How Aborigines made Australia

Stephen Forbes reviews and discusses a powerful new book by historian Bill Gammage, The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia.

A few years ago, when our Edward was 15 months old, an old Nunkari (a traditional healer) in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara lands cured him of that awful chronic weeping eczema that neither western medicine or folk remedies had been able to address. Edward stopped scratching straight away, the redness and anger of the welts faded within 24 hours and over the next week the scarring gradually disappeared and has never returned. My skin specialist in Adelaide wondered about a scientific analysis of the cure. The point of this anecdote is simply to observe the value of traditional Aboriginal knowledge and the importance of respecting different knowledge paradigms when seeking truth.

Bill Ganunage is a historian who’s recently published a powerful thesis on Aboriginal land management – The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia. Bill has had the temerity to tackle the pre-1788 ecology of Australia from a discipline other than science and to assert the effectiveness of traditional law in the stewardship of the Australian landscape. Gammage’s approach has been to work with early European written and visual records of the Australian landscape and to evaluate these records against subsequent and contemporary records, often of the same location. Even Ganunage’s contemporary informants outlined in the acknowledgements reflect a preference for cultural evidence rather than scientific analysis – esteemed ecologists are by and large missing from the list In seeking truth in an arena dominated by science, Gammage has shown considerable courage. The result is a powerful new perspective on the Australian landscape and on what it means to be Australian.

The perceptions of European settlers in Australia were informed by their experience in Europe and to some extent, by the ideas of the Enlightenment In this context early botanists were much more assiduous in exploring and cataloguing Australia’s flora for science (utilising Linnaeus’s binomial system) than in capturing the biocultural knowledge of Australia’s Aboriginal peoples. Disappointingly, the same criticism can still be leveled today. Our contemporary interpretation of the Australian landscape remains dominated by science. The interpretation of Australia’s pre- 1788 and contemporary native landscapes is now the province of ecologists, working in a branch of science unknown in 1788. Scientists are prepared to concede the value of alternative perspectives where there’s little threat to the centrality of science in analysis and explanation. The interpretation of visual artists, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, are even admired and celebrated by scientists. The national Waterhouse Natural History Art Prize provides a marvelous celebration of such art. However, science and art are only two ways of looking at the Australian landscape.

In this context, Gammage’s analysis of historical and cultural sources and his rejection of a traditional scientific approach to explore the ecology ofAustralia might even be seen as subversive. However, the analysis is readable, radical and rewarding. Most powerful are the 18th century paintings showing the park-like country that made European squatters so wealthy. Charles Sturt observed, “In many places the trees are so sparingly, and I had almost said judiciously distributed as to resemble the park lands attached to a gentleman’s residence in England”. After landscape gardener William Kent “leaped the fence and saw that all nature was a garden”, the English landscape garden, synonymous with Capability Brown, was the epitome of taste for an English estate. The appearance of so much of Australia’s landscape in the image of such park land was remarkable to Australian settlers and was remarked upon. However, what Gammage demonstrates appears counter intuitive the rapid invasion of trees onto these park lands follows the removal of traditional Aboriginal burning regimes rather than the arrival of settlers and their stock. Gammage quotes Eric Rolls’ reflection on the Pilliga Scrub that, “Australia’s dense forests are not remnants of 200 years of energetic clearing, they are the product of 100 years of energetic growth”. In 1818 John Oxley had seen, “… forest of huge iron-barks and big white-barked cypress trees, three to four only to the hectare”.

These extensive expanses of grass in a parklike setting were viewed with enthusiasm both for their beauty and economic potential. But as the operating assumptions of European settlers were based on English climate, soils and grasses, the change to the landscape as a result of expanding populations of sheep and cattle was rapid. The variability of the Australian climate, the fragility of many Australian soils under the pressure of overgrazing by introduced hoofed animals, the ecology of native grasses and the central role of managing fire effectively saw a rapid decline in productivity of the land.

Unconstrained by scientific orthodoxy Gammage has been able to construct an alternative thesis that recognises the centrality of Aboriginal peoples in manipulating the Australian landscape on a continental scale from the Kimberley to Tasmania. While recognition of Aboriginal land management is hardly new, The Biggest Estate on Earth proposes a conscious, audacious and disciplined approach to managing Australia a thesis ‘beyond imagining’ to European settlers then and perhaps now. Gammage observes, ‘To burn patterns so complex in terrain so varied needs intricate knowledge of plants and fire, visionary planning, and skill and patience greater than anything modern Australia has imagined”.

Gammage explores the response of scientific colleagues in an interesting appendix. The point, of course, is that there are many ways to seek truth. As a scientist I’ve become more respectful of other knowledge paradigms rather than less respectful of science. Reconciliation in any arena is ultimately about respect and listening. Here Gammage goes beyond analysis of historical sources to consider the importance of culture and traditional law.

This is an important, interesting and well-crafted book that tells us a great deal about Australia and Australians. The Biggest Estate on Earth is a profound contribution to Aboriginal cultural and environmental reconciliation. It deserves to be read and discussed widely.

The Biggest Estate on Earth – How Aborigines Made Australia by Bill Gammage is published by Allen & Unwin.

Originally published in The Adelaide Review on 1 February 2012.

For more information about the Botanic Gardens of South Australia, visit the website.



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