Book Review: The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia

The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia. By Bill Gammage, Allen & Unwin, 2011, ISBN 987 1 74331 132 5
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In May last year, I reviewed Bruce Pascoe’s brilliant Dark Emu, which deals with First Nations people’s management of the environment of this continent. 

The work reviewed here was published three years earlier, and, like that by Pascoe, is the result of years of meticulous research of writings by early colonists. It predates, and so destroys completely, a racist mythology that is the fundamental psychosocial underpinning of today’s Australian State. This mythology stemmed from the Europeans’ assertion of race as a determinant of superiority, and was used as a justification for the annexation of the Australian landmass and the subjugation, dispossession and enslavement of its diverse peoples. 

It is striking that Gammage’s work, like Pascoe’s, reveals something that hides in plain sight: this place was not terra nullius, not empty. It was managed intimately, by peoples whose deep connection with, and custodianship of, their country extends so far back into time that it is difficult to comprehend. Ultimately we know, with a fair degree of certainty, that the human species evolved in southwest Africa. We know that the earliest people lived around a huge lake and vast swamps, and were trapped by climate conditions, which prevented wider dispersal until about 125,000 years ago.

That said, there is also a deep truth in the growing assertion, based on long-known local history (now confirmed by scientific studies) that First Nations were always here, in any meaningful interpretation of that phrase. We know beyond a doubt that humans were on this continent 65,000 years ago, and we are on the cusp of nearly doubling that assessment, given recent archeological work in Victoria and Queensland. If one hundred and twenty-five thousand years — over four thousand generations — is not “always,” then what is, in human terms? 

This is, to borrow a phrase, an inconvenient truth about the southern continent. The colonisers knew terra nullius was a lie, and their scouts (“explorers”) documented this well. Pascoe has been excoriated for his assertion that clans lived in villages consisting of (usually) stone houses. Gammage concurs, but goes much further in his examination of how the land was intimately managed, in a consistent manner, from Cape York to southern Tasmania and from Cape Byron to Cape Leeuwin. Gammage quotes original source after original source. The Europeans compared Australian landscapes to the stately, well-manicured parks of their aristocrats. They realised that the land was indeed managed, and documented this in their diaries, beginning with Lieutenant (so-called “Captain”) James Cook. The loudmouth apologists for colonisation shout that Gammage has fabricated history. Not true: it is they who hold to an ideological construction based on white privilege, and who ignore the contemporaneous documents.

Gammage points to the deep irony of a white historian such as himself discussing the fine details of Indigenous history, acknowledging that white privilege is in play. It is funny how pro-colonial historians and commentators believe that they — and they alone — can define First Nations’ reality. But it’s all a lie, as anyone travelling the less degraded parts of this continent can see. The land itself reveals the truth, and in so doing debunks the fake history that sits on the front shelves, rather than the wealth of documentation slowly rotting away in the basements of libraries and museums.

Custodians of a continent. Gammage takes 1788, the year of actual annexation, as a metaphor for the preceding millennia. The reason for this is obvious, as it is then that the European documentation of the country really commences, although there were reports from Abel Tasman’s expedition, which accord with later observations. The references to the “park like” nature of the countryside are so common in contemporary accounts by colonial scouts that the description was considered unremarkable. It was obvious to the writers that the landscapes they encountered were managed purposefully. The evidence was overwhelming at the time. There were no “culture wars” like those that consume the Murdoch media today. The white colonial narrative had not yet coalesced, although the murderous savagery of English imperialism had already broken across the backs of many First Nations clans.

Gammage presents his purpose in the first three sentences of his work: “This book describes how the people of Australia managed their land in 1788. It tells how this was possible, what they did, and why. It argues that collectively they managed an Australian estate they thought of as single and universal.”

Over the next 345 meticulously footnoted pages, backed by 1,500 references (not counting other, non-cited sources) Gammage proves his case. Unassailably, and despite the fairly desperate objections of pro-colonial detractors. It takes no great intellectual energy to pose the question: how can a human civilisation occupy an environment for tens of thousands of lifetimes and not have an impact?

Of course they did! But First Nations civilisation has been defined out of existence, because it had to be inferior to the colonisers, whose masters saw conquest, rather than custodianship, as the way to deal with the world and its peoples. The invaders really did consider that might is right! So they, more or less consciously, denied the evidence of their eyes and buried the documents in their private vaults.

Gammage’s sweeping narrative is divided into four main sub themes: “Australia in 1788,” “Why was Aboriginal land management possible?,” “How was land managed?” and “Invasion.” That last term is enough to send the racist commentators into a lather, by the way. Yet how else to describe what the Europeans did? It was a war of conquest: the land was never ceded! Now it suffers, to its very environmental core, the results of that invasion.

Gammage presents such a well-argued, detailed case that it is difficult to pick out one passage rather than another. So, what follows is the broadest of broad-brush synopsis.

The entire continental landmass, including inhabited offshore islands, was closely managed by its occupants. These people acted from a deep spiritual connection with the land, which was not separated from the practical needs of social groups and individuals. Their deep understanding of the workings of the environment was never compartmentalised. Each action followed from a previous action, and influenced following actions. So, while their spirituality was key, it was rooted in science. Not the super-sterile intellectualism that defines “Western” science, but one that understood that the environment was a partner with which to work. The land was never “other,” nor were people alienated from it. Everything blended to form a sustainable ecology of practical existence.

Contrast this to the world’s largest religions, all of which evolved from the need to explain and justify exclusive private property and so to alienate people from the environment, thus eventually rendering the planet open to unchecked exploitation by the powerful. We can see, starkly, where that has led, as the threat of global ruin looms ever closer.

I digress a little! Read the book, which along with Pascoe’s, documents the real history of Australia. A towering history which stands compared to the colonial narrative as an elephant to an ant.

Terra Nullius buried. One other thing: if there still exists a need for the interment of the racist ideology that is terra nullius, Gammage’s book erects the headstone. We all know that there were people here before 1788, indeed before any European contact. That piece of the myth has already decayed. Yet the colonial apologists still claim that there was no recognised ownership of the land.

But there was! Gammage documents the system of ownership among the clans of the southwest of the continent. Every area of country was the property of a clan group, with “title,” so-called, vested in the head of the clan. Crucially, it was not exclusive. All who passed through had rights to take food as they needed, provided respect was extended to the custodians. This was, of course, completely alien to the mindset of the invaders. Nonetheless, it was by any definition, a material, regulated relationship with a particular tract of land. And so falls the tottering edifice upon which “modern Australia” is constructed, from both an economic and an ideological standpoint.

In the face of the ongoing environmental disaster that characterises capitalist use of this continent, farmers, forest rangers and others are considering, and sometimes employing, Aboriginal land and forest management techniques. And, though still in their early days, those efforts are beginning to show success.

Bill Gammage’s work must be included in every public library and every history and scientific curriculum in the country. The wisdom of people who nurtured this driest of inhabited continents well before anyone else developed any sort of land management can only be ignored at great peril. Embraced, though, it could do much to reverse the depredations of colonialism. 

Read Peter Murray’s book review of Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu, Black Seeds: agriculture or accident

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