Aboriginal Fire

The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia, by Bill Gammage, Allen and Unwin 2011

Book Review by Roger Underwood, June 2012

Gammage’s focus is historical – he examines in detail the pre-1788 Australian biota and landscape (i.e. Australia before European settlement), and the way these were achieved and sustained through the use of fire by Aboriginal Australians.

Both pre-1788 and modern use of fire are controversial subjects in Australia. A sharp line exists between those who believe in planned burning and want to see more of it, and those who oppose it and want to see it cease.  The debate is at its most intransigent within academia, but also regularly spills over into into management plans, conferences, journals, courtrooms, TV programs, articles in newspapers, letters to the Editor and cocktail party discussions.  On one side are those (mostly inner-city academics) who deny that Aboriginal people ever lit anything other than a campfire; they are supported by environmentalists who believe that fuel reduction burning destroys the biodiversity and, besides, is ineffective in minimising bushfire damage. On the other side are those (mostly firefighters and land managers, but also many fire scientists and ecologists who have worked in the real world) who believe that without an effective fuel reduction program, Australian communities in bushland areas can never be defended from the horror of a killer bushfire, and that fire is a natural factor in the Australian wildland environment.

Gammage rejects the view that Aboriginal people were backward and uncivilised (a view held by most of the early European settlers), or that they were a people who “trod lightly on the ground” as a minor component of the ecosystem (a view put forward by some starry-eyed academics). On the contrary, he argues that Aboriginal people were skilful, determined and experienced land managers. They were active across the breadth of the Australian continent and Tasmania, manipulating the biota and the landscape to an extent amounting to almost total control. This was done according to strict rules (‘The Law’) about what areas must or could be burned, and when, how and by whom fires would be lit. The rules that governed this work were passed down over generations for thousands of years, and were ruthlessly enforced. They not only knew how to manipulate the Australian biota to optimise their food resources, but they knew how to sustain pleasing and safe living conditions in a hot, dry continent, and they were able to do this in a way that facilitated their comfortable life style and their spiritual demands.

Aboriginal use of fire was no random or careless fire-lighting, but a calculated and careful program of deliberate and well-managed burning, the techniques and practices for which had been perfected over millennia, and become deeply embedded in cultural law. The beautiful and provident landscapes discovered by the first Europeans from one end of Australia to the other, and described by so many of them as being “just like an English nobleman’s estate”, was a managed landscape, and the management tool was fire.

None of this is new. The concept of Aboriginal burning to achieve land use (and other) objectives has been put forward many times over the last 50 years, for example, by the pre-historian Rys Jones, the anthropologist Sylvia Hallam, biologist Ian Abbott, human ecologist David Ward, silviculturalist Vic Jurskis and forester Peter Ryan amongst many others.  What is new in Gammage’s work is the astonishing volume and breadth, and the clear and systematic presentation of the supporting evidence. This is drawn from a wide spectrum of sources (the bibliography alone lists 1500 books), and includes a detailed account of the  the Australian biota,  a comprehensive review of the writings of the first European explorers and early settlers, analysis of the paintings and sketches of the first landscape artists, and the reproduction of a myriad of first-hand observations taken from early diaries, journals, maps, and newspapers. Unlike most historians, Gamage has a thorough and intimate knowledge of the Australian bush, based on personal observation as well as academic study, and this allows him to illustrate the processes whereby the Australian biota survive or recover from fire with great clarity.

The Biggest Estate on Earth is a monumental work, with detail piled upon detail, all meticulously and methodically assembled. Gammage’s final chapter is quite remarkable. This is an almost stand-alone essay, entitled Becoming Australian and in it he pays tribute to the magnificence of the Aboriginal achievement in their management of the Australian landscape and biota, and of what has been lost in Australia since 1788. He does not need to dwell on the costs that have resulted from the destruction of the Aboriginal approach, and how they continue to mount as modern Australians persist in trying to overlay a European concept of land management on Australian ecosystems…., or, equally futile, to attempt to use the American approach to suppress fires burning in eucalypt forests carrying heavy fuels. And yet while he recognises that there can never be a return to the pre-1788 situation, his cry is that we must redouble our efforts to understand it and learn from it….. not just for community protection from high intensity fires, but for the health and beauty of our forests, woodlands, tropical savannas, rangelands, deserts and rainforests. The book concludes with the lines: “We have a continent to learn. If we are to survive, let alone feel at home, we must begin to understand our country. If we succeed, we might one day become Australian’. With this statement, Gammage presents the challenge which is at the very heart of land management in this country.