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Andrew Bolt vs Dark Emu

Dec 3, 2019 • 15m45s

Andrew Bolt has led a campaign against Bruce Pascoe and his book Dark Emu. But after reading the explorer journals on which the book is based, Rick Morton was unable to find any errors.

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Andrew Bolt vs Dark Emu

134 • Dec 3, 2019

Andrew Bolt vs Dark Emu

[Theme music]

ELIZABETH:

From Schwartz Media. I’m Elizabeth Kulas. This is 7am.

Andrew Bolt has led a campaign against Bruce Pascoe and his book, Dark Emu. But after reading the explorer journals on which the book is based, Rick Morton was unable to find any errors. So what’s driving Bolt’s culture war?

[Music ends]

Archival Tape -- Andrew Bolt:

“A special investigation into a serious case of Australia’s intellectual rot, of the decline of truth.”

Archival Tape -- Andrew Bolt:

“Today there’s been the most bizarre response, a frightening response actually, from a Morrison government minister, a response that makes me worry about the future of this country.”

Archival Tape -- Andrew Bolt:

“We must ask, we must, why haven’t hundreds of historians and history teachers we pay, called out this trash, Dark Emu.”

ELIZABETH:

So what is it about Dark Emu that most upsets Andrew Bolt?

RICK:

Look, I had a chat to Andrew Bolt and, you know, he is saying that he is worried about the truth. He's worried about claims being misrepresented, about what he says are misquotations in the source material and the fact that we might have a version of history that is not aligned with what actually happened.

ELIZABETH:

Rick Morton is a senior reporter at The Saturday Paper.

RICK:

...and he has spent a lot of effort trying to hammer out some of those points. I guess he has taken issue with claims in Dark Emu that Aboriginal society was far more sophisticated than we have given credit for.

ELIZABETH:

Now, tell me about Dark Emu. What is it for those who may not have read it and how successful has it been?

RICK:

Oh Dark Emu is an incredible book. I mean, Bruce Pascoe, who's written kind of the definitive history of Indigenous society in Australia for 80000 years before settlement and for 100 years afterwards. And what he's done is he's got the same source material. Right, that other historians have always had in Australia. And he's added to the continuum of this understanding, this evolution in our understanding about how they lived, what they were doing to the land, on the land, before European settlement. And what he's done is look at the sources and said, well, hang on a second. There is a lot more going on here. Indigenous people were farming. They were cultivating seeds and harvesting at great scale across the landscape.

Archival Tape -- Bruce Pascoe:

“I started learning about the fact that Aboriginal people had agriculture, I had no idea about that, and suddenly I was turning up all these facts in the history books I was reading. And I thought, how come I never learned about this at school, how come I never learned about it at university.”

RICK:

And he's taken what is very much a white prism, which is the benchmark of agricultural societies around the world, that he's applied it to Indigenous Australians and said, well, hang on. They were doing that. And that's why this book has been such a phenomenal success. It sold more than one hundred thousand copies, which in Australia is just incredible.

ELIZABETH:

But the other thing is that Bolt's not just questioning Pascoe’s research. He's also doubting his identity.

RICK:

Yeah. In fact, he's been very direct about that. And he you know, he made an awful reference in one of his columns to these kind of agricultural principles being wider than Bruce's face.

Archival Tape -- Andrew Bolt:

“When I pointed out that Pascoe’s work contained falsehoods ABC presenters suggested I was just a racist! You see one reason Bruce Pascoe seems critic-proof, I think, is that he does say he’s Aboriginal even though he’s very white…”

RICK:

And so he's kind of mixed in questions about Bruce's character. You know, Andrew Bolt used the word ‘fraud’ when I was talking to him and has conflated that with the book Dark Emu as well, because he's kind of on this soothsaying mission as he believes it, to put right misquotations and errors of fact.

Archival Tape -- Andrew Bolt:

“Big silos of grain, towns of up to 1000 people, with beautiful houses with animal pens and, well, if you haven’t seen any evidence of that it’s because it was all destroyed by wicked whites…”

RICK:

He's not letting go of this. And we know everybody's got a history of questioning the Aboriginal ancestry of certain people and whether they ought to claim to be Aboriginal.

ELIZABETH:

All right. So what is it that Andrew Bolt bases his claims on?

RICK:

Look, he seems to be getting a lot of his information from this website called Dark Emu Expose, which has been set up and run by a bunch of Quadrant contributors. For those who don't know, Quadrant is a is an extremely fringe these days, well beyond conservative outlet that kind of spends a lot of time putting effort into conspiracy theories around certain ideas. They've been running these blog posts saying, kind of essentially fact checking Dark Emu. And it seems to be that a lot of this material has now made its way to Andrew Bolt and into the wider mainstream media.

ELIZABETH:

And, Rick, is this, in your opinion, the opening of some kind of cultural war, or is that too bold a claim?

RICK:

The fact that this is a reopening of a very old cultural war, one of the oldest and in fact, we used to call it the history wars. And, you know, we're back in it again. Quadrant has reenergised it and Bolt has taken the baton and run with it.

ELIZABETH:

And what has Pascoe based the book? Because as you've mentioned, it's a significant revision of our understanding of Indigenous history.

RICK:

Well, this is what history is, right? So he's based his book on the first hand accounts of Australian explorers, notably Charles Sturt and Thomas Mitchell. Um, although, there is a bibliography that runs to many pages and there are many, many references, surveyor generals and Aboriginal protectors in the 1800s who went out into the vast interior of Australia. So there's many first hand accounts but Sturt, there's no doubt that Sturt and Mitchell formed the spine of this book. And they also form the spine of Andrew Bolt’s complaints about the book. But Bruce Pascoe hasn't found new material necessarily, but he's found material that has always been there and that has always been given short shrift. So, you know, accounts of Sturt and Mitchell, who have come across these kind of sprawling communities in the middle of nowhere in Australia, one on the Cooper Creek where Sturt came across three to four hundred Aboriginal people or ‘natives’ as he called them, and was taken in by them because his party was in dire straits at that point and they were given cake, roast duck on another occasion, they were given honey and given the pick of these huts, the largest one in this kind of little town in the middle of nowhere. And so obviously that surprised explorers because they were coming in with these very European ideas about the fact that they were coming into a savage wasteland filled with people who had never once been visited by the benefits of civilisation. That was how they saw it. The issue is that because of these preconceived ideas that these people couldn't possibly have been sophisticated. A lot of this stuff just kind of got left by the wayside as historians went through and our official history was written and the history wars have really not let many Australians into what was actually there. And there are accounts in Dark Emu and elsewhere where these settlements were actually raised. They were set on fire by farmers because they didn't want any evidence of them. So that's what Bruce has done. He's gone and found all of those little threads and he stitched them together into a tapestry. Yes, it's the more sympathetic interpretation. But when you read Dark Emu, it's very hard to disagree.

ELIZABETH:

Rick, you had a long correspondence with Andrew Bolt last week as part of your reporting. What stood out for you from your exchange?

RICK:

I mean, we did have a very long, quite meandering conversation. And I got the chance to ask him three times across two days whether he has actually read Dark Emu. Now, bearing in mind that he did write about two thousand words in response to me about other issues. He never once answered that question. Andrew Bolt is very dedicated to the idea of not answering the question: Have you read Dark Emu?

ELIZABETH:

We'll be right back.

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ELIZABETH:

Rick, we're talking about the cultural war that Andrew Bolt is trying to open against Bruce Pascoe, questioning the history in his book Dark Emu. Were you able to check Pascoe’s claims?

RICK:

I was. In fact, I spent two days at the National Library of Australia, but I checked out a bunch of the original source material. I've checked out Thomas Mitchell's journals and also a journal of one of his men, Stapleton, who offered a kind of contemporaneous account of Mitchell's own official report back to the surveyor general. I've checked out some of the other material and I spent about two days reading it and nothing in Dark Emu is misquoted. What Andrew Bolt is doing is conflating some things that Bruce Pascoe has said at lectures, of which he's given hundreds since Dark Emu was published in 2014, with what is actually in the book. What Bolt is doing here is he's quibbling with tiny little details. Nothing has been misquoted. There's another example where even Andrew Bolt gets his own facts wrong. He quotes a quote that is reference correctly in Dark Emu as being from Thomas Mitchell 1848 Journal. But it's actually from Mitchell's 1839 journal. And so you start to get an idea that maybe Andrew hasn't really looked at Dark Emu that closely. He's also got an issue with a point that Bruce makes about the Aboriginal communities having animal yards. And Andrew Bolt has scoffed at this on three different occasions now. And he keeps making these kind of snide little jokes about what could they possibly have kept in there.

Archival Tape -- Andrew Bolt:

“What animals would they have had? To keep their dingos maybe, a pen of Dingos, a pen of Kangaroos, a pen of Koalas? It all seems like a total invention…”

But he has neglected to mention in any of his own communication or his blog writing that there is an account from David Lindsay when he was surveying Arnhem Land in 1883 where he says he came across across the side of a large native encampment quite a quarter of a mile across. And then he says that there were these small enclosures as if some small game had been yarded and kept alive. And he estimates that camp, which is different to the ones that Mitchell and Sturt saw, contained quite 500 natives, quote unquote. So Andrew Bolt is attempting to use the classic magician's trick of misdirection and slight of hand by saying that because Bruce misspoke at one lecture that they couldn't possibly have ever been a town of 1000 indigenous people or that they couldn't possibly been animal yards. In fact, when I asked Andrew with that quote to respond about the animal yard. He eventually says, well, maybe they were animal yards, who knows?

ELIZABETH:

And what about that other, possibly more offensive question about Pascoe’s identity. What is Bolt basing his claims on there?

RICK:

Bolt has been targeting Bruce on this front since at least 2012. Which is two years before Dark Emu even came out, Pasco wrote a piece for The Griffith Review saying that the grandmother they thought it was, turned out to have been born in England, and so the search essentially continues. It's such a murky history, not because Bruce has made it murky, but because the way Australia formed as a nation was murky and it was violent and it made it hard to track indigenous people because they were ripped from their families and they were massacred. And records were destroyed. And families didn't want to talk about potential connections between white people and quote unquote them. He says, you know, this mirrors the troubled colonial society so much. There was violence across the land. And and this is the result.

ELIZABETH:

Mm hmm. So what do you think is driving Bolt's campaign against Bruce Pascoe and the book?

RICK:

That's a really good question. You know, obviously, Andrew has told me that he's worried about the truth, but there is a broader issue here. I'm not saying Andrew believes this, but there is a broader issue about what it would have meant for colonization and invasion if indigenous people were even more sophisticated and civilised, quote unquote, than we have been led to believe, because essentially the fact that Europeans came in here and said, we're doing them a favor, we're bringing religion and civilisation and the manners of right standing men to these savages. That was the last excuse. Certainly the last plausible excuse for what happened to that society and the fact that they were driven to near extinction in organised marches across the land and the fact that they were stolen from their parents, massacred across the nation. It must be an uncomfortable question to ask yourself as a descendant of one of those settlers, myself included. Maybe we were the barbarians.

ELIZABETH:

Rick, thanks for speaking with us.

RICK:

Thank you.

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ELIZABETH:

Elsewhere in the news:

The Bureau of Meteorology has declared the Spring of 2019 to be the driest on record. Western Australia was particularly dry and hot, recording its lowest spring rainfall as well as its highest average temperature. The year-to-date rainfall is now the second lowest on record over the bureau’s 120 years of monitoring Australia’s climate.

And in Iraq, Parliament has voted to accept the resignation of Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi, who stepped down late last week. This comes after two months of violent anti-Government protests, which continue to rock the country and have left over 400 civilians dead. Protests are expected to continue, despite the resignation, as opponents demand an overhaul of the country’s political system to combat corruption and Iranian influence.

This is 7am. I’m Elizabeth Kulas. See you Wednesday.

Andrew Bolt has led a campaign against Bruce Pascoe and his book Dark Emu. But after reading the explorer journals on which the book is based, Rick Morton was unable to find any errors. This is the story of a culture war and a columnist who won’t say if he’s read the book he’s condemning.

Guest: Senior reporter for The Saturday Paper Rick Morton.

Background reading:

Bolt, Pascoe and the culture war in The Saturday Paper
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is hosted by Elizabeth Kulas. The show is produced by Emile Klein, Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow and Elle Marsh. Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Erik Jensen. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

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bolt pascoe darkemu culturewar indigenous history




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134: Andrew Bolt vs Dark Emu