Historical Letters on Fire

Four More Historical Letters on Fire
‘History is philosophy from examples.’ – Dionysius of Halicarnassus, circa 30 BC
In south-west Australia, over the past few decades, there has been both constructive
and misleading debate over past burning by the Noongar people. I, and many others,
including dozens of Noongar Elders I have met, and some eminent humanities
scholars I know, or once knew, believe that Noongars traditionally used landscape fire
judiciously, and frequently, for a number of rather obvious and sensible reasons.
These were relevant to human safety; nature conservation for both food and amenity;
and bushfire management. Further, they greatly enjoyed using it.
Recalling that interesting old man from Halicarnassus, and feeling philosophical and
historical, I have browsed some old West Australian newspapers, and found many
references to bushfire. These are history, not science, but give a useful cross check on
some alleged scientific claims. They are not anecdotal, since they were published.
Whether they are apocryphal can best be judged by comparing them with each other,
looking for the property of ‘consilience’, as suggested by William Whewell (1794-
The newspaper dates I explored on Trove range from 1845 to the present, but four
items, two from the mid-nineteenth century, and two from the mid-twentieth century,
drew my particular attention. They are worthy of comparison, and careful thought.
In south-west Australia, there is a broad band of sandy heath, known as kwongan, to
the east of the Darling Scarp. In January 1845, a West Australian settler called ‘Sandy
Farmer’, from east of the Darling Scarp, apparently stung by ‘sand groper’ jokes
from the rival colony in South Australia, wrote to the Inquirer newspaper about the
virtues of sand for farming. One point he made was that ‘on the generality of sand the
bush-fires will not touch the vegetation more than once in two years – that which was
burnt last year will not burn this year. This description of soil has therefore this
advantage – that there is abundance of feed to be found on that portion which was run
over by last year’s fires, which will remain until the new feed springs up, forced by
the ashes of this year’s fires.’ He was describing a two-phase fire and vegetation
mosaic, created by Noongar hunters, and potentially useful to shrewd settlers who
understood it then, and competent bushfire managers who understand it now. There
has been quite recent dispute over historic fire frequency in the kwongan heath (Essay
21). Some academics, by use of a botanical seed bank model and satellite images from
1970 to 2012, claim that fire more frequent than ten years would cause the extinction
of some plants. Yet might ‘Sandy Farmer’ be more reliable than a model created by
present day botanists with little hands-on experience of bushfire, little interest in
bushfire history, and an apparent unawareness of long distance seed distribution by
cockatoos and willie-willies?
Five years after the first letter, in the Inquirer of June, 1850, a letter appeared from ‘A
York Settler’. Those familiar with the history of the small town of York, in Western
Australia, may identify him, from his literary style, and opinions in a previous letter
about fire (Essay 6). My best guess is that he was Captain Richard Goldsmith Meares,
Resident Magistrate at York. He wrote ‘I think I may say, without the slightest
hesitation, that the country from North to South, and East to West, as far as it is
known, has been burned the past summer, more or less, by the natives’. He went on to
describe how Noongars would light fires in pursuit of small animals, so burning the
native grasses, which were grazing for his sheep. He made no mention of deliberate
malice toward settlers.
Although the sheep were his, we may question whether the grass belonged to him.
Surely he was the trespasser. His use of the phrase ‘more or less’ suggests that he saw
unburnt patches, but, unlike ‘Sandy Farmer’, did not see the advantage of rapid
nutrient cycling by patchy, frequent mosaic burning on sand.
The settler from York urged the government of the day to banish bushfires, for he
argued that ‘if the natives are still allowed every summer to fire the country, the sheep
will be all starved to death’. He added ‘Now I think it is only fair on our parts – if we
deprive the natives of a few kangaroo rats and opossums, which we must do if we
prohibit them from burning the country in the summer months – to issue to them a
weekly ration of meal, as a compensation for the said animals.’
He went on that ‘There is one more thing which is worthy of notice: the natives must,
and will, have fire to cook and sleep by, and the only means they have of carrying fire
is by lighting two or three pieces of bark, which they hold in their hand like a torch.
Now what can be more dangerous than this in the summer, when the grass and every
thing is as dry as tinder; let them be ever so careful, it is almost impossible for them
to prevent the bush taking light.’
As a managerially creative and frugal afterthought, he proposed that ‘To prevent this,
I would propose that the Government do issue to the head of every aboriginal family
one box of matches every month. This, I think, would have great tendency towards
stopping the bush-fires, and at a very trifling expense to the Government.’
I doubt if this last suggestion made much impression on the then Government, and I
doubt if the Noongars knew about it. However, if my guess at his identity is correct,
the correspondent was a retired officer from a famous British regiment, and a
Waterloo veteran to boot, so he probably did have political influence in various ways.
His opinion on bushfire had previously been sought by the Governor in 1846, and was
taken into consideration in drafting the Bushfire Ordinance passed in 1847, which
banned burning by Aborigines, the penalty being public flogging of up to fifty lashes,
or deportation to Rottnest Island.
I don’t think many Noongars read the ordinance, since it failed to prevent fires, hence
the letter of 1850. If the Noongars had read it, or heard of it, we can imagine their
anger and disbelief at such an arrogant and brutal law concerning their traditional fire
management of their own forest, heath, and grassland. No wonder they look so
unhappy and angry in old photographs from the prison on Rottnest Island.
Jumping forward a century to 1950, in the opinion column of The Daily News, a
correspondent from Crawley, called ‘One Who Has Seen’, wrote ‘For generations
before the white man saw Australia, the aborigines fired the land to obtain food, and
prevent future fires. It’s a pity that we, with some modern equipment, don’t take a
lesson from these primitives, and have more controlled burning.’ Apart from the bad
mannered use of the word ‘primitives’, he showed some understanding of bushfire.
Was he a descendant of an old settler family?
In a fourth example, in the same year, the West Australian newspaper reported that a
beekeepers’ conference had discussed bushfire policy with a representative of the
Forests Department. A beekeeper, Mr. R. Livesey of Denmark, pointed out that
Noongar people, in their form of husbandry, had included the judicious use of fire,
but that the Forests Department at that time did not believe that severe bushfires could
be minimised by burning off with light, controlled fires. Quoting thousands of acres
of forest severely burnt by wild fires in the previous summer, Mr. Livesey claimed
that the Forests Department’s fire control policy had failed.
He was contradicted by Mr. A.J. Milesi, then fire control officer of the Forests
Department, who blamed the severe fires on careless burning ‘by others’. Some
beekeepers supported Mr. Milesi. Nevertheless, the conference agreed to a motion
expressing grave concern at the failure of the Forests Department to ‘adequately
protect forests from uncontrolled bushfires.’ There was no suggestion that beekeepers
should be issued with matches at Government expense, but the motion may have
helped to encourage a Conservator of Forests, Mr. A.C. Harris, to introduce more
deliberate controlled burning. Clearly it was not enough to prevent the disastrous
bushfires in 1961 around Dwellingup, and widely elsewhere.
Drawing these four news items together, I get the impression of long standing
muddled thinking over bushfire policy in south-west Australia, due initially to a
failure by some politically influential early European settlers to understand why
Noongars burnt the bush frequently, and the likely harmful effect on Noongars,
settlers, plants, and animals, of preventing such fires.
We should cautiously note that York is far from Augusta and Walpole, and different
groups of Noongars probably used different methods and timing of burning. For
example, I have been told that the Wadandi people, along the Blackwood River, did
not burn in summer, but in autumn. I don’t know if this is true, but it’s worth
investigating with Wadandi descendants. It might relate to academic conservation
claims about some ‘rare and endangered’ frogs (Geocrinia) in their country,
allegedly under threat from prescribed burning. These frogs are found along
Spearwood Creek, and, as mentioned previously, I have been told, by a late Noongar
Elder, that spear shaft thickets along creeks were protected from fire for twelve years.
Fire marks on over five hundred old balga (grasstree, Xanthorrhoea preissii) stems,
some dating back to 1750, suggest that most of the jarrah forest was burned every
two to four years, rather than the biennial burning east of the Darling Scarp. Using the
same balga technique in the goldfields woodlands near Coolgardie, fire intervals back
to the nineteenth century showed eight to ten year intervals in goldfields woodland
before World War 1. Balga stems at Dryandra woodland, on the east side of the
jarrah forest gave old fire intervals of around fifteen years on dry rocky ridges, but
only two year intervals along formerly grassy creek banks. The former grassy bank
fires were remarkably regular, clearly indicating deliberate human involvement, rather
than simply accidents or lightning. The two year intervals seem ideal for some
formerly abundant native grasses, such as Kangaroo Grass (Themeda triandra), and
Feather Spear Grass (Austrostipa elegantissima). These were surely of interest to
Noongar people as kangaroo grazing.
What the news items suggest to me is the primary need for West Australian
Governments to talk to Noongar Elders before future fire policy is made. After all,
older Noongars still know their country well, and can draw on thousands of years’ fire
experience, if we are willing to listen patiently, and respectfully, and not allow
ourselves to be fooled by shallow and contradictory ‘scientism’.
As mentioned before, in 1840 the English polymath William Whewell suggested a
philosophical concept called ‘consilience’. It means a surprising and convincing
coming together of information from different sources. It is similar to legal
corroboration, and like law is intellectually open not only to science, but also to other
kinds of human knowledge, such as history, including the traditional knowledge of
Aboriginal people. It is a valuable cross check on the validity of ecological
conclusions drawn solely from science, particularly by using statistical models. These
can be true, but if false, may lead to poor political bushfire policy, resulting in heavy
fuels, uncontrollable fire behaviour, loss of human life and property, and long lasting
damage to natural ecosystems.
Professor Whewell was not against science. He himself published scientific papers,
and in fact coined the word ‘scientist’. But he knew that truth must be carefully cross
checked elsewhere for consilience. Being also a philosopher, he was quite likely
influenced by the views of David Hume (1711-1776), who wrote ‘Indulge your
passion for science … but let your science be human, and such as may have a direct
reference to action and society’.
Nor should we ever forget Dionysius of Halicarnassus.

© David Jefford Ward, Dec. 2021

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