Dark Emu Black Seeds: agriculture or accident?  is a short, sharp challenging book.  Not challenging because it is difficult to read – far from it – but challenging in the way it undermines everything we thought we ‘knew’ about Aboriginal land management before white settlement.

dark_emu_coverDark Emu is an evocative title but the text is in fact illuminating, both for the light it sheds upon Aboriginal labour, agriculture and ingenuity and for its exposure of white people’s willful blindness.  Pascoe builds on the work of Bill Gammage’s Greatest Estate on Earth (another text I highly recommend) but goes much further.

Over and again, the early colonists recorded the existence of Aboriginal crops, food stores, houses, wells, irrigation systems and fisheries.  Then, almost in the next breath, those same colonists exclaimed how the land was just there for the taking.

Major Thomas Mitchell, as he crossed the frontier, describes what he sees: ‘…the grass is pulled…and piled in hayricks so that the aspect of the desert was softened into the agreeable semblance of a hay-field … we found the ricks or hay-cocks extending for miles.’  Mitchell goes on to describe and count the houses, and estimates a population of over one thousand.  Yet later he can write, without a trace of irony, about the ‘land so inviting and still without inhabitants!’

Another early white colonist of Victoria, James Kirby, went so far as to describe the ingenuity and skills that were demonstrated by the Aborigines and then to dismiss their labour-saving activities as sheer laziness.  Pascoe captures the inconsistency beautifully and is worth quoting from Black Emu in full (pages 14-15).

Later they witnessed people fishing with canoes, lines and nets.  The purpose of the weirs gradually became clear.  They were made by damming the stream behind large earthen platforms into which channels were let in order to direct fish as required.  On one particular day Kirby noticed a man by one of these weirs.  He wrote that:  a black would sit near the opening and just behind him a tough stick about ten feet long was stuck in the ground with the thick end down.  To the thin end of this rod was attached a line with a noose at the other end; a wooden peg was fixed under the water at the opening in the fence to which this noose was caught, and when the fish made a dart to go through the opening he was caught by the gills, his force undid the loop from the peg, and the spring of the stick threw the fish over the head of the black, who would then in a most lazy manner reach back his hand, undo the fish, and set the loop again around the peg.  How did Kirby interpret this activity? After describing the operation in such detail and appearing to approve of its efficiency he wrote, ‘I have often heard of the indolence of the blacks and soon came to the conclusion after watching a blackfellow catch fish in such a lazy way, that what I heard was perfectly true.’

Kirby saw a man, who must have known he was being watched, casually demonstrate a fishing method demonstrably better than that used by the whites.  But Kirby, blinded by prejudice, was absolutely determined to see only what he wanted to see.  He was not alone.  Pascoe provides example after example of this kind of wilful blindness.  Almost as an afterthought Pascoe also explores the similarly wilful excision of Aboriginal land management, Aboriginal culture and Aboriginal exterminations from white history.

Many early whites had positive interactions and relationships with Aborigines but, in order to occupy their land, those whites had to think of the Aborigines as inferior, nomadic, and even not quite human.  To acknowledge anything else would be to invite the question – what right have I to be here?

The Macarthur family were a perfect example of the dissonant relationship between black and white. John and Elizabeth were Georgian English colonists who genuinely believed the land was theirs for the taking. They had no sense of the extent of their own ignorance in the face of Aboriginal law, land management and custom. Yet John and Elizabeth were not unkind. With Governor Phillip they had dined with Aborigines at Government House and would later continue to do so in their own home.  It seems that at one stage they may even have adopted or fostered a young Aboriginal boy.  In the history I learned at school, such as it was, the Aborigines were simply assumed to have melted away and disappeared.  Of course, we now know better – or do we?

Hugging TreeOne particular passage in Dark Emu made me gasp.

Pascoe describes a number of ceremonial grounds and includes a drawing, by Major Mitchell, of an exquisitely beautiful Aboriginal cemetery near the Darling River.  At least one ceremonial ground, about an hour’s drive from where I live, has been preserved by four generations of white farmers.  In this grove, according to Pascoe, trees ‘had been altered by lacing one limb over another while the trees were still saplings so that as they grew the limbs fused and left oval-shaped windows or rings.’

I have a tree like that in my back paddock (see photo at right).  The kids call it the Hugging Tree.

All of the others in that paddock (and there are many) grow straight and tall and I can’t tell you if my tree was deliberately shaped or not.  But I can tell you that Dark Emu has opened my eyes to the possibilities of my own wilful blindness.


At least two of my favourite bloggers have also reviewed Dark Emu (and my thanks to them for pointing it out to me):

September 2014 Update:  see also The Resident Judge of Port Phillip’s recent review of The Biggest Estate on Earth by Bill Gammage