A Challenge to Bruce Pascoe: Let’s Have a Debate

I have just listened to the podcast of an interview with Rick Morton on the subject of Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu, in which The Saturday Paper scribe criticises Andrew Bolt for his expose of Pascoe’s slipshod, slapdash scholarship in support of his claim that Aborigines were not nomadic hunter-gatherers but sedentary agriculturalists with “skills superior to the colonists who stole and despoiled their land”. Morton’s podcast dishes out what can only be described as a stream of nauseating piffle, not least in his dismissal of Quadrant and its readers as nutcase “conspiracy theorists”.

As he is his publication’s “senior reporter” it makes me shudder to think of the howlers his Saturday Paper junior colleagues must be producing.

Order your copy of Bitter Harvest here

Andrew Bolt, who has long suspected Pascoe’s bona fides, has used information he has gleaned himself, over time, from Pascoe’s writings and lectures, bolstering his own efforts with independent information from the Dark Emu Exposed website, another target of Morton’s contemptuous derision. At the same time this story broke, information came to hand that Pascoe’s own genealogy, meticulously researched and comprehensively documented, contained, on the face of it, no trace whatsoever of Aboriginality.  Bolt conceded that there may be some factor, such as an illegitimate birth, that would substantiate Pascoe’s claim and invited him to submit evidence of such.  This Pascoe has refused to do.  Representatives of the three tribal groups to which Pascoe claims membership, Tasmanian, Boonwurrong and Yuin, have all stated publicly that he is not a member of their clans.

Morton, in his podcast, glosses over this inconvenient set of facts and claims that Pascoe said in 2012 that the grandmother they thought was Aboriginal was, in fact born in England, and ‘so the search continues’. Pascoe not qualified his claim to Aboriginality in any way, stating quite categorically on the cover page of Dark Emu‘s 2018 edition that he is “of Bunurong, Tasmanian and Yuin heritage”.  That is a quite specific claim to make in the context of the “search continuing”. 

He further claims Bolt is merely quibbling over little details and that he hasn’t looked at Dark Emu closely.  One point he raises is that Bolt “keeps having issues with Aboriginals having animal yards”, noting that explorer David Lindsay, in 1883, saw what appeared to be animal pens. 

Lindsay’s words, correctly quoted by Morton, are “small enclosures as if some small game had been yarded and kept alive”.  So Lindsay did not actually see animals penned up. This was just speculation on Lindsay’s part and the critical point here is that this typifies most of Pascoe’s evidence for Aboriginal agricultural activity.  In fact, this one reference comprises almost the whole of Pascoe’s evidence regarding what I would consider to be a critical element of the sedentary agriculturalist lifestyle – domestication of animals.

From my readings I recall one reference (not in Dark Emu) to Aborigines penning birds but they were  wild, not domesticated, and it was carried out on a seasonal basis, when the birds were breeding.  More importantly, there are no such references in the journals of Sturt, Mitchell or Giles, whom Pascoe cites as the most compelling sources for his theory.  The same applies to his evidence for Aborigines sowing seed, an essential element of agriculture.  He provides only three examples of explorers or settlers observing sowing and these are all small-scale broadcast by hand and all occurred in the twentieth century.

Morton claims the inconsistencies and misquotations that Andrew Bolt has ascribed to Dark Emu are due to the Herald Sun conflating things Pascoe has said in hundreds of lectures with what he has said in Dark Emu.  Setting aside that we might expect a supposed historian to be consistent in word and print, there is another source that I invite Morton to read and refute. That is my book Bitter Harvest, which looks long and hard at Dark Emu‘s claims in their entirety, plus a number of claims Pascoe made in an interview with Richard Guilliatt of The Australian.  I don’t believe Bolt conflated anything, but the necessarily piecemeal nature of his criticism has allowed Morton to feel safe in making this claim.

In his Saturday Paper article, Morton claims to have “spent two days at the National Library of Australia reviewing the original documents and explorer accounts in question.  They are – at every instance – quoted verbatim.”   In that podcast mentioned above he now claims only to have read all Pascoe’s references in the accounts of Mitchell and Granville Stapylton, Mitchell’s second-in-command, ‘and some other sources’.   So not quite the comprehensive and forensic analysis he originally claimed in his article.  Morton now does not claim to have checked Sturt, which I would have thought would be more relevant than Stapylton.  Sturt is cited 15 times in Dark Emu. Staplyton is not in Pascoe’s bibliography and he makes only one reference to Stapylton (on page 16). The quote is verbatim as far as it goes, but is edited to omit important contextual information.

I addressed Morton’s claim about sources being quoted verbatim in an earlier article and provided two specific examples where this claim is false.  Let me re-iterate the first.

Morton gives just one example of “verbatim quoting” — and that one example is false.  He says:

Thomas Mitchell also noted a town of 1,000 people in his journals, and the quote is attributed to Mitchell in Dark Emu at the bottom of page 15.

But the explorer’s actual quote contains no reference to a population of 1,000. That appears in Pascoe’s own words:

He (Mitchell) counts houses and estimates a population of 1,000.

To repeat, those words, contrary to Morton’s claim of “verbatim and cited accordingly”, do not appear in Mitchell’s journal.  What Mitchel actually said was ’We had this day noticed some of their huts’.  In fact, as I believe I have shown, unequivocally, in Bitter Harvest, at no time did either Sturt or Mitchell on any of their expeditions encounter a “village”, let alone one of 1,000 souls.

Dark Emu is littered with deceptive references to Mitchell, Sturt and others.  If you think of Bruce Pascoe’s inaccuracies as a cancer, you would say it has metastasized throughout his book.  I invite Rick Morton to read Bitter Harvest, which is a structured and systematic examination of Dark Emu from start to finish, and, importantly, summarizes the credible (for want of a better word) evidence that Pascoe presents to support his theory.  Such evidence is  threadbare and can be covered in one paragraph.  Let Morton then claim that Pascoe’s research is impeccable, if he can.

Finally, I would be more than happy to debate Bruce Pascoe on his version of history. I doubt he would accept the invitation even though, compared to Andrew Bolt, I am a pussycat.

Come on, Bruce, take up my challenge if you dare. Or is that you are prepared only to deal with an obliging hack, such as Morton, or your friends, producers, supporters and paymasters at the ABC?

6 thoughts on “A Challenge to Bruce Pascoe: Let’s Have a Debate

  • jimriddell says:

    “Bitter Harvest” shames Dark Emu onto the fiction section of the bookshelf. The most common observation of most early commentators was that the early Australians “did not have agriculture”. This fact can be found even in the books Pascoe has cited, and the many others that he should have read, but didn’t. Many of these books are freely available on line, including 5 of the 8 Pascoe mentioned. None support Pascoe! but there is a lot of information in them that is very interesting, and we weren’t taught in school.

  • NFriar says:

    Thank you Peter O’Brien for your book and your challenge- I fear Pascoe has gone to ground.
    I would like to have seen him take up your challenge.
    Maybe it’s the ABC that needs challenging?

  • Peter OBrien says:


    Thank you, and Dark Emu Exposed, for your support. Pascoe and his cheer squad have definitely gone to ground. We will have to flush them out by becoming boringly repetitive in our attacks. We cannot let them get away with this tactic which they use all too often and with altogether too much success.

  • Petronius says:

    I cannot believe that there are no historians in Australia who will come out and fearlessly examine the factual claims against Dark Emu. There must be someone who goes to bed each night and thinks “This is not right. It is a shame upon our profession to keep silent in the face of this new information. It has to be cleared up if only to sustain our reputation of finding out empirical truth.” Or perhaps times have really changed and we are on the cusp of some new dark age.

  • saorsa660 says:

    I note that Pascoe is in receipt of a number of Indigenous awards such as sharing the $30,000 Indigenous Writer’s Prize and wonder, that as none of the Aboriginal groups he claims to be descended from, wishes to acknowledge him as a member. How does he qualify? as the 3rd condition for eligibility laid down by AIATSIS specifies:

    Government agencies and community organisations usually accept three ‘working criteria’ as confirmation of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander heritage:

    being of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent
    identifying as an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person
    being accepted as such by the community in which you live, or formerly lived.

    All of these things must apply. The way you look or how you live are not requirements.

  • rosross says:


    Yes, there are academics, historians, archaeologists, anthropologists who think Dark Emu is rubbish but they will not say it publicly because that would destroy their careers in the current climate.

    The search for empirical truth is no longer even a part of much of science let alone academia. Tragically.

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