‘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… ‘
‘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
This well researched historical fiction for young adults tells the story of Nanberry, a young Cadigal boy who was ‘adopted’ by John White, the Surgeon at the early colony of Sydney. Nanberry’s story is a remarkable one, as so many of the stories to be found in Australia’s history are. Orphaned when his parents and most of his clan died from the smallpox that devastated so much of the First Peoples communities of the Sydney region, Nanberry lived in Surgeon White’s house and learned to speak English, use English clothes and manners, yet maintained strong links with the remaining survivors of the Eora nation. As Jackie French tells it, in adulthood he gravitated between life as a sailor, travelling the seas on board English ships, and returning at times to the Cadigal people.
The novel is told from multiple viewpoints, which I appreciated because it’s an effective way to weave in some of those other stories that we don’t always hear about. The stories of Maria, for example, an ‘ordinary’ convict girl assigned to Surgeon White as servant, and that of Rachel Turner, another convict servant and a real figure from history, who after serving her sentence, became one of the wealthiest and most admired women in the early colony. Rachel’s son by the Surgeon, Andrew, also features—another remarkable life. The ‘white’ brother in the title, Andrew was left as an infant with his mother when White was recalled to England (though White made sure he and Rachel were well provided for.) Andrew later returned to England to attend school and went on to become one of the ‘heroes of Waterloo’, the crucial battle by the English against Napoleon’s army.
We also see the colony, with all it’s vice, filth, disease and despair, through the eyes of the Surgeon whose unenviable job it was to treat injury and illness with few medicines and fewer facilities. I marvel when I read accounts of life in these early days of Sydney. That anyone survived, let alone a settlement that developed into a global city, is something of a miracle.
Of particular note, of course, are the parts told from the viewpoint of Nanberry. Governor Phillip used the boy to interpret for him with Eora people he came across, because of the youngster’s facility with English. Through Nanberry we meet other Eora figures including Coleby, Bennelong and Balloonderry. Writing from an indigenous viewpoint when you are not yourself indigenous is a contested thing nowadays. However, I do think that this book manages to convey multiple viewpoints with skill and sensitivity.
Nanberry: Black Brother White is a terrific way for young people to see Australia’s history through story—the vibrant, tragic, astounding stories that make up the whole of this nation’s history since European colonisation.