failures.
Most of Dark Emu is devoted to amassing evidence of agricultural practice and most of that evidence is either speculation or mischaracterisation. Instances of explorers or colonists observing Aborigines actually tilling soil or sowing seed amount to no more than three. A whole chapter is devoted to what Pascoe describes as “aquaculture” but is actually nothing more than a description of various fishing techniques—some of them quite sophisticated—but which denote nothing more than hunting or gathering, whichever term you want to use. There is no evidence of breeding stock.
In a section titled “Irrigation”, Pascoe extols the impressive engineering credentials of Aborigines in building dams. He claims these were for irrigation but provides virtually no evidence that they were for anything other than water storage. One example he quotes is of a dam capable of holding 700,000 litres, which sounds impressive. Evidently, however, he is relying on the credulous reader not to realise that this is less than one third the capacity of an Olympic swimming pool. If they did, they’d be even less impressed with the next dam he highlights, Godfrey’s Tank in the Great Western Desert, which was estimated to have held over 151,000 litres.
Using the same technique, in another section he compares Aboriginal “houses” with Irish croft houses.
In my opinion, the true purpose of Dark Emu is not really to “set the record straight” as to the capabilities of pre-colonial Aborigines, in order that we Australians might advance together, but to promote the idea that the colonisation of Australia was illegal because it was imposed upon an advanced sedentary agricultural economy. This notion would be a useful fillip to any campaign to entrench a form of Aboriginal sovereignty.
The other string to that bow—a system of Aboriginal pan-continental government—emerges in the latter half of Dark Emu. Pascoe claims, inter alia, that:
It’s difficult to look at the decision-making processes involved in the creation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander government and not think of the word “democracy”.
He also claims:
Of all the systems humans have devised to manage their lives on earth, Aboriginal government looks most like the democratic model.
Pascoe cites examples whereby various clans co-operated or traded with each other, to discredit the fact that Aboriginal occupation of Australia was essentially a collage of disparate nomadic clans—speaking over 250 different languages—sometimes fighting, sometimes co-operating and sometimes ignoring each other
This is important to his case, since the colonisation of Australia was based, according to international law of the time, on the fact that Aborigines were nomadic hunter-gatherer clans that had not coalesced into a self-governing nation with a uniform legal code.
The essential premise of Dark Emu is to overturn both those realities.
Towards the end of the book, Pascoe develops a rich ragout of grievance, exemplified in the following passage:
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 land, but in our current predicament it is not a bad place to start.
The underlined words (my emphasis) bell the cat.
The modern nation of Australia is a fait accompli. It cannot be undone by any agency other than ourselves. And the purpose of Dark Emu is to shame us into doing just that. A house divided against itself cannot stand and if we allow ourselves to be divided, or encourage one group of citizens to see themselves as separate—or more than equal, as Pascoe suggests—we will fail as a nation.
The easy acceptance and unquestioning acclaim that Dark Emu has won does not bode well. Here are some comments from historians that appeared in the Australian article:
Even some of the historians who contest the details of Dark Emu doff their hat to its author’s breakaway success. “It’s a positive message that a lot of people want to hear, and Bruce is an Aboriginal man telling it,” says Ian McNiven, professor of indigenous archaeology at Monash University. “He’s an extraordinary looking man, he’s a great orator and a great writer … if you can turn a book like this into a bestseller in airport bookshops, more power to you.”
Many academic historians admire Pascoe’s achievement, among them Professor Lynette Russell of Monash University, the co-author of a new book of revisionist indigenous history, Australia’s First Naturalists. “What Bruce has done is trawl the records and found fantastically rich and useful material,” Russell says. “I’m a big fan of the book because it’s had such a huge impact.”
Many academic experts also believe Dark Emu romanticises pre-contact indigenous society as an Eden of harmony and pacifism, when in fact it was often a brutally tough survivalist way of life. It’s a criticism most are reluctant to air publicly, given the sensitivity of contradicting a popular indigenous historian.
For archaeologists such as Ian McNiven and Harry Lourandos, however, any criticism of Pascoe is tempered by their delight at seeing a book detailing the complexities of indigenous culture riding high in the bestseller lists. Lourandos—now an adjunct professor at James Cook University—agrees with Pascoe that much of Dark Emu’s content is little known to the broader reading public, and he’s heartened to see an indigenous author filling that gap. “He’s appealing to that younger generation and he’s got the persona of a guru, and once you get that, you are celestialised,” Lourandos notes wryly. “In this age of political unrest, there’s a hankering for that.”
If the above quotes do not set your alarm bells ringing, you are tone deaf. As an example of post-truth academia in action, it may be unparalleled. It would be an intellectual failure of conservatism to let Dark Emu go unchallenged.
Peter O’Brien’s book Bitter Harvest: The Illusion of Aboriginal Agriculture in Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu is due for publication by Quadrant Books this month