Christophe Darmangeat is a lecturer in Economics and Social Anthropology at the Université de Paris (Diderot)—impeccable Left qualifications. In January he published a review article of over 6000 words on Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu on his personal blog La Hutte des Classes. With an interest in Australian history and anthropology, he also maintains a university-based English-language site, Aboriginal Collective Conflicts Database, where he collects and records violence between Aborigines after 1788. The site is a serious counter to the academic establishment’s illusions of a peaceful Aboriginal world. In an essay, available on the website, “Vanished Wars of Australia: The Archaeological Invisibility of Aboriginal Collective Conflicts”, he supplies the reasons for conflict among Aborigines suggested by his research:
the two main proximate causes, by far, are rights over women and retaliation for real or supposed aggressions—notably, conflicts over territories and resources are almost absent. It is argued that at least some of these conflicts could be qualified as “wars”.
This might be of interest to Australian academics and obviously suggests that a more informed examination of the evidence of Aboriginal violence against settlers is called for, rather than concentrating on the violence it provoked against Aborigines which is usually, and sometimes badly, represented by massacre historians.
This essay appears in September’s Quadrant.
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One incident from Collective Conflicts is also listed on the Colonial Frontier Massacres website maintained by University of Newcastle historian Lyndall Ryan. Both sites use exactly the same documentary evidence and Ryan’s site, which gives a death toll of seventy, has turned the perpetrators from Aborigines into “Colonisers: Settlers”. This is a lie. The French site is correct and the Australian university has doctored the evidence supposedly because an opinionated local historian “reread” the evidence and found “a clue to the organisation of the slaughter by white people”. His fantasy was accepted, and historical standards once again discarded. Long ago during the History Wars, Lyndall Ryan stated that “Historians are always making up figures”: nothing has changed. A new book by Darmangeat, The Death Spear: War and Justice among Australian Aborigines, is to be published shortly.
In his Dark Emu review Darmangeat comments unkindly on those of us who have written against it and shames us as “frankly conservative” or even “reactionaries with the worst intentions”. Apart from these prayerful moments of ritual obeisance towards the Left he is much more sensible when simply dealing with Pascoe’s book. Knowing our country only through the internet, he does not seem to realise that if a local academic wrote what he has written in this essay he would be ostracised by colleagues and probably have to face student demonstrators threatening violence as they demand his dismissal. His review essay, published when Pascoe was fighting bushfires, would have been a career-ending moment for a truthful voice on an Australian campus.
Darmangeat (left) sets out an informed summary of Dark Emu, beginning with Pascoe’s ill-informed idea that Aborigines were intentionally classified as hunter-gatherers by the colonisers to justify their own seizure and settlement of the land. Pascoe sees this as an important argument in modern race politics in which the transformation of nomadic hunter-gatherers into agriculturalists means they thus owned the land and therefore the annexation and settlement of Australia by Britain was unlawful. Could one also use that argument to assert that modern Aborigines who have been awarded vast tracts of Australia under native title findings now have no right to the land because they do not farm it? Late in his analysis Darmangeat undermines Pascoe’s reasoning by simply pointing out, “as far as we know, the existence of agriculture has not stopped any colonisation in the world, on any continent whatsoever”.
Noting that none of the elements drawn upon by Pascoe in Dark Emu are really new, Darmangeat notes the heavy influence of Rupert Gerritsen’s work and, while stressing the contestability of the dead historian’s theorising, notes his “honesty and rigour” which he finds lacking in the work of his populariser:
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Dark Emu which, wielding hyperbole and superlatives more readily than nuance and conditionality, inextricably mixes perfectly proven elements, others possible but more doubtful, others very improbable, and finally frank fabrications, firing on all cylinders by handling concepts and facts with a disarming casualness.
Like commentators in Australia who have contested Pascoe’s history writing he notes the damage the author is inflicting on Aborigines by deriding or ignoring their real wandering, hunter-gatherer forebears and their replacement by fantasy agriculturalists and town dwellers: “And one wonders who, from Bruce Pascoe or the settlers of the centuries past, stood out for his most filthy prejudices [‘ses préjugés les plus crasses’] towards the hunter-gatherers.” What Darmangeat notes from afar we observe more intimately: how Pascoe’s fantasies have been taken up by Aboriginal activists, and even tour guides, who have rapidly rewritten the long Aboriginal history in this country to conform to the dreams of an elderly New Age fantasist without seeing the poison in the gift he is giving them.
Darmangeat notes that to “identify all the cases of slippage or misrepresentation” by Pascoe a book would be necessary (of course there is always Peter O’Brien’s Bitter Harvest). By slippage he means the way Pascoe will take an element from a source and then transform it with a slippery exaggeration.
Two headings within his text deal with two levels of deceit, and the topics they cover are very familiar to local readers:
“Small—and large—arrangements with the facts: Sources, eels, cakes and mills”
“Small—and big—arrangements with the facts: Villages of 1000 inhabitants … and more!
The necessary point is well made that again and again Pascoe introduces unsourced and unverifiable information or perhaps misinformation. Amongst the unsourced material Darmangeat discusses is what he calls a “surprising dialogue” when Pascoe says that George Augustus Robinson was told by an Aborigine that he was a farmer. He is also intrigued by the unsourced Pascoe claim of the existence of a “complex village site in ‘Australia’s dead heart’”. And in another incident he expresses yet more surprise when “one researcher” is the sole source given for a claim that rock art in Victoria shows the herding and farming of kangaroos. Darmangeat, who has probably Googled and seen the source of the latter claim, also mischievously notes the lack of titles of “works defending this so original interpretation”. He probably thinks that a news article in the Shepparton News may not be quite the source Pascoe needs.
A possibility not raised by Darmangeat is that the reason Dark Emu contains such a quantity of unsourced materials is that if the book was accurately footnoted probably most sources would turn out to be material harvested from the internet. Very probably, from his mishandling of the source, Pascoe has not read the books by Charles Sturt which he cites. In the first edition of Dark Emu the Sturt books in his bibliography are free internet texts. In the new edition the bibliography has been professionally spring-cleaned and it is now made to look as though he used original first editions. What has probably occurred is that, in dealing with Sturt, Pascoe used the text search feature to find the villages, crops and cakes he needed. This would explain, as Peter O’Brien has noted, his lack of context for text he uses and his confusions in telling the story of Sturt’s expeditions.
Darmangeat notes that Pascoe prefers his own fantasies to the realities and fails to seriously discuss Aboriginal society: “his goal is to idealise not only the technical achievements of Aborigines, but also their social relations”. One of the most popular illusions he propagandises is dealt with severely by someone who certainly does know something about Aboriginal clan violence. The claim that Aborigines “did construct a system of pan-continental government that generated peace and prosperity” is dealt with as an assertion which “falls somewhere between exaggeration and outright fabrication”.
Although Dark Emu gives the impression of “erudition and seriousness”, the publishers employed good designers, and Darmangeat is rightly doubtful. While further noting Pascoe’s reliance on Rupert Gerritsen he asks, as has every critic, why he didn’t consult primary sources. For Darmangeat the times when the book’s “lack of rigour” becomes “frank dishonesty is when it shamelessly distorts the information to accommodate it with the sauce it intends to serve”.
In his handling of the Lake Condah fish traps, where Darmangeat also expresses reservations about Pascoe’s reliance on secondary reports of the work of anthropologist Heather Builth, whose own writings are not even cited in Pascoe’s bibliography, he judges that “the text presents a partial, biased image, when it is not frankly fantasist”. Here Darmangeat identifies an error made by Pascoe and examines it as a telling indication of his use of strange secondary sources and his mishandling of very simple information. Superficially Pascoe is making a straightforward observation:
Escaped convict William Buckley visited Lake Condah before 1836. He was amazed at the quantities of fish captured by the [Aboriginal constructed] traps. He also reported seeing fish harvesting systems on smaller streams west of Port Phillip Bay.
Buckley never visited Lake Condah, and in his memoirs, The Life and Adventures of William Buckley, does not comment on other “fish harvesting systems”. It is simply unbelievable that this small but important falsehood survived two editions and has also gone into Young Dark Emu without being commented on by Victorian historians and local Aborigines who support the book. As many Victorians who have grown up with the story of Buckley would know, the Wild White Man wandered around the Bellarine Peninsula and up to Melbourne, but he never walked to distant Lake Condah. Darmangeat, possibly the first critic to do so, notes that none of this is true and that incredibly Pascoe does not refer to Buckley’s own book but had simply taken and then changed his account from these words in an article in the Age in 2003: “The famous escaped convict William Buckley, who lived with Aborigines for many years mentioned eels from western Victoria in his diaries …”
The Australia Council, presenting Pascoe with an Award for Lifetime Achievement in Literature, described this shoddy book as “a monumental work of scholarship”. When criticisms of Dark Emu were raised, journalist Rick Morton reported that his journal, the Saturday Paper, spent two days in Canberra at the National Library “reviewing the original documents and explorer accounts in question. They are—at every instance—quoted verbatim and cited accordingly in an extensive bibliography at the end of Pascoe’s book.”
Darmangeat deals with familiar topics, the misuses of both Mitchell and Sturt, and the now famous cake offered to Sturt by Aborigines. With French perception he notes also that it was really more a pancake (galette) than a cake, simply being a mixture of flour and water. He also questions the triumphant claims Pascoe makes for Aboriginal ingenuity and the dating supporting these achievements.
The essay ends when Darmangeat gets to “a little (actually a lot) of politics”:
One last question, perhaps the most painful: how can we explain that the progressive Australian camp, as far as I can judge from my computer screen, has chosen almost unanimously to sing the praises of a work that mistreats the facts so recklessly, promotes the supernatural as a moral guide and capitalist enterprise as a political perspective? And why are the main, if not the only, voices that speak out against the deception, those of reactionaries with the worst intentions?
The last words, those underlined above, are a hyperlink to the mass of Pascoe-questioning material on the Dark Emu Exposed website. The answer Darmangeat gives to his own questions is completely false: “many feel paralysed at the thought of criticising anything that comes from the oppressed and, out of misguided solidarity, give up fighting for reason and social emancipation”. That is appalling rubbish. In Australia those who know Pascoe’s book is damaging stupidity are too frightened to criticise the cultural establishment and the vile Twitter mob they cultivate. There is also the question of careerism.
As I imagine Darmangeat would agree, for anyone with basic academic training Dark Emu is immediately problematic—leafing the pages in a bookshop, or opening his Kindle as Darmangeat has done, it is obvious there are problems with the lack of footnotes, and something strange about the seemingly excellent bibliography which lacks the basic primary sources one would expect to see. Again obviously, it is a book that makes grand claims and deserves careful checking for accuracy. Yet it was immediately praised by leading academics who have helped it gain entry into our schools.
Professor Marcia Langton has been a vocal supporter of Pascoe as an historian and in his unsupportable claims to be an Aboriginal. The reason may have more to do with book royalties than principles. Look in her book Welcome to Country and you find Pascoe lauded, as he is in the version of the book she has prepared for the school market and for which her publisher’s teaching notes state that “The best way to uncover a new understanding of how Indigenous people actually lived in this country is to read Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe.” Accept that Pascoe is utterly flawed and her own dismal book crashes. Consider Richard Broome, Emeritus Professor of History at La Trobe University: not long after the first edition of Dark Emu was published he wrote in Agora, the journal of the History Teachers Association of Victoria, of which he is the inaugural patron, “I heartily recommend this book to teachers of Aboriginal studies.” That is simply shameful—pushing this rubbish into our schools is an absolute denial of intelligence.
For Quadrant Online Tony Thomas looked at the appalling teaching notes, commissioned by Magabala Books, Pascoe’s publisher, for using their book in high school geography classes. In similar publisher-commissioned teaching notes for primary school children using Young Dark Emu, teachers were instructed on an activity for the poor brainwashed kids: “Students will then write about these same events [the incident when Sturt is welcomed with water, ducks and cake by Aborigines] from the perspective of one of the Aboriginal villagers.” In the text itself Sturt calls the place a “camp”, not a village. And it truly is a pity Pascoe never quoted Sturt on the Aboriginal women who ground the flour, added the water and cooked these famous cakes, for they, Sturt noted, “were the same half-starved unhappy looking creatures whose condition I have so often pitied elsewhere”. Shouldn’t the imaginative students writing of living in this Pascoe village be made aware that these would have been their own mothers and elder sisters?
Ending his voyage through the abyss, the French critic made a final detour to note the speech codes on Aboriginal matters that academia is enforcing on itself, and has been doing for over twenty years. The text he has chosen is a mind-deforming publication from Flinders University called “Appropriate Terminology, Indigenous Australian Peoples”. The wretched thing is adapted from a 1996 publication from the School of Teacher Education, University of New South Wales. From the safety of Paris he mocks, but none of his Australian colleagues would dare laugh as he does or voice the criticisms he makes, although they surely know how stupid they are. In this brave present world even the word pre-history is banned in favour of “since the beginning of the Dreaming/s”. And with these idiocies in mind, and the book he has just read, Darmangeat closes his essay:
with regard to these recommendations to teachers as well as the dithyrambic [passionate] reception made to Bruce Pascoe’s book, what emancipation [for Aborigines] can come out of such [speech] renunciations? In the meantime, one thing is certain: it is not with a bad conscience that we make good science.
In Quadrant Joanna Hackett has expressed horror at the inclusion of Young Dark Emu in the short list for a Children’s Book Council award and suggested that it would be “negligent and malfeasant” of them not to carry out their own investigation before making a decision and possibly giving Pascoe’s book their much-respected endorsement. That Pascoe’s hoax books are going into schools exposes education departments, arts organisations who funded publication of the books and teaching notes, and the publisher responsible, to charges of negligence and malfeasance for not having subjected the books to proper investigation. There is a moral obligation to teach kids truthfully—is it also a legal obligation?
Christophe Darmangeat’s essay “Dark Emu: Aboriginal Australia and the birth of agriculture (Bruce Pascoe)” appears online at http://cdarmangeat.blogspot.com/2020/01/dark-emu-bruce-pascoe.html