Bill Gammage, The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia. Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 2011. xiii + 434 pp. ISBN 978 1 74237 748 3. Hardback A$39.99.
Article first published online: 3 MAR 2014
© 2014 Economic History Society of Australia and New Zealand and Wiley Publishing Asia Pty Ltd
Australian Economic History Review
Volume 54, Issue 1, pages 86–89, March 2014
How to Cite
Keen, I. (2014), Bill Gammage, The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia. Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 2011. xiii + 434 pp. ISBN 978 1 74237 748 3. Hardback A$39.99. Australian Economic History Review, 54: 86–89. doi: 10.1111/aehr.12038
- Issue published online: 3 MAR 2014
- Article first published online: 3 MAR 2014
There are two main strands to the argument in this book. The first has to do with the ways in which the Aboriginal use of fire shaped Australia's vegetation before British colonisation, in patterns that were visible during the early colonial period, recorded by artists of the time and described in documents. The feature most commented on was the ‘parkland'-like appearance of woodland, and the extensive grasslands. The second strand links these practices to Aboriginal religion and social organisation. The management of land and its resources was governed, Gammage thinks, by imperatives from religion (‘the Dreaming’), which was essentially common to Aboriginal people across the continent. People were constrained by religious dictates to look after every part of the landscape. The commonality of religion and cross-cutting links imply that in effect Australia comprised a single ‘estate’. The whole is driven by a polemical message – that Aboriginal people ‘cared for’ the land, and deliberately ‘managed’ it, especially through the use of fire; that European colonisation has been destructive of the environment; and in order to become truly ‘Australian’ like the Aborigines, we need to learn from them.
The Allen and Unwin website claims that the book ‘[e]xplodes the myth that pre-settlement Australia was an untamed wilderness revealing the complex, country-wide systems of land management used by Aboriginal people’. The general point is far from new, however. Many recent discussions draw on a 1969 article by the archaeologist Rhys Jones on what he called ‘fire-stick farming’ by Aborigines. To take one example, David Bowman writes that ethnographic evidence left little doubt that Aboriginal burning played a central role in the maintenance of the landscapes subsequently colonised by Europeans. ‘Both 19th century European colonists and anthropologists in the 20th century documented the indispensability of fire as a tool in traditional Aboriginal economies, which have aptly been described as “fire-stick farming” ’. Aborigines used fire to provide favourable habitats for herbivores and increase the local abundance of food plants. What Gammage adds is the exhaustive recording of visual and documentary evidence of early colonial landscapes and Aboriginal uses of fire across the continent, vividly presented, as well as speculations about particular strategies to maintain specific features of landscapes, for which the evidence is less direct.
The most original aspect of the book is the idea that Australia in 1788 comprised a single ‘estate’. Gammage does not seem to be saying that Aboriginal people had a conception of Australia as a single land mass. Rather the density of connections linking people of one group to neighbouring and even more distant groups imply a unified ‘estate’. These connections included the travels of totemic ancestors recounted in myths, cooperation in the performance of ceremonies, and exchange. People were united, he thinks, by ‘the Dreaming’, which dictated that people cared for every part of the country. How the Dreaming made caring for land compulsory (p. 139) is less than clear. Gammage pulls three ‘rules’ apparently out of the air (p. 4), but I wonder how such injunctions were expressed and where they are recorded. In any case, a single estate entails something like common or joint ownership – in this case on the part of half a million or more people, which would have been difficult to administer.
Gammage overstates the unity, and the continuity of connections. Not all Aboriginal groups had intimate connections to neighbouring groups. Kǔrnai people of Gippsland in eastern Victoria, for example, were rather isolated, especially by the mountains to the north, and their institutions, such as marriage and male initiation, were idiosyncratic. Their strongest external connections were to Bidawal people to the east, and through them to the Monaro and the south coast of New South Wales. Island peoples such as the Tiwi of Melville and Bathurst Islands in the Top End were rather isolated from the mainland, and also had very distinctive institutions. How could Tasmania be part of the Aboriginal estate, isolated as it was by rising sea levels from the end of the Pleistocene? Also relevant is the huge diversity of Aboriginal languages, for the most part mutually unintelligible.
The account of ‘the Dreaming’ is deeply flawed, for Gammage attributes to Aborigines a belief in a Judaeo-Christian God:
The Dreaming conceived an unchangeable universe, hence free of time. This can be so because the universe is not natural: it was made from darkness by God. Who made God and darkness no-one knows … Across Australia the creation story is essentially the same: God made light, brought into being spirits and creator ancestors, and set down eternal Law for all creation. (p. 123)
This is eerily familiar:
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light; and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness. (Genesis Chapter 1, verses 1–4)
Many Aboriginal Christians would no doubt agree with Gammage's interpretation, but in 1788 perhaps the closest conception to a single creator God was Baiame and similar figures in the southeast. In some accounts Baiame is the most powerful sorcerer/magician, and now lives in the sky with his wife or wives. (Some early commentators mistakenly thought that beliefs in Baiame and similar beings derived from Christianity). In Aboriginal cosmologies familiar to me it is the totemic and other creator ancestors who shaped the landscape and whose legacy was social custom and the religious law.
Gammage's scattergun approach to evidence yields some valid insights, such as the love people expressed for their country, the multiple affiliations of people to places, and the webs of connections linking groups. But the account of relations to country is marred by overgeneralisations such as that being born on or near a songline decides a person's most important totem (p. 126), or that an area of country was everywhere owned by an extended patrilineal family (p. 139). In regions such as northeast Arnhem Land, the western Kimberley, the Lander River, eastern Cape York Peninsula, and the MacDonell Ranges, for example, a person's most important totemic affiliations come from their father and father's country and group. In much of the southeast, matrilineal categories conferred a person's main totemic affiliations. In Gippsland gender totems were particularly important.
Aboriginal relations to country varied (and vary) considerably. Towards the coasts in many regions the groups owning country were and are patrilineal, from very small to quite large. Many coastal peoples were rather sedentary. People of the Western Desert, in contrast, were highly mobile and very sparsely distributed, and individuals were attached to country by a range of ties of different kinds, including places of conception and birth, the place of one's father's initiation, ties to one's mother's country, and so on. In all regions, however, people had a variety of links to and rights in country. This diversity of ties shaped the way in which groups of people who lived together and cooperated in hunting, gathering and fishing, were formed. It would be interesting to know how such variation affected the organisation of the use of fire.
The homogenising expression ‘the Dreaming’, coined by Spencer and Gillen and popularised by W. E. H. Stanner, elides the degree of variation in Aboriginal religions. It also has unfortunate connotations of people living in a dreamy, timeless world, a notion that Gammage reproduces:
Since universe and Law never change, time is irrelevant, as in a dream. Change and time exist only as cycles: birth and death, the passage of stars and seasons, journeys, encounters, and after 1788 the appearance of plants and animals seeming new but always there. (p. 123)
The idea that Aboriginal concepts of time were simply static or cyclical is not borne out by careful studies such as John Rudder's analysis of Yolngu conceptions of time. Furthermore, Gammage exaggerates the idea of universal connections through ‘song lines’, overgeneralised since Bruce Chatwin's eponymous book. While the mythical journeys of totemic ancestors in many regions form dense webs of interconnection, people of Princess Charlotte Bay in eastern Cape York Peninsula believed that totemic ancestors associated with particular sites didnot travel widely; the few exceptions were beings associated with male initiation rites.
Many peoples give the creative period of totemic ancestors a name, such as jukurrpa in the arid zone and wangarr in northeast Arnhem Land, but Bardi people apparently do not. In many regions the ancestors are predominantly terrestrial, and on some coasts, aquatic. As mentioned, sky beings such as Baiame dominate mythologies in the southeast. The Wanjina beings of the Kimberley are identified as cumulus clouds, associated with thunder, lightning, and the wet season. The dominant figure of Bula in what is now the south of Kakadu National Park threatens to cause fiery cataclysm if his domain underground is disturbed. Rituals related to ancestral beliefs varied greatly as well. All this variation is ironed out by the indiscriminate use of ‘the Dreaming’.
In proposing that Aborigines shared a single estate, Gammage returns unwittingly to a nineteenth-century reading of Aboriginal society. Many commentators then interpreted Aboriginal possessions not only in terms of the all-encompassing concept of ‘property’ (which Gammage avoids), but also projecting English social structure onto Aboriginal social relations. The tribe was the equivalent of the nation, with its common language, territory (which the tribe defended), and body of custom. It was divided into family groups, each with an estate. In several colonial accounts, individuals inherited property in land from the father post mortem and passed it down to sons or in the absence of sons to other close relatives. The family is thus constituted as a succession of individual landholders, reminiscent of English aristocratic families holding land in entail. In this way Aboriginal society, at least in its dimension of property, is depicted as a simulacrum of English society. Enlarging the scale of the comparison, for Gammage Aborigines in effect comprised a single nation with a single estate.
A homologous argument could be advanced about the contemporary world. Nation states share a common mode of organisation, linking people to land and waters. Each nation embraces a comparable mode of law and sovereignty that links a people, one or more national languages, and an area (or areas) of land and waters. Nations are globally united by this common mode of governance in which every inch (except for international waters) is someone's responsibility. Nations are connected through the United Nations and other international organisations, by trade, and by global media of communications. The nations of the world therefore comprise a single ‘country’. Gammage's thesis about Australia in 1788 comprising a single estate is just as unconvincing.