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As Andrew Bolt attempts to start a culture war over Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu, a search of primary documents affirms the book’s accuracy. By Rick Morton.

Bolt, Pascoe and the culture wars

Bruce Pascoe at Byron Writers Festival 2019.
Credit: Kurt Petersen

There is one particular question Andrew Bolt does not wish to answer.

In correspondence with The Saturday Paper, the News Corp columnist was asked three times whether he has read Bruce Pascoe’s best-selling history of Aboriginal Australia, Dark Emu. Each time, he evaded the question.

It is useful, then, to start an examination of his attacks on the author with this in mind.

A more inconvenient truth is that Bolt’s dislike of Pascoe began at least two years before the publication of the book, which has now become the focus of a minor culture war led by Bolt and others.

Bolt’s efforts to “fact-check” Pascoe’s book are based largely around a website called Dark Emu Exposed.

The site’s contributors cast doubt on Pascoe’s account of an Indigenous history different from the one allowed by colonial interpretation. They also doubt his Aboriginal heritage.

As one prominent Indigenous leader tells The Saturday Paper, on the condition of anonymity, the argument against Pascoe’s work is an extension of “19th-century race theory”, which once espoused the view that race is the major indicator of a person’s character and behaviour.

“Any suggestion that Aborigines are anything other than furtive rock apes has to be destroyed by these people,” the leader says.

Pascoe’s book is based on close reading of the original journals of Australia’s explorers. In these journals, he has found new evidence of Indigenous agriculture and development. As the Indigenous leader notes: “He’s gone to the records and said, ‘Hang on, what does this really mean?’ While some historians with their PhDs have gone to the same original documents and came to the conclusion that we were all backward.”

In Dark Emu, which has sold more than 100,000 copies, Pascoe mounts a convincing argument that Aboriginal people actively managed and cultivated the landscape, harvested seeds for milling into cakes at an astonishing scale, took part in complex aquaculture and built “towns” of up to 1000 people.

That word, by the way – “town” – is not Pascoe’s. That is how one such settlement was referred to by a man in the exploration party of Thomas Mitchell in the mid-1800s.

What some have found so astonishing about Pascoe’s claimed developments is not that they happened – they are right there in Charles Sturt’s and Mitchell’s journals, among many others – but that we, as a nation, could have been so ignorant to their existence.

As Pascoe wrote last year in Meanjin: “Almost no Australians know anything about the Aboriginal civilisation because our educators, emboldened by historians, politicians and the clergy, have refused to mention it for 230 years.

“Think for a moment about the extent of that fraud. Imagine the excellence of the advocacy required to get our most intelligent people today to believe it.”

It is Pascoe’s attempt to shout down this conspiracy of silence that has primed the culture war machine. But why should a successful race of First Nations peoples be such a threat to modern Australians?

The most compelling answer to this question is that it removes a psychological shunt in the mind of European settlers and their descendants that this occupation, this invasion of land unceded, was to save Indigenous people from themselves, to bring civilisation to them.

Of course, it is uncomfortable to later ask: What if this race of First Australians were civilised all along? Maybe we were the barbarians?

Pascoe achieves this questioning with a somewhat controversial manoeuvre. He takes the European ideal of farming and architecture, and thoroughly white notions of success, and applies them, through the primary evidence, to Indigenous Australians.

Asked why he is offended by Pascoe’s assertion of complex farming and settlements built by First Nations peoples, Bolt said he is not.

“So, to answer your insult: I am not ‘offended’ by the thought of Aborigines being ‘well-adapted’ or ‘sophisticated’. How on earth would that be offensive to me? I in fact am determined to change policies and thinking that hold back so many Aboriginal communities that are now in poverty,” he said in a lengthy correspondence with The Saturday Paper.

“I am simply interested in the truth, and opposed to falsehoods … If I’m ‘offended’ by anything it is frauds.

“Or let me put this in the same sneering (again) tone that you used: What is it about Aborigines being hunter-gatherers that so offends you? Where is the shame in how so many Aborigines lived, which makes you feel compelled to imagine them instead as just like good old white farmers – only black? Isn’t this refusal to accept the truth a little, er, racist?”

Bolt has purported to catch Pascoe in the act of faking his Aboriginal identity, as if to cast doubt on the book itself through the use of a skin-tone chart. But Pascoe has long grappled with the necessarily murky past of his own identity. This murkiness speaks to how such relationships on this continent progressed for so long – disguised by violence, shame, lost records and stolen children.

In 2012, Pascoe wrote a response to a column in which Bolt alleged that Pascoe “decided” to be black. This followed a 2011 Federal Court of Australia ruling that found Bolt racially vilified other “light-skinned” Aboriginal people under section 18 of the Race Discrimination Act.

“I can see Bolt’s point, and the frustration of many Australians when pale people identify with an Aboriginal heritage,” Pascoe wrote in the Griffith Review at the time.

“The people he attacked for this crime, however, had an unfortunate thing in common: their credentials were impeccable. Any good reporter could pick up the phone and talk to their mothers about their Aboriginality until the chooks go to roost.

“If I had been part of the group who took Bolt to court for impugning their heritage, he would have had a field day.”

Pascoe tells of the struggle to find his Aboriginal ancestor, which was sketched by family members not so much through what they said but through what they didn’t say. It was an absence that provided clues. But is this so extraordinary? As Pascoe says, the circumstance “mirrors the turbulence of postcolonial Australia and explains why so many Australian families have a black connection”.

The senior Indigenous leader who spoke to The Saturday Paper excoriated those who pressed this line of attack.

“When they insist on this inquiry, do they wonder if this person had family members stolen from the missions? Do they wonder if this person’s family was dispersed during the frontier wars? Do they wonder if they were hiding truths because of a concerted effort to shame or humiliate Aboriginal ancestry?”

The agitation surrounding Dark Emu, renewed by the announcement of an ABC documentary, has quickly driven a stake through the recently formed advisory group on the co-design for an Indigenous Voice to Parliament. The group is chaired by Indigenous academic Marcia Langton, a defender of Pascoe’s, and counts Chris Kenny as a member.

Last week, Ken Wyatt, who established the group as minister for Indigenous Australians, backed Pascoe against the conservative onslaught and noted that Australians tend to “question if you are Indigenous”.

“If Bruce tells me he’s Indigenous, then I know that he’s Indigenous,” Wyatt told Kenny on Sky News.

This week, Wyatt told ABC’s Radio National that his office has been receiving calls where staff have been threatened and called “cunts” because he dared defend Pascoe.

“I’ve had one of my staff resign because she can’t cope with being abused over the issue,” he said.

Another of the co-design group’s members, Indigenous lawyer Josephine Cashman, has publicly questioned Pascoe’s ancestry. On Twitter, she stated that her former partner is a Yuin man who says he has never heard of Pascoe. Other Yuin people responded on Twitter, cautioning Cashman for relying on a single man’s testimony.

A week ago, Kenny wrote in The Australian: “Many claims in Dark Emu have been debunked by forensic reference to primary sources.”

But this week The Saturday Paper spent two days at the National Library of Australia reviewing the original documents and explorer accounts in question. They are – at every instance – quoted verbatim and cited accordingly in an extensive bibliography at the end of Pascoe’s book.

Bolt alleges: “They even overlooked the fact that his big hit – Dark Emu – included incredible misquotations of its sources.

“How else could Pascoe have argued that the historians had been wrong. Aborigines had not been hunter-gatherers but sophisticated farmers, living in ‘towns’ of up to 1000 people, in ‘houses’ with ‘pens’ for animals. (Koalas, perhaps?)”

It would take many thousands of words to address all of Bolt’s claims, but it is useful to highlight a few of them. The Saturday Paper put these claims to Bolt.

For example, he says that Pascoe tells the story of Sturt stumbling onto a town of 1000 people on the edge of the Cooper Creek. Dark Emu does not claim this; it instead quotes Sturt correctly on this front, when his party is taken in by “3 or 400 natives” in the area. Bolt says he was referring to a speech Pascoe made where he said there were 1000 people in the town.

Thomas Mitchell also noted a town of 1000 people in his journals, and the quote is attributed to Mitchell in Dark Emu at the bottom of page 15.

Bolt, when he does reference Mitchell, gets the date of that quotation wrong, too. He says it is from Mitchell’s 1848 journal when, in fact, the quote is from his 1839 journal. This, too, is recorded faithfully in Dark Emu.

Bolt has twice scoffed at the idea of animal yards being found by these explorers.

But Dark Emu records the firsthand account of David Lindsay on his 1883 survey of Arnhem Land, where he says he “came on the site of a large native encampment, quite a quarter of a mile across. Framework of several large humpies, one having been 12ft high: small enclosures as if some small game had been yarded and kept alive … This camp must have contained quite 500 natives.”

In reply, Bolt says: “Maybe they were animal pens, who knows?

“Arnhem Land has, after all, more game than Cooper Creek that might at a stretch be kept in a pen, although it is difficult to imagine what animals might have been kept. Wallabies?”

Again, Bolt says he is not so much quoting from Pascoe’s book as from his lectures, of which the author has done hundreds since Dark Emu’s 2014 release.

However, Bolt frequently conflates the two.

While Bolt mocks Pascoe for speaking at a lecture about a well that was made by Indigenous people and was “70 feet deep”, there are, in fact, a litany of accounts of incredibly sophisticated wells in the journals. Of one, Sturt writes: “… we arrived at a native well of unusual dimensions. It was about eight feet wide at the top and 22ft deep, and it was a work that must have taken the joint strength of a powerful tribe to perform.”

In his rebuttal, the Herald Sun columnist has been forced to accept there were incredibly sophisticated settlements and seed-milling operations, and that Aboriginal people really did give cake and honey and roast ducks to Sturt and his party. The debate has now been reduced to minutiae – questioning how many mills were going and the different depth of various wells.

Bolt responds: “Trust you to attempt to make this about me and not his incredible claims.”

But Pascoe is not alone in his assessments.

Writing in Inside Story this week, Australian National University professor of history Tom Griffiths lauded the book and its addition to a long trajectory of scholarly work.

“My point is that the blindnesses and complacencies that Pascoe rails against are the same silences and lies that Australian historians have been collaboratively challenging for decades now,” he says.

“It’s a job that will never finish. Pascoe is primarily bridling at an older form of history, the history he learnt at school and university 50 years ago.”

Edie Wright, the chair of Magabala Books, which published Dark Emu, told The Saturday Paper: “We unequivocally support our outstanding author Bruce Pascoe, and celebrate the contribution that Dark Emu has made to bringing a fuller understanding of our history to so many Australians of all ages.”

On Wednesday, Marcia Langton replied to Josephine Cashman on Twitter. The two were previously close.

“The critique of Dark Emu is a job for actual historians not Andrew Bolt & others who benefit financially from tearing apart the lives of people looking for family,” she said.

Looking for family has taken on a mournful quality this week, as Pascoe’s kin went to libraries around the country to find the name of their Aboriginal ancestor. But how to proceed, one must ask, when so much of their story and the story of a people has been destroyed to protect the last excuse for colonisation?

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 30, 2019 as "Bolt, Pascoe and the culture wars". Subscribe here.

Rick Morton
is The Saturday Paper’s senior reporter.