Bennelong Papers

Bruce Pascoe, At It Again

The charge of ‘systemic racism’ in Australia is flying thick and fast at the moment.  Some, such as Dr Anthony Dillon, have argued that while there are always individual examples of racism, it is not ‘systemic’ in Australia. But is that true?  Bruce Pascoe must be a magnet for racism.  He seems to encounter it rather more than I would expect such a melanin deprived First Nations representative to experience.  This excerpt is from his description of a recent visit to Kangaroo Island:

Kangaroo Island appears not to remember this history. (Aboriginal women abandoned on the Island by sealers.) You will search in vain in the tourist information for reference to the Aboriginal women. If you ask about Aboriginal history in the outlets where you might expect to find such information, you might receive a belligerent stare, as I did.

You will have a wonderful island holiday here. To wash away the bitter taste of the reception I was given on my request for information about Aboriginal history, I dived for abalone at the remote and beautiful Snelling beach.

If you hear prejudicial and uninformed conversation on the nature of Aboriginal people while crossing on the ferry, put that down as an Australian tourist experience too, but one that we hope will soon be replaced by discussions informed by the distinction of Aboriginal place names and the entrée they provide to a more real and complete Australian history.

My brother lives on Kangaroo Island and I have visited the place often.  And, of course, a memorable part of the overall experience is the preoccupation of ferry passengers with the faults of Aboriginal people. Sometimes it seems it’s all they can talk about!

But a more extreme example of racism is revealed in Pascoe’s famously successful book Dark Emu.  Let me tell you of this shocking incident as I examine it in Bitter Harvest, my critique of Dark Emu. Pascoe describes how, in 2009, he bought his wife a holiday so she could fulfil two lifelong ambitions: to see North Queensland Aboriginal art and turtles coming ashore to lay their eggs. The package deal came from what he calls ‘an Australian organisation that produces a very valuable quarterly magazine showcasing the country’s geography’. But he was soon disappointed:

We were promised experts in the fields of art, science and natural history. On the first evening, I was listening to one of the experts retell his adventures on a 4WD trek through the Kimberley. I let the fascination with 4WD bravado go through to the keeper.

As the recollections rolled on, I was stunned into silence. The guru of Aboriginal art proceeded to boast of how he had duped the local Land Council and gained access to restricted parts of their land .

Having been denied access to an initiation site by an Aboriginal elder, it seems the art experts enlisted the aid of the local police:

The police were galvanised into action, relishing the opportunity to thwart the authority of uppity blacks. If we perceive a crime has been committed, they told our adventurers, we can go where we like. We perceive a crime, they chortled .

So the police escorted the group to the initiation site, where they threw beer cans into the water, and took it in turns to shoot them with what Pascoe calls ‘police issue Glock pistols’. He says that when the next batch of young Aboriginal men were taken to this site, they would have found it full of bullet-riddled beer cans.  He tells us that ‘the “explorer” gloated over his win against the Land Council, which for many Australians may seem mere cheekiness.’  He continues:

The most disturbing thing about the event was it undermined the authority of the Elders. They were trying to impress on their young men the importance of maintaining culture and a responsible alcohol-free way of life. The young men would have seen immediately that Australia had no regard for the authority of the Elders.

But that wasn’t the end of the insensitivity of these tour guides. Two nights later, as the tourist group sat around the communal fire, the guide to Aboriginal art derided Kimberley art and culture, claiming that the ‘Bradshaw’ rock paintings were first recorded by the pastoralist Joseph Bradshaw in 1891. The ‘guru’ stated that they were the work of Asian people because they were far too beautiful to have been painted by Aboriginal people. Pascoe could hardly contain himself:

I’d heard all the ‘superior civilisation’ theory before, but even in the previous month’s issue of the tour group’s own magazine there had been a lengthy article about the provenance of the ’Bradshaws’ (the correct term is Gwion Gwion), including a refutation of the misunderstanding by white ‘experts’ when told by local Aboriginal people that ‘We did not make these paintings’. No, their ancestors did. This is too difficult a concept for many art experts, and they leap on the idea that the art is the work of a more sophisticated people. What finer way to denigrate Aboriginal culture.

I tried to point out to the 4WD cowboys that the University of Western Australia and their own magazine had dismissed such nonsense. But the ‘experts’ were not to be denied, and shouted us down. We left and toured on our own.

We did see the turtles hatching, and we did spend two wonderful days touring the Laura art sites. We also spent time with family at Lockhart River, but the experience with the white experts burnt. Humiliation always does .

Well, this is a shocking story, but I have to take issue with Bruce on three things. The first thing is that Bruce has no cause to feel humiliated, none whatsoever – no fault lies with him. Secondly, ‘uppity blacks’. Uppity blacks? Did this incident take place in Western Australia—or Alabama? And, finally, I’m afraid I cannot accept that ‘many’ Australians would regard the actions of these renegade police as ‘mere cheekiness’. The vast majority of Australians would be appalled, as no doubt, was the tour company itself when apprised by Bruce of this incident, by means of his post- tour feedback. They would have been pleased to dispense with the services of employees stupid enough to put their business at risk by being so monumentally indiscreet as to denigrate Aboriginal culture to customers who had paid a lot of money to study that very culture.  However, I suppose it’s too much to hope that the ‘chortling’ police could also have been called to account.

I have done a fair bit of travel in northern Australia, having visited Aboriginal sites and communities in the Kimberley, Central Australia, the Flinders Ranges, Kakadu, Arnhem Land (including the townships of Maningrida and Elcho Island), Thursday Island and Bathurst Island. I have never come across a guide that was anything other than almost reverential about Aboriginal culture. What an extraordinary twist of fate—Divine intervention, perhaps—that should deliver these 4WD morons into the hands of the one person with the knowledge and passion to expose them.

I must admit to being a tad doubtful about this story initially, but the verisimilitude provided by the ‘police issue Glock pistols’ put the matter beyond doubt for me. I mean, who wouldn’t trust a Melbourne University professor?

Order the new edition of Peter O’Brien’s Bitter Harvest by clicking here

14 comments
  • RB

    Flights of Fancy ought to be the title of his next scribbling.

  • thaskala

    Is it planned to make Bitter Harvest available on Kindle? Those of us whose eyesight is poor would appreciate being able to read Bitter Harvest on the larger Kindle font.

  • Harry Lee

    It’s a terrible thing for Aboriginal kids that Pascoe, most other Aboriginal spox, and their White/Other enablers, do not explain that Singin’ and Dancin’ While Daubed In Colored Dirt never helped a child, or an adult, deal with Actual Reality-

    -as opposed to helping people feel alright while living in a culture beset by delusion and superstition.

  • Lo

    The local library did purchase a copy of Bitter Harvest but only after I put in a request for it and pointed out that they had thirty nine copies of Dark Emu, in every conceivable format.

  • Peter OBrien

    Well done Lo and thank you.

  • en passant

    As Jacky would sing: “No fantasy high enough, no falsehood low enough ..’ for the Cornish ‘Professor’ Merlin – who can conjure up myths for every moment.
    I wonder how many aboriginal languages he speaks?
    “Pascoe describes how, in 2009, he bought his wife a holiday so she could fulfil two lifelong ambitions: to see North Queensland Aboriginal art …” Two days later he is thousands of kilometres away in the Kimberley’s of WA listening to dissertations on the ‘Bradshaw Rock Paintings’.
    And I thought my GPS was sometimes inaccurate …
    ‘Professor Pascoe! There’s no one like Professor Pascoe!
    He’s broken every physics law, he can break the law of gravity
    His powers of teleportation would make a wizard stare
    For when you reach the miraculous scene, Pascoe’s not there!
    You may seek him in the Kimberley’s, you may look up in the air
    But I’ll tell you once again at Lockhart River, Pascoe’s not there!

  • Peter OBrien

    I may not have made myself clear. In Dark Emu Pascoe relates how, while on a trip in North Queensland, his guides recounted a story about an earlier incident that they had precipitated in the Kimberley.

  • J Vernau

    Mr O’Brien
    I think you made yourself clear enough. The problem is in Mr Pascoe’s habit of relating hearsay as fact, and giving the impression that he was there himself, perhaps through some exotic supernatural agency. The “police issue Glock pistols” are just the sort of superfluous embroidery that you might hear from a public bar raconteur.
    I thought the most surprising aspect of the tale was that the Queensland guides didn’t seem to recognise Mr Pascoe’s own aboriginality, if only from his aura of ancient spirituality. Unless of course they did, and were being deliberately churlish.

  • Patrick McCauley

    Perhaps we could view Pascoe as our own Don Quixote tilting at the windmills of White Supremacy and racism to defend the culture of the primitive against the ravages of enlightenment. The is a romanticism evident in Pascoe’s attempt to create Aboriginal agriculture and science and astronomy right in the face of the evidence before our very eyes. But what of the Gulpulilian nomad wandering kaditja like in the magic of a space without sovereignty? … now that is much more interesting.

  • rosross

    My understanding was that Kangaroo Island was not inhabited by Aborigines and the sealers got there first.

  • GrahamP

    I have been watching on ABC iview the series The Pacific: In the wake of Captain Cook, presented by the actor Sam Neill.
    The episode about Cook in Tahiti described events much as I, with my limited knowledge of history, expected it to be. Similarly in the New Zealand episode.
    However Episode 3 “Endeavor and Australia”, was so far removed from reality I could only laugh and shake my head in disbelief. Pascoe makes an appearance referring to himself as Aboriginal by saying “we” when referring to the Aborigines as well as spouting his outlandish nonsense.
    Overall a disappointing series, but probably pretty much what one would expect from their ABC.

  • Harry Lee

    Since story-telling began, a long time ago, the people’s penchant for fantasy has been well-noted by story-tellers.
    Stories are a wonderful part of being human.
    Just that, a major obstacle to human flourishing is the people’s propensity to believe that fantasies are actual fact.
    This is esp seen when anti-factual fantasies cause spending by Big Statist public servants of vast amounts of resources created by non-fantasist nett tax-payers -on useless when not destructive projects.
    In the past, there were cases where “the press” exposed such fantastical projects -and had them halted.
    But these days “the press” pushes any fantasy that propels such destructive use of resources.
    “The press” now being an instrument of destructive anti-Westernist forces, as is clear.

  • MungoMann

    Peter, maybe you are being too hard on Prof. Pascoe? As the Uluru Statement tells us, ‘systemic racism’ is the cause of the proportionally high rate of Indigenous incarceration – 30% of prisoners but only 3% of the population. Why, the more I look, the more ‘systemic’ problems I find – 92% of prisoners are male but we are only 50% of the population. Clearly the justice system is ‘systemically sexist’. Between 2014 and 2016, the 8 fatalities due to lightening strikes were, horror of horrors, ALL male – Acts of God clearly have a ‘systemic’ gender bias. [After much negotiation, and much to my relief, my wife has agreed to take out the bins during lightening storms] and 10% of AFL players are Indigenous, despite being only 3% if the population – somehow I don’t think Prof. Pascoe would put this statistic forward as being evidence of ‘systemic’ racism, do you?

  • Elizabeth Beare

    Pascoe must soon give us an auto-biography about his childhood as a proud whatever man.

    I suggest, given the pains and misery he is experiencing everywhere, that he calls it “An Unfortunate Life”.
    Subtitled ‘recollections of an imaginative whinger’. Big seller, that’s for sure.

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