Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe is a powerful, compelling work that achieves its dual aims: showing just how complex and well-developed the civilisation managing the Australian continent was prior to European contact and subsequent colonisation, and the lengths that have been gone to erase this vital pre-history from the collective minds of the current occupying Australian civilisation.
It brings with it an incredibly urgent message – to not just restore the complete history of Australia, but to also restore the land; by demonstrating exhaustively that a far better way to manage and live with it has been proven possible. A way that is sustainable, not destructive.
This book sits alongside, and frequently draws on, Bill Gammage’s The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines made Australia as vital reading for all Australians. In a better world, knowledge of these works would form part of our citizenship test. It joins 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus – which tackles the pre-Columbian civilisation of the Americas – in doing the crucial work of reconstructing the rich, complex lives and culture of first peoples prior to their genocide via european settler colonialism.
Pascoe’s unearthing of just how dependent the ‘early explorers’ of Australia were on the local crops and food stores of its native population for their survival sits alongside Tim Flannery’s The Explorers: Stories of Discovery and Adventure from the Australian Frontier in drawing attention to this overtly occluded fact. With the ever escalating controversy around Australia Day – that it should be better celebrated as “Invasion Day” – Dark Emu prompts the reader to consider whether we should instead be honouring the first peoples with some local equivalent of the USA’s Thanksgiving celebration.
It adds to the horror of the rarely mentioned smallpox plagues used to decimate Indigenous Australians, by demonstrating how herds of sheep and cattle, eating their way across the country, feeding on local crops also contributed significantly to this atrocity of white settlement.
The worst thing of all is that this book had to be written at all. As Bruce Pascoe stops to mention at the conclusion of his chapter showing the amazing, aquaculture engineering – all these facts are readily available to “anyone with a mouse and a library card.” As he said in his piece for the Extinction-themed issue of 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. Imagine the organisation required in the publishing industry to fail to mention Aboriginal agriculture, science and diplomacy. Don’t blame Pauline Hanson, don’t blame Geoff Blainey and Keith Windschuttle, blame Manning Clark, Gough Whitlam and every editor of Meanjin and Overland, for they too were guilty of that omission.
We are all complicit in the end of the world, but at least we can learn more about why this is happening. Dark Emu is a vital, long overdue step in that direction. Hopefully this is just the beginning of a renaissance in how we think of this land, its peoples and its true history.