As a white Australian, I was shocked by what I read in Bruce Pascoe’s new book, ‘Dark Emu’. It paints a picture of Aboriginal civilisation in this country that is so at odds with everything I was taught and thought I knew about Aboriginal civilisation here that, at first, I simply couldn’t believe it. It reminded me of how young Germans and Japanese said that their history books did not reflect the truth of the Second World War and that they were completely ignorant until gaining access to outside information. I couldn’t believe that they had no knowledge. Perhaps now I can.
The ‘True’ Story of Aboriginal Civilisation in Australia before the European invasion
Yes, ‘invasion’. It’s not the word we normally use in white society. We use ‘discovered’ and celebrate this time. It’s important to note that Pascoe’s work is based on reading original explorers’ and settlers’ journals. Through extensive footnoting, he shows that most explorers found the following commonalities:
– Many Aboriginals were settled farmers, not nomadic wanderers as we have been taught
– Some had stone houses, up to 9,000 years old but many had large solid community dwellings
– There were communities of up to several thousand people
– Aboriginals grew food crops like yams, grew grasses, made flour, baked bread and traded goods between communities
– They farmed fish and sometimes even animals like kangaroos
– They managed water through wells, dams and good environmental practices
– The many Aboriginal communities coexisted peacefully across Australia with relatively common laws and values
All of these are complete opposites of what we whites learned in school or society. This totally shocked me. It turned my view of Australian history upside down.
Why is this not ‘Known’?
Pascoe argues that, although Aboriginals generally were helpful to whites when they arrived, they naturally rebelled when they saw that whites intended to take over their land, rather than share it. Early white settlers burned down Aboriginal settlements, stole grain stores and killed the people. The hard hooves of the Europeans’ sheep and cattle, together with the animals eating crops down to the roots, destroyed the previously soft land and eliminated many native crops and grasses, effectively obliterating Aboriginals and their farming practices from the landscape. Also, white history took the viewpoint of the white invaders, developing the concepts that Aboriginals were lesser people, unsophisticated, uncivilised, nomadic hunter gatherers (which they were largely forced to become as they lost their own lands).
So white history tells the stories of successful explorers and early settlers who ‘settled’ the land, developed European practices here and has little to say that is positive about pre-existing Aboriginal practices.
Some friends have shrugged and said, ‘This is the story of any invading group. History is written from the perspective of the winners, not the losers’. Somehow I had assumed that our history was factual, objective. Clearly it is/was not. It was written from the white perspective, which of course I – as a white – easily accepted.
What to do?
First, all white Australians should read ‘Dark Emu’ to understand the truth about Aboriginal life prior to European invasion. It should be compulsory reading for white Australians.
Second, we should seek to help Aboriginals who want to and can to re-establish those environmentally-sound land management practices. Aboriginal communities may not retain enough skills in agricultural practice, given that many of those with the skills were killed and subsequent generations have not had the opportunities to recover those skills. We have destroyed so much of their culture with our introduction of alcohol, sugar, carbohydrates and more and our system of supported financial payments for those who don’t work. At worst, working with Aboriginal communities to help recover those skills is important to try.
Third, we should learn what Aboriginal practices could be adopted to improve our now-dominant European agricultural practices. For instance, erosion of the ground by sheep and cattle is well known now, particularly around river beds. Can we find ways to reduce it, when these industries are major export earners for private businesses? Also sustainable Aboriginal mosaic fire management practices are severely limited by European practice of fixed, expensive fencing. Can old fire practices be reintroduced by revising our fencing practices?
Reading Pascoe’s book completely humbled me. We can’t go back 200 years and start again. But we can recognise that excellent practices existed that were sustainable for thousands of years in this dry continent. Read the book. Spread the truth about aboriginal history, not the lies we’ve been led to believe. And help find ways to move our two civilisations to live in better respect, greater harmony.