I’m going to give some background for Dark Emu for overseas readers who may not be familiar with the ‘Culture Wars’ of Australia. Dark Emu is one shot in that conflict, and so it’s not really possible to evaluate the book to any degree without addressing that background, at least in a small way. If you want to skip this, click here to jump down to the part where I talk about the book more.
At the moment Dark Emu has entered the cultural zeitgeist in Australia. This is in spite of it being originally published as far back as 2014. It’s not as surprising as someone outside Australia might assume. Tonight, as I begin this review, it is the evening of our Australia Day Holiday. Australia Day was actually yesterday but in the way of these things we usually have a public holiday on the Monday if the day falls on the weekend. Australia Day has increasingly become a sore point in the national dialogue. America, where most of our readers reside, has its own issues regarding its indigenous people, along with a history of slavery. But America’s national holiday celebrates political independence and the overthrow of a colonial power. Quite the opposite in Australia. Our national holiday celebrates the landing of the First Fleet in Sydney Cove and the beginning of white civilisation in Australia, which also marks the beginning of the dispossession of Aboriginal people from their lands. Uncomfortably, then, our holiday marks the furthering of British colonial power to the detriment of our indigenous people.
As recently as my own lifetime the issue of the fate of the Aboriginal people has been a blind spot in our national culture. When I was at school Australian history was presented as having begun with explorers like Dampier and Cook, followed by the landing of the First Fleet, of course, with lip service paid to the Aboriginal people who occupied Sydney Cove upon their arrival. But after their initial contact with European civilisation, Aboriginals just seemed to disappear quite unproblematically from the historical narrative that I learned. For a long time, the judgment was that Aboriginals were a weaker race. Bruce Pascoe has stated in Dark Emu that Darwin’s theory of evolution was used as justification for Aboriginal decline. Pascoe, quotes anthropologist Tony Barta:
When Darwin lent his great gifts and influence to making the disappearance of peoples ‘natural’ as well as historical, his theory … could serve as an ideological cover for policies abhorrent to his humanitarian and humanist principles. Darwin’s fateful confusion of natural history and human history would be exploited fatally by others.
Of course, despite this, there have been books that covered Aboriginal culture and these continue to grow in number now. Australia Dreaming: 40,000 Years of Aboriginal History was a gorgeous coffee table book published in 1980 with full of colour plates and stories which introduced many Australians to the idea of Aboriginals having a long and complex culture. (The length of Aboriginal occupation of Australia varies greatly, but more recent estimates place occupation extending as far back as 120,000 years). Geoffrey Blainey’s more academic work, Triumph of the Nomads – its first edition published in the mid-1970s – credited Aboriginals with a successful culture that rivalled that of Europe in terms of supplying its people with their material needs. This was something of a revelation to me when I read it many years ago and left an impression. Here’s a bit of what he says:
If we specify the main ingredients of a good standard of living as food, health, shelter and warmth, the average aboriginal was probably as well off as the average European in 1800. Aboriginals of course could not match the comfort and security of the upper classes of Europe, of the wealthiest one-tenth of the population, but they were probably much better off that the poorest one-tenth. In the eastern half of Europe the comparison favours the aboriginals, and they probably lived in more comfort than nine-tenths of the population of eastern Europe. Even in western Europe, with its strong patches of prosperity, the average person perhaps was no better off than the average aboriginal.
The aboriginals probably had the clearest advantage in food: almost everywhere in Australia they often ate foods which would have been rare luxuries to European peasants or town labourers, and at the same time they had plenty of the starchy foods which were the main or only course at most European tables. In winning that food the aboriginals must have spent fewer hours than the average Pole or Spaniard or Englishman of the year 1800; nor did the aboriginals rely so much on the child labour which was used throughout Europe in most rural and many town activities. Ample leisure was indeed one of the signs of the aboriginals’ favourable standard of living.
Geoffrey Blainey, Triumph of the Nomads: A History of Ancient Australia Revised Edition, 1982, Pan Macmillan Publishers, Australia, pages 225-226 [I have left Blainey’s capitalisation as it appears in his book]
These are just two books out of many that have tried to address old colonial prejudices against Aboriginal culture over the last few decades. But the fact remains that Aboriginals have been characterised variously as lazy, dirty and hopeless since white settlement. This characterisation has been strongly ingrained in some sections of the community and continues to inform the national dialogue. Apart from acknowledging the creation of basic tools and art, Aboriginal culture has been represented as stone age and relying on a hunter/gatherer economy. And this characterisation has garnered opinions ranging from contempt to admiration. Either camp has tended to be influenced by European Enlightenment thinking, swinging between Hobbes’s assessment of life as
poor, nasty, brutish and short to Aboriginals who are emblematic of Rousseau’s Noble Savage
Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu challenges the notion of Aboriginals belonging to a hunter/gatherer society. Implicit in this assumption, he points out, is that Aboriginals survived for tens of thousands of years on a basic diet achieved through opportunistic hunting, and a gathering economy predicated on the need to wander. It is a characterisation that assumes Aboriginals did not produce any notable technology or build structures like homes. Part of the danger of accepting that position is that it has been used to justify that Aboriginals did not work the land and could not claim any true ownership of it. Australian land was seized by the English crown under the legal fiction of terra nullius, an assertion that the land was unoccupied. Pascoe’s book seeks to overturn that belief by challenging long-held beliefs about Aboriginal cultural practices.
As a result, Pascoe’s book has provoked some attacks against both its thesis and its author. This is what has raised the book to greater awareness this month. Pascoe has been the subject of several media articles in the last week after assertions were made that he is not Aboriginal. This is a perennial criticism of many Aboriginal people from unsympathetic white culture. In fact, his case was referred to the Australian Federal Police on the presumption that Pascoe has wrongly benefitted from government grants (Bruce Pascoe says Aboriginality queries an attempt to discredit Dark Emu by Jewel Topsfield, Sydney Morning Herald January 19 2020). These accusations have since been overturned (AFP dismisses claims Dark Emu author faked Aboriginal heritage for profit by Zach Hope, Sydney Morning Herald, January 24, 2020)
That’s the point of this preamble before I actually talk about the book. Dark Emu is a part of a long cultural debate in Australia. On one side of the debate, Aboriginal people have been the victims of systematic attempts at genocide; they have suffered attempts to assimilate their children into white culture through government endorsed programs which necessitated the stealing of children (See the movie Rabbit Proof Fence for a dramatization of this subject. An excerpt can be watched by clicking here); they have been dispossessed of traditional lands; many were killed as part of a frontier war between Aboriginals and white settlers; many have lost their traditional languages and have been estranged from their culture; and many no longer look as we expect black Aboriginals to look after over 200 years of breeding with Europeans, often against their will. It’s been a pretty horrible, which is why any celebration of a national day that implicitly elides this history is problematic.
The contentions of the Culture War in Australia concern this history. Did Aboriginals just die out and fade into the background like my own primary school education implied? Or was their dispossession the result of a colonial war, the details of which are sketchy? Or have small conflicts been inflated by the left into a larger narrative? Was removal of Aboriginal children from their parents a concerted attempt to wipe out Aboriginality, or were removals done on the basis of child welfare, as has been asserted by historian Keith Winschuttle? What you believe puts you on one side or the other. The political left tends to favour a revision of accepted history, an approach characterised by the political right as the ‘black armband’ view of history.
These tensions have been heightened since the Native Title Act of 1993 and the High Court decision in 1992 concerning Mabo vs Queensland. Eddie Mabo prosecuted his right to land he and his family had ‘owned’ all his life. In reality, it was Crown Land. The Australian High Court’s decision in his favour overturned the concept of terra nullius, the term that suggested the land was not meaningfully occupied prior to white settlement. The decision established the right of Aboriginals to claim land they had a traditional connection with, and to which they had a continued association. Some farmers and large land owners felt threatened by the court’s decision, which sometimes lead to the destruction of Aboriginal sites with the intention of destroying evidence of Aboriginal connection to their land.
These tensions resulted in a rather long debate over a national apology to Aboriginal people for their former treatment. John Howard, a former Prime Minister, refused to give an official apology. It was a question that hounded him until he lost government in 2007 to Kevin Rudd. Rudd gave the apology within the first hundred days of his administration. This issue has been referred to in another of our reviews, when Peter Garrett of Midnight Oil (and later a Member of Parliament in Kevin Rudd’s government) appeared with his band in the closing ceremony of the 2000 Olympics in Sydney with the word ‘Sorry’ printed on their outfits. Their popular song, ‘Beds are Burning’, also questions the morality of white Australia’s refusal to acknowledge the dark history of Aboriginal treatment and dispossession.
The premise of Dark Emu is simple but powerful. If Aboriginals have occupied Australia, even if only for the shortest timespan now estimated, their culture had to have attained some level of sophistication to have been successful in such a harsh environment. Blainey makes a similar argument in his book, although he does not credit the extent of Aboriginal management of the land as Pascoe does, but characterises Aboriginals as hunter/gatherers. Pascoe’s point is succinctly made:
The desire for food, shelter, and purpose are universal; therefore, systems that provide citizens with as much of those three physical and psychological necessities must be considered successful and, furthermore, the survival of such systems over time can only have been wrought by the will of the people. [my emphasis] page 226
That the Aboriginals survived in such a harsh environment for so long seems a testament to will and planning, rather than accident and luck. Pascoe’s assertion that their culture must be
considered successful makes sense based on the tenets of his book. If Darwinism has formerly been used to diminish Aboriginal achievement, the matter understood correctly makes the Aboriginal civilisation a success on Darwinist terms, since Darwin’s idea is that successful organisms adapt to their environment.
Pascoe presents a lot of evidence to suggest a few basic ideas which have large implications. He asserts that Aboriginals built shelters of varying degrees of permanence; that in many instances they achieved a sedentary culture; that sedentism was achieved through advances in agriculture and animal husbandry, as well as modifications to their environment that promoted conditions for animal species they hunted. Some Aboriginal constructions that still remain are probably the oldest human constructions now known.
Environmental modifications include large trap systems in waterways and the use of carefully controlled fire to modify the landscape on a large scale. European settlers who first looked upon the plains of New South Wales consistently described what they saw as being like an English parkland, perfect for grazing. Ironically, it was the introduction of cattle and sheep with their hard hooves and tendency to eat plants to their roots, along with the pushback against Aboriginals that prevented them from firing the land and managing it, that saw a quick degradation of the conditions that settlers had so admired. Historians have long claimed that depictions of the Australian landscape by early colonial painters like John Glover were idealised representations based upon European sensibilities. Pascoe argues, based on examinations of permanent features like rocks at the sites of some of the paintings, that the representations were probably accurate.
As Pacoe states in the video below, he realised that to be taken seriously by white academia he had to present evidence that would be respected and accepted by white culture. As a result, Pascoe pored through colonial writings to find evidence of Aboriginal building and land management, often from settlers and explorers who held the Aboriginals in contempt, but nevertheless recorded what they saw in their journals and sometimes even produced drawings. Much of this evidence undermines long-held beliefs about the level of Aboriginal achievement which has long been ignored.
Of course, as I have already intimated, Pascoe has his detractors. Peter O’Brien in a Quadrant article, attempted to attack the whole basis of Pascoe’s book by questioning just one example (
I will examine just one ludicrous claim that is based on the work of supposedly mainstream serious academics) The example in question concerns megaliths in Victoria which have had some comparison to Stone Henge. I will leave it to interested readers to follow O’Brien’s argument by clicking here. Pascoe addresses the criticisms in his book. Again, the details are best left to those interested enough to read the book. The point is, the intention to discredit Pascoe is interesting, as is the selective attack which attempts to debunk his whole thesis and the many pieces of evidence he presents on the basis of just one point.
I think different people will take away different things from this book depending on their disposition before reading it. For me, Pascoe’s discussion of Aboriginal building and farming techniques – techniques that were not like the settlers – were a revelation. But the book was most compelling for me when it contextualised Western civilisation through the achievements of the Aboriginals. First is Pascoe’s evaluation of White culture’s approach to the Australian environment which has recently had a dramatic example in bushfires that have devastated some parts of the country. Pascoe questions the efficacy of modern farming techniques; of introducing species unsuited to the environment; of the overuse of chemicals in farming to propagate crops not adapted to our conditions and failure to manage the environment sympathetic to its needs.
More interesting, still, is the contextualisation of other world histories with the Aboriginal civilisation. Western civilisation has been a story of violence, exploitation and dominance. On the whole, Aboriginal civilisation seems to have avoided that. Pascoe accepts that Aboriginal culture is as much susceptible to the worst in human behaviour as any other race, and it would seem unreasonable to claim that conflict has not existed in Aboriginal society. But the society itself has been predicated upon what Pascoe calls
jigsaw mutualism, a term which attempts to describe the complex claims to land and its resources, and the exploitation of those resources managed in a careful manner so as not to degrade the environment or to impact on other tribal interests. Pascoe explains that this ideology is embedded in the very notion of the Dreamtime, the cultural history of the Aboriginal people and its myths, which encompass Aboriginal belief systems and the means by which they harmoniously lived with the land. It’s an impressive idea which Pascoe credits to the achievement of what he calls
the great Australian peace. Again, Darwinism applied to these principles make Aboriginal culture more, not less, admirable.
Pascoe’s book is accessible for general readers, but has extensive notes, bibliography and index for those who might wish to make it the basis of research into Aboriginal Culture. At the very least, it is a book Australians should read, but it also has much to say not only about our perceptions of the past, but offers new perspectives on our current world. For that reason, I think it has relevance to anyone open to a new perspective.
Watch Bruce Pascoe talking about the ideas behind his book. The video is only 12 minutes long.
Eddie Mabo's successful challenge in the Australian High Court overturned the basis of English colonisation of Australia, terra nullius which paved the way for further land rights claims based on the conditions set by the ruling.