Why conservatives want to discredit Bruce Pascoe

22 January 2020
Jeff Sparrow

“We stab out our eyes rather than regard Aboriginal achievement in this country.” Bruce Pascoe’s claim in in a recent Meanjin essay has, ironically, been confirmed by the agitation against his own work, the subject of a prolonged conservative smear campaign culminating in his referral to the Australian Federal Police.

In 2014, Pascoe published a book originally titled Dark Emu: Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident with the small Indigenous press Magabala Books. In it, he re-examined letters and journal entries from colonists to present a different account of Indigenous society, focussing on evidence of sophisticated pre-settlement agricultural systems. He showed that the attainments of Indigenous people were ignored in the early years of colonisation and have been derided and downplayed ever since.

In a typical passage, he quoted James Kirby, one of the first Europeans to visit the Murray region. Kirby observed an Indigenous man catching fish using a complicated mechanism built into a weir. After describing the ease of the operation, he commented: “I have often heard of the indolence of the blacks and soon came to the conclusion after watching a blackfellow catch fish in such a lazy way that what I had heard was perfectly true”. As Pascoe noted, Kirby’s racism turned even the most obvious Indigenous achievement into further proof of Indigenous inferiority.

Dark Emu became a sleeper hit, its influence growing year by year. The most recent figures show it selling some 100,000 copies, an astonishing quantity for a book of history. A new edition, with the more assertive subtitle Aboriginal Australia and the birth of agriculture, appeared in 2018, followed by Young Dark Emu last year. But the announcement of an ABC documentary based on the book really kicked an anti-Pascoe campaign into gear.

The attacks on Dark Emu come from the usual suspects: Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt in particular, but also the Australian and the reactionary literary journal Quadrant. They drew much of their material from an anonymous blog, Dark Emu Exposed, which describes itself as “compiled by a collective of Quiet Australians from many walks of life who question, and want to hold to account, authors who appear to be rewriting our Australian history to progress their own particular, political narrative”.

That description gives the game away at once.

For, naturally, none of these masked truth seekers (“most of our researchers need to operate under pseudonyms to protect their careers”) show the slightest interest in, say, the century-long campaign to update the Anzac myth in the service of Australian nationalism. Nor, in their obsessive pursuit of Pascoe, do they address the many other historians whose work draws similar conclusions to his. Dark Emu Exposed could, for instance, equally have been called Biggest Estate on Earth Exposed, since Bill Gammage, the author of that (also acclaimed) title, makes arguments about Indigenous agriculture very similar (if not, indeed, more provocative) to those articulated by Pascoe.

Why, then, aren’t our bold researchers quibbling at Gammage’s references, speculating about his earnings, rummaging through his family tree and subjecting him to all the treatment they’re directing at Pascoe? The answer, fairly obviously, comes back to race. Pascoe identifies as Indigenous – and Gammage does not.

It would be wrong to say that the people running the anti-Pascoe campaign don’t care about his arguments. They do. The invasion of Australia remains an ideological weak point for the right in this country. Dispossession of Indigenous people was a precondition of white settlement and thus Australian capitalism, something with which nationalists of all stripes must continually grapple.

Capital, wrote Karl Marx, comes into the world “dripping from head to toe, from every pore, with blood and dirt”. Nowhere was that truer than in Australia, as a map of Indigenous massacres illustrates. The British justified their occupation using the principle of terra nullius, a Latin term meaning “empty land”. They of course knew about the Indigenous inhabitants but, drawing on the philosopher John Locke, argued that a people who didn’t “improve” the land (i.e. farm it for commercial gain) couldn’t “own” a country.

The evidence adduced by Pascoe about Indigenous agriculture, architecture and land management thus discredits the supposed legality of settlement. But that’s only part of the story. The cranks at Quadrant might want to revive terra nullius – they’d revive the divine right of kings, if they could – but normal people know that’s not going to happen. What matters more is the interest Dark Emu has generated among many white Australians about a narrative of which they’d previously known nothing. “Many readers speak of it”, says the historian Tom Griffiths, “with a sense of astonishment and revelation; they often tell me that Pascoe’s book completely changed their understanding of Australian history”.

Reactionaries want to smother that excitement. The people attacking Pascoe have what the police call “form”, having intervened to quell earlier manifestations of white support for, or interest in, Indigenous affairs. Andrew Bolt, for instance, crusaded relentlessly against an apology to the Stolen Generations. Keith Windschuttle – a former student radical who once enthused about LSD but now writes hallucinatory screeds for the far right – penned a preposterous book, The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, downplaying or flatly denying the existence of frontier massacres. Under Windschuttle’s editorship, Quadrant obsessively belittles Indigenous activism and causes: its new book on Bruce Pascoe follows its incessant promotion of an earlier title urging people to climb Uluru.

As a work by an Indigenous author, Dark Emu, with its remarkable success, itself exemplifies the kind of Indigenous accomplishment it encourages readers to celebrate. That alone makes the grubby efforts to disprove Pascoe’s ancestry so important to a certain sort of culture warrior. Yet, even by such standards, the referral of Pascoe to the Australian Federal Police constitutes a particularly vicious political stunt.

As Nat Cromb explains at Indigenous X, there’s almost certainly no legal basis for a police investigation. The AFP probably isn’t investigating and never was: despite the press headlines, all that seems to have happened is that federal police received a complaint. That complaint came from Josephine Cashman, an Indigenous entrepreneur and conservative activist. She’s been backed by Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, a Warlpiri/Celtic woman who previously appeared in Mark Latham’s unhinged “Save Australia Day” commercial.

The mobilisation of Indigenous conservatives for an attack on an Indigenous progressive illustrates the need for the left to emphasise politics over identity. Cashman and Price might be Indigenous, but they’re prepared to work with people like Bolt, a man who tabulates the percentage of Jews in Caulfield and boasts about his signed copy of Jean Raspail’s Camp of the Saints, a novel the New York Times calls “a must-read within white supremacist circles”.

Equally, Dark Emu remains a fascinating and useful text, regardless of Pascoe’s heritage. “Bruce Pascoe is undeniably Aboriginal”, says Jack Latimore, “he identifies that he has in his possession documents that confirm he is of Aboriginal descent; and he is acknowledged and vouched for by senior Yuin lore men. By that measure, Bruce Pascoe satisfies the criteria of the official three-part definition of Aboriginality”. That’s quite true – but it’s still shameful that he’s being asked to prove it.

As for the substance of the right wing attacks on Dark Emu, they replicate, for the most part, the pettifogging footnote crawling that Windschuttle relied upon in his attempt to show that the colonisation of Tasmania had been a tremendously peaceful affair. Tom Griffiths, who actually knows something about history and isn’t too scared to put his name to his opinions, provides a much more interesting assessment. He suggests, for instance, that Pascoe might have engaged with modern academic writing, a body of work that, he says, has collectively overturned older scholarly blindnesses.

More importantly, he queries Pascoe’s presentation of Indigenous people as “farmers”, a treatment that risks, as Pascoe himself acknowledges, importing old evolutionary hierarchies. We don’t need to compare Indigenous crops to Western agriculture to value methods by which people sustained a culture and civilisation over tens of thousands of years. Yet, whatever his reservations, Griffiths describes Dark Emu as “vital” and “marvellous”, and praises its author as “a gifted Australian whose work has struck a chord with the public and whose words – written and spoken – are inspiring and empowering Australians, black and white”. That’s because Griffiths approaches the book in good faith, a method unknown to Pascoe’s conservative critics.

The denunciation of Dark Emu rose to a crescendo in the last few weeks, just as Australians struggled to respond to the most horrific bushfires the country’s ever seen. After a year of record temperatures, the government and its allies grappled for ways to derail discussions of climate change. Most chose to blame environmentalists, insisting, without any evidence, that so-called green tape had prevented necessary back-burning and thus increased fuel loads.

To buttress this dubious theory, they invoked Indigenous history. In the Spectator, for instance, Tim Blair explained that “the pre-settlement indigenous population had long conducted controlled burns of overgrown flora” because “they knew an absence of controlled burns would invite uncontrolled burns – such as the gigantic wildfires that have ravaged much of this drought-hit nation since September”. The argument comes directly from Pascoe and Gammage, both of whom write about the use of fire to change the landscape and encourage certain animals and plants. Of course, traditional Indigenous fire management depended on a social structure largely destroyed by dispossession. It can’t be equated with the practices Blair describes – or, at least, not in any simple way.

But that doesn’t matter when the aim is simply to bash greenies and provide a justification for climate inaction. As a result, many of the same publications monstering Pascoe are, in different pages, appropriating his theories without any cognitive dissonance at all. Conservatives would rather stab out their eyes than acknowledge Aboriginal achievement – but they’re quite prepared to use Aboriginal history when it’s time to stab somebody else.

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