Shortlist year: 2012

Shortlist category: Australian history

Published by: Allen & Unwin

Across Australia, early Europeans commented again and again that the land looked like a park. With extensive grassy patches and pathways, open woodlands and abundant wildlife, it evoked a country estate in England. Bill Gammage has discovered this was because Aboriginal people managed the land in a far more systematic and scientific fashion than we have ever realised.

With details of land-management strategies from around Australia, The Biggest Estate on Earth rewrites the history of this continent, with huge implications for us today. Once Aboriginal people were no longer able to tend their country, it became overgrown and vulnerable to the hugely damaging bushfires we now experience. And what we think of as virgin bush in a national park is nothing of the kind.

About the author

Bill Gammage

Bill Gammage is a historian and adjunct professor in the Humanities Research Centre at the Australian National University. He is best known as author of the ground-breaking The Broken Years: Australian Soldiers in the Great War

Judges’ comments

Bill Gammage’s The Biggest Estate on Earth argues that the Aboriginal people managed the land in a far more systematic and scientific fashion than we previously envisioned. 

The Biggest Estate on Earth recasts, in a quantum leap, our perceptions of Aboriginal Australia and our understanding of the historic Australian environment and its land care.

Gammage forces us to reconsider our intellectual landscape, and thus present day environmental practices, through his dramatic historical revisioning of our physical landscape.

Gammage’s compelling central insight is that the landscape of 1788 was not natural but rather that it was made by Aboriginal people.

The author again demonstrates a rare capacity to open a fresh horizon, capturing both history and his reader.