Politics

History Wars

Taking sides over ‘Dark Emu’
How the history wars avoid debate and reason

Bruce Pascoe. Source: Twitter

Dark Emu appeared in bookshops in March 2014 much as most books do: with a brief publicity campaign arranged by its publisher. Bruce Pascoe was already something of a public figure – as well as publishing a short fiction journal during the 1980s, he’d written a number of novels and a well-received history of Australia’s frontier wars, Convincing Ground (2007) – and he is a wonderful storyteller, so he appeared on radio and at literary festivals more often than the average author of the average new release. And Dark Emu’s thesis is more than merely fascinating. It drops into the deepest faultline in the national conversation and strikes one more blow at the foundational myth of the colonial settler state: that it was built peacefully, lawfully and not on genocidal brutality.

Dark Emu wasn’t widely reviewed in academic journals. Aboriginal History ran a review in December 2014, in which Dr Michael Davis commended Dark Emu for its importance and its “impressive” use of the historical record, but lamented its over-reliance on secondary sources, its clumsiness, its poor editing and its “occasional questionable style”. “Dark Emu asks the wrong question,” Davis wrote, of its focus on whether Aboriginal societies were “hunter-gatherer” and “agriculturalist”, an unnecessarily rigid distinction. “The point – which Pascoe’s book does make – is rather to re-evaluate the specific nature of Indigenous economies, and to call for a societal re-evaluation that acknowledges the sophistication, complexity and malleability of these economies.”

These are academic criticisms. But Dark Emu isn’t an “academic” history, because its author isn’t a trained historian (he has an education degree and taught in regional Victorian schools). Dark Emu’s cultural role, much like Tim Flannery’s The Weather Makers (2005) and Henry Reynolds’ Why Weren’t We Told? (1999), is to “translate” knowledge hitherto trapped inside the academy and broadcast it to the world. Historians had known for a long time that so-called hunter-gatherer economies were highly sophisticated (see Marshall Sahlins’ seminal Stone Age Economics, published in 1972), and there have been many books, journal articles and conferences devoted to exploring what the historical, archaeological and paleontological records show about how various nations, tribes, clans and groups lived on this continent before Europeans came and destroyed physical and economic structures. Before he became embroiled in the “history wars” himself, Geoffrey Blainey with Triumph of the Nomads (1975) offered an earlier public translation of this kind of history.

It wasn’t until the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards’ judges voted Dark Emu its book of the year in May 2016 that it began to attract major attention. The book was adapted by the Bangarra Dance Theatre in mid 2018, by Pascoe himself for children (as Young Dark Emu) in June 2019, and as an ABC documentary by Rachel Perkins’ Blackfella Films (planned to be screened this year). These last two adaptations in particular brought Dark Emu to the attention of Australia’s reactionary right, which has now built a sizeable echo chamber inside such institutions as Quadrant, Spectator Australia and the Fox News–styled Murdoch stable, including Sky News Australia and, of course, The Australian.

Andrew Bolt, who rose to prominence during the early 2000s by attacking the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission’s 1997 Bringing them Home report into the Stolen Generations, wrote his first Dark Emu column for the Herald Sun on November 17, 2019. In it and many since, Bolt relies heavily on an anonymous website, Dark Emu Exposed, which purports to “expose” and “debunk” what it asserts are the book’s many myths, exaggerations and “fabrications”. In the same vein, regular Quadrant contributor Peter O’Brien produced a book – Bitter Harvest: The Illusion of Aboriginal Agriculture in Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu – published in December 2019 by Quadrant Books.

Attackers of Dark Emu and its author, and those who defend them, organise around the major cleavage introduced by the new histories of the 1970s and 1980s, histories sparked by Bill Stanner’s Boyer Lectures in 1968, which led to three dramatic reappraisals during the 1990s: the High Court’s Mabo (1992) and Wik (1996) decisions and Bringing them Home. This is how Australian intellectual life works now. On one side sit those who see the need to synthesise Indigenous and settler experiences, hitherto about as divergent in our histories as one can imagine. On the other, those who strive to resist this synthesis and retain pride in the colonial story. This cleavage has dramatically reorganised the national culture.

But all this attacking and leaping and defending doesn’t do much to resolve the issues. And there are issues. Dark Emu rests on a foundational truth: that the European explorers saw things (and, from within their own worldview, wrote them down) that the first settlers (and the institutions that supported them) didn’t want known (because they were busy expanding the colonial frontier, which necessarily meant acting illegally), and that subsequent settlers couldn’t see (because those things were no longer in evidence). Had Dark Emu merely made this point by quoting explorers’ journals, the right’s attack would have no force.

But throughout Dark Emu, Pascoe regularly exaggerates and embellishes. One example: he quotes Thomas Mitchell’s description of large, circular, chimneyed huts Mitchell observed near Mount Arapiles, in western Victoria, on July 26, 1836, but leaves out the words “which were of a very different construction from those of the aborigines in general”. Pascoe adds his own commentary: Mitchell “recorded his astonishment at the size of the villages”; he “counts the houses, and estimates a population of over one thousand”; and “the evidence is everywhere that they have used the place for a very long time”. But in his own journal, Mitchell doesn’t express astonishment, he doesn’t count and he doesn’t estimate a population size. Nor does he present any evidence that would support a conclusion about longevity of residence. Granville Stapylton, Mitchell’s second-in-command, recorded seeing one hut “capable of containing at least 40 persons and of very superior construction” on July 26. Pascoe includes this, but not the rest of Stapylton’s sentence: “and appearantly the work of A White Man it is A known fact that A runaway Convict has been for years amongst these tribes.” That could be a reference to the well-known escapee William Buckley (who was found by John Batman the previous July), or it could be a racist myth. The point is that Pascoe simply left it out.

By themselves, examples like these split hairs. But they’re all the way through Dark Emu. Together, such selective quoting creates an impression of societies with a sturdiness, permanence, sedentarism and technical sophistication that’s not supported by the source material. In speeches and interviews Pascoe is known to reach even further. And far too often Pascoe relies on secondary sources, including those obviously pushing ideological barrows.

My observations here will no doubt be seized upon with glee by Bolt, O’Brien and co as further proof of their accusations against Pascoe. It may even be seized upon by those instinctively defending Pascoe’s reputation as evidence that I’ve gone to the dark side. None of these reactions would be helpful, though they would reflect the way we conduct public debate now: “facts” matter much less than “values” and the identities they both draw from and support. I don’t believe in state intervention or the United Nations, which means I don’t believe in the IPCC, which means I don’t believe in climate change – and I hate anyone who does. I believe that Aboriginal people were violently dispossessed, which means I believe colonial history is racist lies, which means I believe all of Dark Emu’s claims – and I refuse to hear anything to the contrary. Social media generates and supports echo chambers, and so has dramatically accelerated the process of value-based identity formation attempted in earlier times by various groups and collectives on all sides of politics. Instead of persuasion and deliberation – core democratic values – the pursuit of righteous ideological rigidity favours shamings, takedowns and outright abuse.


Warrimay woman and lawyer Josephine Cashman’s Twitter stream is divisible into two distinct periods – let’s call them “Before Bolt” (BB) and “After Bolt” (AB) – with the demarcation point on November 20, 2019. The BB stream shows Cashman’s personal brand management. As managing director of her own Big River Consulting company, she was rapidly building a national profile with which she spoke about issues facing Aboriginal people in contemporary Australia. She had chaired a subcommittee of the Prime Minister’s Indigenous Advisory Council from late 2013 and had just been appointed an inaugural member of Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt’s Senior Advisory Group alongside Marcia Langton and Tom Calma. She appeared on ABC’s The Drum at least six times during 2019.

Then on November 20, Cashman retweeted Bolt’s third column relating to Dark Emu and added: “Mr Pascoe is not an Aboriginal person or accepted by community.” And: “We call for a NSW database.” She was referring to a database of people officially registered as Aboriginal. Canada has had one since 1951. Most Aboriginal leaders in Australia have historically rejected the concept of registration, after the terrible ways governments used classification and registration systems during the “protection” era.

Pascoe has often spoken publicly about his search for his Aboriginal ancestry. In 1993 and 1996 he wrote to the Koori Mail searching for information about a great grandmother, a woman he’d learnt by 2012 was actually English. But by then his inquiries, he said, had led him to conclude that both his mother’s and father’s families have Aboriginal heritage. In 2016 he was more specific: he’d found Bunurong, Tasmanian and Yuin ancestors. This is how his profile describes him in Dark Emu’s second edition, published in 2018.

Two days after tweeting the Bolt column, Cashman retweeted a post from Dark Emu Exposed. The website thanked her. On the same day she retweeted a Spectator Australia story about bushfire prevention, and the following day she retweeted a Chris Kenny op-ed from The Australian. On November 24 she retweeted Rita Panahi congratulating Tony Abbott for fighting bushfires. Cashman’s Twitter stream during her AB period looks for all the world like that of a News Corp disciple. By the end of the month she’d made her first of many appearances on The Bolt Report, and in early December she began to tweet Margaret Thatcher quotes and Scott Morrison publicity tiles. She walled herself inside the right’s echo chamber and reportedly blocked people who disagreed with her. Very soon she was promoting an essentialist hunter-gatherer cultural identity under the #proudblackaustralian hashtag.

The driver of Cashman’s public interventions during her AB period has been, apparently, an urgent need to expose Pascoe’s claim to Aboriginal heritage, which she is convinced is fraudulent. Bolt is convinced too. He notoriously lost a racial discrimination case in 2011 brought by nine fair-skinned Aboriginal people after he had written columns accusing them of having “chosen” to identify as Aboriginal to advance their careers. Pascoe was one of those accused, but he didn’t join the legal action, later writing that Bolt “would have had a field day”. Bolt’s certainty derives mostly from Dark Emu Exposed, which has published what it says are the relevant birth, death and marriage records that show Pascoe’s entire family tree originated in England.

Fraudulent claims to Aboriginal identity are taken very seriously by Aboriginal communities, and not just because of the measures available to Aboriginal people – from legal services to literary prizes to academic positions – in recognition of specific needs and to promote affirmative action. Fraudulent identity claims are often experienced as disrespectful and hurtful. “My son is Yuin,” Cashman tweeted on November 24, “and his father doesn’t know who [Pascoe] is.”

On December 11, Cashman dramatically upped the ante. She emailed Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton, formally alleging that Pascoe had deliberately fabricated his Aboriginal heritage in order to fraudulently receive government grants and literary prizes intended for Aboriginal people. Dutton duly forwarded it to the Australian Federal Police, which on January 23 stated that “no Commonwealth offence had been identified”. Not long afterwards, Cashman tried another angle. She gave Bolt a letter apparently signed by artist Terry Yumbulul, tribal chief of the Waramiri, an Arnhem Land clan of Yolngu people. The letter, which Bolt published in full on his blog, alleged “on behalf of the Yolngu people” that “we are insulted and upset” about Pascoe’s claims in Dark Emu. Yumbulul then told NITV he never gave Cashman permission to put his name to it and pointed out that he wouldn’t have misspelt Yolngu as “Yolgna”, as it appeared in the letter.

Wyatt had little choice but to end Cashman’s membership of his Senior Advisory Group the next day. She reacted to the “sacking” by publishing emails between herself and Marcia Langton – foundation chair in Australian Indigenous Studies at the University of Melbourne – which begin around the time Cashman made her first intervention on Pascoe’s identity. The content of those emails suggest Cashman was not making good choices. More than once, Langton asked her to clarify herself. “I don’t think you can see how badly this reads,” Langton advised her. To read Cashman’s AB Twitter stream is to witness a self-destruction. The right feeds on carrion of this kind, and Bolt gleefully welcomed an obviously shaken Cashman onto his TV show. For them, she is the most useful of martyrs, punished for telling the “truth” about Pascoe.

Pascoe’s defenders want to see Cashman’s repeated misfires as proof of his bona fides, as listed in his profile in Dark Emu’s 2018 edition. But Pascoe’s bio for an essay in the 66th issue of Griffith Review, published in early November 2019, dropped his claim to Tasmanian ancestry. That was after he was confronted by Tasmanian Aboriginal women at a language conference in Victoria. By the end of that month he would need to drop the Bunurong claim as well, after Jason Briggs, chair of the Boonwurrung Land and Sea Council, sent a letter to Bolt stating Pascoe had no ancestry there either “to the best of our knowledge and research”. On January 22, activist and lawyer Michael Mansell, who had famously alleged mass identity fraud during the 1996 elections of the now defunct Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, published a long letter in the Tasmanian Times in his capacity as chairperson of the Aboriginal Land Council of Tasmania. Respectfully and carefully, Mansell said he understood why people have leapt to Pascoe’s defence “in the face of attack by the likes of right-wingers” such as Bolt. But Pascoe’s defenders, Mansell wrote, “have rolled two separate and distinct issues – Aboriginality of the author, and what he writes” – into one. Pascoe is not Tasmanian Aboriginal, Mansell wrote.

Regarding his claims to Yuin heritage, at least four senior members of the Yuin nation have publicly confirmed Pascoe’s membership, and one has expressed disappointment at Cashman’s Twitter campaign.

The fact that the debate about Pascoe’s identity has played out publicly is one more painful legacy of colonisation. Aboriginal identity confirmation is a fraught business but is managed by communities. When a long-lost descendant claims ancestral heritage, the usual process is that communities ask the claimant for supporting evidence and confer internally. But evidence can be notoriously difficult to come by. There were enormous incentives to falsify and “white out” birth records during the 19th and early 20th centuries. When communities can’t confirm a claimant’s Aboriginality, there remains the outside possibility of a distant connection.

The publication of Sally Morgan’s My Place in 1987 encouraged many Australians who had been raised “white” to wonder and to seek details about their heritage. Some found Indigenous ancestry; many didn’t. It was around this time that Pascoe began his own search. To dismiss his claims as “fabrication”, as the right does, may be far too harsh, though it’s unclear why Pascoe made public claims to Bunurong and Tasmanian ancestry without, apparently, first confirming it with those communities. People are complicated. Pascoe himself has denounced non-Indigenous writers who falsely claim Indigenous identities in order to enter Indigenous-specific literary awards.

Pascoe’s predicament carries echoes of earlier excoriations of writers Colin Johnson and Archie Weller. Having long identified as Aboriginal, Weller famously wrote the novel The Day of the Dog (1981) in six weeks, motivated by anger after he was released from a prison in Broome. It was adapted into the 1993 film Blackfellas. Born to wealthy pastoralists (who deny Aboriginal heritage) and educated at Guilford Grammar School, by the mid ’90s Weller was speaking Aboriginal English and living an itinerant lifestyle. But then questions were asked to which he had no answers.

For all its problems, Dark Emu is not merely weathering the attacks. It charged back up the nonfiction bestsellers’ list and has occupied the number 3 spot for the past fortnight.

Pascoe himself has lately stayed away from the limelight; wisely, given the rancour. Most of his energies over the summer have been concentrated on defending his home from bushfires. As with most public debates in the age of Twitter and Fox News, there seems little possibility of kindness or compassion or shared understanding here. Since it reorganised to protect settler Australia’s colonial legacy, the right has been on a permanent seek-and-destroy mission, setting its coterie of mainstay attack-dog columnists and narrowcasters on what they see as objectionable individuals with relatively brief and middling influence. For Cashman to have hitched her wagon to the right’s stampeding horses seems unwise in the extreme, given the right’s mission: to extinguish the basis for Indigenous sovereignty and self-determination.

Russell Marks

Russell Marks is a lawyer and an honorary research associate at La Trobe University. He is the author of Crime and Punishment: Offenders and Victims in a Broken Justice System (Black Inc., 2015). 

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