Bruce Pascoe — refreshing

I posted just now on Facebook, and augment that post with some relevant videos.


You may recall Wollongong Library posted me a copy of Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu not long ago. It happens to be a large print edition, but even more significant is that it is the 2nd Edition (2018) which does include some new material.

I am not going to write a lengthy review, simply because I am not qualified to do so. There are so many out there already, many favourable, some sceptical, and the book has generated more than its fair share of hostility, most of it from the usual suspects from Bolt to “Quadrant”.

I am definitely not on the side of the usual suspects. I find it a refreshing, exciting addition to our knowledge of Australian history, even if perhaps at some points over-excited. I do strongly recommend it.

I should also add that debate about Bruce Pascoe’s ancestry or ethnicity is totally irrelevant.

As he says at the end of Chapter 2: “You can read other theories of Aboriginal culture, spirituality and economy in New Age texts, or the books of over-enthusiastic researchers, but often they make guesses to bridge the gaps in knowledge. Too often, they ascribe all sorts of mystical wisdom to their subjects, but their earnest romanticism is unnecessary, as the observations of the first explorers and settlers provides an enormous body of material. In this book, I am drawing on only a small sample of what is available to any Australian with a computer mouse or a library card. The reason I have provided so many examples, however, is to emphasise the depth of the available material and the desperate need for a revision of our history.”

See also Taking sides over ‘Dark Emu’ — How the history wars avoid debate and reason.

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….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…. 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….

Do read that whole essay.  It too discounts the attacks on Pascoe’s ethnicity and goes on: “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.”

I am glad of that. And here is the man himself.

I add this one because it lightens the mood, but ends on a serious point about the study of Australian history today.