Book challenges Aussie agriculture

Book questions whether Australia chose the right forms of agriculture


Opinion
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Did we set up the wrong agriculture in Australia?

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OPINION

HISTORY RE-THINK: Author Bruce Pascoe holding a copy of his book, Dark Emu – Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident? Photo: James Alcock

HISTORY RE-THINK: Author Bruce Pascoe holding a copy of his book, Dark Emu – Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident? Photo: James Alcock

DID we set up the wrong agriculture in Australia? I’m going to digress a fair way from good fruit and vegetable production, but please bear with me – I think  you’ll find it an informative digression.

I was given a book recently, which utterly challenged me. The reviews had me intrigued, even before I’d opened it:

“This very readable, strongly argued study turns the accepted notion of the Aborigines as a hunter-gatherer people completely on its head.”

“This is an important book that advances a powerful argument for re-evaluating the sophistication of Aboriginal peoples’ economic and socio-political livelihoods.”

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“In 156 pages, the author has inverted almost everything I thought I knew about pre-colonial Australia. Importantly, he’s not relying on oral history, which runs the risk of being too easily debunked; his sources are the journals of notable explorers and surveyors of pastoralists and protectors. He quotes them verbatim, describing all the signs of a complex civilisation but viewed through the blinkered lens of appropriation and White superiority.”

I came to Australia in 1968 – it was only a year after Australia’s First Nations people – “the Aborigines” – were included in the census.

As a new migrant, I took the attitude of “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” as I had done when I worked in Sweden for a while – you can fit in more easily.

I never met any Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people. I was told they lived in crude humpies and were just primitive hunter gatherers.

This book changes all of that.

The explorer and surveyor Major Thomas Mitchell described what he saw in 1838 as he crossed the Australian frontier:

“The grass is pulled and piled into hayricks, so the aspect of the desert was softened into the agreeable semblance of a hay–field. The seed is made by the natives into a kind of paste or bread. Dry heaps of this grass, that had been pulled expressly for this purpose of gathering the seed, lay along our path for many miles. I counted nine miles along the river.”

As for the humpies, I’d heard simplistic descriptions of their crudity, but Mitchell records his astonishment at the size of the villages.

He noticed:

“… some huts, being large and circular, and made of straight rods meeting at an upright pole in the centre. The outside had been covered with bark and grass and the entirety covered with clay. The fire appeared to have been made nearly in the centre, and a hole at the top had been left as a chimney. I counted the houses and estimated a population of over one thousand.”

In 1839, the explorer George Grey was surprised to find land on the Gascoyne River in WA that appeared to have been cultivated, and that it had been irrigated: 

“We found frequent wells, some of which were 10 to 12 feet deep, and were altogether executed in a superior manner.”

The water was used to irrigate “the yam plant, which is a favourite plant of the natives. We traversed three and a half miles of land literally perforated with holes the natives made to dig this root … more had been done to secure provision from the ground by hard manual labour than I could believe it in the power of uncivilised man to accomplish.”

Using the term “uncivilised” says it all – arrogant British explorers just didn’t believe what they saw.

The author, Bruce Pascoe, is an optimist.

“If we look at the evidence presented to us by the explorers and explain to our children that Aboriginal people did build houses, did build dams, did sow, irrigate and till the land, did alter the course of rivers, did sew their clothes, and did construct a system of pan–continental government that generated peace and prosperity, then it is likely we will admire our land all the more.”

I’m more of a realist. Getting back to the first line of this article, we almost certainly did, but it’s happened and is unlikely to change.

We can, however, give credit where credit is due, and stop regarding Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities as “primitive”.

You should read “Dark Emu – Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident?” by Bruce Pascoe (2014),  Magabala Books Aboriginal Corporation. Contact: sales@magabala.com

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