In an earlier life I was for some years a salesman selling mainframe computer systems to government departments and agencies. Here’s one lesson I absorbed very quickly, one I was happy to pass on to junior reps: once you’ve made the sale, stop selling.
I wonder if Bruce Pascoe has fallen into this trap. Certainly, he has been very successful at making his big sale, reputedly 200,000 copies of his fabulous book Dark Emu. (Of course, I use the term fabulous in its older, stricter meaning — ‘pertaining to fable‘.) Now, no matter what Pascoe says, those gullible fools who parted with upwards of $25 for this epic fraud will never get their money back and Pascoe will never be brought to account in any financial sense for his manifest duplicity.
But the other beneficiaries of Pascoe’s charlatanism – those Aboriginal activists who are relying on Dark Emu’s false claim that Aborigines were a sedentary agricultural society — to prop up their claim that Australia was not settled but invaded and that, therefore, sovereignty over this continent resides with them, must be wishing he would shut the hell up.
Pascoe’s thesis never relied upon him being Aboriginal, which of course he isn’t or anything like it. His book should stand on its own merits, for want of a better word. As far as Bitter Harvest, my expose of Dark Emu, is concerned, I could not care less whether or not Pascoe is Aboriginal.
I used to think that concentrating on Pascoe’s false claim to be Aboriginal was counter-productive as it gave him cover to claim criticism of his book was based on the inherent racism of his critics and detractors. But with every incoherent word Pascoe now utters in his increasingly incoherent efforts to support his fatuous claim to be a member of this tribe or that one, more doubt is cast on his veracity — and more doubt must also necessarily accrue to Dark Emu. Guilt by association, as it were. Thus far people have been content to accept his assurances on the Aboriginality front while ignoring the mounting evidence against Dark Emu. I now wonder if Pascoe’s false claim to Aboriginality might actually be the keystone holding up the fragile edifice of Dark Emu‘s house of cards.
Recently, Andrew Bolt showed part of an interview between Pascoe and Kerry O’Brien (below) wherein O’Brien invited Pascoe to clear up the questions about his purported Aboriginality. As Bolt observed, the answer was hardly convincing, being no better than silver-tongued waffle. Watch from the 33.30 mark, when O’Brien notes Pascoe’s claim of Aboriginality has been rejected by Burnurong and Tasmanian elders, then asks about the Yuin connection. Pascoe is having none of that and re-iterates his insistence that he does indeed have both Burnurong and Tasmanian connections. But, as usual, he names no one, which is a consistent feature of his defence. Nonetheless, as far as these two groups are concerned Pascoe has failed 66 per cent of the three-tribe test.
It’s odd that Tasmanian and Burnurong elders would so emphatically reject Pascoe but not the Yuin. Could it be that word has gone down that ‘we need Bruce to be Aboriginal, so please don’t rock the boat’.
How long will it take, I wonder, before someone in authority, possibly Alan Tudge, the federal education minister, says ‘enough is enough’ and punches the first breach in the wall. But what evidence is likely to induce the minister, or anyone in authority, to take that step?
If he or she can’t be bothered reading the written evidence that is before them, such as the excellent Dark Emu Exposed website, or my own humble effort, then we can only rely on Pascoe’s increasingly inconsistent and self-evidently false public utterances.
Here are some of the latest, courtesy of a speech he recently gave in Mackay.
Right at the start, Pascoe tells his audience he approached ‘the old people’ to tell him the story of his family, but they refused and said he had to learn the story of the land first:
When I was learning that story I was so ignorant. That’s what offended the old people.
So, it seems that, at this time, Pascoe knew nothing of his Aboriginal connections – that was, apparently, a closely guarded secret of these nameless ‘old people’. He doesn’t actually say whether or not, having learnt the story of the land and propagated it via Dark Emu, he is ever let into those secrets.
What he does tell us is that
Within 100 metres of where I lived, up to 70 Aboriginal people of Cape Otway had been killed there. And I knew nothing about it but by walking 300 metres and having a different look at the country, the evidence was everywhere.
Really, Bruce? And what was that ‘evidence’?
I found in the sand dunes a little stone, only this big and it had notches all the way down one side and in the middle it had holes. Different shaped holes right down from a big one to a tiny one and beside that there were these lines. I looked at it and looked at it for a long time and I eventually realized it was a seamstresses kit. The lines were for sharpening those old ladies needles. The holes were for helping sharpen the points and the notches were for cutting thread. It was a seamstress kit and none of us in this country, black or white, learnt about our people being seamstresses.
I knew the lady who started making possum skin cloaks in Victoria. Vicki Couzens. She started sewing cloaks because one day in the museum she was surprised by finding a possum skin cloak and she recognized all the rivers, all the lakes and all the ridges because that was her grandmother’s cloak. She had been buried in that cloak. So how did it end up in a museum: They dug her up!
Hang on a minute. In what way is this evidence of a massacre? Nobody thought, or was given the opportunity, to ask this question, so let’s take a closer look. The massacre in question is listed on the University of Newcastle massacre map. This was a punitive expedition in response to the murder of James Conroy who had been clubbed to death with a tomahawk. According to the website:
In July 1846, surveyor George Smythe was hired to conduct a coastal survey of the Otway Ranges. Having established a base camp on the eastern shore of Cape Otway at Blanket Bay, Smythe and four others in the party marched westward towards the Aire river and when they returned to Blanket Bay six days later, they found that another member of the party, James Conroy, had been ‘barbarously murdered’ with a tomahawk’ about 200 yards from the tent, where he had gone to cut wood’. Conroy had been visited by some Gadubanud people earlier in the day and it appears he had tried to abduct an Aboriginal woman, and had been killed for his efforts.
The website doe not specify if Conroy had been left on his own. One assumes that was the case, since there is no record of a witness statement as to what happened, which leaves one to wonder to whom did it ‘appear’ that Conroy had tried to abduct a woman? Be that as it may, a punitive expedition was mounted against the offending tribe and the website tells us reports of the numbers killed range from eight to twenty. Not seventy, as glibly claimed by Pascoe in his usual mendacious way.
But back to the “seamstress kit”. Pascoe indicated the size of the kit to be no more than a couple of inches, which suggest the ‘old ladies’ must have been using pretty fine needles and thread, not suitable I would have thought for sewing tough possum skins — admittedly, a nitpicking point. Which brings us to Vicki Couzens. If you Google her, you will find that she was inspired by a possum skin cloak held by Museums Victoria. It is known as the Lake Condah Cloak and is one of two held in the collection, where it has been since 1872, so it is highly unlikely to be that of Vicki Couzens’ grandmother and, as far as I can tell, Vicki makes no such claim. I believe she claims her great grandfather was one of those who helped make the cloak. Nor does she claim that ‘they dug up’ her grandmother to get it. Here is the cloak, which suggests that Vicki must be extraordinarily perceptive if she could ‘recognize all the rivers, all the lakes and all the ridges’.
Needless to say, Vicki has not, as far as I can tell, made that claim either. I wonder if she knows she is, apparently, being verballed by Pascoe? And I wonder what happened to the ‘seamstress kit’? Did Pascoe replace it– reverently, of course — where he found it so as not to offend the ‘old people’.
Pascoe then tells his audience:
Everybody had their craft. I wish I had known that as a child when my uncle was trying to tell me about our people and I was so shocked by what he was telling me that, at his stage, I couldn’t believe it. I wish he was here now.
I wish he was too because then we could ask him to give us the name of the elusive Aboriginal ancestor. But I digress. Pascoe goes on to talk about writing his other juiced-up ‘history’, Convincing Ground, which deals with massacres. He continues:
I then started collecting material for Dark Emu because while I was researching Convincing Ground, I was finding out all this information. I just couldn’t understand about our people harvesting grain and it really shocked me.
He must be a pretty sensitive soul to be shocked by the idea that a hunter/gatherer people harvested their food, rather than just having it fall onto their plates. The key question, of course: did they cultivate before the harvesting. The answer: only in Pascoe’s lucratively fertile imagination.
I started talking to other people about this and I remember one afternoon, I was taken aside by some professors at ANU in Canberra and they said ‘Look, tomorrow you have to come along to a house in Canberra because we’ve got to talk to you’. And I knew I was in trouble. Like a kid in school who’s been told to wait for the headmaster.
As usual these professors are nameless. And Bruce doesn’t tell us the forum in which he was airing his apparently heretical views. And why was he in trouble? Was he a lecturer or tutor?
They took me aside for that morning tea – they called it a morning tea – the tea was real good, the cake was pretty good – but they said ‘We don’t want you talking about this any more, ahh, because it didn’t happen. Your people didn’t build houses, they didn’t have crops, they didn’t have fish traps’ And I said, ‘What are you saying?’ ‘Well we don’t want you talking to our students about these things’.
So I left there and I had a very bad car at that stage and I remember getting in that car and steam was comin’ out of my head.
If that story sounds improbable that’s because it’s pure invention. However, Pascoe went straight to a second-hand book tore and bought a copy of Thomas Mitchell’s Journal of an Expedition into the Interior of Tropical Australia. There on page 89 he found a reference to aborigines harvesting native grain – his infamous ‘nine miles of stooped grain’:
They knew the grain had been harvested by this lathe (presumably he means scythe) with a fur handle so it was comfortable for the harvester.
Let me stop you at this point, Bruce. Mitchell’s journal makes no mention of a scythe, fur handled or otherwise. That is another of your lies, but do go on:
I was shocked. But I said I can sell this story because I’m telling it from the white man’s point of view. The thing that shocks you – I hope it shocks you – is that hundreds of Australian professors had read that and never thought to tell their children or anyone else’s children, this exciting piece of information about Australia’s history.
Again, I must intervene. The fact that Mitchell undertook an expedition is a piece of history. What he observed about the activities of the natives during that expedition is anthropology. From a historical point of view, that they harvested grain is hardly an exciting event. But:
When I went to uni, I wanted to study history – ‘cause I was in the middle of this search for country and family.
I thought that phase happened much later, but never mind.
The professors there said ‘We don’t teach Australian history here’ and I said ‘Why not?’ They said ‘Well, nothing happened, y’know. We didn’t have Guy Fawkes, we didn’t have queens cutting off their sisters’ heads, we didn’t have kings cutting off their wives’ heads, so there was no history.’ So that just drove me to want to know more and more and more.
If those unnamed ‘professors’ viewed history as nothing more than a catalogue of monarchical outrages, Pascoe was well advised to avoid history and study education instead, as he, in fact, did.
Pascoe goes on to tell one of his favourite stories about how a tribe of friendly Aborigines thriving in the desert rescued Charles Sturt and his party from almost certain death – ‘Sturt’s Saviours’ he calls them. Except they didn’t. To find out about this deception you’ll have to read Bitter Harvest.
Eventually, and almost inevitably, we come to Hitler (watch from the 22.52 mark):
You know we talk about Hitler as if he’s the devil, which he was. How did he organise all the Germans to do what they did to the Jewish people of Europe? And yet here all our professors – our mild-mannered professors living in Canberra, grassy lawns, lovely deciduous trees, silver spoons, forks and knives on the table, cloth napkins, lovely food for dinner – those people never wanted our people to know these stories. All the stuff in Dark Emu – always been there but all those old white men – and they were old and they were white and they were men …
Remind you of anyone, dear reader?
… decided that you and your children didn’t need this knowledge because if you had that knowledge you would start to wonder how Australia was able to take this land. Because what they did tell us at school – what I learned on King Island – was that our people were so stupid, so slow, so lazy, so inhuman that we didn’t deserve the land. That’s why they were measuring our heads, to see how much brain we had and as soon as they discovered Aboriginal people had slightly more brain than a white man, they stopped doing it. But this is what they were trying to prove – that our people weren’t human.
Now, you might expect gasps of horror from the audience at this atrocity. No, I’m not talking about white men trying to prove the inhumanity of Aborigines but the atrocity of Pascoe making this outrageous claim. But not a murmur from his mindless admirers.
Keeping track of Pascoe’s lies is exhausting work, a labour worthy of Hercules. We’re only one third of the way into this masterclass of bulldust. I’m not sure how much more you can take, so, I’ll leave it there for now.
But before I conclude, let me return to the O’Brien interview. Pascoe’s main technique to deflect his critics is to ignore that they exist or to ignore their arguments. Kerry O’Brien (no relation, by the way), to his credit, confronts Pascoe with one of those critics – possibly the only time it’s ever been done. Watch from 56.10 – it seems to go on forever, but here is a transcript of most of the exchange:
It’s not just your cultural enemies who question Dark Emu at one level or another. Lawyer and author Russell Marks, who seems to be broadly supportive of the central thrust of your argument has asserted, in a critique in the Monthly magazine, that you regularly exaggerate and embellish the facts in Dark Emu. He gives examples of what he says, by themselves, are just splitting hairs but they are all the way through the book and I quote ‘Such selective quoting creates an impression of societies with a sturdiness, permanence, sedentism and technical sophistication that is not supported by the source material.’ Now do you think that is fair criticism?
Well, that’s a pretty straightforward question, although Marks’ level of cognitive dissonance must be off the planet for him to be broadly support of the central thrust of Dark Emu, given his critique. Anyway, let’s see how Pascoe responds:
Look I’ve read that and I’ve read others of course which are intelligent arguments but when I’m looking at those things I’m then going from one fact, to another fact to another fact and I’m trying to get a global view of what our world looked like back then. And y’know, world civilizations last less than 1,000 years – many of them last 200 years. Um, the pyramids of Egypt 2,000 years old. Y’know these are short-lived civilizations. There was a law that bound people for 120,000 years, and we know that the law did bind people because people stayed where the law told them to stay. There wasn’t imperial war. Y’know Aboriginal people woke up angry, they still do. We still fight each other as evidenced by last November. Because we’re human. But there was no land war. There are people who challenge that too. Part of the Northern Territory where 300 miles of the coastline disappeared under water and there was enormous pressure on people for the land. Yeah, I think that requires a really good investigation but largely people stayed on the land their ancestors gave them and didn’t invade other people’s land even when they could, and I think that is an incredible moment in history and we should examine that. We should study it and we should apply our best minds and our best hearts to this idea that people could live in harmony together without going to war …
O’Brien must have known he was being snowed but let all this claptrap go through to the keeper. He did allow Pascoe to end on a high note:
O’Brien: I’ve got one last question which requires a very short answer, I think. What happened to the sales of Dark Emu after the attacks by Andrew Bolt and others?
Pascoe: Ha ha ha, well they doubled.
Dorothy Dixer? How long before Pascoe is in Parliament do you think? He’s mastered all the tricks of the trade — although, to be fair, he has yet to master the art of silence which education minister Tudge has made his forte in avoiding comment on the noxious nonsense being taught in schools. In this he has company, as his NSW counterpart, Sarah Mitchell, is similarly ill-disposed to speak up in defence of truth.
In this essay I have shown that Pascoe is incapable, even in the face of a friendly interlocutor, of defending his two main claims to fame – his aboriginality and his Dark Emu thesis.
With the exception of archeological digs and the study of artefacts, pretty much all we know about Aboriginal history and culture comes from the verbal record. Elders tell us these things and we take them on trust. That’s fair enough, but do these genuine Aborigines realise that every lie Pascoe peddles makes it much harder to accept anything we are told.
As I said at the start, if Pascoe has any genuine concern for genuine Aborigines, he should shut up. That fabulist’s gob of his is is doing their cause no favours.
You can order the new edition of Peter O’Brien’s Bitter Harvest by clicking here