Bruce Pascoe, Dark emu, black seeds: Agriculture or accident? (Review)
Indigenous 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 NewMatilda.com. 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 NewMatilda.com 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.
Dark emu, black seeds: Agriculture or accident?
Broome: Magabala Books, 2014