White Australia's burning issue — what's wrong with Bill Gammage's book

January 22, 2015
Ngadju Conservation Coordinator Les Schultz near a traditional burn. Photo: Ngadju Conservation

A popular argument suggests Aboriginal people always burned country so non-Aboriginal Australians should too, albeit for modern purposes, such as fuel reduction burns. Historian Bill Gammage argued this in the popular and influential book The Biggest Estate on Earth (2011).

Remarkably, the book has attracted the praise of writers from both the left wing Green Left Weekly and the far-right Institute of Public Affairs (IPA).

Jennifer Marohasy, formerly a researcher for the IPA and director of its spin-off, the Australian Environment Foundation, says Gammage's book “explodes the myth that pre-settlement Australia was an untamed wilderness, revealing the complex, country-wide systems of land management used by Aboriginal people ... This book must challenge the myth of virgin ‘remnant’ vegetation that currently underpins significant land management legislation in Queensland and NSW.”

GLW reviewer Coral Wynter says the book shows “no corner was ignored, from deserts and rainforests to rocky outcrops, across the entire continent for at least 60,000 years until British colonisers began to destroy all this work after their arrival in 1788.

“The huge destruction white colonisers have inflicted on the landscape is unforgivable, but driven by ignorance. Now we have no such excuse.”

Gammage himself wrote in The Conversation: “Today, amid the wreck of what Aborigines made, there remain relics of their management. They depended not on chance, but on policy. They shaped Australia to ensure continuity, balance, abundance and predictability. All are now in doubt.”

But exactly what those relics consist of, and how to protect them (let alone manage everything else) may not be agreed so easily.

Gammage says Indigenous land management formed one coherent “estate”, continent-wide (including Tasmania), and that fire was a key tool everywhere, used to create beneficial combinations of vegetation in the landscape. He goes so far as to say at one point that “most of Australia was burnt about every 1-5 years depending on local conditions and purposes, and on most days people probably burnt somewhere.”

This bold hypothesis, however, is where his argument falls down.

For context, Gammage attempts a short summary of the entirety of Indigenous societies and spiritualities, with little reference to Indigenous sources themselves.

He notes at the beginning of the book that “very few sources here come directly from Aboriginal people” because he had “neither the time nor the presumption to interrogate people over so great an area and on matters they value so centrally”.

Rather than a valid excuse, this reads more like an insult, a slap in the face to the very people who are central to his argument.


With recent revisionist re-writing of history, a scholarly tribute to Aboriginal people's knowledge and expertise in caring for country would be a welcome contribution. However, it is worrying that Gammage chose not to talk more to the many Aboriginal people who today care for some of the most ecologically significant areas of Australia – as 23% of the continent is under Indigenous management.

His summary of the many and varied social, economic and spiritual systems that existed pre-invasion seems an oversimplification. His reliance on early 20th century anthropologist writings, rather than contemporary Aboriginal thinkers, is cause for alarm and leads to unconvincing statements such as: “All Australia obeyed the Dreaming …. And [this] in itself is cause for thinking Australia a single estate, albeit with many managers.”

Gammage's ecological and historical case is no less troubling. It rests on a huge number of quotes from early explorers' accounts, which made note of Indigenous people’s use of fire.

Readers and reviewers may be blinded by the sheer volume of these examples and sources. But ecological knowledge is nothing if not specific to location.

Large parts of his text consist of one example after another – from different explorers, in different parts of the continent, different ecosystems, soil types, seasons. Ian Lunt, Associate Professor at Charles Sturt University, in a blog post entitled “Location, Location, Location” notes that: “Locality matters, and ecological observations – historical and current – can’t be traded like swap cards across the country side.”


A recent study from the University of Queensland used white explorers' accounts of western Queensland, applying modern GPS mapping technology to chart the locations of observations.

“Nearly 4500 observations from fourteen journals spanning twelve expeditions between 1844 and 1919 were geo-referenced,” they say. “The sparse observations of fire suggest burning was infrequent and mostly restricted to creek-lines and higher-rainfall grasslands in the east and north of the study area and spinifex-dominated vegetation.”

In similar country on the other side of the continent, a research project by the Ngadju people of WA's Great Western Woodlands documented their knowledge of fire on their country, and their current aspirations around fire management.

The study found: “Historically, only specific, relatively small parts of Ngadju landscapes were actively burnt, to maintain open hunting grounds and camping areas, encourage green pick, facilitate travel, and protect people, important places and resources from fire.”

Not only were large areas never actively burned by people, but inevitable lightning-lit wildfire in some areas led to people staying away from these areas in summer, in the more fire-resistant (and rarely deliberately burned) woodlands, and safe places like lakesides.

The challenge for the Ngadju Nation, the report suggests, is “to consider which elements of this regime are desirable and achievable in the future”.

Gammage quotes Thomas Mitchell, one of the same explorers referenced in the UQ study.
“Fire, grass, kangaroos, and human inhabitants, seem all dependent on each other for existence in Australia; for any one of these being wanting, the others could no longer continue.

“Fire is necessary to burn the grass, and form those open forests ... But for this simple process, the Australian woods had probably continued as thick a jungle as those of New Zealand or America.”

Dry grassy woodlands, with rainfall less than 500mm a year (and in many areas, half that) are not likely to produce a thick jungle, with or without fire – and mostly without, according to the two studies mentioned. Which calls into question Gammage's reductionist generalisation of Indigenous fire.


Even if modern Australia wanted to learn and apply Aboriginal fire management practices wholesale, it is dubious whether it could. Indigenous people lived, and in many places still live, on their ancestral country, with thousands of years of collective knowledge and ecological practice.

Indigenous knowledge has been almost completely lost in many regions. Nevertheless, ecological scientists and Indigenous Australians are seeking to maintain, revive and re-learn traditional fire use in areas where it is possible (especially in the Top End and arid Australia).

It isn't a simple undertaking to translate what is done in these regions to elsewhere.

Two centuries of white Australian land management, the blink of an eye in the continent's history, has caused vast damage and change. Reinstating only one element (fire) out of such a complex system can actually do more damage. For example, introducing a modern interpretation of Indigenous fire practices, in an area where Indigenous people do not have land rights, and cannot access the area for hunting or other practices that also affect the ecosystem, goes against the understanding of the complex interconnectedness of ecology - to say nothing of the many animal and plant species no longer common, that were present in 1788.

This is not to suggest Indigenous landcare and scientific knowledge should not be incorporated if and where they can be. The authors see a central role for Traditional Owners and traditional knowledge in meeting many environmental challenges. But this must happen in the context of stronger land rights, consultation and involvement of Aboriginal people themselves.

The problem with some of Gammage’s argument is that “Indigenous approaches” to fire can be taken out of context, out of the hands of Indigenous people, and used to justify all sorts of ecologically dubious practices.

Gammage supports the alpine grazing lobby, for example, who wish to continue grazing cattle in the Alpine National Park. Despite presenting his case in terms of learning from Indigenous people in Australia, it seems destined to be employed in the service of commercial, colonial land use interests. Meanwhile, ecologists warn the idea is dangerous, if not disastrous.

European colonists brought with them a cultural imperative to “improve the land”. A white narrative about how Indigenous people managed their relationship with the land can too easily become an unconscious projection of this same cultural belief, conveniently justifying the clearing of remnant vegetation to eke out a few dollars more, or grazing cattle in national parks.

Australians can learn a lot from Indigenous people, but does Gammage's book advance that dialogue, or set it back? We are not confident that it is the former. It would be sad if a genuine desire to learn from Aboriginal knowledge to care for country ended up being manipulated into supporting further destruction.

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