Bennelong Papers

From ‘Angry Penguins’ to an Unquestioned ‘Emu’

Have Australian schools gone green-barmy or what? Yet another “teachers’ guide” is operative about would-be “Aborigine” Bruce Pascoe and his Dark Emu fantasy. This book has done well for him, selling more than 260,000 copies.  His fantasy involves pre-colonial Aboriginal agriculturalists. Pascoe isolates atypical facets, distorts explorers’ reports, and adds unsourced “old people’s stories”. This potpourri is supposed to prove that most Aborigines were farmers living in permanent villages of as many as a thousand or more democratic black citizens, yarding their animals in pens (wallabies? wombats?).

By coincidence, as I was filing this piece my 10-year-old granddaughter inter-state was doing a homework assignment on Young Dark Emu (Pascoe’s version for kids). The topic was “Shelters” and she concluded, complete with two illustrations

Many people think that Aboriginal people were nomads and don’t make permanent homes. The opposite is true. In this book it proves that Aboriginal people made houses and shelters that were permanent and tells you a truer history.. 

The Teachers’ Guide to Young Dark Emu is written by Jennet Cole-Adams and can be read in full here. It sets the task below for 9-11 year olds (p8):

Sustainable futures: Ask students to complete a PMI (Plus, Minus, Interesting) about changing Australian agricultural industries to produce mainly native plants and animals. Encourage students to think globally, nationally and personally.

Pausing for our rural readers to slap their own faces, I’ll set the background to Pascoe and Dark Emu. Pascoe claims, or claimed, descent from Yuin, Bunarong and Tasmanian clans, each of which says he’s none of theirs. His four grandparents are from the UK. The ABC, spouting Pascoe’s alleged Aboriginality, has gone full cry on his fantasies with a 14-part “education” video for schools plus a two-part hagiography now in production and financed by the public purse via Screen Australia.[i] Pascoe just last week told the New York Times he is both “solidly Cornish” and “solidly Aboriginal”. Just try making sense of that![ii]

I wrote here and here about two other teachers’ guides. All hang off the three Labor-designed national “cross-curricula priorities” which include Aboriginality and Sustainability. The first guide was by a pair of credulous Williamstown High teachers (for geography students aged 16); the other by a starry-eyed Gunnedah High teacher of English (for Year 6’s 11-12 year-olds).[iii]

The third guide is by Jennet Cole-Adams for Year 4 and 5 Humanities and Social Science students, aged 9-11 years “where the text’s content has strong relevance.” Even more guides or homages to Pascoe might be lurking out there in education wonderland.

Order your copy of Bitter Harvest here

The Pascoe hot-air balloon has in fact been punctured by Peter O’Brien’s magisterial fact-checking of the fauxboriginal author’s citations in 250 pages of Bitter Harvest, which can be ordered here. Australia’s eminent historian Geoffrey Blainey, author of Triumph of the Nomads and scores of other histories,  says there is actually

no evidence that there was ever a permanent town in pre-1788 Australia with a 1000 inhabitants who gained most of their food by farming. No European explorer ever found such a town. I think I have read, in the last 50 years, every book written by an early European explorer of Australia. They do not support Pascoe in any way.

Nor do Australia’s classic anthropologists (such as Ron and Cath Berndt) provide a jot of support for Pascoe’s claims. It is odd that schools which excoriate “deniers” about the global warming consensus, are happy to be themselves “deniers” about the anthropological/archaeological consensus.[iv]

The three guides’ underlying goal is to recruit child soldiers in the culture wars. Cole-Adams instructs teachers to (my emphasis added)

Remind students that their aim is to educate others, as many Australians are unaware of these [Pascoe-fantasy] aspects of Australian history.

Information is meagre online about Cole-Adams’ current roles. Since 2000 she has published about 40 colonial, military and school books and booklets for adults and children, some with an indigenous emphasis. Recent works such as a history of indigenous soldiers were published by the Department of Veterans Affairs. Earlier, Cole-Adams was with the Federal Parliamentary Education Office and the National Museum. She’s the daughter of the late Peter Cole-Adams, political editor of The Canberra Times and a 30-year veteran of The Age, where he became an associate editor.

Cole-Adams, like the other guide’s authors, treats Pascoe’s book as New Age holy writ. Easily satisfied, she finds Pascoe’s guff “irrefutable”, writing (my emphasis)

With this book, Bruce Pascoe confronts the silencing of Indigenous voices and histories. Using the written documents of early European explorers and colonists as his evidence, Pascoe provides irrefutable proof of complex First Nations societies which existed prior to colonisation.”

Other kowtowing to Pascoe includes

Researching and Analysing – Introducing the text

# Display the front cover for students and pose the question: Why do you think this book might be called Young Dark Emu: A Truer History? Accept any ideas from students before reading the blurb on the back cover, the ‘About the Author’ section on the final page, and the picture and explanation of Dark Emu on page 7. Re-pose the question about the title and discuss.

The back cover “blurb” (it sure is) includes:

A vital piece of Australian history and should be mandatory in the national and global curriculum.

This notion of teaching Pascoe to Uzbeks and Eskimos comes from Tyrone Ormsby, the creative director of the late City Standard. The journal “was created by a structured mess of local people who believe in the importance of stories”. The “mess” of 250 people created 12 stories for the e-mag which then went defunct within a year, announcing its collapse under the header, Hello, goodbye.[v] Still, kids must respect Mr Ormsby’s erudition.

The other blurb is from indigenous Professor Marcia Langton who says, “This is the most important book on Australia and should be read by every Australian.” The good professor says of Pascoe’s Aboriginality claim,

Bruce says he has documents and said there are members of an Aboriginal community who have affirmed his identity and he feels comfortable with that community affirmation. So as far as I am concerned the matter is settled.

Except Pascoe has never produced those key “documents”.

Why is Cole-Adams in her guide haranguing youngsters about “changing Australian agricultural industries to produce mainly native plants and animals”? Presumably she has Pascoe’s “indigenous croplands” or “wheat-like grain” in mind for our balance-of-payments solution. There have been niche attempts by whiteys to cultivate native wild rice, for example, but the cost in 2014 of $120 per kilo would discourage shoppers at supermarkets, let alone exporters. I also doubt that switching barley growers to, say, Pascoe’s yam daisy crops would offset their loss of the 1.3 million tonne China market.

There is one promising native-foods company, Black Duck Foods, and it’s founded by Uncle Bruce Pascoe himself. It’s based at his 70-hectare farm at Gypsy Point, near Mallacoota, Vic. His wife and son Jack, a PhD qualified ecologist, are involved, along with academics and elders. It is described by parties such as Western Sydney University as a “social enterprise” or by itself as an NGO (non-government organisation). One  element is Aboriginal job training. Umbarra or Pacific Black Duck is the totem of the Yuin Nation peoples of the NSW south coast. (Black Duck Foods Ltd, ABN 47 636 807 424, started as a public company last October, and registered with the Charities and Not for Profit Commission last April. Answering “Who the charity helps”, the company says, ­­“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People.” The website’s list of “partners” includes Melbourne University­­, Minter Ellison, PWC, and several indigenous groups.)

The New York Times quotes Pascoe:

“I’d love people to come here and find peace,” he said, shaking off the evening chill after a long day of work that did not involve writing. “It would give me a lot of deep satisfaction for other people to enjoy the land.”

Let’s hope no tabloid reporter sets out to prank him, as occurred with Female Eunuch author Germaine Greer when she offered to take in a homeless person as free boarder.[vi]

But now I look deeper, Pascoe might mean paying guests. His website says,

Ide­al for cor­po­rate retreats, we are cur­rent­ly offer­ing a 3 day — 2 night stay under the stars at Black Duck Foods farm near Genoa, Vic­to­ria. Stay­ing in our tiny homes, this is an authen­tic, Indige­nous cul­tur­al expe­ri­ence only 1 hour flight from Syd­ney or Melbourne.

Getting back to the Cole-Adams’ guide after this ambrosian detour, it wants kids to also think of “minus” aspects of broad-acre yam and grass-seed cropping, but the guide gives sceptical teachers no clues. The real question:  why foist weird ideas on kids in the first place? The heading Sustainable futures may be a clue. Cole-Adams’ guide is undated, but of the three guides’ authors, she’s the most qualified as historian and educator. I suspect this “sustainability” task she set kids has led to the crazed emphasis of Williamstown High folk’s Guide on kangaroo farming as Australia’s path to zero-carbon nirvana. (Roo farming involve six of its 94 pages).

All the guides ensure no child escapes the pressure-cooker of group-think. The Cole-Adams’ Guide suggests kids respond,

#“I used to think …

# – But, now I think …”

Cole-Adams tells teachers to tell kids (p9):

# “They should reflect in silence before discussing their thoughts with a partner. Then share responses as a class.

– Why did Bruce Pascoe call this ‘A Truer History’ ?

– How is it different to other histories?

– Do you think it is a truer history? Why? “

The guide sets out the five markers of agriculturists and then gets kids to match them with Pascoe’s distorted and cherry-picked accounts from explorers. Kids are exhorted to “draw their own conclusions” about whether Pascoe or orthodox histories of settlement are correct. But in all three guides not one iota of doubt about Pascoe or his output is suggested, let alone encouraged.

As usual, the Cole-Adams guide bruits Pascoe’s darkest claims of white-native encounters. With Pascoe, it pushes the problematic “frontier war” narrative while painting prior Aboriginal life as a green idyll. There is not one positive line about official motives or practices, which the SA archives for example reveal as overwhelmingly benevolent. Christian and anti-slavery lobbies stretching from London to Adelaide kept an eagle eye on SA premiers and bureaucrats. From 1860, to help clans remain in their Murray/Cooper homelands, the state provided Aborigines with up to a hundred 15-foot river boats, plus guns and fishing gear, gratis or half-price to wage-earners. The SA outback crawled with state-financed wagons hauling rations to Aborigines at outstations, who might otherwise have starved.[vii]

The Cole-Adams guide, however, obsesses about an 1866 magazine illustration showing “Conflict on the Rufus”, a white/black battle. There are two web-links provided to primary sources, as distinct from Pascoe’s tweaked citations whose inauthenticity is set out by Peter O’Brien’s Bitter Harvest in side-by-side comparisons. For space reasons, I’ll put an example in this footnote.[viii]

One of the guide’s weblinks is to a CSIRO item, the other to Williams Hobbs’ original account of the 1838 Myall Creek Massacre:

…I saw near the Hut the remains of about
thirty Blacks principally women and children.
I recognised them as part of a Tribe that had
been at the Station for some time and who
had since they first came conducted themselves
in a quiet and proper manner, on making
enquiry I was informed that a party of White
men had come to the Station who after securing
them had taken them a short distance from my
Hut and destroyed nearly the whole of them…

The Cole-Adams guide says,

On page 14 Pascoe writes: ‘The war between Aboriginal people and settlers is rarely mentioned in Australian history books as the ‘settlers’ deliberately covered up the massacres and the terrible cruelties inflicted on the Aboriginal people.’

Ask students to reflect on this statement using the thinking routine Connect Extend Challenge:

# How does the statement connect to what you already know?

# How does the statement extend or push your thinking in new directions?

# What is still challenging, confusing, or puzzling about the statement?

Such is the “reconciliation” push. The guide had begun by warning teachers that

Some of the ideas and themes explored in Young Dark Emu, such as frontier conflict, may be distressing or challenging for some students. Students may not wish to be active participants in class discussions and this should be respected.

But it then wallows in Pascoe’s accounts of how “colonisers forcibly drove Aboriginal people from the land, killing thousands in the process in fierce and bloody battles.” There is no reference to the mainstream accounts of bands “coming in” to settlements to get food more easily than hunting and gathering, especially in drought.

The Guide says, “read to the class the entire text relating to Charles Sturt’s expedition to central Australia in Young Dark Emu (last paragraph on page 47 to end of first paragraph on page 50).” Coincidentally the first paragraph on page 47 is a Pascoe invention:

After counting the houses, Mitchell estimated the population as over 1,000 people.

No, Uncle Bruce Pascoe, Mitchell didn’t, as Peter O’Brien in Bitter Harvest demonstrates (pp8-11). None of the guides’ writers seems aware that Mitchell referred to the huts not as permanent but as “casual habitation” and Mitchell never said, qua Pascoe, that he was astonished. Pascoe also omits that one of Mitchell’s party considered that the strongly constructed huts were “apparently the work of a white man” namely an escaped convict known to have lived there for years. (O’Brien, p11).

The Cole-Adams guide and Pascoe also propagate the “terra nullius” furphy, a term not used in the 18th century, to bolster treaty and similar arguments. As documented in Michael Connor’s Quadrant essay and book The Invention of Terra Nullius, it actually meant “land without sovereignty”. Cole-Adams however prescribes,

Remind students of the features of a persuasive text and ask them to use their learning to write a persuasive text on the theme: Was Australia ‘a land belonging to no one’ prior to British colonisation?

Cheryl Lacey, education strategist and author of Marching Schools Forward (Connor Court, 2019) says the language and concepts involved in the Pascoe materials would challenge many teachers’ comprehension, not just that of children.

Parents are being sidelined by teacher activists pushing agendas. Children who disagree with Pascoe’s work would be discouraged, unless the teachers themselves are willing to encourage freedom of thought, speech and robust debate. If teachers lack knowledge and understanding of any content, teachers’ guides are transformed into cheat-sheets. 

Complex topics require expert input. Challenging such topics requires educators willing to be challenged themselves. This isn’t possible when a teacher’s word (provided for them in Guides) silences parents.

In 1944 Harold Stewart and James Macauley tempted the Max Harris-led literary elite in SA into publishing a book of modernist claptrap verse by “Ern Malley” in their Angry Penguins journal. Harris became a laughing stock after lavishly praising the fictional author.  Until now it’s been Australia’s greatest arts scandal. The Dark Emu affair is heading into  similar territory after all the plaudits of the ABC and entire Left establishment and media. The outcome will be fun to watch in coming months, except for the impact already made on idealistic kids.

Tony Thomas’s new book, Come to think of it – essays to tickle the brain, is available as book ($34.95) or e-book ($14.95) here.


[i] ABC: Bruce Pascoe is a Yuin, Bunurong and Tasmanian man. He is an award-winning writer who has worked as a teacher, a farmer and an Aboriginal-language researcher. In this chapter, we hear about Bruce’s investigation into his own family history and how it led to his discovery of Australia’s long agricultural history prior to colonisation.

[ii] Taxpayer-financed  Screen Australia has a documentary version of Dark Emu under way.

[iii] The Gunnedah manifesto prescribes 20 hours of work on Young Dark Emu  by the 11-year-olds.

[iv] I’m not claiming merit for any consensus per se, just noting the anomaly.

[v] One story, penned jointly by five authors, was about the demise of a skatepark in Adelaide in 2015.

[vi] See Kleinhenz, Elizabeth, Germaine. Scribe UK, Kindle version, 2019. Mail on Sunday reporter Martin Hennessey arrived on crutches posing as brain damaged. Greer taught him to bake bread and bought him new underwear. He left with a good yarn.

[vii] Crooks, Alistair and Lane, Joe, Voices from the Past. Extracts from the annual reports of the SA Chief Protectors of Aborigines, 1837 Onwards.  Hoplon, Adelaide, 2016. Foreward by Tony Thomas. pp56-105 esp. p64.

[viii] Pascoe frequently ‘quotes verbatim’ but adds his own interpretation or context. Here is another example, from page 20:

When Mitchell arrived at the Victorian Grampians in 1836, he saw ‘a vast extent of open downs … quite yellow with Murnong’, and ‘natives spread over the field digging for roots’. 

I can’t speak for anyone else but what this passage conveyed to me is a multitude of natives industriously working a huge field. If you read Mitchell’s journal, as I have, we find his September 14 entry records:

Several extensive lakes appeared in the lowest parts adjacent; but what interested me most after I had intersected the various summits was the appearance of the country to the eastward, through which we were to find our way home. There I saw a vast extent of open downs and could trace their undulations to where they joined a range of mountains which, judging by their outlines, appeared to be of easy access.

Unfortunately, we have to wait until the September 23 before we encounter the ‘natives spread over the ground digging for roots’:

This morning a thick fog hung over us; but having well reconnoitred the country beyond I knew that I might travel in a straight line over open ground for several miles … and as we proceeded we saw two gins and their children at work separately on a swampy meadow; and, quick as the sight of these natives is, we had travelled long within view before they observed us. They were spread over the field much in the manner in which emus and kangaroos feed on plains, and we observed them digging in the ground for roots

So, two Aboriginal women and their children in a swampy meadow. Not a multitude harvesting a crop in a vast extent of open downs after all. Dark Emu is littered with such deceptions, but you’ll have to buy Bitter Harvest to enjoy them.

5 thoughts on “From ‘Angry Penguins’ to an Unquestioned ‘Emu’

  • Forbes says:

    If Pascoe is to be believed, we should have had a truly productive industry husbanding native animals such as all the popular ones and also fringe industries selling goanna, frill necks, dung beetles and of course saltwater crocs.

    I still have a great anger about historical falsehoods.

    We are beset by anti……………….. anything which old western Christian society hold to be true.
    God help us.

  • Tony Thomas says:

    A reader suggests by email that readers send this article on to their local schools. I’d recommend personalising the emails in some way so a junior clerical person doesn’t bin it rather than refer it to teachers/principals

  • Stephen Due says:

    This is just one episode in a long history, one aspect of a much bigger problem. State schools provide the ideal avenue for people who want to indoctrinate vast numbers of children with political propaganda. State schools are in principle incompatible with a free society. They give massive power over children to governments, officials and socialist-dominated teacher unions.
    State schools intrude into family life, driving a wedge between parent and child on ethical, historical and scientific issues. The school will teach the child that homosexuality is a valid life choice though the parent believes it is immoral or unwise. The school will teach that Australia is racist though the parent believes this is not so. The school will teach that climate change is endangering the future of the planet and the human race, though the parent believes this is fake science.
    State schools were established in colonial Australia specifically to contest the territory with private Christian schools. The objective was never purely educational. State schools are a political project. As leftist ideology intrudes like a cancer into every aspect of State-controlled education, it is no wonder that Bruce Pascoe’s fake anthropology and fake history gains traction.

  • GaryR says:

    Unfortunately, recent cohorts of teachers lack formal training in any discipline, with most having generalist ‘education’ degrees. Many did not achieve the Year 12 results needed to do anything else. It pains to say it, but on average they are therefore neither as intelligent nor well trained as other professionals. What they do have in spades is a devotion to the vague concept of ‘social justice’. This makes them sitting ducks for such feel-good pseudo academic fakery.

  • SB says:

    I would like to see articles such as this conclude with the following:
    We contacted state and federal ‘conservative’ politicians about the issues raised in this article to ask for their views. Here are their names and their responses. As long as they are allowed to keep quiet, hoping that no one notices them, nothing will change.

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