Bill Gammage, The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines made Australia
384 p. 2011
I was aware, while reading this book, that I was reading what could turn out to be one of the really big books in Australian history: a book that changes the received understanding of Australian settlement,eventually rippling out beyond historians to politicians and the media to finally become part of the way we see ourselves and our country. Maybe.
Gammage’s argument is that, instead of being marginal hunter-gatherers, ‘people’- for that is the terminology he has chosen to distinguish aborigines from ‘newcomers’- farmed prior to 1788. They were not farmers, which is a lifestyle; but they did farm – the activity of tending and shaping landscape. They developed what he calls a ‘template’ of landscape, a mosaic comprising open pasture with few trees, strips of scrub and stubby trees, other plains, then clearly delineated forest. It was a landscape ideally suited to the growing of tubers and providing both shelter and feed to encourage the presence of kangaroos and animals suitable for hunting. Instead of being forced to keep moving because they were on the verge of starvation, people were well-supplied with food through this manipulation of their environment. They moved across country as part of tending it, shifting and imposing the template, created through careful burning, onto new land at will. They were well aware of species that tolerated or encouraged fire.
It is an argument that forces us to change our view of the landscape around us. The bushland that we prize as ‘native’ landscape is often not that at all- instead it is product of neglect as the custodians of the country could no longer farm it. The plains of green ‘pick’ were engulfed by scrub, and forests left unburned exploded into huge conflagrations that were not seen under the care of ‘the people’.
He mounts his argument through repetition, almost to the point of overload. He draws on the writings of early settlers and explorers who again, again and again, observed and documented the same thing:
The country consisted of open forest, which, growing gradually thinner, at length left intervals of open-plain…Penetrating next through a narrow strip of casuarinae scrub, we found the remains of native huts; and beyond this scrub, we crossed a beautiful plain, covered with shining verdure, and ornamented with trees, which, although ‘dropt in nature’s careless haste’, gave the country the appearance of an extensive park. We next entered a brush of the acacia pendula, which grew higher and more abundant than I had seen it elsewhere (Major Mitchell, NSW, cited on p. 219)
And Gammage repeats their descriptions too- twenty, thirty, fifty, more- explorers and settlers, repeating ‘parkland’ and ‘plains’ again and again. He is at pains to emphasize that this occurred across the breadth of Australia as he draws together descriptions from each state, identified in brackets. The open spaces were covered in kangaroo grass, a summer-flowering grass that turned tan-coloured in summer, and their horses sank into the soft, flour-like soil.
Gammage reinforces these descriptions with photographs and paintings. I had always assumed that the similarity of early paintings reflected a shared English sensibility that superimposed an English aesthetic of parkland onto an Australian landscape. But when you couple these paintings which again and again depicted open grassland fringed with forest, with written testimony that again and again described exactly the same thing, the supposition that they were blinded by European sensibility becomes shaky. The blindness is ours.
If you’re not convinced by the descriptions and the paintings, he then moves from one capital city to another, drawing on the same descriptions that sprang from their earliest newcomer settlers, reinforcing that he is not just talking about one corner of Australia, but the continent as a whole.
I had been anticipating reading this book for some time. Many people speak of Gammage’s book The Broken Years in glowing terms, and his contribution to documentaries (e.g. The War that Changed Us that is screening on ABC1 now) and public discourse more generally has always been sensitive, articulate and insightful. This book was awarded the Prime Ministers Literary Prize for Australian History in 2012, and Victorian, ACT, and Queensland awards. Yet I found myself disconcerted by the abrupt and utilitarian tone of the opening chapters. Chapter 2, ‘Canvas of a Continent’ is replete with colour photographs and landscapes and paintings, but the text reads like a series of separate, lengthy captions. Chapter 3 ‘The nature of Australia’ is divided up into a number of subheadings, enumerating 5 changes, followed by 8 notes. It felt a bit like reading a speaker’s notes.
But these two chapters are followed in Chapter 4 ‘Heaven on Earth’ and Chapter 5 ‘Country’ by one of the clearest explications of the Dreamtime and its connection with action in relation to land that I have ever read. He made intelligible to me the connection between spiritual and ecological activity on the land, highlighting even more starkly the insult on so many levels that settler activity inflicted on Aboriginal reality.
Gammage’s beautiful, clear writing seemed to be ribboned with utilitarian, ‘hard’ writing, not unlike the ecological template that he was describing! I think that I only really grasped what he was doing in the writing of this book when I read Appendix 1. There he explained that he had been invited by the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies of the University of Tasmania to speak on 1788 land management. As it transpired, the invitation lapsed. This book seems to be to be the response he would have given to the scientists with whom he hoped to speak. In many ways, I feel as if he is not writing for historians, but for scientists. His footnotes- so beloved by historians- are stripped back and unwieldy, as they give author and page only, requiring a further search within the bibliography. Sometimes the original date of the quote – an important detail in this case- is obscured in the publication date of recent editions . The footnotes corroborate, rather than carry on a conversation. The dotpoints and headings are part of constructing an argument on scientific terms, and a perusal of his truly extensive bibliography shows his immersion in not only historical, but also scientific, archaelogical and ecological literature.
I read this book after reading Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu, and I wondered when reading that book how it compared with Gammage’s. Although there is some cross-over between the two books, Pascoe’s describes people much more, and their economic practices across a range of activities- fishing, , food storage, shelter, etc. Gammage’s book, I think, focusses more on manipulation of the landscape. Pascoe’s has the emotion of political action: Gammage’s is more dispassionate. Gammage has the academic clout of a long and distinguished career in academe: Pascoe speaks as a Bunurong/Tasmanian indigenous man. Pascoe reports on the academic debates from the side: Gammage is there, (especially in the Appendix) right in the midst of that academic skirmishing.
Taken together, the two books challenge our conceptions of ‘hunter/gatherer’ and what ‘native bushland’ looks like. This in turn has implications for our responses to fire and how to act ecologically. Most importantly, it throws up a direct challenge to the idea of ‘terra nullius,’ not in a legal sense this time, but in a practical and environmental one, by completely reshaping our idea of pre-1788. It doesn’t fit neatly into a “defining moments” view of history at all and it should give the lie completely to our Prime Minister’s view that Australia was “um, scarcely settled” prior to white settlement. That’s what a big history can do.