Geoffrey Blainey reviews 'The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia' by Bill Gammage

The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia

by Bill Gammage

Allen & Unwin, $49.99 hb, 464 pp, 9781742377483

This bold book, with its lucid prose and vivid illustrations, will be discussed for years to come. It is not original in the narrow sense of the word, but it takes an important idea to new heights because of the author’s persistence and skill. Bill Gammage, an oldish and experienced historian of rural background, looks at nearly every region of Australia, its surface landscape and vegetation. His conclusion is that the Aborigines ‘made Australia’ largely by their knowledge of ecology and their repeated and alert use of fire. He argues in detail that in 1788 even the vegetation of what became our capital cities was determined largely by persistent Aboriginal burnings. The positioning of the trees and the type of trees, the pattern of the grasses and shrubs, and whether the surrounding countryside was park-like or heavily timbered – all were influenced by the Aborigines and their practices. He almost says that Australia, botanically and visually, is a deliberate work of art: that a black Capability Brown and his descendants lived here.

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Geoffrey Blainey

Geoffrey Blainey

Geoffrey Blainey, a practising historian for some sixty years, has written on Australian and world history. Long attracted to museums, he was deputy chairman of the Whitlam government's Enquiry into Museums and National Collections in 1974–75. Later, he served on the board of the Australian War Memorial for seven years. His book, The Causes of War (1973, 1988), is debated in military academies and in US universities.

Published in November 2011 no. 336

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