Well Peter Sutton and Keryn Walshe certainly threw the Tasmanian devil among the scrub turkeys supporting Bruce Pascoe, with the pending release of their book Hunter-Gatherers? – The Dark Emu Debate, which exposes Pascoe as, at least, an academic delinquent. But the turkeys are fighting a good rear-guard action and may well pull off a miracle, unless the voices of reason – represented by Andrew Bolt, myself, the folks at the Dark Emu Exposed website and, latterly, Sutton and Walshe – are reinforced by realists at the ABC (if such exist) and the various state ministers of education. And that reminds me, two months ago I sent a copy of Bitter Harvest to NSW Education Minister Sarah Mitchell. To date, I have not even had the courtesy of an acknowledgement.
Following the devastating article by Stuart Rintoul, in Saturday’s Sydney Morning Herald, Sunday’s Age editorial, by Gay Alcorn, titled “Dark Emu debate should bring truth closer, not be used in culture wars”, had this to say:
Then, in 2014, Bruce Pascoe published Dark Emu. While it initially attracted little publicity, he gained widespread attention when the book won some of the nation’s richest and most prestigious literary awards. In it, Professor Pascoe put the case for reassessing pre-colonial Indigenous life, arguing that these societies employed sophisticated agriculture and enjoyed a pastoral, village life.
The book managed to antagonise the right, which questioned his claims. Some in the academic world queried his use of sources, accusing him of exaggerating and embellishing his work.
These questions about a lack of intellectual rigour have now been given prominence in a new book, Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers? The Dark Emu Debate, in which respected anthropologist Peter Sutton and archaeologist Keryn Walshe claim Professor Pascoe’s work is “littered with unsourced material”, uses selective quotations and exaggerates “weak evidence”. They argue that this is not a critique from the right of politics – one of the problems they have with Professor Pascoe’s work is his apparent dismissal of hunter-gatherers, as opposed to those practising agriculture, because it downplays the true richness and sophistication of pre-colonial Indigenous life.
Professor Pascoe responded to their criticisms by putting them down to “differences of opinion” about the facts: “That’s not a bad thing. I think Aboriginal people have been wanting to have this discussion for 250 years, so I think it can only be positive.”
He is right. The discussion about the history and future of Indigenous Australians is essential to this nation’s ability to finally reconcile its past and forge a new path that offers Australia’s First Nations people their rightful place. But there must be benchmarks of intellectual rigour in that process, and it does appear that Professor Pascoe has, at times, fallen short.
“Professor Pascoe has, at times, fallen short”? Seriously? Let’s recap what Sutton and Walshe had to say, as reported in the SMH article:
In page after page, Sutton and Walshe accuse Pascoe of a “lack of true scholarship”, ignoring Aboriginal voices, dragging respect for traditional Aboriginal culture back into the Eurocentric world of the colonial era, and “trimming” colonial observations to fit his argument. They write that while Dark Emu “purports to be factual” it is “littered with unsourced material, is poorly researched, distorts and exaggerates many points, selectively emphasises evidence to suit those opinions, and ignores large bodies of information that do not support the author’s opinions”.
“It is actually not, properly considered, a work of scholarship,” they write. “Its success as a narrative has been achieved in spite of its failure as an account of fact.”
Rather more than ‘at times, fallen short’, I would have thought. And did you notice that Drs Sutton and Walshe are not accorded the courtesy of titles, whereas Pascoe is repeatedly referred to as ‘Professor’. This is either slack writing and looser editing or a shoddy device to tilt the playing field back in Pascoe’s favour. Sutton and Walshe have spent their lives in academic institutions. On the other hand, Pascoe was recently appointed, by Melbourne University, Enterprise Professor of Indigenous Agriculture, because he’s a hobby farmer trying to develop a cottage grain industry on his small acreage in Mallacoota. His ‘professorship’ such as it is, has nothing to do with his claimed expertise as historian or anthropologist.
And now another front opens up. Also in the SMH, a piece by Ben Wilkie tells us:
If the controversy over Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu has revealed one thing, it’s that labels like ‘farmer’ and ‘hunter-gatherer’ have impeded our understanding of the Australian past. It’s time to move on from them.
Pascoe’s book has been a revelation for many. Dark Emu is undoubtedly the most popular in a series of publications since at least the 1960s – mostly academic – that have pondered whether, before colonisation, Aboriginal Australians were farmers.
Ah-ha! So it’s just a misunderstanding about now ‘inappropriate labels’. Wilkie points out that Pascoe based a lot of Dark Emu on the works of Bill Gammage and Rupert Gerritisen, both of whom are vastly more credible on the subject than Pascoe and vastly more reserved in their claims. In short Pascoe has misrepresented them and exaggerated their positions in exactly the same way he did for Sturt and Mitchell. But the Wilkie defence, paraphrased in a few simple words, is ‘let’s not get hung up on labels’:
A concern is that imposing a hierarchy on cultures and societies in this way is an essentially late-18th and early-19th century European idea. Enlightenment-era thinkers developed a view of history and human development that progressed through stages, from foragers and hunter-gatherers through to agriculturalists and, finally, modern commercial society.
For many of these thinkers, it was during the agricultural phase of a civilisation’s development that private property could be said to have emerged. It’s been argued that the perceived lack of cultivation and domestication in Australia was a key reason that Aboriginal land and property rights were not recognised. It may seem curious to deploy such a worldview in this way, but it is not unreasonable to think that Pascoe knew exactly what he was doing here. He was turning a colonial argument on itself, and forcing readers to rethink what they knew.
That sounds like an ‘end justifies the means’ defence, always a default position for the Left.
Interestingly, the latest twist in the Pascoe saga has, apparently, been of no interest to The Australian. Not one mention in the six days that have elapsed since SMH first broke the story, despite the fact that it too has been one of Pascoe’s champions. It was their fawning story by Richard Guilliatt, ‘Turning History on its Head’, that first alerted me to the work of this charlatan. Why would that be, I wonder? They have not rushed to his defence but neither have they deigned to give any traction to what, by any measure of good journalism, is one hell of a story. (By contrast, Thursday’s Letters page devoted one whole segment to the non-issue of men-only clubs.)
Could it be because they have been assiduously pushing constitutional Recognition and recognise that Dark Emu plays strongly into that narrative?
But perhaps I am being harsh. I understand Melbourne University Press refused to allow Sutton and Walshe to be interviewed by Andrew Bolt. Possibly they also refrained from sending an advance copy of Hunter-Gatherer? to The Australian lest it be somehow sullied by a reviewe in the hated Murdoch media. Still, some mention would have been nice.
As far as the general public is concerned, the comments section under the Rintoul article, overwhelmingly, echoes the sentiment in the Age editorial above.
They will not abandon their hero easily. And why not? The reason is contained in the title of that Age editorial. Dark Emu is not an objective work of scholarship about which a reasoned debate based on common ground and shared access to the same facts can be had. It is about nothing but the culture wars – in particular, the war around the preposterous suggestion that Australia is essentially a racist country founded in racism and murder and perpetuating that paradigm even up to today’s Australians. Pascoe gives that to his devotees in spades – not only in Dark Emu – and they lap it up, wallowing in a delicious sense of guilt and national self-hatred that allows them to signal their virtue across the Twittersphere.
As much of Dark Emu is devoted to demonizing white Australia as it is to extolling the non-existent sophisticated sedentary agricultural and engineering society.
Let me give you a few examples.
On page 8 of Dark Emu, Pascoe refers to the death of settler Andrew Beveridge:
Modern histories of the area claim that Peter’s [Beveridge] brother Andrew, was killed by the Wati Wati after a dispute about blacks killing Andrew’s sheep, but Kirby’s description of the event offers a startling insight into the real motivation. Heavily armed warriors advanced on the station and ignored all other Europeans until they found Andrew Beveridge, the man who they claimed had been violating women. He was isolated and speared, and his body symbolically smeared with ochre.
This is sourced to page 79 of Kirby’s Old Times in the Bush of Australia and, once again, Pascoe’s slipshod approach to history is apparent since the account actually appears on page 58 of the book. In fact, Kirby does not provide the above ‘insight into the real motivation’ at all. The story he tells is that Beveridge, exasperated at the killing of sheep by local blacks, sent a message to them that if they killed another sheep he would kill them. They responded that they would kill him first. They followed that up with a threat that they would kill him at daybreak the next Sunday. And this they did. Kirby’s book, by the way, can be read online in its entirety, courtesy of Victoria Library. Worth noting as well is that, as described in the paragraph below, Beveridge was defended by his Aboriginal friend, “Black Beveridge”
Now it may be that Kirby’s narrative is false and intended to remove any stigma attaching to Beveridge. However, I cannot find any reference to Andrew Beveridge being killed because he had molested women. Nor will you find any mention of his killers anointing their victim’s body with ochre, symbolic or otherwise. What you will find in Kirby’s highly readable account of pioneer life near Swan Hill is constant fear of attack, the murder by ambush of white shepherds and, not long after Beveridge’s murder, a thrilling account of a siege and ferocious attack on Kirby and his companions that reads like Rorke’s Drift lite.
Kirby’s account reads convincingly to me. But whatever the truth is, the version that Andrew Beve-ridge molested native women decidedly did not come from Kirby, as Pascoe claims. This is no doubt why, despite providing no less than four quotes from Kirby’s account which redound to his discredit (at least in Pascoe’s eyes), he does not provide a direct quote in this instance. He is relying on readers to more readily accept the ‘molested women’ version if it came from Andrew Beveridge’s friend. Just to be clear, Pascoe unmistakably states that James Kirby ‘revealed’ that Andrew Beveridge ‘molested’ native women, or, at least that the Aborigines claimed he had. That is a fabrication.
Here’s one from a later period. The subject is abalone:
Once entrepeneurs realized that Australian Chinese were exporting abalone meat, they lobbied the Departments of Primary Industry to establish licensing, quotas, and closed marketing boards, which operated like cartels.
Aboriginal people are now seen as poachers simply because the shellfish is so enormously valuable. When it was ‘mutton fish’, they were allowed to harvest as much as they wanted. Today they are jailed for pursuing their traditional harvest.
Well, that sounds most unjust. Can they no longer ‘harvest’ abalone? Well, as usual with Mr Pascoe, there is rather more to the story than he is capable or prepared to muster.
Most readers will be aware that Aboriginal people have special hunting and fishing rights to acknowledge their traditional practices. These vary from state to state. It is my understanding that where native title has been granted, the traditional owners can decide for themselves how to manage hunting and fishing and can set their own limits. Where native title has not been granted in an area, Aboriginal people are subject to state laws that govern hunting and fishing in that area.
It’s a big topic so, for the sake of simplicity, I will look just at the south coast of NSW. As noted by Bruce Pascoe, earlier generations of Aboriginal people could harvest as much abalone as they wanted, because abalone was an unlimited resource. Abalone, along with other marine species, is now a managed resource. It is so in order to ensure survival of the species and to protect the interests of commercial operators (who generate revenue), recreational fishermen and Aboriginal people.
In NSW, fishing concessions have been made to Aboriginal people for many years. For a start, they do not have to hold a fishing licence. And they have a daily bag limit of 10 abalone, as opposed to two for the rest of the population. They may be taken for personal or family consumption – not commercial purposes. As a matter of interest, for other species of marine life, Aboriginal people have double the normal bag limit. This is commonly 20 fish (eg flathead, luderick, bream) for Aborigines, 10 for everyone else. If Aboriginal people exceed this limit they can be prosecuted and fined. It is highly unlikely they would be jailed unless they were seriously repeat offenders. Also, as I understand it, if Aboriginal people wish to exceed these limits for some ‘cultural’ purpose, they can make an application to do so.
And, it is interesting to note that the only two Aboriginals who applied for a commercial abalone licence right at the state were granted one.
Finally, here’s a beauty from the present day, which involves our hero directly.
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 at the cans 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 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 what-soever – he did nothing wrong. 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 have been called to account.
I have done a fair bit of travel in northern Australia, and have 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 who was anything other than almost reverential about Aboriginal culture. What an extraordinary twist of fate that should deliver these 4WD morons into the hands of the one person with the knowledge and passion to expose them. Incidentally, I admire Pascoe’s ability to commune, from Cape York Peninsula, with an elder on the other side of the continent.
I must admit to being a tad doubtful about this story initially. the verisimilitude provided by the ‘police-issue Glock pistols’ should have put the matter beyond doubt for me. But I still can’t help wondering why no one has been named and shamed about this. It’s rather like all those historians and anthropologists sending Pascoe a wealth of supporting material but who cannot be named so they won’t be targeted. In this case he’s probably magnanimously wishing to spare the perpetrators from public shame.
Dark Emu is littered with this kind of rhetoric. You can read of many more examples in my book Bitter Harvest. I doubt very much you’ll read any of them in the Sutton/Walshe book.
But let me conclude where I started. When Pascoe was wrong for the wrong reasons, that was ignored. But when he was wrong (same transgressions, mind you) for the right reasons, a spirited defence must be mounted.
If that isn’t culture wars, I don’t know what is.
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