Aboriginal Dreaming Paths and Trading Routes: The Colonisation of the Australian Economic Landscape

By O'Connor, Michael | Australian Aboriginal Studies, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

Aboriginal Dreaming Paths and Trading Routes: The Colonisation of the Australian Economic Landscape


O'Connor, Michael, Australian Aboriginal Studies


Aboriginal Dreaming Paths and Trading Routes: The colonisation of the Australian economic landscape

Dale Kerwin 2010

Sussex Academic Press, Eastbourne, 206pp, ill., maps, 26cm, ISBN 9781845193386

Dale Kerwin has transformed his doctoral thesis into an impressive book, with an enticing title and cover. The 'paths' and 'routes' in the title refer to the vast, complex and well-used network of pathways that covered this country before Europeans arrived. This book looks at the nature of this network, its rich array of associated infrastructure, both cultural and spiritual, and the way in which it was co-opted by Europeans to take control of the Australian continent from the late eighteenth century onwards. As the series editor David Cahill notes in his preface, this is an 'emic' study--an 'insider's' view. Thus the author, an Aboriginal scholar, brings to this study not only his voice but also the knowledge and understanding of a number of Aboriginal Elders across the continent. The six chapters are well illustrated with black and white maps, photographs and drawings, for which the front listings contain informative extra notes. There is a solid reference list and a sufficient index, a feature that is a helpful addition to the original thesis. Several of the chapter titles I found to be most intriguing and inviting.

This book covers a lot of ground as it re-assembles the extent and nature of spiritual paths and trade routes across the entire Australian continent. These, it is argued, underpinned Aboriginal economic, cultural and spiritual life in the past, and still have a role and importance today. And beyond that, there is a need to improve and revalue our understanding of the way current Australian pathways, routes, roads and network owe their existence to the first Australians.

Kerwin introduces his work with a synopsis of the Australian continent and some key aspects of Aboriginal society sans Europeans. Source material has been obtained from an array of historical and contemporary works, combined with the author's own fieldwork with Aboriginal Elders across Australia (named in the references as personal communications). Early on he sets out three kinds of nonsense applied to the first people of Australia: (1) Nomadic and non-sedentary, (2) No (economic) specialists, and (3) Food collection not production. In attempting to refute them, Kerwin seeks to remodel our understanding of why travel through the landscape was an essential feature of Aboriginal society. Re-authoring is the theme of Chapter 3, 'Only the learned can read', which takes its cue from the 'systematic clearing of Aboriginal history from the spatial landscape and the re-inscription of the landscape with a European history'. Here the author seeks, using his own field interviews with Elders, to reconstruct that which was written over.

The more conventionally named chapter that follows--'Maps, travel and trade as cultural processes'--mixes ethnographic records and more of the author's field interviews to explore the diversity of these processes. The many different physical objects, technologies and cultural practices in relation to pathways (e.g. art, toa, message sticks and shell middens) are discussed in varying levels of detail. Any of these can be the subject of a whole text, which indicates the ambitious nature of Kerwin's work. However, the major focus of the chapter is on the Pituri Road, the network for trade in the psychoactive drug extracted from Duboisia hopwoodii, and the significant activities associated with this road and its trade. Chapter 5, 'To travel is to learn', takes a geographic focus on Queensland, showing how the earliest surveyors, such as Mitchell and Gregory, used local Aboriginal men as informants and guides, and, with new knowledge from them, were at the forefront of co-opting the traditional paths for new roads and stock routes, and for European economic needs and goals. For the most part, the 'Conclusion' chapter is a solid summary of Kerwin's argument, and makes the case for another orthogonal perspective along which Australian history and landscape can be integrated and understood. …

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