Books and reading,  History

Book Review: ‘Dark Emu’ by Bruce Pascoe

Published by Magabala Books, 2014

‘Australia rides on the sheep’s back.” So I was taught in primary school social studies classes in 1960’s Australia. Wheat was also at the heart of our national agricultural economy, until a decade or so later when mining took number one place in the commodity pecking order.

Bruce Pascoe’s ‘Dark Emu’ suggests that it is time we dismounted from that metaphorical sheep and stepped aside from the wheatfields, at least in part, and consider transitioning to an agriculture that is more sustainable and in harmony with this continent’s often harsh environment. With crops and livestock that the original occupants and custodians of this land were long familiar with.

I’m a relative latecomer to this book, and I’m aware that since it’s publication there have been some criticisms of the author’s research and arguments. None of those criticisms detract from the overall power of the book’s message, which is that our nation has not had an honest account of our history – both pre and post invasion/colonisation. Not only that, but the history that has been disseminated about Aboriginal people’s lifestyles and cultures has often been inaccurate. Pascoe argues that there is compelling evidence that contrary to the ‘hunter/gatherer/nomad’ stereotype, pre-invasion Aboriginal nations practiced forms of agriculture, aquaculture, harvesting and storage of various grains and seeds, and built dwellings. Not to mention the complex systems of law, justice and spirituality.

While the latter has been recognised to some extent in recent decades, Pascoe argues that Aboriginal people engaged in practices that the European colonisers, settlers and explorers should have recognised, but usually didn’t. Instead, permanent dwelling structures were dismissed as ‘humpies’, careful management and harvesting of resources described as ‘hunter-gathering’ activities. He asserts that:

‘Settlers and explorers were united in their assumption of superiority and entitlement… ‘

and

‘Colonial Australia sought to forget the advanced nature of Aboriginal society and economy, and this amnesia was entrenched when settlers who arrived after the depopulation of whole districts found no structure more substantial than a windbreak, and no population that was not humiliated, debased, and diseased.’

Dark Emu p. 11 & 114

One of the most interesting aspects of this book is that Pascoe draws heavily (some have argued, selectively) from the writings of early European settlers and explorers. Accounts from well known figures such as Sturt, Mitchell, Burke and Wills, describe the lifestyles and practices of indigenous people they encountered in ways that contradict the ‘hunter-gatherer’ images of First Australians.

Something else I enjoyed was his descriptions of the yam daisy, or murnong, (Microseris lanceolata) a staple of the First People’s diet, which grew in abundance along river banks and was carefully managed and harvested for thousands of years, but which quickly became extinct in areas settled by Europeans. I recalled Kate Grenville writing about this plant and its importance to indigenous diets in The Secret River and In Search of the Secret River. Until then, I had no knowledge of this plant, and the important role it played in pre-invasion Australian life. So it was with pleased recognition that I read Pascoe’s account of it in Dark Emu.

For me, the power of this book lies in the argument that our nation must move past the collective amnesia and blindness of the true history of our continent and its inhabitants. As Pascoe concludes:

‘To deny Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander agricultural and spiritual achievement is the single greatest impediment to intercultural understanding and, perhaps, to Australian moral well-being and economic prosperity.’

Dark Emu, p 229

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