The British colonization of Australia began in 1788. Historian Bill Gammage, a white fella, spent ten years studying the writings of early observers, as well as paintings, drawings, and maps from the era. The landscape in 1788 looked radically different from today. Much of what is now dense forest or scrub used to be grasslands. Early eyewitnesses frequently commented that large regions looked like parks. In those days, all English parks were the private estates of the super-rich. Oddly, the Aborigines who inhabited the park-like Australian countryside were penniless bare naked Stone Age heathens. Their wealth was the land.
For unknown reasons, the British immigrants did not immediately discard their clothes, metal tools, livestock, and Bibles, fetch spears, and melt into the wilderness — freedom! Instead, they attempted to transplant the British way of life onto a continent for which it was unsuitable. In his book, The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia, Gammage focused on the first century of the colony (1788–1888), an era he refers to as “1788” in the text. He refers to the Aborigines as “people,” and the aliens as “newcomers.”
In a nutshell, he describes the people as being brilliant at surviving in a brutally bipolar drought & deluge climate, and the newcomers as a hapless demolition team. Gammage’s academic peers, stodgy old gits faithfully clinging to the glorious myths of Empire and white supremacy, did not leap to their feet cheering for his scandalous nonsense. So, his book is jam-packed with images and lengthy quotations that support his heretical conclusions (1,522 footnotes!). The endless parade of historic evidence may test the endurance of general readers, but Gammage had to do it in order to avoid being dismissed as a raving nutjob.
A core subject in the book is firestick farming — using fire to deliberately reconfigure ecosystems in order to better satisfy human desires. Our species originally evolved as grassland hunters that loved dining on large herbivores. In Australia, the people used a variety of fire strategies for transforming rainforest and scrub into lush grassland. This greatly expanded habitat for delicious grass loving critters.
The people used both hot fires and cool fires to manage vegetation that was fire intolerant, fire tolerant, fire dependent, or fire promoting. Different fires were used to promote specific herbs, tubers, bulbs, or grasses. To prevent new grassland from reverting to woody vegetation, it needed to be burned every two to four years. Eventually, after decades or centuries of repeated burnings, there would be no more dormant tree seeds that could germinate. According to Gammage, “Most of Australia was burnt about every 1 to 5 years depending on local conditions and purposes, and on most days people probably burnt somewhere.”
Ideally, in selected locations, patches of dry grassland were burned as rains approached. Several days after a shower, fresh green highly nutritious grass burst through the ashes, and the wildlife raced in to feast on it. After a burn, the grass grew waist high, and often head high. Some sites were deliberately designed to optimize ambush hunting for kangaroos or wallabies. Without managers or fences, the wild game animals capably raised themselves, and eagerly moved to where the people provided fresh food. By keeping most fires small, the people chose when and where game would be concentrated. On outstanding years, when herds got too large, surplus animals were slaughtered, to avoid rocking the ecological boat. Australia had few large predators that competed with the people, or ate the people.
Gammage saw that the people lived in affluence. They had learned how to live through 100 year droughts and giant floods. No region was too harsh for people to inhabit. Their culture had taboos that set limits on reproduction and hunting. Hunting was prohibited in breeding grounds for important animals. Lots of food resources were left untouched most of the time. Newcomers were astonished to observe the great abundance of wild herbivores, fish, birds, and edible plants. Abundance was the norm. “People accepted its price. They must be mobile, constantly attendant, and have few fixed assets.”
In 1788, the people were also growing crops, including plums, coconuts, figs, berries, macadamia nuts, tubers, bulbs, roots, rhizomes, and shoots. Yams were grown in paddocks that could cover many square miles. The people planted grains, including wild millet and rice. Early newcomers described millet meadows of a thousand acres (405 ha), as far as the eye could see. The people’s method of farming did not require a permanent sedentary life. They stored food, but they didn’t remain by their stores to guard them. Even in harsh times, theft was uncommon. The people were astonished to see how hard the newcomers worked to grow food. Whites perceived hard work to be a virtue.
The people made farm and wilderness one. Also, their way of life intimately married spirituality and ecology. Gammage provided a fascinating chapter on the spiritual life of the people. While many different languages were spoken in wild Australia, all places shared the same cosmology, the Dreaming. Reality was created by their original ancestors in the Dreamtime, and they established the Law, which required the people to care for all of their country.
“The Dreaming has two rules: obey the Law, and leave the world as you found it.” Thus, fundamental change was outlawed. Many other societies are possessed with a pathological desire for change, and see it as natural — progress. Their god word is Growth. “People prize knowledge as Europeans prize wealth.”
The native kangaroo grass was excellent (“caviar for grazers”). It was a deep-rooted, drought tolerant perennial that held the soil in place, retained soil moisture, survived fire, and was highly nutritious. It remained green after four months without rain, a great asset for wildlife in drought times. The newcomers’ sheep grazed it down to bare clay, killing the grass.
Wetlands were drained to expand pasture. Livestock compacted the soil, which dried out, and cracked. Springs, ponds, and creeks evaporated, eliminating the critters that lived in them. When rains returned, runoff was increased, leading to erosion, landslides, deep gullies, floods, silt chokes, and the spread of salts. An observer in 1853 commented on the growing soil destruction: “Ruts, seven, eight, and ten feet deep, and as wide, are found for miles, where two years ago it was covered with a tussocky grass like a land marsh.”
The unclever solution was to continue overgrazing, and plant exotic grasses from Europe and Africa. These were shallow-rooted annuals that flourished in winter and spring, wheezed in summer, and died when burnt. When “the land looks drought-stricken; it is cattle-stricken.” Before long, the finest native grasses were greatly reduced, and in many places eradicated.
The newcomers wanted to live like rural Brits — permanent homes, built on fenced private property. They freaked out when the people set fires to maintain the grassland. Before long, districts began banning controlled burns. This led to the return of saplings and brush. So, in just 40 years, the site of a tidy dairy farm could be replaced by dense rainforest.
Without burning, insect numbers exploded. In 48 hours, a pasture could be nuked by caterpillars or locusts. Dense clouds of kangaroo flies drove newcomers crazy. Leaf-eating insects defoliated entire forests. Without burning, fuels built up, leading to new catastrophes, called bushfires. Since 1788, there have been many catastrophic bushfires. The Black Thursday fire hit on February 6, 1851. It burned 12 million acres (5 million ha), killed a million sheep, thousands of cattle, and countless everything else.
Newcomers generously shared smallpox and other diseases with the people, who proceeded to die in great numbers. Too late, the people realized that the newcomers intended to stay. They resisted, but were badly outnumbered. Newcomers “brought the mind and language of plunderers: profit, property, resource, improve, develop, change. They had no use for people who wanted the world left as it was.” They were champions at the dark juju of genocide.
Without people hunting them, the kangaroo population exploded, gobbling up the grass intended for sacred cows and sheep. Bounties were paid for kangaroo scalps. “In 1881, New South Wales paid a bounty on 581,753 roo scalps — 1600 a day — and in 1884 on 260,780 scalps in the Tamworth district alone, but roo plagues continued.”
Australia is an especially salty continent. There are large lakes saltier than the ocean, and numerous saltwater rivers and creeks. In many regions, topsoil sits on a layer of clay, which keeps water from penetrating into the salt below. Since 1788, the salt problem has become far worse. The bigger trees grow, the more water they drink, saltwater rises, killing the trees. Also, forest clearing increases runoff, and faster moving water cuts deeper into subsurface salt — so do plows and other mutilations. The salt predicament befuddles the experts, but all agree that salt is an effective cure for agriculture.
One question perplexes me: Was firestick farming genuinely sustainable for the long run? It significantly altered the ecosystem of a land the size of 48 U.S. states, minus Hawaii and Alaska, and the alterations had to be regularly maintained, century after century. Nobody is sure when the practice eventually became time-proven and widely adapted. Obviously, Australia wasn’t interested in being continually forced to dress scantily, like a park. At the first opportunity, she rushed to return to her preferred wardrobe, primarily forest and scrub. Could the burning have continued indefinitely, without additional harm? Should we consider firestick farming to be a form of domestication?
Gammage’s benediction: “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 become Australian.”
Gammage, Bill, The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2011.
There are several Gammage videos on YouTube.