Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 11, 2021

Sensational Snippets: The Biggest Estate on Earth, by Bill Gammage

Reading historian Bill Gammage’s The Biggest Estate on Earth, How Aborigines Made Australia which has been on my TBR for nearly a decade, I came across what I think is the best explanation of The Dreaming that I’ve ever come across.  It occurred to me as I read it, that many of my international readers may have come across references to The Dreaming without really knowing what it’s about.  So here’s an excerpt from the chapter entitled ‘Heaven on Earth’ book to clarify what it means.

Gammage says that all religions aim to explain existence and to regulate behaviour.  It was the anthropologist Ted Strehlow (1908-1978) who said that ‘the great and specifically Australian contribution to religious thought has been the unquestioning Aboriginal conviction that there was no division between Time and Eternity.’ 

The Dreaming conceives an unchangeable universe, hence free of time.  This can be so because the universe is not natural: it was made from darkness by God.  Who made God and darkness no-one knows.  They are as much puzzles as chance and death.  No religion has solved them, but denying time makes them much easier to pass over, and [Aborigines] accept that although it is worthy to strive to understand, they are not meant to know.

Across Australia the creation story is essentially the same: God made light, brought into being spirits and creator ancestors, and set down eternal Law for all creation.  The creator ancestors accepted the Law or suffered if they didn’t, and made epic journeys across a formless space, giving land and sea substance and shape before settling to rest in a place important to them.  They are there still, and where they went still bears marks of their trials and adventures.  All things derive from their presence or deeds, and are ruled by the Law they passed on.

Since universe and Law never change, time is irrelevant, as in a dream.  Change and time exist only as cycles: birth and death, the passage of stars and seasons, journeys, encounters, and after 1788 the appearance of plants and animals seeming new but always there.  Cycles are eddies, ending where they begin or eclipsed by larger cycles: travel by death, for example, or seasons by life spans.  Eddies exist not on a river of life, for a river has a beginning and end, but on bigger eddies, in a boundless pool.  Time is an eddy; the pool is timeless.  Pool, eddies and Law are the Dreaming.

The Dreaming has two rules: obey the Law, and leave the world as you found it—not better or worse, for God judges that, but the same. The first rule enforces and exists for the second.  Together they let place dominate time, and translate well understood ecological associations into social relations—kin, marriage, diplomacy, trade and so on, outlawing fundamental change, so making all creatures conservationist and conservative.  (p.123-4)

As Gammage says, the impetus for change is inbuilt into most other societies and we tend to think that it is natural.  He also notes that it’s not clear that Aborigines entirely succeeded in leaving the world as they found it but they dedicated their lives to conserving what they inherited, and within the perception of living generations generally they succeeded.  

Innovation and creativity, become means not ends […] and do not disturb a sense that the fundamentals of existence are beyond challenge or improvement. (p.124)

Leaving the world as it is, does not mean untouched.  The Law says that the land must be managed and it is a manager’s duty is to shepherd land and creatures through the cycles of life and seasons.

The chapter goes on to explain songlines (the path along which a creator ancestor travelled to bring country into being) and totems (which assert place for each living being).  Totems control kin, marriage, population and loyalties.

Aboriginal landscape awareness is rightly seen as drenched in religious sensibility, but equally the Dreaming is saturated with environmental consciousness.  Theology and ecology are fused. (p.133)

The Biggest Estate on Earth was reviewed extensively at the time of its publication in 2011, including by Janine Rizzetti here and at Brona’s Books here.   However, although Gammage’s book is a work of remarkable and ground-breaking scholarship, it is very heavy on detail and at 434 pages requires considerable commitment to read it.  I think that most readers will find Dark Emu, Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident?  by Bunerong man Bruce Pascoe, a more accessible way to learn about this topic from an Indigenous perspective. (There is now also a children’s version of Dark Emu, which IMO ought to be in every school library).

Author: Bill Gammage
Title: The Biggest Estate on Earth
Publisher: Allen and Unwin 2012, first published 2011.
ISBN: 9781743311325, pbk., 434 pages
Source: Personal Library, purchased from Embiggen Books Melbourne, $39.99


  1. Bill Gammage’s book is so very brilliant! Though reading it meant that I never read Dark Emu because I figured it would be on the same subject. Gammage is also a wonderful speaker – I invited him to one of my last Bellingen Readers and Writers Festivals as Program Director and he was such a hit, including for many of the Aboriginal authors invited at the same time.


    • He was one of the speakers at the History Summer School in Canberra, the summer after John Howard’s defeat at the election. It amused me, because I bet that Howard, mastermind of The History Wars, did not intend to set up those history schools so that we could learn about this type of research! (The book was yet to be published at that stage.)


      • Funny!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. This book by Gammage changed my life. Seriously. It totally changed the way I look at, and understand, the country in which I live. Still learning, of course, but this book was the beginning. The also excellent Dark Emu builds on The Biggest Estate on Earth, but in no way replaces or eclipses it.


    • True. I think it’s good to read both. But being realistic, most people are not going to, and if I had to choose, I’d choose Pascoe’s because it’s Indigenous.
      But really, this is exactly the type of book that the ABC should be turning into a doco, similar in style to The Ascent of Man, or Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation. I’ve watched the SBS doco First Australians but in my memory that was more about survival post settlement.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Pascoe’s book was not in the pipeline when Gammage’s was published, otherwise I might have preferred a book on the subject by an indigenous author, too! And what a great idea about a documentary – perhaps they are already working on that; I have a vague memory of hearing or reading something about that.


        • There’s definitely a case for both. TBH I was spurred into reading this because I heard about a U3A historian who recently dismissed ‘claims about Aboriginal farming’ and, ok, U3A people presenting courses are good people volunteering their time and effort, but at the end of the day they are retirees who may not have kept up with recent research and whose qualifications come from a different era. The Gammage book is rigorous history by a highly-credentialed historian; apart from the fact that it’s authoritatively referenced and he makes his case so convincingly, it’s not a book that can be summarily dismissed as I have seen keyboard warriors do with the Pascoe book because he’s not a qualified historian (though Pascoe uses pretty much the same methodology i.e. colonial sources as Gammage, but enhanced by the knowledge of Elders).
          You could, if you wanted to, argue about what the definition of ‘farming’ is, but you couldn’t refute Gammage’s evidence of intensive, systematic Indigenous intervention in the land and its management over millennia.
          But the value of the Pascoe book is that it’s much more digestible and is likely to be much more widely read. If other people in that U3A group had read it, they might have challenged what they heard. The more people read any kind of truthful Black history, the easier it becomes to challenge misconceptions about our past.


          • No, you definitely couldn’t argue with Gammage’s book! And I guess the advantage in reading Gammage is indeed that sceptics would be more easily persuaded by someone who is a historian. But as you say, not everybody would be into reading such a long and complex book, so for wider dissemination of such important information about the true history, Pascoe’s book might be superior.

            Liked by 1 person

  3. Sounds fascinating. All I know of the Songlines comes from Chatwin so I really should explore more.


  4. Like Michelle, this book changed my perspective and thinking about a lot of our history and assumptions that were made. It took me three years to read this book though (every Nov during AusReading Month).


    • Wow, when I wrote that it takes considerable commitment, I didn’t realise how much commitment that could be!
      But you’re right… even that second chapter which is mostly photos proving his point, every one needs to be looked at carefully alongside the text to see the point that he’s making.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Exactly! I even googled images for other views of the same area & other old paintings that revealed the same thing.


        • Wouldn’t it be good if the national gallery put on an exhibition with signage linked to this book…

          Liked by 1 person

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