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The Biggest Estate On Earth review by Timothy Neale

Bill Gammage, The Biggest Estate on Earth Allen and Unwin, 2011

Many of the eccentricities of Bill Gammage’s new book concerning ‘how Aborigines made Australia’ became explicable to me only at the end of the main text when his secret interlocutors were revealed. In the first appendix the author tells of an exchange in 2008 about a talk on Aboriginal fire management he prepared for, but never delivered to, staff and students at the University of Tasmania. It is not clear how, but following the circulation of related materials a scientist from the university got in touch via email and informed the author he ‘must assume that natural features have natural causes until you can prove otherwise’. One suspects that Professor Gammage bristled at the sight of this rationalist razor of environmental science, itself a close relation to the textual reductionism of conservative historians from Gammage’s own discipline. For such reasoning not only covers over its own dependence on uncertain causes or conceits, but also present practices, oral traditions and abundant settler accounts are always outweighed by some higher and ever-evasive empiricism supposedly uncorrupted by contemporary politics.

Notwithstanding the evident latent racism of such a contention—that an eighteenth-century Aborigine is not truly a homicide unless the white colonial confesses it in triplicate, just as eighteenthcentury Aborigines do not manage their land unless there is documentary proof to the contrary—Gammage admits that his interlocutors’ ‘condescension has forced this book into more detail than a general reader might prefer, perhaps without satisfying the specialist’. As there are many present projects involving Aboriginal land management knowledge, such as Caring for Country, had Gammage been giving the talk in other forums I imagine the probability that pre-colonial Aborigines had an integrated knowledge of land management practices would have been preferred to the possibility that terra australis’s pre-colonial ecologies were purely ‘natural’ (despite millennia of inhabitation).

Given his interlocutors it is little wonder that Gammage’s text does not rely at any point on Aboriginal academics or oral traditions, his three main sources being (white) depictions in writing and art of ‘land before the Europeans changed it’, anthropological accounts of Aboriginal societies ‘today’, and readings of ‘what plants tell’ about their history and place. The ‘today’ of this anthropology is primarily, but not solely, the yesterday of Elkin, Strehlow and Berndt, and there is little space for the non-specialist to evaluate the botanical elements of the case as the author presents a series of substantive claims I can make little argument with. However, even those sympathetic with the general point will flinch at Gammage’s ‘Definitions’ and the second chapter, titled ‘Canvas of a Continent’. The former quickly illustrates the broader problems of the book: his claim that the word ‘estate’ can easily stand as a name for Australia and Tasmania from 1788 to approximately the mid-nineteenth century, which in ‘today’s terms … blended a continuum of like-minded managers, mixed farms and national parks’. The latent quasi-anthropological assertions continue, as in: ‘this vast area was governed by a single religious philosophy’—the Dreaming—the practices of which ‘made the continent a single estate’. The practitioners of this avowedly unitary theology were ‘mostly unknown to each other’ and yet the Dreaming is ‘universal’, a law commanding that ‘every inch of the land must be cared for’. While those familiar with contemporary Indigenous politics choke on their lunch, it is worth pointing out that the well-observed problems of the words ‘Aboriginal’ and ‘Aborigine’ are that they are vulnerable to precisely such totalising mythopoeic conflations. Gammage does not go through the work of a case study, demonstrating how language groups integrated into management regime over a specific area, instead conjuring a uniform theo-juridical regime (the Dreaming) out of resemblances between historically and geographically disparate anthropological observations.

The enthusiasm of the author’s language is understandable as, given this is a popular press book, his task is to both satisfy incredulous academics and a public persistently unwilling to take Indigenous people’s ecological knowledge seriously. The author matches the audience’s broadly western assumptions—‘All religions attempt two things: to explain existence, and to regulate behaviour’—but, that said, by repeating the common slippages of the 1980s’ international alliances between Indigenous groups and environmentalists, and mistaking low-impact inhabitation for ‘sustainable development’, Gammage’s language overreaches its warrant. The author is so insistent on the integration of this single ‘Dreaming’ and its ‘estate’—both terms irrevocably embedded in Romantic ideas of indigeneity and landscape/landshape, respectively—that the reader cannot help but start to visualise the disaggregated groups of pre-colonial Australia gathered around a conference room table (scene: Friday afternoon, people have places to be, so the chairman concludes: ‘alright everybody, I think we’re across it, now let’s action the items on this sustainability plan’).

Rather than adopt the scholar-activist position and argue that Indigenous people have a unique non-utilitarian relation to environments, Gammage has ended up in the contrary position of effectively saying that not only was their relationship partly instrumental and partly aesthetic, it was best practice too. Also, for the greater gains of a revaluing of Indigenous knowledge in a country premised on the historical and continuing debasement of exactly that knowledge, Gammage ignores a large body of recent scholarship in which, to paraphrase Kay Milton, balance may not be the ‘ends’ or ideal of Indigenous methods; it may be ‘an incidental consequence’ of other activities and factors. Gammage bypasses the problematic and sets his sights on the polemical.

This approach is on show in the chapter on depictions in writing and art of lands unmarked by white settlement. Particularly in colonial landscape painting, Gammage sees evidence, whether in the spacing of trees on ridgelines or the hues of grasslands, of Aboriginal land management practices. Early colonial artists, it is admitted, nipped and tucked here and there—squeezing land into the frame, decorating the foreground with ‘transient detail’ (frequently Indigenous)—but, ‘this does not make their landscapes inaccurate’. The following claims that such artists were ‘the photographers of their day’ not only repeats the retrospective conflation—painters are to photographers as pre-colonial Aborigines are to park rangers—but also paves the way for a convenient series of rationalisations and ventriloquisms. The officials who commissioned these works were compiling a colonial newsreel, ‘to show people at home what Australia was like’. Therefore they wanted accuracy (lest new settlers complain) and, should you have any doubts, ask yourself: why would artists invent a landscape ‘when the original was so novel?’

This uncomplicated use of colonial portrayals includes the use of impossible perspectives (Parkinson’s A View of Endeavour River, 1770), a claim that contemporary accounts of Glover’s ‘hideous fidelity to nature’ mean that we can trust him as being botanically accurate, and the inclusion of three Lycett paintings of places ‘Lycett never saw’. Repeatedly Gammage quotes excited colonials remarking on how like the parks and ennobled estates of home is this new Australia, without thinking that this may have reflected the class project of settlement or that this aesthetic may have been reflected in the watercolours of these new arrivals. The author concludes that Aboriginal ‘people made the land beautiful’. Whose ‘beauty’ would that be? Days after I finished reading this book I visited the Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane, which features Richard Bell’s painting TrikkyDikky and friends (2005). In it a comic drama of white ‘rip-off’ artists is flanked by a panel on the left side—reading ‘Australian Art it’s an aboriginal thing’—and a list of colonial painters on the right. It struck me that there is weird irony in the fact that Gammage is primarily using artists named in Bell’s list of plagiarists (those who appropriated ‘an aboriginal thing’) as evidence of superior Aboriginal knowledge of landscapes, in effect having the paintings present evidence against the colonial project of which they were a part.

Many may read Gammage’s argument as an iteration of ‘Blind Watchmaker’ reasoning. There is evidence of design and complexity, and so thereby we can posit a complex designer; there is evidence of management of grassland, regrowth and game, so we can posit an environmental management plan. The difference, of course, should not need explaining. The very fact of the continuing practices of ecological management—whether through fire-sticking or selective harvesting—by Aborigines today, practices which are evidently and professedly understood as continuous with a deep ancestral inhabitation, makes any argument to the contrary plainly ignorant, not sceptical. Here the author’s intent is to present ‘a tsunami of evidence’ that, overwhelming the reader, attempts to thereby patch the gaps of each respective source.

By the end there is little doubt that ‘so many records over so great an area cannot all be wrong’, but the book makes for a chaotic read as the author, replete with botanical and historical knowledge, seems uncertain when to tell you what, given the broad church he is addressing. Reading this book, I felt grateful to the evident hard yards put in and the love of place on show, but also weary of the nationalist gestures lapping at the edges, trying to lure in a disbelieving white public. As such, no real connection is made here with contemporary Aboriginal attempts to reclaim land precisely through the identification of a deep history of inhabitation. I don’t think it impossible that some may finish this book with a new angle on the coup of colonial dispossession: having stolen a country, it’s just as well it was a well-kept one.