“The Biggest Estate on Earth”
By Bill Gammage, Allen and Unwin ($49.99).
Reviewed by Robert Macklin
In 323 pages Bill Gammage, adjunct professor at the ANU’s Humanities Research Centre, recasts our entire perception of Aboriginal Australia.
His thesis is that by 1788 Aboriginal society had created an Arcadian continent, an estate that supported an entire nation in leisured abundance comparable to the wealthy estate owners of Europe.
Over the millennia since their arrival, the Aboriginal people had developed from “users” to “carers” of the land and its animal and vegetable inhabitants. “They sanctioned key principles,” he writes, “Think long term; leave the world as it is; think globally; act locally; ally with fire; control population.”
In the result, “The land lived. Its face spoke. ‘Here are managers,’ it said, ‘caring, provident, hardworking’.”
To support his argument, he draws on a vast body of research and scholarship that make his conclusions all but unanswerable. Descriptions from explorers and early settlers supplemented by paintings and surveys from the colonial era are his starting point. But then he takes the reader in a scholarly time capsule through all the elements – from fire, soil, vegetation, social mores and religious beliefs – to the continent as it was in 1788.
It is a fascinating journey. The result is a quantum leap in our understanding and appreciation of the world our Australian forebears had created… and lost with the coming of the Europeans.
“Knowledge of how to sustain Australia, of how to be Australian, vanished with barely a whisper of regret,” he writes.
Now, we must “learn” the continent once more. “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.”
Gammage’s 1974 World War I classic “The Broken Years” changed our perceptions of that conflict and of the frontline Digger. His latest work will light fires of controversy; but in the end it will change what it means to be an Australian.