Flat White

Dark Emu: the turkeys fight back

18 June 2021

4:00 AM

18 June 2021

4:00 AM

Well, Peter Sutton and Keryn Walshe certainly threw the Tasmanian devil among the scrub turkeys supporting Bruce Pascoe, with the pending release of their book Hunter-Gatherers? – The Dark Emu Debate, which exposes Pascoe as, at least, an academic delinquent.  But the turkeys are fighting a good rear-guard action and may well pull off a miracle, unless the voices of reason – represented by Andrew Bolt, myself, the folks at the Dark Emu Exposed website and, latterly, Sutton and Walshe – are reinforced by realists at the ABC (if such exist) and the various state ministers of education. 

Following the devastating article by Stuart Rintoul, in Saturday’s Age and Sydney Morning Herald, Sunday’s Age editorial, titled “Dark Emu debate should bring truth closer, not be used in culture wars”, had this to say: 

Then, in 2014, Bruce Pascoe published Dark Emu. While it initially attracted little publicity, he gained widespread attention when the book won some of the nation’s richest and most prestigious literary awards. In it, Professor Pascoe put the case for reassessing pre-colonial Indigenous life, arguing that these societies employed sophisticated agriculture and enjoyed a pastoral, village life.

The book managed to antagonise the right, which questioned his claims. Some in the academic world queried his use of sources, accusing him of exaggerating and embellishing his work.

These questions about a lack of intellectual rigour have now been given prominence in a new book, Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers? The Dark Emu Debate, in which respected anthropologist Peter Sutton and archaeologist Keryn Walshe claim Professor Pascoe’s work is “littered with unsourced material”, uses selective quotations and exaggerates “weak evidence”. They argue that this is not a critique from the right of politics – one of the problems they have with Professor Pascoe’s work is his apparent dismissal of hunter-gatherers, as opposed to those practising agriculture, because it downplays the true richness and sophistication of pre-colonial Indigenous life.

Professor Pascoe responded to their criticisms by putting them down to “differences of opinion” about the facts: “That’s not a bad thing. I think Aboriginal people have been wanting to have this discussion for 250 years, so I think it can only be positive.”

He is right. The discussion about the history and future of Indigenous Australians is essential to this nation’s ability to finally reconcile its past and forge a new path that offers Australia’s First Nations people their rightful place. But there must be benchmarks of intellectual rigour in that process, and it does appear that Professor Pascoe has, at times, fallen short. 

“Professor Pascoe has, at times, fallen short”? Seriously?  Let’s recap what Sutton and Walshe had to say, as reported in the Saturday article: 

In page after page, Sutton and Walshe accuse Pascoe of a “lack of true scholarship”, ignoring Aboriginal voices, dragging respect for traditional Aboriginal culture back into the Eurocentric world of the colonial era, and “trimming” colonial observations to fit his argument. They write that while Dark Emu “purports to be factual” it is “littered with unsourced material, is poorly researched, distorts and exaggerates many points, selectively emphasises evidence to suit those opinions, and ignores large bodies of information that do not support the author’s opinions”.

“It is actually not, properly considered, a work of scholarship,” they write. “Its success as a narrative has been achieved in spite of its failure as an account of fact.”

Rather more than ‘at times, fallen short’, I would have thought.  And did you notice that Drs Sutton and Walshe are not accorded the courtesy of titles, whereas Pascoe is repeatedly referred to as ‘Professor’? This is a shoddy device to try to tilt the playing field back in Pascoe’s favour. Sutton and Walshe have spent their lives in academic institutions.  On the other hand, Pascoe was recently appointed, by Melbourne University, Enterprise Professor of Indigenous Agriculture, because he’s a hobby farmer trying to develop a cottage grain industry on his small acreage in Mallacoota. His ‘professorship’ such as it is, has nothing to do with his claimed expertise as historian or anthropologist. 

The comments section under the Rintoul article, overwhelmingly, echoes the sentiment in the Age editorial above. 

They will not abandon their hero easily.  And why not?  The reason is contained in the title of the editorial.  Dark Emu is not an objective or even questionable work of scholarship about which a reasoned debate can be had.  It is about nothing but the culture wars – in particular, the war around the preposterous suggestion that Australia is essentially a racist country, founded in racism and murder and perpetuating that paradigm even up to today’s Australians.   Pascoe gives that to his devotees in spades and they lap it up, wallowing in a delicious sense of guilt and national self-hatred that allows them to signal their virtue across the Twittersphere. 

As much of Dark Emu is devoted to demonizing white Australia as it is to extolling the non-existent sophisticated sedentary agricultural and engineering society. 

Let me give you a few examples. 

Pascoe also claims that explorer Ernest Giles, and others, often survived difficult stretches by ‘plundering the reserves’ of native tribes.  I have read Giles’s journal Australia Twice Traversed, which comprises five volumes. In all his expeditions, water was a major issue for Giles. His writings are peppered, almost daily, with his concern as to where he would find his next water. But he was always well stocked with provisions and he frequently supplemented his diet with quandongs, native figs, lowans’ eggs, pigeons, duck etc.

On only one occasion, in all five expeditions, did he have a problem with food. In late February 1874, towards the end of his second expedition, he noted that rations were dwindling and by early March they were reduced to killing and eating some of their horses, which on at least one occasion they shared with natives. 

Here’s one from a later period.  On page 50 of Dark Emu, we read of an incident whereby the rights of Indigenous people were trampled by the white man’s court: 

People near Elsey Station in the Northern Territory created dams to maintain fish ponds. This brought them into conflict with the owner of the station, who wanted the water for the exclusive use of his cattle. The police and courts backed the owner, Holt, and the people were punished. But their greatest punishment, of course, was the loss of their resources and livelihood.

What a shameful episode in our past: Aboriginal people punished simply for sticking up for their rights. Or maybe they were punished for violence they might have employed in the course of the dispute, property damage perhaps? I wonder what form that punishment took – other than, as noted by Pascoe, loss of their resources and livelihood? Perhaps they were fined or even incarcerated.  

Highly unlikely as it turns out, because this was not a police matter, it was a civil case. It occurred in 1946. The dispute was actually between Thomas Holt, the owner of Roper Valley Station, and Harold Thonemann and Harold Giles, owner and manager respectively of Elsey Station. 

Holt objected to Elsey damming the Roper River, upstream, in a standard pastoralists’ water dispute. It had been going on for years. The Elsey defence was that they had obtained legal permits to construct the weirs and that, in any case, the weirs were ancient customary traditions of the local Aborigines to trap fish, as noted by Pascoe. However, coincidentally, they also had a pastoral use to divert water from a boggy area where, otherwise, cattle routinely got trapped and had to be rescued. So, Elsey also used Aboriginal tradition (immemorial custom, as they termed it) as part of their defence.  

The rights and wrongs of this case are complex. As Pascoe says, Holt won. But this was not a dispute between a white settler and an Aboriginal group. It was between two pastoralists and could have gone either way. And yes, the Aborigines ended up on the losing side (no doubt Pascoe would say ‘inevitably’) – at least those on Elsey did.

We don’t know how the Aborigines on Roper Valley Station felt – they may have benefited. But the important point is that this was not the rough frontier justice Pascoe would have you believe. No Aborigines were ‘punished’. That is a fabrication, a classic case of Pascoe distorting the truth in order to cast colonialists in the worst possible light. 

And here’s a beauty from the present day, which involves our hero directly.  

In 2009, he bought his wife a holiday so she could fulfil two lifelong ambitions: to see North Queensland Aboriginal art, and turtles coming ashore to lay their eggs. The package deal came from what he calls ‘an Australian organisation that produces a very valuable quarterly magazine showcasing the country’s geography’. But he was soon disappointed: 

We were promised experts in the fields of art, science and natural history. On the first evening, I was listening to one of the experts retell his adventures on a 4WD trek through the Kimberley. I let the fascination with 4WD bravado go through to the keeper.

As the recollections rolled on, I was stunned into silence. The guru of Aboriginal art proceeded to boast of how he had duped the local Land Council and gained access to restricted parts of their land.

Having been denied access to an initiation site by an Aboriginal elder, it seems the art experts enlisted the aid of the local police: 

The police were galvanised into action, relishing the opportunity to thwart the authority of uppity blacks. If we perceive a crime has been committed, they told our adventurers, we can go where we like. We perceive a crime, they chortled. 

So the police escorted the group to the initiation site, where they threw beer cans into the water, and took it in turns to shoot at the cans with what Pascoe calls ‘police-issue Glock pistols’. He says that when the next batch of young Aboriginal men were taken to this site, they would have found it full of bullet-riddled beer cans. He tells us that ‘the “explorer” gloated over his win against the Land Council, which for many Australians may seem mere cheekiness’. He continues: 

The most disturbing thing about the event was it undermined the authority of the Elders. They were trying to impress on their young men the importance of maintaining culture and a responsible alcohol-free way of life. The young men would have seen immediately that Australia had no regard for the authority of the Elders.  

But that wasn’t the end of the insensitivity of these tour guides. Two nights later, as the tourist group sat around the communal fire, the guide to Aboriginal art derided Kimberley art and culture, claiming that the ‘Bradshaw’ rock paintings were first recorded by the pastoralist Joseph Bradshaw in 1891. The ‘guru’ stated that they were the work of Asian people because they were far too beautiful to have been painted by Aboriginal people. Pascoe could hardly contain himself: 

I tried to point out to the 4WD cowboys that the University of Western Australia and their own magazine had dismissed such nonsense. But the ‘experts’ were not to be denied, and shouted us down. We left and toured on our own.

We did see the turtles hatching, and we did spend two wonderful days touring the Laura art sites. We also spent time with family at Lockhart River, but the experience with the white experts burnt. Humiliation always does. 

Well, this is a shocking story, but I have to take issue with Bruce on three things. The first thing is that Bruce has no cause to feel humiliated, none what-soever – he did nothing wrong. Secondly, ‘uppity blacks’. Uppity blacks? Did this incident take place in Western Australia – or Alabama? And, finally, I’m afraid I cannot accept that ‘many’ Australians would regard the actions of these renegade police as ‘mere cheekiness’. 

The vast majority of Australians would be appalled, as no doubt was the tour company itself when apprised by Bruce of this incident, by means of his post-tour feedback. They would have been pleased to dispense with the services of employees stupid enough to put their business at risk by being so monumentally indiscreet as to denigrate Aboriginal culture to customers who had paid a lot of money to study that very culture. However, I suppose it’s too much to hope that the ‘chortling’ police could have been called to account. 

I have done a fair bit of travel in northern Australia, and have visited Aboriginal sites and communities in the Kimberley, Central Australia, the Flinders Ranges, Kakadu, Arnhem Land (including the townships of Maningrida and Elcho Island), Thursday Island and Bathurst Island. I have never come across a guide who was anything other than almost reverential about Aboriginal culture. What an extraordinary twist of fate that should deliver these 4WD morons into the hands of the one person with the knowledge and passion to expose them. Incidentally, I admire Pascoe’s ability to commune, from Cape York Peninsula, with an elder on the other side of the continent.  

I must admit to being a tad doubtful about this story initially.  the verisimilitude provided by the ‘police-issue Glock pistols’ should have put the matter beyond doubt for me.  But I still can’t help wondering why no one has been named and shamed about this.  It’s rather like all those historians and anthropologists sending Pascoe a wealth of supporting material but who cannot be named so they won’t be targeted.  In this case he’s probably magnanimously wishing to spare the perpetrators from public shame.  

Dark Emu is littered with this kind of rhetoric.  You can read of many more examples in my book Bitter Harvest.  I doubt very much you’ll read any of them in the Sutton/Walshe book. 

There is a political, not an academic, agenda behind Dark Emu and I will talk more of this in a future article. 

But let me conclude where I started. When Pascoe was wrong for the wrong reasons, that was ignored. But when he was wrong (same transgressions, mind you) for the right reasons, a spirited defence must be mounted. If that isn’t culture wars, I don’t know what is. 

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