‘Dark Emu’ by Bruce Pascoe


Bruce Pascoe: Dark Emu, Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident?

156 p. 2014, Magabala books

On July 3rd, just 3 days before NAIDOC week, my Prime Minister (who had dubbed himself the first ‘Prime Minister for Aboriginal Affairs’) made a presentation to the Australian-Melbourne Institute.  In extolling the benefits of foreign investment for Australia he said

As a general principle we support foreign investment. Always have and always will. Our country is unimaginable without foreign investment.  I guess our country owes its existence to a form of foreign investment by the British government in the then unsettled or, um, scarcely settled, Great South Land.

There is a particular argument that could be posed about the word ‘settled’ in relation to the law of colonies, but Abbott here was talking economies, not law. You can almost hear the wheels turning in his brain as he thinks “oops- not ‘unsettled’ because I suppose that they were there, I guess-‘ scarcely settled’- that’ll do”.

Bruce Pascoe’s book Dark Emu argues directly against the idea that Australia was ‘scarcely settled’. It was, he argues, very much settled in a way that forces us to reconsider the ‘hunter-gatherer’ label that is often used to describe pre-colonial Aboriginal Australians.

The start of [the] journey is to allow the knowledge that Aboriginal people did build houses, cultivate and irrigate crops, did sew clothes and were not hapless wanderers across the soil, mere hunter-gatherers. Aboriginals were intervening in the productivity of the country and what they learnt during that process over many thousands of years will be useful to us today. To deny Aboriginal agricultural and spiritual achievement is the single greatest impediment to inter-cultural understanding and, perhaps, Australian moral and economic prosperity. P. 156

Bruce Pascoe has a Bunurong/Tasmanian indigenous heritage, and if you watched First Footprints, (my review here) you will recognize him as one of the talking heads on that wonderful, paradigm-rattling documentary. He is not an academic historian as such, and described himself in his earlier book Convincing Ground (2007) as a “mug historian with no training” (p. 200). His interweaving of personal, current day narrative with historical analysis, in both this and his earlier book, places his work in that uneasy space between local history and academic material.

In his preface, Pascoe says that he conceived the theme for this book in the wake of writing Convincing Ground, when he was inundated with letters and information from fourth-generation farmers and Aboriginal people. These responses, along with material that he had tucked away unused from his earlier book, suggested to him that not only had the Frontier War been mis-represented, but that the whole economy and culture of Aboriginal people had been undervalued. (p. 11)

His methodology was to return to the diaries of the early white explorers, surveyors, pastoralists and protectors. These men (for they were overwhelmingly male) espoused the racial superiority of white settlement, decried the primitivism of Aboriginal culture and predicted the inevitable extinction of Aboriginal ‘nomads’. Yet at the same time, they described large structures capable of sheltering thirty or forty people, stockpiles of ground seed and grain, dams and redirections of water courses, fish traps, and storehouses. They were unconscious wreckers (or at least one hopes they were unconscious): eating the grain that had been carefully piled up waiting for consumption at a later date, gladly taking advantage of a clay-daubed shelter, or rather more ominously, testing the strength of the roof of a shelter by riding over it. It strikes me as deeply ironic that explorers, starving, blinded and maddened by bites and sun, could look at aboriginal people serenely co-existing with the environment, and then write about them as ‘primitive’.   He finds example after example in the words of explorers Major Mitchell, Sturt and Howitt, early colonists Isaac Batey, James Dawson, and protectors and missionaries George Augustus Robinson and Joseph Orton .   He reproduces some of their sketches that, when you extract them out from the scrawled text that surrounds them,  demonstrate much more deliberation and ingenuity on the part of the constructors, than the 19th century authors’ commentaries convey.

Major Mitchell is one of Pascoe’s most heavily used informants, and Pascoe captures well the contradictions within Mitchell’s work, and the ambivalence with which he views him:

Mitchell talked in sorrow about the demise of Aboriginal Australia… but despite this compassion Mitchell writes, a mere two paragraphs later, ‘We again (on the Hunter) find some soil fit for cultivation, and the whole of it taken up by farms’… At one moment he expresses sorrow for the losses of the Aboriginal population but within a page he’s extolling the value of the lands forcibly taken from them.

On his previous explorations Mitchell has seen the use Aboriginal people made of their lands, although some of the food production techniques were too discreet to capture his attention or understanding, but then opines mildly about the future of Australian farming as if Aboriginal food production had never existed. He looks down the valley at the sheds and houses of the settlers where smoke dwindles from the chimney and squares of amber light glow at windows and revels in the domesticity. Only a year before he was envying the warmth and domesticity of the Aboriginal village, but now he prides himself on opening up this land to to his own race.

He’s a good man, Mitchell, but he shares the ambition of every British man in the colony: land… The confidence of Mitchell to assume that the land had been waiting for Europeans and their animals is at the heart of European intellectual arrogance. (p. 141-2)

Pascoe draws also from the work of anthropologists, well known ones like Stanner and Rhys Jones, but also some maverick ones who are challenging established understandings. There are a number of places in the book where you sense Pascoe sitting in on conversations, listening carefully to the debates, and weaving in their work into his argument.  Some of the texts he draws upon are small productions, well outside the mainstream, like a small saddlestitched 70 page book produced by Peter Dargin for the Brewarrina Historical Society, or a similar book by Rupert Gerritsen, published in London for want of Australian interest, and No. 35 on a Google search into ‘Australian Aboriginal Grain Crops.’ He does his own work no favours by including (albeit with misgivings) wild estimates of Aboriginal occupation of Australia going back 120,000, alongside other figures of between 40,00 -65,000 years. Nor does he burnish his own reputation by citing Gavin Menzies’ 1421: The Year China Discovered the World, a book largely dismissed by academic historians.

The book has eight chapters. In the first, ‘Agriculture’, he focuses on the yam and grain harvesting, irrigation, and the harvesting of emu and kangaroo. Chapter 2, ‘Aquaculture’ examines fishing operations, particularly in Brewarrina and Lake Condah, and watercraft on the rivers and seaboard. Chapter 3 is titled ‘Population and Housing’, where he argues that villages marked the movement towards agricultural reliance, most particularly where there were stone constructions. Chapter 4 ‘Storage and Preservation’ explores the use of pottery and stockpiling , while Chapter 5 examines ‘Fire’ in the creation of grasslands. Chapter 6 is a divergence into ‘The Heavens, Language and the Law’ where he explores the theories that posit a qualitative shift in the ‘intensification’ of food production and technology about 4000-5000 years ago. This chapter is largely the representation of other people’s theories, which he views rather sceptically. I found this chapter rather hard to follow, although it seemed to resolve into an examination of concepts of land ownership, and what he called “jigsawed mutualism” whereby people had responsibilities for particular parts of the jigsaw, but could only operate that part so that it added, rather than detracted, from the pieces of their neighbour (p. 138). Ch. 7 ‘Australian agricultural revolution’ is only four pages in length and suggests several Aboriginal crops that could be farmed commercially in the future. The final chapter ‘Accepting History and Creating the Future’ is a plea for an acceptance and re-visioning of Aboriginal agricultural and spiritual achievement, and allowing this to inform the future.

It is perhaps unfair to review a book by making reference to another author’s work, but in this case it is almost unavoidable. Bill Gammage’s The Biggest Estate on Earth (my review here) was published prior to Pascoe’s work, and indeed Pascoe cites him in several places. A beautifully crafted and lushly produced book, Gammage’s work has been debated within academia and received the Prime Ministers Prize for Australian History in 2012. The two books, although mismatched in production values and ‘clout’, cover similar material and arguments. However, having only just flipped through Gammage’s book, it seems that he speaks more of land management, with a particular emphasis on fire.

Pascoe’s much smaller and more modest book, on the other hand, concentrates rather more on economic and social systems, with rather more emphasis on interventions in settled places as a challenge to the ‘hunter-gatherer’ image. A challenge, too, to a Prime Minister who sees the land as “unsettled- um- scarcely settled”.

Posted as part of Lisa’s  ANZLitLovers Indigenous Literature Week.


Yvonne Perkins has reviewed it as well.

14 responses to “‘Dark Emu’ by Bruce Pascoe

  1. This review is an excellent riposte to a PM – was it ignorance or a deliberate insult to our indigenous people during NAIDOC week?
    What I love about my two favourite historians online (Shout-out to Yvonne at Stumbling Through the Past!) is the way you teach me how to read history like an historian does. *smile*
    Thanks too for supporting Indigenous Literature Week, it means a great deal to me.

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  11. The book is persuasive rather than informative, and at times inaccurate. For example Bruce puts a photo of a Meriam Island House (Torres Strait) in his section on Arnhem Land ‘dome houses’. He also quotes from Mitchell, Sturt, and Dawson very selectively, leaving out all the parts that contradict his argument. Read these primary sources and you get a different picture to the one Bruce paints. His mention of stone houses is exaggerated, because the location he discusses (lake Condah) while certainly containing Aboriginal structure, also has the remains of European structures according to some archaeologists (eg. Sharon Lane). He says fish traps are aquaculture which is just silly. It’s good that Bruce draws attention to the fact that Aboriginal people managed the land (not farmed) in a sustainable manner, and cared for the environment as opposed to the capitalist system which destroys the environment. This book will be accepted by most of the public who normally just believe nice stories rather than true stories. My advice if you are genuinely interested in the truth on this subject is to read the primary sources Bruce uses, but also to read the multitude of other sources on Aboriginal culture, bush food & land management practices; many written by Aboriginal people living traditionally today.

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  13. This book is a very impressively compiled and convincing argument to the effect that indigenous Australians were both highly enterprising and ingenius. That is no surprise given that they were more than likely to have been at least among the very first humans to leave Africa. It is of even less surprise to me because, during my undergraduate degree in the ’70s, I read about stone houses built on the west coast of Tasmania by mocassin wearers.

    While Dark Emu deserves to be regarded as an important contribution to what we know about traditional society, critical reviews will tend to focus on points of difference, which should not be seen as diminishing its overall value.

    I have a number of points of difference.

    Firstly, most of the frequent references to explorers, settlers, anthropologists and members of the general public being “astounded” by indigenous ingenuity, being unable to accept the true implications of that ingenuity because of a racist mindset, and needing to deny that indigenous Australians lived in a largely sedentary way in order to justify stealing their land, are gratuitous. We all understand that racism has had a disproportionate role in the formation of our national psyche. It is really not necessary to make this point ad nauseam.

    I wonder what the point is of using the term civilisation and other such embellishments, together with frequent speculation about aboriginal society being the most advanced in the world, and comparing (as equals) aboriginal society with the pyramid builders of central America. We are regularly told that aboriginal society was somewhere in the process of transformation from semi-sedentary society to sedentary society. To my way of thinking, semi-sedentary means semi-nomadic, and I cannot see any shame in being semi-nomadic.

    Pascoe uncovers significant evidence of stone construction, harvesting native grasses and the like, but he avoids discussing the many things that indigenous Australians did not discover. He doesn’t mention the Makassans (and others) who were regular visitors here for hundreds of years before the White Australia Policy stopped them coming. They brought iron tools. They stimulated a vibrant economy in Arnham Land that is well described in Richard Trudgen’s Why warriors lay down and die (also ignored). Again, we read nothing about the big mob of South Asians who came here about 5,000 years ago, and stayed.

    Pascoe quotes Flannery and Josephine Flood, but a fair reading of Future eaters and Archeology of the Dreamtime will show that neither speak in a flattering way away indigenous land management. To give only one example, Flannery claims that fire-stick farming seriously depleted soils.

    I don’t understand why there are two references to Batman but no mention of the fact that he was rewarded with grants of land and cash for leading “roving parties” that committed massacres in Tasmania. That would seem anomalous, given that Pascoe doesn’t hesitate to call out other historical figures.

    Finally, I don’t understand Pascoe’s methodology in providing references. It all seems very random. Further, he continually says things like “we need to consider the possibility,” or “this requires more research.” There is a small place for speculation, but Pascoe is on much stronger ground when he presents the facts and doesn’t speculate.

    What may require more research, though, is the reasons why some people feel the need to say we were the first, or we were the best.

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