Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe

Written 30 December 2018

Dark Emu Bruce Pascoe


I
Baiame, the creator spirit emu, is in the milky way but linked to the grasslands of Australia. Dark Emu is about aboriginal Australia and he birth of agriculture first published in 2014 and I have read the 2018 edition.

For me it is a challenging and evidence-based reflection in agriculture, aquaculture, population and housing, storage and preservation, fire, the heavens language and law, the Australian agricultural revolution and accepting history and creating a future. 

Having been educated both at school and even university on an alternate viewpoint and given the work I have done this year on towards the report on the Joint Committee for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Constitutional recognition, I have found the research challenging, illuminating and not really a surprise.  

II

Pre-colonial aboriginal life was different, sophisticated, though albeit different to the life of the colonialists. Drawing in what the colonialists and explorers wrote, in many cases aboriginal achievements were underrated nor mentioned at all. 

If a mode of agriculture, a scheme of irrigation, a means of capturing whales, a piece of architecture or a complex settlement pattern was deemed beyond Aboriginal ability a view was developed that there was an earlier more sophisticated civilisation prior to the aboriginal population.

Aboriginal way of life was not understood nor it is argued that wanted to be understood. The nomadic lifestyle made it easy to claim land and a lack of understanding of sharing villages was not considered as land ownership from the colonial perspective.

Given my reading of Australian explorers the references to Sturt in particular were interesting because I have read many of the manuscripts of the journals. Some
explorers just ignored mentioning them; maybe due to disinterest or maybe due to the way they treated them. 

Sturt and Mitchell are quoted liberally on their writings on aboriginals and in the case of Sturt with admiration of how they have adapted to the harsh living conditions. Other explorers just did not survive because of their unwillingness or ability to learn from indigenous practices.

III

The book is a revisionist view of early colonial history as it related to the understanding of and the relationships with aboriginal peoples. The arguments are convincing but I don’t know much about the alternative viewpoints.

It is very hard to get into the motivations of the colonialists.  Not colonialists all wrote journals and those who did probably engaged in self-censorship at the time.  Notwithstanding let’s look at world history at this stage because it does give some insight into colonial motivation. 

The British had lost the American Revolution by the late 1700s when Australian was colonised. England was getting crowded, convicts were on barges on the Thames, the economic growth of the industrial revolution was yet to materialise and the population needed some where to go. The war with France was ramping up in the early 1800s. England needed another foothold somewhere else in the world and Australia and the aboriginal population were primed for the picking.

From my other readings the strategy was very specific. In America all you had to do was go west, stake and claim and the land could be for the settler to use. In Australia the colonialist declared all land to be colonial land and its release, if at all, was to be in a timely and planned manner. There is not much if any evidence of consultation with the aboriginal population.

I need to now go back and read a bit more about the other side of the viewpoints expressed in this book.

Martin Pluss 30 December 2018

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