With debates on the Constitution, Recognition and a possible Treaty ramping up in the mainstream media it’s time to expose the lies that have conveniently masked Australia’s history. Indigenous people farmed, managed and governed the continent for millennia. In this three-part series JD Anthony reflects on Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu, Bill Gammage’s The Biggest Estate on Earth, Melissa Lucashenko’s The First Australian Democracy and Abdullah Ocalan’s The Roots of Civilisation to ask “Is it possible for us to see that the past was not more primitive and savage than the present, and that the future need not be barbaric?”
Pieces of the puzzle
So over time I came to realise that what I’d learned at school wasn’t really true. Two recent books by Bruce Pascoe and Bill Gammage consolidated and clarified Australian history for me, but other readings both dovetailed with this realisation and challenged it at the same time. Not “challenged” as in denying their revelations, but asking a more basic question – is there more to WHY things are like this?
Together with Pascoe’s and Melissa Lucashenko’s work, Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan’s treatise on Middle Eastern history helps to explore this question with a complicated process not unlike putting together a huge jigsaw puzzle. Although a lot of the pieces are still upside down or even on the floor, a big picture is emerging in my mind:
We’ve been lied to:
Aboriginal people managed the whole continent as one great estate, using fire carefully to herd animals and birds, domesticate plants, sow seeds, harvest, irrigate and store food for the off-season. They lived in villages and even towns, worked with stone and wood, navigated rivers and lakes and even sailed out to sea. The hunter-gatherer tag, the “nomad,” has been a convenient lie promulgated by colonisers who ignored the fact of prior Indigenous possession of the land. Without this lie there would be no doubt about Aboriginal entitlement to “land rights.” Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu – Black Seeds: agriculture of accident? establishes this as forthright polemic, in easy to read non-academic style. He upends what we thought we knew about pre-colonial Australia. Aboriginal himself, he chose to not rely on his own people’s oral history but includes over 160 references from many early white invaders and chroniclers. In particular he draws on the research of historian Bill Gammage.
The evidence is there if we care to listen and learn:
Gammage, along with other historians such as Rupert Gerritsen, has established the facts with an enormous degree of scholarly care. In The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia he challenges the persistent myth – or should that be “lie” – that the first Europeans here found the continent barren and ugly and nothing like “home.” In fact many early accounts use the language of praise – the countryside was park-like! Similar to a gentleman’s estate with large trees dotted across lush grassland. Our heroic explorers could canter easily through a gentle, tended landscape with no thick underbrush or scrub to hinder progress. But they never asked how it came to be like this, and were shocked when within a generation the soil had been compacted by sheep and cattle and the bush invaded the park. Eric Rolls presented a case study of this process in his 1981 book about the Pilliga, which I read at the time but did not understand. Gammage opens our eyes to the fact that in 1788 Australia was no wilderness, but a sophisticated, successful and sensitive farming regime extending across the continent. Fire was not an indiscriminate way to reduce fuel, but a carefully employed tool ensuring that certain plants and animals flourished, and that resources were abundant and predictable. The land was managed.
Heaven on Earth:
Both Gammage and Pascoe attribute the seamless nature of this land management to spiritual factors, commonly called The Dreaming. Us ‘whitefellas’ struggle with the idea because, in my case at least, we’ve been brainwashed by Christianity. Spirituality equates with religion which must align with a historic, traditional idea of hierarchy. God the Father at the top and most of us at the bottom, like a pyramid. We can relate to and debate variations on that concept, even if we proclaim as atheists. But a dream time? Well a lot of our problem lies in the words themselves, something explored by Christine Nicholls who points out that “Dreaming and Dream Time” were labelled in English by Francis Gillen, the post- and telegraph-master at Alice Springs in the late 19th Century. She writes that: “dream-related terminology serves to erase the complexities of the original concepts in the many different Indigenous languages and cultures, by emphasising their putatively magical, fantastic and illusory attributes” when the Indigenous people understand the concepts “to be reality, religion and Law.”
The so-called Dreaming is grounded in the earth itself, providing a total framework for every aspect of existence. Everyone had a role and everything – plant, creek, animal, whatever – was cared for. Pascoe in particular talks of the Songlines that connected one side of the country to the other, North, South, East and West. “The cultural, economic, genetic and artistic conduits of the songlines brought goods, art, news, technology and marriage partners to centres of exchange.” The Dreaming, encompassing Law and Lore, ensured both balance and survival across the continent and it’s adjacent islands thousands of kilometres wide.
If one were to read just parts of these books, Gammage’s Chapter 4 “Heaven on Earth” and Pascoe’s Chapter 6 “The Heavens, Language and the Law” would be essential.
It may be impossible for us today to grasp the real nature of the Dreaming, spiritual and ecological, but Pascoe gets to another core question on page 130: “If we accept that Aboriginal people were managing their landscape and economy across cultural and geographical boundaries we need to wonder how that co-operation was wrought without resort to the physical coercion and war common in other civilisations … there has been no time identified when those trade routes were used for wars of possession … while individual acts of violence are depicted in Aboriginal art there is no trace of imperial warfare.”
Melissa Lukashenko wrote in Meanjin how the Aboriginal paradigm “was founded upon the four ethics of autonomy, balance, compassion and land/identity, (and) led to a stable, predictable polity on the east coast.” The anthropologist W.E.H. (Bill) Stanner saw this in central Australia too, writing: “its principle and its ethos are variations on a single theme – continuity, constancy, balance, symmetry, regularity … There are no wars or invasions to seize territory. They do not enslave each other. There is no master–servant relation. There is no class division. There is no property or income inequality. The result is a homeostasis, far-reaching and stable.”
The white explorer Sturt noted “we seldom or never saw weapons in the hands of any of the natives of the interior” and Gammage quotes anthropologist Mervyn Meggit saying there was “little reason for all-out warfare between communities. Slavery was unknown, portable goods were few, and territory seized in battle was virtually an embarrassment to the victors, whose spiritual ties were with other localities.” The Dreaming protected land and property until 1788 (Gammage uses the term “1788” as a catch-all for British invasion even though it took generations to conquer the entire continent) so that foodstores, tools and other possessions could be left in safe places, with no threat of theft or vandalism. There were no police, rather connected communities and a commonly accepted cultural-religious system of rules and behaviours. People could leave their villages to go to other places for ceremony or trade or cultivation, and when they returned everything would be as they left it. Both Pascoe and Gammage cite many examples of this, with extensive notes taken from explorers and early settlers.
It raises but doesn’t explain the question of “governance” in the old days although Pascoe does discuss decision-making processes, Elders, democracy, roles and procedures. In fact many reviewers (Such as Melissa Lukashenko) use his work to proclaim pre-1788 Australia as a model for democracy today. What emerges from these readings is that Indigenous society managed itself through spiritual law and mutual obligation, but without the apparatus of a “state,” without bureaucracy. Governance without Government – stateless governance no less!
So we could re-phrase Australian history thus – an empire invaded the country of self-managing nations who had long lived at peace with each other. Technological superiority and ruthless ideology (or Christian law, remembering that the English sovereign is also the head of their church) enabled a fairly quick victory, although the frontier wars continued well into the 20th Century. (Such wars are only touched on by Pascoe and Gammage, and are more deeply documented by Reynolds and others.) The first nations had long settled the land and were managing it well, but were almost wiped out and their country taken from them.
Thus the basis of the High Court’s Mabo decision could be seen as wrong – the early British colonists were invaders, not settlers. The colonies were conquered not settled. The conquerers were organised as a sovereign state but the conquered were not – their form of governance was unrecognisable to the invaders. In truth they did govern themselves, with laws, rules, roles, responsibilities, respect, consequences and even punishments for transgressors. This was sovereignty in a different guise, without the hierarchy that the British took for granted. The Australian Law Reform Commission has pointed out that, had “Australia been treated as a ‘conquered’ colony, Aboriginal customary laws, to the extent that they had not been expressly abrogated, would presumably have been recognised, at least in their application to Aborigines.” This of course is why Henry Reynolds and other “frontier war” historians have been subject to such attack and even vilification from right wing and conservative media. The Australian establishment must maintain the fiction that the country was peacefully settled and was basically empty.
Settlement and surplus:
What these authors show, in detail, is that the continent was in fact settled – by the original inhabitants, the Aboriginal people. Over 30,000 years or more they developed a system of agriculture and commerce, an economy that produced a surplus and enabled a settled lifestyle. They stored their surplus for later use and worked but a few hours a day. They had abundant time for rich cultural and religious celebrations. Pascoe in particular cites early colonist accounts that marvelled at Aboriginal stature, health and living standards. Their lives were not nasty brutish and short (to misquote Hobbes) and they were not nomads nor hunter-gatherers.
But a strange question now arises – their agricultural achievements and intensification of settlement provided a surplus of food and resources, in a similar way to the documented history of the Middle East in Neolithic times. There, from about 10,000 – 7,000 years ago, farming resulted in two concepts of “civilisation” – a sedentary lifestyle and a guarded food surplus. Guarded because other groups or peoples would come and steal – ransack, rape, pillage fill all the old stories and myths, such as the Bible – whatever was not behind a wall or locked gate. The tremendous human achievement of sedentary, agriculture-based societies in most of the world was always accompanied by the rise of militarism, group violence, organised religion (temples, priesthoods, taxes, written ledgers and records, bureaucracy) as Ocalan has described in his Prison Writings: The Roots of Civilisation. David Graeber also documents this transition in Debt: the first 5,000 years. Graeber in particular shows how temples were not simply religious centres but the beginnings of the state, with extensive records of taxes, debts, payments and even harvests falling due in the future.
But not in Australia. Settlements and agriculture but … no locked doors, food surpluses left unguarded, no bureaucracy, no hierarchy. Religious belief and an all-encompassing sense of the sacred but … no temples or priesthood or taxes.
In short, no appropriation of that surplus by an emerging elite.
Why was this so?
To be continued: Tomorrow … Democracy, Women and Patriarchy.
This article was originally published on Ranterulze.net.
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