The Biggest Estate on Earth – How Aborigines Made Australia
Allen and Unwin, www.allenandunwin.com
Reviews by Mike McKeon
The Biggest Estate on Earth is an absolute must read that should be serialised, broadcast by whatever means to every one of us who call Australia home. It is my view that the 'colonial flag' waving, beer swilling, BBQing that goes on around "Australia Day" occurs because none of us had any education on real Australian history let alone have any knowledge of the lies, butchery and dispossession of the First Peoples. And from what I see nothing much has changed, our schools' curriculum is not much better than in my school days of the 1940s and '50s.
The author Bill Gammage is Adjunct Professor and Senior Research Fellow at the Humanities Research Centre of the Australian National University. From Bill's book I learnt that Aboriginal people managed or farmed the whole of Australia sometimes using fire to create, in the words of so many invader/settlers, "a park like" environment like the landed gentry's estates back home. Time and time again Bill quotes observations by these otherwise mostly arrogant or ignorant newcomers. Bill uses a reference point of 1788 as the state of the country created by Aboriginal people and after that date what has happened since to the land.
Depending on the type of environment the people either lived a careful life of moving with the seasons and weather, or a more settled life as in many areas across the country. When the people used fire they did it with years of acquired wisdom informing them ‒ they might observe that ants were carrying food out of their nests so rain was in the offing, they then 'fired' an area knowing that rain would quench any fire getting out of control. They burnt small clearings in wooded areas to create a grassy patch, then with the lush new growth being attractive to grazing animals they picked off the odd kangaroo, emu etc. Water-ways were kept clean and sometimes dammed and they built aqueducts and caught fish, eels etc. with nets and traps.
The people's management of 'the estate' probably minimised or prevented the wild 'bushfires' we are now experiencing. The ground was softer without the tamping down by cattle and sheep and floods were less devastating. The biggest advantage of the people's ways was that they kept their population numbers within what could be supported in the worst droughts and toughest of times and did not over-breed during the good times.
As Bill states ‒ "if we are to survive, let alone feel at home, we must begin to understand our country. If we succeed, one day we might become Australian".
A member of the Bunurong Wurundjeri people, Bruce Pascoe has written many books and this one, Dark Emu, is on a similar theme to The Biggest Estate on Earth by Bill Gamage, and he quotes references from Bill's book along with many reports from the invaders/settlers. He has made a similar case for us to learn more of how the people cultivated some grasses and harvested their grains and created storage for these to access out of season; they made flour and baked bread. The store-houses were sometimes raided by some 'explorers' without a "may we" or a "thank you".
There was even a reddish coloured rice grown and eaten. We newcomers mostly refuse to believe anything unless it is written down, the peoples oral accounts are not given the credibility they deserve so perhaps we will believe the written reports that Bill and Bruce quote.
There are many accounts of invaders/explorers coming across villages with stone walls and thatched roofs. The invasion of cattle and sheep obliterated much of the indigenous yams, grasses and grains within a few short years and their hooves stomped the ground firm.
Dark Emu is published as a paperback and at 175 pages would be most suitable to be included in the national school curriculum.
Both Bill's and Bruce's books refute the common belief that Aboriginal people were merely 'hunters and gatherers' living on the whims of nature. So many comments were made on the finesse of the fishing nets, the liveability of dwellings by 'explorers' and others, but it suits we the beneficiaries of the criminal acts to say Aboriginal people were primitive and unskilled.
Bruce offers the view that if we farmed the grasses, grains and animals that were/are indigenous to this land we wouldn't need the pesticides, fertilizers etc. that we use now to create foods the original Europeans were used to. However it is doubtful that the current population numbers could be sustained on these food sources let alone what the business fraternity and governments want to cram into Australia.
Published in Chain Reaction #133, September 2018. National magazine of Friends of the Earth Australia. www.foe.org.au/cr133