The defence of “Aboriginal historian” Bruce Pascoe by ABC journalists is an indictment of the ABC. Now ABC PM host Linda Mottram praises as “excellent reporting” an error-ridden defence of Pascoe by Rick Morton.
Here are at least 20 falsehoods – plus other deceptions – I’ve found in what the ABC calls “excellent reporting”.
Let’s start with this astonishing falsehood in Rick Morton’s piece for the Saturday Paper:
In his rebuttal (to Morton), the Herald Sun columnist has been forced to accept there were incredibly sophisticated settlements and seed-milling operations, and that Aboriginal people really did give cake and honey and roast ducks to Sturt and his party.
That is completely, completely false. Read my rebuttal here and a later one here. Nowhere do I “accept” what Morton claims – that there were “incredibly sophisticated settlements and seed-milling operations”. He is inventing, Pascoe-like.
Also false: Morton inflates the grinding of seeds between two stones, pushed by a woman, with “seed-milling operations”. There is also no mention of Aborigines in the settlement giving Sturt honey.
That’s just the start of Morton’s incredible string of errors and misrepresentations.
Bolt’s dislike of Pascoe began at least two years before the publication of the book…
False: I do not dislike Pascoe. In fact, I have some sympathy for him. I just don’t accept many of his claims.
Bolt’s efforts to “fact-check” Pascoe’s book are based largely around a website called Dark Emu Exposed.
Half-truth: As I openly acknowledged from the start, dark-emu-exposed.org alerted me to many of the errors in Pascoe’s work. I then doubled checked, found more and interviewed Aboriginal groups about Pascoe’s claim to Aboriginality.
As one prominent Indigenous leader tells The Saturday Paper, on the condition of anonymity, the argument against Pascoe’s work is an extension of “19th-century race theory”, which once espoused the view that race is the major indicator of a person’s character and behaviour. “Any suggestion that Aborigines are anything other than furtive rock apes has to be destroyed by these people,” the leader says.
False. The argument against Pascoe’s work is that he misquotes sources, invents “evidence” and wildly extrapolates to make an argument that is at odds with the evidence and with accounts of Aborigines themselves.
Deceitful: this is playing the race card.
Racist: this is perpetrating a racist trope that Aborigines who were hunter-gatherers were merely “furtive rock apes”.
Deceptive: the anonymous source sounds exactly like an academic who has publicly admitted I am not in fact a racist, and apologised for similar slurs. That academic is not a “leader”.
Pascoe’s book is based on close reading of the original journals of Australia’s explorers.
False: It is not a “close” reading. As I have shown, Pascoe misquotes often in Dark Emu and – more spectacularly – his lectures and interviews.
As the Indigenous leader notes: “He’s gone to the records and said, ‘Hang on, what does this really mean?’ While some historians with their PhDs have gone to the same original documents and came to the conclusion that we were all backward.”
False: The historians have not argued that hunter-gatherer Aborigines were “backward”. They have merely described what they were.
Evasive: Nowhere does Morton explain why so many of our most pre-eminent scholars were wrong, and why bush-historian Pascoe is right.
In Dark Emu, which has sold more than 100,000 copies, Pascoe mounts a convincing argument that Aboriginal people actively managed and cultivated the landscape, harvested seeds for milling into cakes at an astonishing scale, took part in complex aquaculture and built “towns” of up to 1000 people.
Deceptive: Pascoe goes further, and describes them as farmers. His argument is not “convincing” except to the gullible. That Aborigines harvested seeds is consistent with hunger-gathering (who must also live off the land). There is zero “convincing” evidence for his repeated claims of towns of 1000 people.
That word, by the way – “town” – is not Pascoe’s.
False: from Dark Emu, “Sturt himself saw a prosperous town of 1,000 on the banks of the Darling River.”
That word, by the way – “town” – is not Pascoe’s. That is how one such settlement was referred to by a man in the exploration party of Thomas Mitchell in the mid-1800s.
False: Pascoe attributes that quote to Mitchell in Dark Emu on page 15: “He (Mitchell) counts houses and estimates a population of 1,000.” But Mitchell’s journal at this link makes no reference to any town of 1000 people. Neither does Sturt.
What some have found so astonishing about Pascoe’s claimed developments is not that they happened – they are right there in Charles Sturt’s and Mitchell’s journals, among many others – but that we, as a nation, could have been so ignorant to their existence.
Naivety: That’s because many of Pascoe’s claims are actually untrue or highly exaggerated.
As Pascoe wrote last year in 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.
False: Pascoe himself quotes from the journals of explorers who described what was before their eyes.
It is Pascoe’s attempt to shout down this conspiracy of silence that has primed the culture war machine.
False: What “conspiracy”?
But why should a successful race of First Nations peoples be such a threat to modern Australians?
False assumption: It isn’t. We have long been told – including in celebrated histories such as Triumph of the Nomads that Aboriginal hunter-gatherers had, well, triumphed. That they had successfully adapted to one of the harshest continents on earth. This threatens no one.
Of course, it is uncomfortable to later ask: What if this race of First Australians were civilised all along? Maybe we were the barbarians?
Racist: Implies that hunter-gatherers were not “civilised”, but “barbarians”.
Pascoe achieves this questioning with a somewhat controversial manoeuvre. He takes the European ideal of farming and architecture, and thoroughly white notions of success, and applies them, through the primary evidence, to Indigenous Australians.
Embarrassing admission: Yes, indeed. Pascoe tries to make Aborigines live up to the “European ideal of farming and architecture”.
False: But he does not do that “through the primary evidence”.
Bolt has purported to catch Pascoe in the act of faking his Aboriginal identity, as if to cast doubt on the book itself through the use of a skin-tone chart.
False: I have “purported” nothing, and not used a “skin-tone chart”. I have noted that genealogical records suggest Pascoe does not have a single Aboriginal ancestor, and that Aborigines from the three tribes or Aboriginal lands to which Pascoe claims to belong all dispute his Aboriginality.
Deceptive: Morton nowhere examines the evidence that Pascoe is not in fact Aboriginal.
This murkiness speaks to how such relationships on this continent progressed for so long – disguised by violence, shame, lost records and stolen children.
False: It speaks to how Pascoe claims to be Aboriginal without even a scrap of evidence, and it contradiction to real evidence, and even after admitting that the woman he thought was his Aboriginal ancestor was in fact from England.
Also false: Pascoe has at times claimed his Aboriginal ancestry is not murky at all. On an ABC video for schools – and on his publisher’s website – he has claimed to be of Boonwurrung (or Bunurong), Yuin and Tasmanian Aboriginal descent, all disputed by Aboriginal representatives. On another video, from 2016, he claims instead to have Queensland and South Australian Aboriginal connections.
Also false: No, there is not “murkiness” about Pascoe’s ancestry caused by “lost records and stolen children”. Last week Pascoe claimed he actually had birth certificates to prove his Aboriginality, but said he would not produce them.
Pascoe tells of the struggle to find his Aboriginal ancestor, which was sketched by family members not so much through what they said but through what they didn’t say. It was an absence that provided clues.
False: It was an absence that suggested Pascoe wasn’t Aboriginal.
The senior Indigenous leader who spoke to The Saturday Paper excoriated those who pressed this line of attack. “When they insist on this inquiry, do they wonder if this person had family members stolen from the missions? Do they wonder if this person’s family was dispersed during the frontier wars? Do they wonder if they were hiding truths because of a concerted effort to shame or humiliate Aboriginal ancestry?”
Red herring and false assumption: Pascoe’s genealogical records suggest that every one of his ancestors are of English descent. But I have several times indeed suggested those records may be faulty – maybe there’s a mistake, or an illegitimate birth somewhere. I have three times asked Pascoe to point out the errors, but he has refused.
But this week The Saturday Paper spent two days at the National Library of Australia reviewing the original documents and explorer accounts in question. They are – at every instance – quoted verbatim and cited accordingly in an extensive bibliography at the end of Pascoe’s book.
Misleading: Many are cited verbatim, but others are misrepresented or used to wildly extrapolate. Some, as I’ve explained, are summarised incorrectly. In one extraordinary case, Pascoe redraws a map he claims is from Norman Tindale (1974) to claim an Aboriginal “grain belt” extended deep into Victoria and the present grain belt of south-west Western Australia.
Also misleading: Many of the most egregious examples I gave of Pascoe fantasising were drawn from his lectures and interviews.
Thomas Mitchell also noted a town of 1000 people in his journals, and the quote is attributed to Mitchell in Dark Emu at the bottom of page 15… In fact, the quote is from his 1839 journal. This, too, is recorded faithfully in Dark Emu.
False: Mitchell does not note a town of 1000 people in his 1839 journal. Or is it “faithfully recorded” in Dark Emu.
Bolt has twice scoffed at the idea of animal yards being found by these explorers.
False: I scoffed at Pascoe falsely claiming Charles Sturt saw an “animal holding pen” at a “town” of “1000” people near Cooper Creek.
But Dark Emu records the firsthand account of David Lindsay on his 1883 survey of Arnhem Land, where he says he “came on the site of a large native encampment… Framework of several large humpies, one having been 12ft high: small enclosures as if some small game had been yarded and kept alive…”
Misleading, deceptive: This is not evidence of farming, but, at best, keeping “small game alive”, as hunters might. It is not proof but a supposition that it is a pen, no animal having been found in it. It is on the other side of the continent from Cooper Creek. It is not what Sturt saw.
While Bolt mocks Pascoe for speaking at a lecture about a well that was made by Indigenous people and was “70 feet deep”, there are, in fact, a litany of accounts of incredibly sophisticated wells in the journals. Of one, Sturt writes: “… we arrived at a native well of unusual dimensions. It was about eight feet wide at the top and 22ft deep…”
Misleading, deceptive: 22 feet is nothing like 70 feet. What’s more, this 22-foot well was found nowhere near Cooper Creek, which is where Pascoe falsely claimed Sturt saw one 70 feet deep, when in fact Sturt had expressed surprise at the “smallness of the waterhole” there. Nowhere does Morton wonder how Pascoe got that so wrong.
The debate has now been reduced to minutiae – questioning how many mills were going and the different depth of various wells.
False. Pascoe’s big claim – that Aborigines were “farmers” in “towns” of “1000 people” in “houses” with “animal pens” and “hundreds of mills” – is what is under severe challenge, as is his claim to be Aboriginal.
Looking for family has taken on a mournful quality this week, as Pascoe’s kin went to libraries around the country to find the name of their Aboriginal ancestor. But how to proceed, one must ask, when so much of their story and the story of a people has been destroyed to protect the last excuse for colonisation?
Deceit: Pascoe last week claimed he had “birth certificates” to prove his Aboriginality. So why were his kin last week going “to libraries around the country to find the name of their Aboriginal ancestor”?
Just how foolish is Rick Morton, and the journalists hailing him for his error-riddled defence of an error-raddled Pascoe?
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