Did colonialism make Aborigines nomadic?

Was the Australian Aborigine made nomadic? A most illuminative book by Bruce Pascoe ‘Dark Emu Black Seeds: agriculture or accident?’ suggests to me that British invaders of Australia, in their respective roles as explorers and settlers, forced the indigenes into a nomadic life. When the British drove away the Aboriginal people from their land by shooting or poisoning them (so it has been written), destroying their life chances, as well as their culture and lifestyle, where could the indigene go? How could they survive?

The imagined terra nullius of Australia and North America led to the despoliation of the First Nation peoples of these lands. They could not have been settled, could they? They had to be nomadic, owning no land!

The back cover of Pascoe’s book says: “Pascoe puts forward a compelling argument for a reconsideration of the hunter-gatherer label for pre-colonial Aboriginal Australians. The evidence insists that Aboriginal people right across the continent were using domesticated plants, sowing, harvesting, irrigating and storing – behaviours inconsistent with the hunter-gatherer tag.”

Pascoe is quoted on the back cover thus: “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 that we will admire and love our land all the more.”

A reviewer (Lisa Hill) wrote “In 156 pages, Pascoe has inverted almost everything I thought I knew about pre-colonial Australia. Importantly, he is 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 complete civilisation but viewed through the blinkered lens of appropriation and White superiority.

As a matter of interest, during a brief but bitter historiography war in Australia in recent times, a strident effort was made to play down oral history. Why? Without being tested through the adversarial processes of an Australian court, oral statements about the past could have no credibility. So, there go the Old Testament and any other artefacts of culture.

Pascoe’s work was preceded by the renowned Dr. Coombs. The following is an extract from my book ‘Hidden Footprints of Unity’ Chapter 3 ‘To have a dream.’

“ A few years after the initial ‘discovery’ by Captain Cook, it was apparently known that the indigenes not only occupied the land and used it with economic purpose, but also (according to the highly respected Dr.Coombs) “… lived in clan or tribal groups, that each group had a homeland with known boundaries, and that they took their name from their district, and rarely moved outside it.” It was also known that they had, and applied, firm rules about trespass, kinship ties, marriage, child rearing and other matters, the hallmarks of an organised society; that they had a “habit of obedience” to their rulers and leaders, a hallmark of a political society; and that they had an ordered ceremonial life, reflecting the sharing of a spiritual vision, a hallmark of a civilisation. Apparently, they also had their own zodiac, which guided their activities. Their artistic records are also well known and respected.”

Sadly, government after government talked about ‘Bridging the gap,’ with no discernible improvement in the plight of their First Nation people (except for a handful of urban Aborigines, who seemed to have made good progress through personal effort). Quo vadis?