Dark Emu: a book review

Dark Emu has shaken me, it has shaken the foundations of my very existence, torn away layers of conditioning that has been provided for me over the years. It is that serious a book.  As I have now discovered it is not the first to lay out the notion of a more developed people inhabiting this country than was the view of the original English settlers. But it is probably the manner in which this book has been written that sets it apart. 

It is a very “dry” book but with glimpses of deep passion. It progressively builds the case for seeing the original inhabitants of Australia, the Aborigines, as considerably more developed and settled than the “Terra Nullius” view would have us believe. It also provides a view of what this country might have been had the Aboriginal methods of caring for the land been maintained.

I have long suspected that the English settlement of this great country was not as peaceable or as simple as it has been portrayed in all the history lessons I have taken in. Now I realise why I had that lingering suspicion. It has been a massive confidence trick played on us of the subsequent generations by the original colonial invaders.  This is not a guilt trip for me, I acknowledge and accept that I had no personal part to play in this but I do carry some of the weight because I am descended from the generations before me, I have a link whether I like it or not. Where does the confidence trick lie? It lies in that the original inhabitants of this land were very likely not a wandering nomadic people with no real ownership of any of the land as had been widely agreed upon. The biggest lesson is in the obvious and abiding connection they had with the land, it owned them not the other way around. One family or tribe would have rights to an area of land, not as in ownership but as in responsibility for its care and upkeep. They might not stay there for a lifetime but while they were there they appreciated the support it provided them to live and made the most of it. Not in the gross overburdening way that a European might, but with love and respect and a sensible realisation that the land could not sustain them indefinitely without a healthy mutual caring, the people for the land and the land for the people. 

Behaving as if the First Peoples were mere wanderers across the soil and knew nothing about how to grow and care for food resources is a piece of managerial pig-headedness. Smart business people rule nothing out, especially if the seeds of success are obvious.

“Dark Emu” by Bruce Pascoe

I note that in a lot of reviews of this book the first reaction is to discredit parts of the book that may by virtue of the passage of time not be able to be proven definitively. It is almost as if it is an affront to challenge the notion that the Aborigines were simply and solely nomadic. But this is to deny the stories and perceptions of the early settlers themselves and the traces of physical evidence that remain. We need to acknowledge that these settlers may well have been invaders and took possession of land by force, often violent. I have no way of proving that the writer is completely accurate in all that he has written and the conclusions he has come to but then again through the passage of time we have no way of disproving him either. I think on the basis of the physical facts still available and the writings of the early explorers there is enough probability to suggest the writer’s view is certainly more likely than the abiding nomadic view.

There is a sadness that will stay with me however from reading this book. Partly for the thousands of Aborigines who lost their lives in this collision of cultures, the thousands more who were dispossesed of their lands and the subsequent generations who remain lost to this day. But the overarching sadness is that the opportunity was lost to merge two cultures in a way that would have benefited both and could have created a new society that might live in harmony with the land and each other. This book is a call to rectify that if we can but we need this book to be as widely disseminated, read and its views and agricultural practices accepted for any chance of that happening.


You can watch a TED talk given by the author about the book by clicking here.