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Bruce Pascoe, Dark emu, black seeds: Agriculture or accident? (Review)

October 28, 2016

Bruce Pasco, Dark emuIndigenous author Bruce Pascoe’s Dark emu, black seeds: Agriculture or accident? was my reading group’s October book, and a very interesting read and discussion it turned out to be. It’s not a simple book to discuss and really got us thinking, eliciting a variety of responses, though we all agreed with Pascoe’s basic premise that we Australians need to revise our understanding of, and beliefs about, Australia’s history. How could we not?

Publisher Magabala’s website says Dark emu

argues for a reconsideration of the ‘hunter-gatherer’ tag for pre-colonial Aboriginal Australians and attempts to rebut the colonial myths that have worked to justify dispossession.

Pascoe, they continue, contends that indigenous “systems of food production and land management have been blatantly understated in modern retellings of early Aboriginal history”.

A case to be argued

Dark emu is, then, a book that is determined to argue a case – and herein lies its challenge. In his Introduction, Pascoe sets out his main thesis which is that Aboriginal economy was “much more complicated … than the primitive hunter-gatherer lifestyle we had been told was the simple lot of Australia’s First People”. He asks:

Could it be that the accepted view of Indigenous Australians simply wandering from plant to plant, kangaroo to kangaroo in hapless opportunism was incorrect? (p.12)

Now, there are a couple of things here that disconcerted me. Firstly, emotive language like “hapless” doesn’t help when you want to present a logically argued case. And, anyhow, “hapless” is not a word I would ever apply to hunter-gatherer societies. Being hunter-gatherers doesn’t, to my mind, mean they don’t know their environment and don’t use this sense and knowledge in their hunting and gathering. But secondly, I didn’t comprehend his argument that the early settlers had no legitimate right to seize the land because Aboriginal Australians were practising agriculture:

In denying the existence of the economy they were denying the right of the people their land and fabricating the excuse that is at the heart of Australia’s claim to legitimacy today. (p.17)

Arguing this seemed to me to imply the corollary that if indigenous Australians did not have this economy, if they were indeed simply hunter-gatherers, then taking the land would be legitimate? But surely the fundamental truth is that, regardless of how indigenous people were living and using the land, it was their home and they had a right to be treated as the owners? Being on the path to sedentism, practising agriculture and aquaculture, didn’t, in my mind, make their ownership of the land more legitimate. Did it? I needed to understand this a bit more so, unusually for me, I set off looking for discussions of the book before completing my review, and I found the answer.

It was in a discussion of the book by Amy McQuire at McQuire wanted to know why Australia had “so readily embraced” Dark emu, and whether it meant Australians must now “embrace the issue of sovereignty and treaty”. She quotes Professor of Law Megan Davis (from It’s our country: Indigenous arguments for meaningful constitutional recognition and reform):

“It mattered whether claiming a territory was done by settlement or whether by conquest and cession, because each had differing implications for the reception or not of British law.

“Settlement occurs when the land is desert and uncultivated and it is inhabited by backward people.

“Conquest means that it is a forcible invasion of occupied land and cession means that there is a treaty over occupied land. In the case of conquest, the laws of people conquered apply until the Crown or other foreign power laws apply, and in regard to cession, a treaty is entered into but the Crown or foreign power abrogates it.”

She writes “When lands are cultivated, then they are gained through conquest or they are ceded by a treaty”. And when lands are conquered or ceded, it still has laws of its own.

“Until the Crown asserts sovereignty and actually changes them ‘the ancient laws of the country remain’.”

Ah, so now the penny dropped. It’s all about the “law” (European law, that is), not about “reason” or “logic”. Pascoe makes reference to “Australia’s claim to legitimacy”. He discusses the way colonisers can fabricate history and be reluctant to credit colonised peoples (e.g.. p.61) for their achievements, and in so doing underrate sovereignty. But it didn’t properly click with me. I consequently didn’t see why he was arguing so forcefully for this “new” vision of pre-colonial Aboriginal Australian life. I was reading it more as an interesting, and yes very important, contribution to our understanding of Australian history, and I was seeing it as a way of correcting the historical record, and therefore of restoring the “truth” and, critically, “Aboriginal pride in the past”. But I didn’t fully grasp the import of the distinction he was making (and why, accordingly, the odd emotive word or long bow crept in.)

Convincing the doubters

However, this little niggle didn’t stop my being thoroughly engaged by the book. I loved the way Pascoe interrogates records from the past, particularly the journals of explorers such as Charles Sturt and Thomas Mitchell, to prove that Aboriginal Australians* were developing a sedentary culture based on intensification of agriculture and aquaculture. They managed the land, “manipulating the landscape” to produce crops for harvesting, corral animals for hunting, and trap fish for capturing and spearing. They irrigated, they built wells and dams, they stored food for future use. They built dwellings and lived in village groups. And they had been doing so for thousands, if not tens of thousands, of years making them among the world’s earliest, if not the first, agriculturalists (depending on whose “dating” you believe).

Pascoe, however, doesn’t stop at his argument that they practised agriculture. He also contends that they practised it sustainably, using a variety of techniques, including what archaeologist Rhys Jones called “firestick farming”. He argues that there’s much about Aboriginal practices that we could learn and use today, and that modern Australian agriculture could be more sustainable, particularly in our environmentally-uncertain-climate-changing world, if we focused our efforts on Australian plants and animals.

The depth of Pascoe’s research is mind-boggling, and is perhaps partly explained by his comment in that article that academics had criticised his previous writing, which apparently used his own words. He decided “to use an authority that they respected … the explorers and the settlers… you know the ‘heroic’ first settlers.” (Oh dear!) But he also draws on a wealth of other research from anthropologists (like WEH Stanner), archaeologists (like Rhys Jones), historians (like Gill Gammage and Rupert Gerritsen), and others. The book is heavily but not intrusively footnoted (I do like a footnote!), and contains an extensive bibliography.

While I would never have called myself a doubter needing to be convinced, it is true that, for all my interest in the subject, my knowledge of indigenous history and culture was rather out of date. Dark emu should, really, be read by all Australians, and at 156 pages of text, it is not a big ask.

Several of my blogger friends have reviewed this book, including historians Janine (Resident Judge of Port Phillip) and Yvonne (Stumbling Through the Past), as well as teacher-librarian Lisa (ANZLitLovers) and biographer Michelle (Adventures in Biography).

* Terminology, terminology! I note that Pascoe mostly uses the term Aboriginals.

Bruce Pascoe
Dark emu, black seeds: Agriculture or accident?
Broome: Magabala Books, 2014
ISBN: 9781922142436

32 Comments leave one →
  1. October 28, 2016 12:13 pm

    Magabala are producing some wonderful books.
    I understand the difficulty of writing coherently when you’re angry!
    John Howard in particular passed laws ostensibly to put Marbo into effect but actually to limit it. I think indigenous law applies unconditionally to unsettled land and that that will eventually make its way through the High Court.

    • October 28, 2016 1:49 pm

      Thanks Bill, and yes they are. I didn’t want to muddy my post with other commentary but the design go the book, the text and font etc, is really very nice.

  2. October 28, 2016 12:26 pm

    Your review demonstrates why we need to have a number of people reviewing books, and preferably from diverse backgrounds. I had not picked up on the fact that Bruce Pascoe failed to explain the political importance for the early British settlers of positioning Australian Aboriginal peoples as farmer-gatherers who did not cultivate their land. You have raised an important point as there would be many other readers like you, who are not aware of this being an important argument that the British used to uniltaterally appropriate Aboriginal lands. While this is well-known among historians, this understanding has clearly not percolated through to a wider audience. This book would have been an ideal chance to do that.

    Using the evidence relied on by people who present an opposing point of view is always a powerful approach for those who want to counter their argument. Debates about history in Australia are always done in the historical framework constructed by Europeans. But there are many snippets in the historical documents written by the British settlers which when stitched together provide powerful evidence of those acts that the settlers would have preferred to be forgotten. We need to gain greater understanding with Aboriginal historical frameworks, but in the meantime there is still Aboriginal history that we are not aware of in historical words on paper.

    Thank you for this review.

    • October 28, 2016 1:53 pm

      Thanks Yvonne. Looking back at the book after reading NewMatilda, I could see the argument, but reading it I only saw the fact that history has been done “in the historical framework constructed by Europeans” but I hadn’t seen the wider implications of that. Maybe other non-historians did though I don’t think my reading group did.

      • October 28, 2016 2:08 pm

        I would think non-historians would most likely have read it as you did. I don’t think school history would have covered that nuance, and you are well read so it is clearly not widely talked about outside Australian history circles.

        • October 28, 2016 4:39 pm

          Thanks Yvonne … some perhaps, some not! But certainly I don’t get caught up in the history theories at all really.

    • October 28, 2016 2:11 pm

      Well said, Yvonne, your point about multiple reviews is well taken. We are all at different places on a journey of learning about this and other aspects of Australia’s Black History and each of us contributes to helping others when we write our reviews whether we are beginners or somewhere along the way.
      I think that Pascoe using the settler sources to prove that the land was farmed, is a careful irony. The very people who as a group were denying Aboriginal sovereignty under their own laws (international law at that time, I think) were being contradicted by the same people as individuals, publicly and privately and whether they meant to or not. They are all the more damning for that very reason.
      PS Thanks for the link, Sue:)

      • October 28, 2016 4:41 pm

        Yes, Lisa, I must say I sensed that irony too … I also felt he slipped in and out of a couple of personas through the book because he can’t help himself.

  3. October 28, 2016 12:30 pm

    WG – I’ve bought this book to give to my granddaughter, whose 21st birthday is on Sunday, and of course had a squizz myself. Pascoe gives credit to Bill Gammage, whose earlier book, The Biggest Estate, was the groundbreaker in the radical revision of Australian history, but it would be a mistake to read Pascoe as if he is arguing this version alone or even is the first to draw on the sources. Gammage has it all, but because he was the one making the case, it’s a much larger, more detailed book than Pascoe’s.

    What Pascoe does do, as you have picked up, is place this development in a political context, i.e. that it was the notion that the Aboriginal Australians were ‘savages’ that ‘allowed’ the white settlement to proceed, and discounts their resistance and thus the need for a treaty today.

    We are in the midst of a very exciting development in our nation’s history.

    • October 28, 2016 1:55 pm

      Thanks Sara. Yes, you’re right. I have Gammage’s book, and have heard him speak to it, but I read his as more documenting his understanding of Aboriginal agriculture. As you say Pascoe adds the political context, some of which I got but not all of it, at least not without further research.

  4. October 28, 2016 1:16 pm

    Great review – you’ve raised some extraordinarily important points. And thanks for the link. I’ll be meeting Bruce Pascoe in a month or so, when he leads a course I’m taking called ‘Indigenous Language Intensive’, run by the Writers Victoria. The course is aimed at those writing about Aboriginal people (not writing in an Aboriginal language). I’m really looking forward to it.

    • October 28, 2016 1:56 pm

      Oh Michelle, I do hope you write that course up. As you know, it’s an issue I’m really interested in. Thanks for your comment.

      • October 28, 2016 2:19 pm

        Yes, me too, I just tried to register but it’s fully booked. Please do one of your wonderful write-ups, I think it’s really important for reviewers like Sue and me to know as much as possible about this issue.

  5. Jim KABLE permalink
    October 28, 2016 3:27 pm

    In San Francisco last year my wife and I had lunch with Roxanne DUNBAR-ORTIZ – historian and memoirist – author of various works – the most recent of which at that time was An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States – in which she discusses in detail matters which were written about as a kind of introduction in her mentor (?) Prof. Howard ZINN’s A People’s History of the United States – and refers to the “terra nullius” principle which underlay much of the British colonial era taking of the land. Aha! Light bulb moment for me – not just here in Australia – that “legal” sleight-of-hand. I also remember Bruce Pascoe for his strong editorship and publication of Australian Short Stories – 1970s! Before he was fully aware of his own Indigenous ancestry – so far as I understand. I read Gammage’s book – revelatory – and then Dark Emu when it was published. Like you and some others of your regular contributor-respondents – I recall text-books at school which scarcely mentioned Indigenous Australians – who were referred to “aborigines” – though sometimes there might be a photograph – maybe a Western Desert man shown standing one-legged with a spear gazing off into the distance – silhouetted against the sun. It was only a couple of weeks ago that I heard someone referring to the “walkabout” stereotype of old – as though it were indeed as “hapless” as Bruce Pascoe refers to. And not the seasonal, ritualistic “walking of country” that it truly was. Last year while on an extended stay (house-sitting) in Tamworth – which town I had left just on 50 years earlier – I was privileged to join a tour of Gomeroi (Kamilaroi/Gamilroi) rock art and other sites in the district. Gomeroi Elder – “Uncle” Len WATERS (whose namesake uncle was a noted WWII fighter pilot – stamps celebrated his achievements) took us – and pointing to the peaks on the edges of the Liverpool Plains to our west explained how for certain periodic ritual ceremonies folk travelled down from as far north – following the stars and the various mounts and peaks southwards – from what we now know as Mt Isa. Kate Grenville in her book Searching for the Secret River details her research into what drove the conflict between the “settlers who took up land ” along the Hawkesbury or maybe, better termed “invaders” (those who “took” the land – as Melissa LUCASHENKO pointed out to Kate – took as in stole – without permission) – it was the destruction of the yam fields along the river – then replanted with northern hemisphere crops – leaving none of the traditional crops for the Darug people whose fields they had been for thousands of years.

    Gammage – and Pascoe – and others who have detailed the dispossession – Henry REYNOLDS especially – on other levels – the frontier wars – are VIPs in our national coming-to-terms with the reality of what our presence in this land means – towards a proper and just reconciliation.

    WG: You always find the books and write about them – either to confirm the significance of what I have been reading or else to lead me to those “waters” to drink further beyond the streams already tasted! Thank-you!

    • October 28, 2016 4:49 pm

      Thanks Jim for yet another thoughtful response to one of my reviews. You know I have that history by Zinn, but I’m not sure I ever finished reading it. I suppose I’m not surprised about the “legal sleight of hand” being more widespread. I “love” the term “took up” the land because it can sound benign but we know it wasn’t at all. That scene in The secret river when Thornhill saw the local people with their yam plants was a really meaningful one. It’s one that I specifically member from the book.

  6. October 28, 2016 4:01 pm

    I haven’t read Bruce Pascoe’s book, but I can imagine why you would have stumbled over his argument that the early settlers had no legitimate right to seize the land because Aboriginal Australians were practising agriculture, if it was indeed unexplained as to the various theories of international law of how colonies can (supposedly) be acquired. Gammage (and Melissa Lucashenko) were guests of the Bellingen Readers and Writers Festival one year and Gammage was clearly one of the most popular authors we had that year, with ML an enthusiastic questioner in the audience). What I mainly wanted to comment about is Pascoe’s use of the word ‘Aboriginals’ rather than ‘indigenous people’: Anita Heiss – I think in Am I Black Enough for You? – commented to the effect that she used the term Aboriginal when Aborigines on the main continent were being talked about; indigenous included Torres Strait Islander people who were quite different – made sense to me.

    • October 28, 2016 4:58 pm

      The thing is the argument is there, when you know it, but it is scattered through the book. The Introduction, for example, focuses on proving the existence of the complex civilisation, than on why he wanted to proved it. I think somewhere, too, we need a recognition that we should also NOT be buying into this legal world view for justifying why “taking up” the land was wrong. Perhaps Pascoe himself feels the truth of that?

      • ian darling permalink
        October 28, 2016 8:06 pm

        It sounds like a fascinating book. I think that the European settlers were so convinced of their superiority that their understanding of the indigenous was almost non existent and this seems to have been what happened everywhere in the period of European colonial conquest. I don’t know nearly enough Australian history to judge very well but this sort of book seems very necessary.

        • October 28, 2016 9:11 pm

          Yes, I think you’re right Ian about its happening everywhere, and Pascoe does make allusions to that. And yes, I think this is a necessary book that makes an important contribution to the conversation.

    • October 29, 2016 5:57 pm

      I’ve come across the opinion too that Aboriginal Australian and Aborigine are preferred to Indigenous by the First Australians – a term I’ve been told they also dislike. I forget the justification for this. Can someone help out here?

      • October 29, 2016 10:26 pm

        Nomenclature is so tricky isn’t it Sara? And what do we call ourselves too?

        • November 3, 2016 11:29 am

          Many universities have helpful information to guide us in the correct use of words when referring to indigenous Australians, eg Flinders University (pdf).

        • November 3, 2016 11:40 am

          Thanks Yvonne … the main trouble I find is that nomenclature changes rather rapidly. It does in the US too I’ve discovered over the years I’ve lived there. But I’ll check this out …

        • November 3, 2016 11:58 am

          I would expect the universities would keep these documents up to date as it is of critical importance to them that their researchers follow correct protocols. I agree that it can be difficult to keep up with changes, especially as each one of our Aboriginal peoples has a different culture which changes over time (as it does for all of us). The best we can do is to show we are making the effort.

        • November 3, 2016 1:36 pm

          That’s it in the end, I think, Yvonne – showing we are respectful and that we are trying to do what is right and appropriate. As you say, there are different groups and they often have different views, too.

        • November 3, 2016 12:04 pm

          I downloaded and read the .pdf. It’s mostly common sense about being respectful, but still helpful. Thanks (I think I always write ‘White Settlement’ and not just ‘Settlement’. I hope so!)

        • November 3, 2016 1:37 pm

          Thanks Bill. I’m not sure I always say “white settlement” but I do try to be sensitive so hopefully that comes across.

  7. October 29, 2016 3:09 am

    Sounds like an interesting and important book. Do you think it will help shift perceptions and affect the law?

    • October 29, 2016 9:28 am

      Hard question Stefanie, but I think it’s all part of the slow drip-drip that often does eventually bring about change. Always too slow of course, though in terms of its ensuring slow change is probably best.

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