Golden Emu: Notes on a Hoax

It began here. Bruce Pascoe was thirty-four, he had been a country high school teacher and was working as an Education Department bureaucrat in Carlton when he received his first newspaper headline and a four-word review: “The man’s a charlatan!” The insightful summing up was given by the King Island News—which deserves an entry in any future history of the Dark Emu hoax.

It was 1982, and after a short summer holiday on King Island, Pascoe published an essay in the Age on the island, its people and its sheep. It was where he had spent a lonely childhood and it had not been forgiven. His lecturing tone was not as successful with adult islanders as it had been with classroom-confined adolescents (who had no choice) or as it would later be when a red headband came out of the dress-ups box.

In the 1950s his father, Alf Pascoe, worked on the island, first at the tungsten mine and then as a storekeeper. He was also elected to the local council—but the island held no happy memories for his son. It had “always been a poor place”:

The structures of human habitation are almost completely ugly. Most of the houses are unpainted and nearly all are of fibro-cement sheet. The land does not yield enough to justify more permanent homes … The tenuous grasp of human settlement and the broken ribs of the wreck of ships are indications of a battle in the balance … If your sheep are not dying of cold …

Poor Grassy was considered and discarded: “It must be one of the most bleak and ugly mining towns on the face of the Earth.”

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A self-dramatising narrative has always been part of being Bruce Pascoe: “In the first days of 1982 I walked the beaches and cliffs of rock once again and looked west and wondered at the despair of the first ship-wrecked men and women.” Locals read his words and recalled the fine sunny summer weather and glimpses of Pascoe and a companion walking hand in hand on the beaches, but perhaps he had been reading Emily Brontë:

Vegetation just doesn’t survive the perils of the weather here, and the darkness of the place causes the heart to constrict … Under these circumstances you would expect the people of the island to be blunt, mute creatures, but they are evidence of the resilience of the human animal.

Where modern visitors and tourist blogs describe “lush pastures and a temperate climate”, Pascoe discerned misery caused by the dreaded colonials:

The general appearance of their island has been made poor and drear as a result of careless clearing by the original settlers, who, like all mainland settlers, completely misunderstood the manner of farming required for this new land. Rapacious burning clearing resulted in many areas of heavier soils; on this sandy isle, loss of topsoil and the shelter of the forests altered the ability of the land to produce. Most of the sheep and cattle are evidence of these poor conditions.

Readers surely yearned for some un-rapacious firestick farming to make things right.

His mother was evoked, though not her bad health and deteriorating eyesight. The child who seemingly observed her so minutely had been aged from three to ten years at the time:

Once my mother sank her determined teeth into the task of living on the island she developed a fixation with the kitchen window which looked west across the desolate sea. With her hands lost in the dishwater, she would gaze and gaze at the ocean of unimaginable ferocity and brutishness. It was a mean savanna of white caps that lured and seduced the eye. It was like loving a devil.

Locals unsportingly remembered which house the Pascoe family had occupied and that it had only a distant view of the sea. The King Island News editor was helpful:

May we suggest Mr Pascoe finds out in which direction the kitchen window did face, and start again from there.

The newspaper printed letters from their readers that the Age refused to publish; Mr Pascoe replied and threatened lawyers.

Portrait of a Celt. The following year, 1983, Pascoe set up his own publishing venture, Australian Short Stories. In the Canberra Times when publicising the venture Patrick Connelly described the Education Department employee and future Aboriginal elder as “a russet-bearded Celt who prefers to compose prose and poetry while digging fence postholes”. Pascoe was pleased his magazine was being printed in Maryborough, Victoria: “That should be a good omen for the project. Maryborough is the place where the Pascoes have lived for generations. It’s almost an ancestral seat.” And a place to which none of his supposed Aboriginal tribes are connected. He also recalled his childhood on King Island, “where his father carried on the mining traditions of Cornish forebears by working as a carpenter in the tungsten diggings”.

Black blood. For Gone Bush, a collection of essays edited by Roger McDonald in 1990, Pascoe contributed an essay titled “Middens”. It begins with the recent death of his father and deals with Cape Otway. It is in this essay that he makes what may be his first published claim of Aboriginality when he writes of “My little bit of black blood struggling in its chamber of Cornish muscle.” His mother later wrote that it was “Around this time Bruce discovered there was an Aboriginal connection in the family.” In a different version Pascoe himself has said (the story changes) that a truck-driving uncle had told him of the family’s Aboriginal connections in his teens and that his grandmother was angry when he repeated this to her. Possibly she was not hiding family secrets but annoyed at her silly son for telling silly stories to her credulous grandson. The Pascoe Aboriginal story is never stable and swings about to suit the fantasy of the moment.

The Canberra Times reviewer Ian Warden was unimpressed:

Almost everything benefits from having nothing said or written about it, and I think that Cape Otway should have been saved from Bruce Pascoe’s prose, wetter still than the waters of the Cape itself … “We are pelagic,” gushes Bruce. “Our eyes are constantly on the sea and we take our sustenance from her. We are sea creatures. Water on the brain. A wet imprint in our genes. A sea synapse.” These sentiments were better and less pretentiously expressed by the author of the popular ditty O I Do Love To Be Beside The Seaside!

Ground zero of a hoax. The Broome publishing company Magabala Books is responsible for issuing Dark Emu and validating Bruce Pascoe’s claims of Aboriginality. Magabala is a strange publishing company for it seems to have no working heart in Broome, yet this is what they claim: “Magabala’s commitment to developing new and emerging Indigenous writers, illustrators and one-time storytellers, sets us apart from other publishers. Our program of professional development is unparalleled in the industry.” This suggests a vital indigenous working team of, at the very least, black editors and book designers and marketing staff—and, after all the ink that has been used talking of the importance of “country” they should all live in the Kimberley, but this does not seem to be the case. Understandably the books are warehoused and distributed to bookshops through a Sydney publisher, but the creativity should be in Broome.

Over the years since publishing began in 1987 the books produced have become much more professional-looking but this appears to have happened not through training and then employing young Aborigines but by contracting skilled white designers and publishing professionals in places far from Broome. This is what they say:

A lot has changed since our beginnings over three decades ago—in technology, in the industry and in national reception—but our longstanding vision to ensure Indigenous people control their own stories and that the benefits flow back to the right people, still stands—and is as important now as ever.

But this is how Dark Emu was published:

2014: The first edition of Pascoe’s book was called Dark Emu: Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident? The book was designed by Tracey Gibbs, featured a cover photo by Pascoe’s wife Lyn Harwood, and was printed in China. A line illustration of yam and tuber used in the book, by Adelaide academic John Conran, would be reused for the cover of future editions. Aboriginal art is represented by a photo titled “Possum Skin Revival”—it shows painted lines on the back of a possum skin, and the photograph is placed between Aboriginal-looking artwork. The Aboriginal art is by Bruce Pascoe, photography by Lyn Harwood. Possums are protected animals in Victoria and the pseudo-Aboriginal art is an offensive caricature. The publication was funded by the Australia Council, the West Australian Department of Culture and the Arts in association with Lotterywest, and as with other Magabala books there is no acknowledgment of financing from the rich Aboriginal corporations around Australia.

2018: A new edition is published and the title changes slightly: Dark Emu: Aboriginal Australia and the Birth of Agriculture. The new edition has an attractive cover design by Joanna Hunt using the Conran plant illustration and has very clear and well laid-out typography from the Post PrePress Group. This edition is printed in Australia by Griffin Press. The Pascoe possum art is again used and there is not a single pre-contact example of Aboriginal rock art showing agricultural activities.

2019: Magabala published Pascoe’s Young Dark Emu. The book was packaged by Ballantyne Rawlins “in association with Magabala Books”. Supported by Australian taxpayers, the attractive hardback was printed in China. The fake Aboriginal art occupies a full page and is simply called “Possum Skin”—on the page Pascoe is not credited as the perpetrator. No pre-contact Aboriginal art is used.

2019: An appalling new publication called Dark Emu in the Classroom by Simone Barlow and Ashlee Horyniak—neither author is credited with membership of any Aboriginal group. Cover design by John Canty and again book design and layout by Post PrePress Group. The printer’s name is not credited.

In its 2018 annual report Magabala made a clear statement of purpose:

We educate the Australian and international community on the multiplicity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and voices. We do this through the publication and distribution of quality titles by Indigenous writers, storytellers, artists and illustrators from all over Australia, and by supporting their professional development.

So much professional development and so few jobs in Broome. The Dark Emu publishing story rests on white expertise. Over 250,000 copies have been sold and there are two further spin-off titles being marketed yet there seems minimal input from creative Aborigines and maximum involvement of highly skilled white publishing professionals.

Publishing with Magabala endorsed Bruce Pascoe’s claims to Aboriginality: “Magabala Books is Australia’s leading Indigenous publishing house. Aboriginal owned and led, we celebrate and nurture the talent and diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices.” In tolerant and racially mixed Broome their basic criterion for publication is racial discrimination: “If you are a non-Indigenous author your submission to Magabala Books will not be considered.” This means that publisher Rachel Bin Salleh could publish a book (she has) but her mother could not.

The entry conditions for the Daisy Utemorrah Award, conducted by Magabala for an unpublished manuscript for junior or young adult fiction, offer the company’s own very clear guidelines for establishing racial eligibility:

Applicants must be an Aboriginal person and/or Torres Strait Islander person; entries must include a copy of a Confirmation of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander heritage/ or a Letter of Confirmation with a common seal from an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander incorporated community organisation OR a statutory declaration confirming Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander heritage signed by an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander incorporated community organisation. Please contact Magabala Books if you have any questions about this requirement.

Pascoe began publishing with Magabala in 1996 with his novel Ruby-eyed Coucal. Presumably he was accepted as being Aboriginal on self-identification alone. It was around this time that Leon Carmen revealed that a prize-winning Magabala-published novel, My Own Sweet Time by Wanda Koolmatrie, was actually written by him—a white taxi driver. In the ensuing scandal it was never clear whether he offended more by being white or being a taxi driver.

Dark Emu is widely accepted largely because of the belief that its author is an Aboriginal elder. Magabala Books assure readers that Pascoe has Bunurong, Tasmanian and Yuin heritage. The publication and publicity have made Pascoe into perhaps the best-known Aborigine in Australia. In the year the Voice is to be voted on it hardly seems controversial to ask the Magabala directors to please speak up and produce the evidence confirming the accuracy of these claims.

17 thoughts on “Golden Emu: Notes on a Hoax

  • Peter OBrien says:

    Thanks for this interesting background, Michael.
    The forthcoming Sydney Film Festival will feature a documentary on Dark Emu. It will screen on closing night. From an AAP press release:
    “Produced by Blackfella Films and directed by Allan Clarke, the film looks at
    the groundbreaking and controversial research of Bruce Pascoe, whose
    best-selling Dark Emu changed people’s understanding of traditional
    Aboriginal ways of life.
    Critics of the book are given a chance to air their views, while First Nations
    people also share their stories.”
    Critics include me. It will be interesting to see the result.

  • Stephen Due says:

    Presumably Bruce Pascoe will be a widely-supported candidate for a seat on the Voice?

  • Katzenjammer says:

    Is a genealogical chart of Pascoes ancestry anywhere online. A simple names, dates and places chart, with sources.

  • Stephen Ireland says:

    Bruce Pascoe. Born 11 October, 1947, Richmond Victoria.
    Alfred Francis Pascoe 1916 – 1989. Victoria
    Una Gloria Cowland Smith 1919 – 2004. Victoria
    Joseph Harold Pascoe 1891 – 1933. Victoria
    Claudina Alice Palmer 1883 – 1967. Victoria
    John Smith 1864 – 1952. Leicestershire, England
    Cecil Gertrude Cowland 1875 – 1963. Victoria
    Francis Pascoe 1859 – 1935. Victoria
    Elizabeth Jane Hall 1868 – 1952. Victoria
    Alfred William Palmer 1870 – 1938. Tasmania
    Rebecca Arnold 1870 – 1944. Tasmania
    William Unwin Cowland 1824 – 1900. Essex, England
    Sarah Matthews 1847 – 1879. Staffordshire / Worcester, England
    Francis Pascoe 1814 – 1864. Cornwall, England
    Jane Hampton 1827 – 1875. Cornwall, England
    John Hall 1832 – 1881. Northumberland, England
    Elizabeth Law b. abt. 1841 Durham, England


  • Geoff Sherrington says:

    My employer Peko operated the King Island tungsten mine for the first 10 years of my enjoyable time with them. We explored the S-E of King Island for more tungsten. In many visits to the mine, it was lovely and relaxing to sit after work high on the hill in the Director’s Quarters, looking East out to sea, over the breakwater with its cute colony of penguins and quite enjoyable, moody coastal scenery.
    One feature was the remains of several tree stumps from very large trees, from memory about 6 paces side to side, which might indicate good soil for growing. Primary production seems to be doing well these days if cheese prices and beef are a guide. Another feature was the abundance of the local strain of tiger snake, which were sometimes aggressive despite texts saying not.
    Tungsten, with tin and tantalum, are the critical 3Ts essential for expansion of the global electronics and battery industry. I write these notes without any need for help by false claims that I have Australian aboriginal heritage. I am sure this does not lessen their interest. Geoff S

    • Botswana O'Hooligan says:

      There is nothing arid about King Island for we hauled sides of beef in several ton lots from the abbatoir at the aerodrome to Smithton to be processed for export, also live sheep complete with shepherd and his crook to other climes, gelignite ex Laverton for King Island Scheelite, tons of live crays out for the Japanese markets, sometimes the odd racehorse or pacer so Mr. (professor) Pascoe is talking through his hat. The only crook thing about King was handling a DC3 or a Bristol Freighter when the roaring forties blew somewhat robustly.

  • pmprociv says:

    Thanks for this revealing expose, Michael. That Canberra Times article (https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/116375658 ) also reveals that Pascoe’s academic mediocrity led him into teaching, while his real loves were literature and drama. No mention of dabbling in history, anthropology, archaeology or agronomics. He didn’t last all that long as a teacher, maybe around 10 years, before moving into a full-time job with the curriculum services section of the Victorian Education Department’s Drama Resources Centre. I have little idea what that might have entailed, but no doubt it provided him with plenty of valuable insights into and experience of stage presence, character projection and audience manipulation. These qualities stand out in all his YouTube productions and indigenous cultural performances, not to mention media interviews, in which he actually says very little, while coming across most thoughtfully and impressively.

    I wonder if there are ever moments now in his life when he’s out of character, or has the transformation been 100% successful? In other words, it’s quite possible he actually now truly believes himself to be Aboriginal, like some of those poor folk with “recovered suppressed memories”.

  • Lawriewal says:

    Prof Bruce Pascoe – University of Melbourne
    Bruce Pascoe is a writer and farmer. He has published 36 book including Dark Emu which won the NSW Premier’s Award for Literature in 2016 and Young Dark Emu which won the both the Booksellers Association Prize and the CBCA Non-fiction award in 2020. He has published numerous essays and journalism both in Australia and overseas. he is also a farmer and grows Australian Aboriginal Grains and tubers.

    Any wonder we are nationally low on intellectual property?

    • pmprociv says:

      They overlooked his exceptional baking and brewing skills, in which he sparingly garnishes bread (mainly comprising normal wheat flour) and beer (Dark Emu lager) with kangaroo grass and other native seeds. Not sure either has been a commercial success, but they sure have brought in taxpayer-provided riches for Uncle Bruce — who’s merely continuing the traditional practices of his distant forebears, the world’s first bakers and brewers (going back 120K years). Surely there’s a prize for this, too?

  • Stephen Ireland says:

    Thanks Lawriewal

    As you note, Young Dark Emu also was given the Eve Pownall Award by the Children’s Book Council of Australia in 2020.
    The criteria for this award listed by the CBCA is as follows:
    The Award “will be made to outstanding books which have the prime intention of documenting factual material with consideration given to imaginative presentation, interpretation and variation of style. As general guidelines, the judges may consider the relative success of the book in balancing and harmonising the following elements:
    – style of language and presentation;
    – graphic excellence;
    – clarity, appropriateness and aesthetic appeal of illustration;
    – integration of text, graphics and illustration to engage interest and enhance understanding;
    – overall design of the book to facilitate the presentation of information;
    – accuracy with regard to the current state of knowledge.”

    The CBCA received a number of objections when Young Dark Emu appeared on the published short-list for this award; objection based on that book not satisfying the ‘factual material’ or accuracy’ criteria..
    One can only wonder as to the nature of the matrix used by the judges in 2020.

    • jbhackett says:

      There were indeed many formal complaints made to the CBCA at the time, because the book was, quite simply, not eligible for the Eve Pownall Award. Quadrant published several articles on the subject, including a couple of mine. The judges were not interested in communicating on the matter. Obviously, like so many others, they were in the thrall of Australia’s greatest con-man. When Pascoe’s book won the prize, the judges were trashing the CBCA’s long and fine reputation for supporting quality children’s literature. Equally tragically, they were treating Australian children as fodder for their politics. What a bunch of woke wankers-and what a sad day for children’s literature.

  • simonbenson65 says:

    The whole Pascoe saga makes a perfect example for school age and university students alike of postmodernism and its rejection of grand narratives in favour of small stories that need not be true let alone based on anything as rigorous as actual evidence. We are living in a post-truth age and Pascoe is just its poster boy. It’s good to have people like Pascoe around. They remind us all of how gullible we have become as a society and how touchy we are when it comes to denying anything to do with Aboriginal people. We live in a society where people can identify as anything from one day to the next. So again the Pascoe’s of the world are exhibit “A” for a range of examples of postmodern silliness. There is one thing worse than Pascoe’s claims, and that is taking anything he says, writes or publishes seriously! I vote that the Barry Award taken away from the late comic genius be replaced by the Bruce Award. It does have a nice sort of Monty Python ring to it, and let’s face it, BS like his can be riotously funny!

  • en passant says:

    I suppose we will hear in due course what the qualifications are for joining the New Master Race.

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