No wonder this book was shortlisted for two Premiers’ Literary Awards in 2014 and won two in 2016. Dark Emu caused a slip in my consciousness. It is a pivotal work.
The book turns our Australian ‘history’ on its head. I grew up believing that the Aboriginal way of life was pretty fragile, apt to be shattered by the next drought or flood or outbreak of disease. As ‘hunter-gatherers’ they basically moved from one kangaroo to another. Admittedly, they were pretty clever, I later learned, in their use of fire to manage the wildlife – they had to have something going for them to have lasted this long – but basically they were opportunists, lacking the technology to create or store food reserves. And this left them at the mercy of the vagaries of the elements and meant they were inferior to us white folks.
This view of Aboriginal life fitted with the prevailing Darwinian perception that change is good because only through change can advancement occur. Looking back through the development of the human species with this conditioning, it is obvious that we are the pinnacle, culturally, physically, technologically, etc etc. We got to where we are by settling down. The sedentary lifestyle facilitated the further development of agriculture and fostered pursuits such as mathematics, metal work and pottery. It allowed us to ‘develop’. Civilisations that do not exhibit the markers of this Western view of progress are considered inferior.
Pascoe challenges this dynamic. He points it out in plain and simple terms having taken most of the book to show what was really going on in the human civilisation at the time of European conquest. And how does he do this? By going back through the written records of the first settlers and the explorers. In the introduction, he writes that as a consequence of his research for his previous book, Convincing Ground, he was sent material from the families of original European pioneers from a number of districts in Australia. It connected with other material he kept turning up, and so Dark Emu was written.
I did know that my school education was fundamentally lacking in regard to Aboriginal history, but I thought that was mainly to do with the covering up of the violence and ruthlessness of dispossession, massacres especially. Pascoe has provided us with an understanding of what was disturbed, destroyed, obliterated. Not just people but a way of organising life so that the well being of future generations was at the forefront of the society’s consciousness. There was a continental political system that, while it in no way precluded violence between nations, did maintain boundaries between peoples. There was a sophisticated culture, agriculture al and irrigation systems, sensitive practices in the management of food and other resources, established trading routes, systems of cooperation between nations, clans and individuals across past, present and future.
To take but one example from the book, the descriptions of permanent housing intrigued me. Hunter-gatherers don’t go in for houses much as a rule, but villages were described and sketched right across the continent by explorers and white pioneers. Further, I shared some of Sturt’s surprise when, staggering through what is now called Sturt’s Stony Desert, famished and heat-struck, he stumbled upon a village of 300 – 400 people! As much as their presence in this ‘inhospitable’ landscape, the courage and hospitality of these people amazed him. (pp74-75)
So extensive were the challenges in Dark Emu that I found Mitchell’s journals online and read them. Pascoe does not exaggerate. What he says is there, is there. With Dark Emu now a part of my learning though, I can also see how European is Mitchell’s view and how coloured are his interpretations. But the raw images of what he came across are really there. I now look forward to reading more – Sturt and Eyre for starters.
So much of our history was wiped from our national consciousness that our perspectives now are fatally warped. Pascoe posits that one of the main reasons for this amnesiac recasting of history was to legitimise theft on a grand scale: British colonisation of Terra Australia. It is a pattern not peculiar to the Brits or to Australia. This one is ours to confront, however, and it is one that is continuing to be played out. To resolve issues from the past, the reality of the history needs to be acknowledged and the distortions clarified.