Australian Marxist Review

Destroying Dark Emu

Graham Holton

Brisbane branch of the CPA – PhD History (La Trobe University)


Since the publication of Dark Emu in 2014, Bruce Pascoe has faced a barrage of attacks, for claiming that Australia’s Indigenous population was technologically sophisticated and for claiming indigenous heritage. These attacks have mainly been in Dark Emu Exposed and Quadrant Online, Fox and Sky News, Quadrant, The Australian, and in Peter O’Brien’s Bitter Harvest (2019). These attacks focused on Pascoe’s inadequate skills as an historian. He is a novelist. As a comparison, a lack of trained historian skills does not diminish the importance of the Uruguayan novelist Eduardo Galeano, whose Open Veins of Latin America (1971) remains a classic. It is not the facts that are of paramount importance, it is the heart-felt message expressed about his people. While Pascoe does misuse historical documents, it is the sincerity of his message that the reader must focus on. And this has been entirely missed by his ardent detractors.

Dr Michael Davis reviewed Dark Emu in Aboriginal History, finding the book “impressive” in its use of the historical record. The point Pascoe makes is “to evaluate the specific nature of Indigenous economies, and to call for a societal re-evaluation that acknowledges the sophistication, complexity and malleability of these economies.” It was not until the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards’ judges voted Dark Emu as the book of the year in May 2016 that it attracted other awards, and the attention of the conservative Right. Dark Emu was adapted by the Bangarra Dance Theatre in 2018, and made into an ABC documentary by Rachel Perkins’ Blackfella Films in 2020. Dark Emu was the first book chosen to be discussed in the Parliamentary Book Club.

Pascoe does embellish, exaggerate and misquote from his sources. One example often quoted by his critics, is his use of Thomas Mitchell’s Three Expeditions into the Interior of Eastern Australia when he sees chimneyed huts near Mount Arapiles, in Victoria (26 July 1836). Pascoe says Mitchell estimated that the permanent village to have over 1000 inhabitants. What Mitchell actually writes is that he saw a hut which could hold 40 people. The hut was probably built by the runaway convict, William Buckley. His detractors do not mention the examples given by Pascoe of the high degree of technical knowledge the Indigenous people possessed, such as dams, weirs, stone huts, fish traps and wells, all well documented.

Pascoe concludes Dark Emu: “To deny Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander agricultural and spiritual achievement is the single greatest impediment to intercultural understanding and, perhaps, to Australian moral wellbeing and economic prosperity.” Lynne Kelly writes in The Memory Code (2016) that while conducting research for her PhD (La Trobe University) she interviewed Aboriginal Elders, and was astounded that they had memorised “a vast amount of information” on all the animals in the landscape. Oral histories had made this vast knowledge available to their people. It was important knowledge that enabled their tribe to survive thousands of years in a harsh environment. These were not a primitive tribe from the Stone Age, they knew their landscape, which they altered and managed to enhance their food resources.

While Pascoe does have an education degree, he has never claimed to have a history degree, and is labelled a bad historian by the Right. Yet the lack of a history degree has not stopped Alan Jones, Andrew Bolt, Josephine Cashman and Peter O’Brien, who have set up an underground media industry to destroy both Bruce Pascoe and his book Dark Emu. Their vicious comments reveal the lack of comprehension of Indigenous culture and history. They even fail to understand that Rio Tinto’s blowing up caves holding 46,000 years old art works is a far worse cultural vandalism than the Taliban blowing up the 6th century Buddhist statues of Bamiyan in Afghanistan.

QNews gives a history of the accusations laid against Alan Jones since 1990. Jones lost his position at the Sydney Sun-Herald because of plagiarism, which included lifting a section from a well-known novel and putting it forward as fact. In 2000 the ABC’s Media Watch concluded he frequently misused “other people’s intellectual property.” Jones is presently suing SBS for labelling him a paedophile, racist and liar. The paedophilia charge goes back to when he was a teacher at a boy’s boarding school in Toowoomba, according to the Sydney Morning Herald. Jones is also a well-known misogynist, attacking female politicians in this country and others.

Andrew Bolt is a conservative journalist and commentator. He began an Arts Degree at the University of Adelaide, but withdrew. Bolt had numerous clashes with Professor Robert Manne (La Trobe University) over the Stolen Generations. In 2002 magistrate Jelena Popovic was awarded $246,000 in aggravated and punitive damages against Jones and the Herald Sun. In 2019 Bolt defended Cardinal George Pell, when Pell was found guilty of sexual abuse. Bolt is neither an historian nor an authority on Aboriginal history and culture.

Josephine Cashman is an Aboriginal lawyer, an inaugural member of the Prime Minister’s Indigenous Advisory Council in 2013. The Guardian reported that she was sacked from her position after she provided a faked letter from a senior Aboriginal leader in her campaign against Pascoe. The letter stated that Pascoe had no Aboriginal ancestry. The Monthly found that Pascoe’s claims to Yuin heritage have been confirmed by at least four senior members of the Yuin nation.

The blurb to Peter O’Brien’s Bitter Harvest, says it is “a comprehensive appraisal” of Dark Emu, concluding that it is “worthless.” “Even worse, it promotes a divisive, victim-based agenda that pits one Australian against another.” O’Brien has been blocked from Wikipedia for violating its protocols. “You have a serious conflict of interest issue which has not been declared and you should not be editing this article.” O’Brien had altered an article on Dark Emu in Wikipedia without permission. That O’Brien tried to alter an article he did not agree with, says a lot about him and not any control by the Left. O’Brien is a writer not a trained historian.

Why Aboriginal people did not develop agriculture, while their neighbours to the north in PNG did, has been explained by religious and cultural conservatism, the types of plants available, and the Australian environment with its numerous pests. They did practice a form of proto-gardening by using low-intensity fire to encourage useful pants to grow in the regrowth. Areas with wild yams remained unburnt. Whitman argues in Rice 4 that the lack of vocabularies associated with gardening and agriculture among Aboriginal people, is for him the conclusive evidence that Aborigines never had agriculture in prehistory. Seed storage was for short time use, and not for planting the next crop.

The 19th century explorers of Australia described the Indigenous peoples encountered as being very sophisticated culturally, possessing engineering and scientific achievements, such as stone buildings, stone arrangements and astronomy. One example is the stone egg-shaped ring of Wurdi Youang, Victoria, which consists of more than 100 basalt boulders, that were moved and positioned by the Wadda Wurrung people. Waist high boulders at the tip of the egg-shaped structure point to the position on the horizon where the sun sets at the summer and winter solstices, the longest and shortest days of the year. The axis from top to bottom points towards the equinox, when the length of day and night are of equal length. The whole structure must have taken years of careful observations. Astronomers were surprised at the sophistication of the stone arrangement, for it shows a complex understanding of the motions of the Sun and Moon within the Solar System. Other multidisciplinary research in ethnoastronomy showed that the indigenous peoples possessed a far greater understanding of astronomy than previously accredited, with an understanding of the solar and lunar motions, but also the stars. The article in Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage explains that it required a spatial and mathematical understanding of abstract concepts.

While Pascoe has been criticized for the way he used primary documents, he was striving to portray Aboriginal people as far more sophisticated and intelligent than popularly portrayed, especially by the Right in Australia. Aboriginal societies operated within an economic, social, religious and knowledge system that enabled them to survive for over 60,000 years. It is a heritage which Pascoe is proud of, and he wants the non-indigenous population in Australia, the reader, to share in his understanding of his proud people.