Bruce Pascoe on the failure of history

We publish here a speech by Bruce Pascoe followed by an intriguing interview with Bruce by Andy Paine.

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.

What omission? Well let’s look at what the explorers reported of the Aboriginal agricultural economy and see if you can remember any priest, parent or professor alluding to it. Lieutenant Grey in his 1839 ‘exploration’ of parts of Western Australia, so far unseen by Europeans, saw yam gardens more than five kilometres wide and extending a distance past the horizon and because the land had been so deeply tilled he could not walk across it. Sir Thomas Mitchell in the country that is now the Queensland–New South Wales border area rode through 17 kilometres of stooked grain that his fellows described as being like an English field of harvest. Isn’t that word ‘stook’ interesting when applied to what we thought we knew about Aboriginal history?

Isaac Batey saw that the hillsides of Melbourne were terraced in the process of yam production and that the tilth of the soil was so light you could run your fingers through it. Mitchell saw these yam fields stretching as far as he could see near Gariwerd (Grampians). He extolled the beauty of these plains assuming that God had made them so that he could ‘discover’ them, not once thinking how peculiar it was for the best soil in the country to have almost no trees. This was a managed field of harvest. George Augustus Robinson saw women stretched across those same fields of horticulture in the process of harvesting the tubers.

Charles Sturt had his life saved in Central Australia when he came upon people who were harvesting a river valley and supplied him with water, from their well, roast duck and cake. Both Mitchell and Sturt described the baked goods as the lightest and sweetest they had ever tasted. How many historians have read those comments and yet not one has considered that it would be in the nation’s commercial and culinary interests to find out the particular grasses from which those flours were made?

E.M. Curr noticed that as he brought the first vehicle into the plains south of Echuca his cart wheels ‘turned up bushels of tubers’. Once again some of Australia’s best soils were almost bereft of trees, the plains having been horticulturally altered to provide permanent harvests of tubers. Unlike Mitchell’s self-indulgent congratulations, Curr was aware who had produced this productivity and later recognised that it was his sheep that destroyed it.

James Kirby is one of the first two Europeans in the country of the Wati Wati near Swan Hill. They pass gigantic mounds of bulrushes stacked up and steaming and wonder about the vast enterprise but never think about the productivity of that plant. Aboriginal people were harvesting the base of the stem as a delicious salad vegetable and making mounds of the leaves to process starch, just one more source of baking flour.

Kirby notices a man fishing on a weir his fellows have built across the river. Well, Kirby assumes with great reluctance that blacks built it, but only because he knows he is the first white man to see them. The construction of the dam included small apertures at the bottom so that water and fish movements could be controlled. Kirby describes the operation:

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.

The man refuses to look at Kirby even though he knows Kirby is watching. Already the Wati Wati have decided correspondence with Europeans is not to their advantage but he seems proud of his technique. You could say his manner was insouciant.

But how does Kirby explain the operation? He writes, ‘I have often heard of the indolence of the blacks and soon came to the conclusion after watching a blackfellow fish in such a lazy way, that what I had heard was perfectly true.’ So Kirby renders weirs and constructions, machinery and productivity as laziness. Wasn’t he describing an operation that would fit neatly into any description of European inventiveness and industry?

Now, for reasons that are almost impossible to explain, I recently found myself at the meetings of two different universities where staff were asked to beam with excitement because their university had been rated twenty-third and seventeenth in the world for a particular area of scholastic endeavour. The first ten horses at the Melbourne cup win something. I think the tenth horse gets a biscuit of hay and the jockey a wallet that Uncle Alec knocked back last Christmas and I’ve seen underage soccer teams where every child got a trophy, but twenty-third and seventeenth, isn’t that a bit like every toddler gets a Kinder Surprise?

We seem desperate for the world to acknowledge our excellence but unable to investigate our own history. We have had 230 years of scholarship in Australia from more than 25 universities but no scholar has wondered about the Aboriginal domestication of plants and the vast fields of agriculture witnessed by the explorers, the so-called unchallengeable founts of knowledge of Australian history.

We stab out our eyes rather than regard Aboriginal achievement in this country. Our best citizens go to extraordinary and understandable lengths to protect the innocent refugees from war but we still allow First Australians to have their money quarantined for crimes that have never been tested by our courts.

The reason for the national apathy to racial politics in this country stems, I believe, from the national ignorance of Aboriginal culture and economy and that ignorance has to be laid in part at the feet of our learning institutions. A legion of professors and other academics at our universities decided it would be unnecessary for our golden youth to know what the explorers witnessed of Aboriginal excellence.

Today we wring our hands because the Darling River stops flowing in January; we seemed bemused when the overploughed soils of the Wimmera blew about our heads in Melbourne in the sixties, seventies and eighties; we wonder why we cannot get a second yield of hybrid blue gum from the forests of Tasmania, Western Australia and Victoria, so in apparent wrath at the vagaries of nature we poison that weedling second crop. We have ruined the soil but blame Greenies for crop failure and unemployment rather than poor science and the massive and soil-destroying machinery.

But like the baker’s blinkered horse we cannot look behind, we cannot admit that First Nations land management, finely tuned over 100,000 years, might have the ability to clear fog from our brain. Even today our agricultural scientists seem to be surprised when the Aboriginal domesticates thrive in the soils and climate to which they were born.

Oh we love to talk about bush tomato, lemon myrtle and wattle seed because they fit our venal understanding of hunting and gathering, but when asked to consider the virtues of agricultural products grown on fields so wide the explorers could see neither their beginning nor their end we become flummoxed and querulous. These crops are perennial, they were staples of Aboriginal diet and economy. The word ‘staple’ suggests permanence and utility and both of the latter two words were the sole basis for the application of terra nullius.

I don’t mean to berate but the hour is late. Aboriginal health and education continue to fall far below the national average and the incarceration rate of Aboriginal Australians should be the shame of the nation instead of a prickly nuisance. Australia seems to wash its hands of this state of affairs, never seeming to wonder how dispossession and the failure of the nation to believe our pre-colonial and postcolonial histories works on the psyche of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people alike.

If we are to make a nation rather than a mere economy we have to absorb the history. Aboriginal people don’t need to worry about how we got here, because archaeology seems to be proving our own opinion that we’ve always been here. The issue is how the rest the rest of the population got here … and who to thank.

Australia is a drying continent. World and national inaction on the human contribution to climate change is leading to a situation where we will soon be growing mangoes in Canberra. Aboriginal domesticates do not require any more moisture than the Australian climate provides, no more fertiliser than our soils already contain and as they are adapted to Australian pests they need no pesticide. These plants are an environmental boon to the nation, apart from the fact that, as they are all perennial with the large root masses of plants adapted to dry conditions, they sequester carbon. If we dedicated only 5 per cent of our current agricultural lands to these plants we would go a long way to meeting our carbon emission reduction targets. You have to believe my maths in this regard because I failed form three arithmetic at Fawkner High School. My father thought that qualified me to study accountancy at university.

These are achievements and opportunities and the biggest opportunity is the chance to begin a conversation with Aboriginal Australia about the real politics of our history. Forget the gnashing of teeth and the gushes of tears for this state of affairs, let’s get down to tin tacks. We can and will provide employment for remote Aboriginal communities, we can and will provide health and education professionals, we can and will enjoy the improvement in national wellbeing and we will do it as a public because the political system is failing us.

We know politicians will refuse to consider anything that challenges their control. Parliamentary vision is dead. When any prime minister wrings their hands and sheds tears of remorse you know at the first drop of moisture that they intend to do nothing. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people meet at Uluru and despite the diversity of opinion, the frustration, the old human enmities, they thrash out a statement so modest, so considerate of reality that many Indigenous people are appalled that something so vague and general can be the product of such long consideration. And Prime Minister Turnbull dismisses it out of hand as being too ambitious.

Australians will have to make the hard yards themselves. A parliament that includes lawyers can draft legislation, they just can’t imagine what has to be drafted. We might allow the politicians to think our plan is their own idea, sometimes it’s the only way to make them concentrate, but we have to formulate that idea and it has to be done after long consultation with Aboriginal Australia. Real talk, equal talk, not Reconciliation or a Recognise or Close the Gap formulated on the assumption of inadequacy, but a true conversation about what has been lost and what gained, and how that has forged the national schizophrenic psychology.

We have to read Sturt, Mitchell, Warburton, Giles and Gregory and we have to try to quell the triumphal urge while we read; we have to try to read beyond the daring and hardship of the explorers and the vast riches they discovered; we have to read for the cultural economy of Aboriginal Australia that they witnessed and described.

We also have to restore the sections in Lieutenant Grey’s journal where he speaks about Aboriginal housing, irrigation, agriculture and road-making, because when the journal was edited for publication those were the only items left out. Maybe that’s the job of a university that doesn’t want to be satisfied with a Kinder Surprise for being twenty-seventh in the world at something, maybe there’s a university that wants to investigate the roots of the oldest civilisation on Earth, the civilisation that invented bread, society, language and the ability to live as 350 neighbouring nations without land war, not without rancour, for that is the human condition, but without a lust for land and power, without religious war, without slaves, without poverty but with a profound sense of responsibility for the health of Mother Earth for more than 120,000 years.

This is not a noble savage sentiment, it is the iron-clad rigour from reading the true history of the country. I think Australia is capable of this rigour. I think we must absorb the pain and weariness such rigour will demand of us.

Temper democratic, bias Australian.

Interview with Bruce Pascoe follows down below … click icon in related stories