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Sunday, 8 January 2012

A new take on Australia pre 1788

Bill Gammage, in The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia, fundamentally challenges the traditional account of the character of the Australian landscape and the role of the Aboriginal people in creating that landscape. He quotes the account of Charles Darwin during his visit to Australia in the 19th century: ''Harmless savages wandering about without knowing where they shall sleep at night and gaining their livelihood by hunting in the woods.'' 


Darwin, along with most of the European invaders, got the story wrong,Gammage reckons, though they provided much of the evidence on which he build his case for that fundamental misapprehension.


Gammage's book is a big, beautifully presented, intellectual detective story. It is rare to be able to praise a book for both presentation and content, but this is one of those occasions on which I am free to do both. No effort has been spared in the presentation of the argument, with around 35 pages of reproductions of early paintings, sketches of geographical areas and their vegetation and current, comparative colour photos. He makes the case that the Aborigines not only adapted to the Australian environment but that in significant ways they created it and that this creation underlay a lifestyle that was relatively free, independent and provided substantial time for cultural, religious and social activities.  


In making his case for a continent wide consistent pattern of using fire to create a landscape that provided sufficient, sustainable sources of food, Gammage draws heavily on paintings and sketches from the early settlers shortly after invasion when the pre-1788 regime of management was still in place and the situation following the forced abandonment of that regime in a wide range of contexts across the country, along with extracts from diaries and correspondence.


Much as Henry Reynolds forced a revision of the contemporary wisdom on the issue of the Aboriginal response to the European invasion, Gammage has laid the basis for a revolution in the understanding of Aboriginal management of the environment pre-1788. He  concludes his argument with the following observations:
This book interrupts Law and country at the moment when terra nullius came, and an ancient philosophy was destroyed by the completely unexpected, an invasion of new people and ideas. A majestic achievement ended.. Only fragments remain. For the people of 1788 the loss was stupefying. Australia, of how to be Australian, vanished with barely a whisper of regret. 
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, one day we might learn to be Australians. (p.323)

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