The following letters demonstrate how the activities of aborigines using fire in their traditional way caused much anxiety among early settlers in Western Australia. They also show how some observers could see that their use of fire was in no way haphazard, but done with skill and deliberate intent.
Bushfire History: Some Letters about Bushfire, written in 1846
Dr David Ward (2010)
Some claim that ecology is a natural science. Even the Oxford English Dictionary describes it as a branch of biology. This may be due to the historical fact that the word ecology was first proposed by a biologist, Ernst Haeckel. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that ecology is very cross-disciplinary, involving natural science, social science, and humanities, especially history.
History provides a long perspective, and is an astringent cross-check on naòve conclusions from narrowly focused natural science, sometimes based on faulty, or even deliberately misleading statistical analysis. Those interested in philosophy might care to look up Pierre Duhem’s idea on “contingent hypotheses”, which is similar to the legal concept of the “whole truth”.
The first letter is from the newly appointed Governor of Western Australia, Colonel Andrew Clarke. The settlers at York had complained that their crops and grazing were being burnt by the Nyoongars. Governor Clarke sought advice from his magistrates, and some other senior officials.
Circular 17 February 1846
Residents and Protectors of Natives
His Excellency the Governor having heard with much regret of the serious damage and loss of property which the settlers, especially in the York District and the past season, have sustained by fires made either or otherwise by the natives, is very desirous of adopting some measure which would, if it did not entirely put a stop to these fires, at all events have the effect of making them less frequent.
With this view His Excellency wishes you to consider the subject and offer such suggestions thereupon as your experience may dictate.
I have the honor to be .. (Signature missing on microfilm, but Peter Broun was Secretary at that time.)
Revett Henry Bland, Protector of Natives at York, was the first to reply. He blamed the settlers themselves for some of the fires, but pointed out that it was Nyoongar custom to burn in summer, and that this burning had a number of benefits. He could find no evidence of malicious intent.
York March 2nd 1846
I have the honor to acknowledge receipt of your circular of 17th February on the subject of Bush Fires, and wishing any suggestions with a view to their prevention for the future.
I fear His Excellency will find it a very difficult subject to deal with, and impossible wholly to prevent, it has always been the custom of the Natives to fire the country during the summer season for a variety of purposes, first to assist them in hunting, it also clears the country of underwood, which if not occasionally burnt, would become an impenetrable jungle, infested with snakes and reptiles.
The principal fires in this District that occurred during the earlier part of the present season, originated either from the Settlers themselves, or from the Natives setting fire to hollow trees to dislodge the opossum. December and January being their principal season for hunting them, they have never been accustomed, and are unable in most cases if they wished, to put the fires out, and when the tree falls, the grass ignites and is so extremely dry that the fire will run for many miles, until either a road or some bare spot checks its progress. The principal fire at the Toodyay where three fields of wheat were burnt, originated from a Settler burning a tree near his house.
I consider it an advantage that portions of the country should be burnt every year, provided it is not done till late in the summer, the feed is always better where the dead grass has been previously burnt off.
When I first settled in the District, and got acquainted with the Natives, finding myself much inconvenienced by the bush fires, I commenced the practice of giving them presents of flour and clothing when the first rains set in, provided they had not fired the country during the summer, I found this plan succeed [sic] to a certain extent, and it was followed up by the Government, who through me used to give them presents until two or three years since, when it was discontinued I believe for want of funds.
I have made every enquiry in the District both personally, and through the Police, as to the origin of the fires this season, and do not think that in any one instance they have originated through any malicious intent, the evil however requires some remedy, as the law at present only applies to cases of burning crops of corn, stacks, buildings etc.
It would be hard to debar the Native the food Providence has placed at his disposal, by preventing the use of Fire, without which he cannot procure it. I have no doubt a great deal may be done by rewarding them with Flour and Clothing, to induce them to give up this practice until later in the season, and by passing an act of Council to punish them, when they can be proved to have done it with a decided intent to injure the Settler, and also to prevent the Settlers themselves from making fires for clearing, or other purposes, until the corn has been all harvested.
I have the Honor to be, Sir,
Your Obedient Servant
Protector of Natives
A Waterloo veteran, Captain Richard Goldsmith Meares (Deacon 1948), was the Resident Magistrate at York. He put pen to paper, clearly noting the clash between Nyoongar and settler land use, in particular with regard to bushfire. We may admire his fiery rhetoric, but not his sentence and paragraph construction. Perhaps his military background had accustomed him more to the sword than the pen.
York, March 3rd 1846
In reverting to your letter of the 17th. February Inst. wherein His Excellency the Governor expresses a wish that I should consider the subject of the Natives firing the bush and to offer any suggestion which might be adopted to prevent the occurrence, even in part, of the very serious damage sustained in the York District by this practice. It seems necessary to premise in the first instance that when this Territory was taken from the Aborigines and by Act of Parliament they were created British Subjects – no equivalent for them having been reserved – it would appear the intention was that they should still maintain themselves as in their primitive state. If so – they burn for their food, whereas the existence of our Flocks and Herds depends on what to us is thus annually irretrievably destroyed and the whole district is now groaning under the ruinous spoliation: some impute it to the Squatting Act which has of late caused a new occupation and thus as it were driven them from their second resource, the first being the old settled Districts. Here are three parties, the Government, the Natives, and the Settlers: the Government let to A.B. [Anybody?] 4000 acres of land for one year having previously paid ten pounds for a license, the next day the whole of these Lands are fired and burned bare by the Natives: the Lambing has commenced, the sheep die, and the farmer is ruined: now it would certainly appear that these lands should be protected by the Government itself, but hitherto the battle has been fought by the new owners against the old ones. The Settlers have adopted a custom of giving at Harvest Time, from each farm, one bushel of wheat to each Tribe, provided they do not burn the run, as also gleaning of the fields, to both which advantages they are [reckless or feckless?]; and on this ground we at present stand.
Now it strikes me that whatever is done for these people should come through some higher Authority than the owner of each farm, the proprietors might give in their quota in kind to be deposited for distribution in the hands of a proper officer of the Government who I should say were equally bound with the Settlers to pay in a bountiful [mite?]: all the Tribes have their Chiefs although I believe not very commanding ones but still they might be selected, encouraged, and made very useful in holding control over the rest by investing them with authority to receive from the Government officer and distribute although in the officer’s presence and to distinguish them with some mark of favour, if they deserved it, some pains might be taken to educate each Chief in our language so that they might become interpreters and know and understand amongst themselves gradually as the light may break in upon them that we are trying to render them ultimate service and which Time will teach them to appreciate. If we are to keep Flocks it is quite clear that the Lands must be preserved and not fired: and thus the immediate attention of the Natives should be called to the subject, to warn them against solitary confinement and Rottnest [Note: a penal island off the West Australian coast], and that for the future, in no one instance will firing the country be overlooked for they laugh at our idea of letting a fire escape them if they wish to put it out, and the wheat collected would I should imagine be more than equivalent to what they would otherwise obtain by those burnings and would also come at the very period when they perform their destructive operations being in January and February.
If I have written my opinions rather freely I beg to assure His Excellency they are the thoughts of an Old Settler who has the prosperity of the Colony most dearly at heart.
I have the Honor to be Sir
Your most obedient Humble Servant
Richard G. Meares
On the same day, Charles Symmons, Protector of Natives in the Swan Valley, wrote the following balanced letter. He clearly had an interest in Nyoongar ways, and remarked that burning was, for them, “one of their most ancient and cherished privileges”.
Perth March 3rd. 1846
I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of your letter dated the 17th. of February Inst., expressive of His Excellency’s wish that I might endeavour to suggest some measures for the putting a stop to the fires kindled in the bush by the Natives, or at least rendering them of less frequent occurrence.
In reply, I must first beg leave to draw His Excellency’s attention to the fact that although by far the larger proportion of bush-fires are occasioned by the Natives, yet that many originate in the wilful or careless conduct of the Settlers themselves. The smouldering ashes of a woodcutter’s fire and the chance spark from his pipe are all sufficient means of combustion amongst vegetation parched to tinder by the summer heat. I merely allude to these facts to show the necessity of making some restrictive enactments for the white man as well as for the black.
As regards the Aborigines, I need scarcely point out to His Excellency, that, as in all cases connected with an interference in native habits and feelings, the question of the best means of remedy is one of considerable difficulty.
My knowledge of the Native character renders me extremely sceptical as to the success of any remedial plan for checking one of their most ancient and cherished privileges, but, as in all my transactions with this singular people, I have never been discouraged by the failure of measures which must in the first instance be purely experimental, so, in this case, let some plan of operation be devised, and should it fail, we can only recommence de novo.
I should suggest therefore to His Excellency the practicability of informing the Natives in all the settled Districts of the determination henceforward of the Government to put a stop to their custom of indiscriminately firing the bush, and that on no pretence whatever are they to commence their burning operations before the beginning of the month of March, after which period they may be allowed to do so in the immediate vicinity of the Settlers’ homesteads being rigidly excepted. That, provided such regulations be observed on the part of the Natives, the Settlers and the Government combined, should undertake on the 1st. of March of each year to distribute in their several districts through means of the Protectors and the Resident Magistrates, such gratuities of flour as may at once suffice the cupidity of the Natives and convince them of the policy of compliance with our regulations.
I consider this plan as at least worthy of consideration (however much it may be modified or enlarged) it having been found effectual in the neighborhood of some farms in the York District, where the Shepherds confirm that by this gratuity they could calculate with tolerable certainty on the period for the native firing of the bush.
It will be for the Law Officers of the Crown to determine as to the nature and extent of the penalty to be enforced on the infringement of any arrangements of this nature which may be entered on between the Aborigines and the Government.
I must, in conclusion beg to recall to the attention of His Excellency the equal necessity of legislative restriction in the case of the Settlers and their farm laborers.
I have the honor to be Sir, Yr very Obedient Servt
Chas Symmons, Protector of Natives
Another Waterloo veteran, Lieutenant-Colonel John Molloy, wrote from the Vasse District, where he was a Resident Magistrate.
Vasse 17th March 1846
I have to acknowledge the receipt of the circular of the 17th. Ult. In reference to its contents I must confess my utter inability to offer an opinion as to any effective means of controlling the incendiary propensities of the Natives. Speaking of this district I should say we have not suffered any great inconvenience from Bushfires, the Natives carefully abstaining from their practice until after the harvest is fully accomplished an event to which they look forward with a degree of pleasurable anxiety.
A stern command not to destroy the pasturage with a threat of banishment from the habitations of the Settlers has its effect and so far from Bush fires being generally offensive I believe the opinion prevails in this quarter that they are not only necessary but salubrious.
There are doubtless measures of prevention capable of adoption such as individuals taking the initiative in burning when the country is not in a forward combustible state and the fires can be easily arrested, perhaps they would require encouragement to effect the formation of a barrier belt around points requiring protection.
Finally the prospect of Reward by holding out to the Natives the enjoyment of a General Corrobory throughout the district when the distribution of about three pounds of flour to each native on a named day might be offered to them provided a proper degree of abstinence [illegible] should have been observed this would not as far as I can be permitted to form an estimate be a consideration to the proprietors but of a trifling nature.
I have the honor to be Sir
Your most Obedt. Servant
Francis Corbet Singleton was the Resident Magistrate for the Murray District, which lies to the west of the Wungong Catchment.
Dandalup March 7 1846
I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of your circular concerning the damage sustained by the Settlers through the means of Bush Fires; and requesting me to forward for the information of His Excellency such suggestions as might present themselves to my mind.
In reply to the same I would first observe that my experience of the evil alluded to has been confined to this District, which is of a character totally different to that of the Districts eastward of the Range.
In those parts of the Territory a Bush fire will, as has been proved during this season, extend for many miles, not only burning up all vegetation and thereby causing severe damage to the flocks and herds, but utterly destroying the property of several of the Settlers.
In this District it is quite otherwise, the major part of the country to the Westwd [sic] of the range being sandy these districts are only partially burnt, and as a general rule I would remark that the vegetation will only burn once in two years. Further; it appears to be about one half of the sandy land burns over by the fires annually; the graziers are therefore fortunately secure in having the other portion for the sustenance of their flocks and herds. The herbage, unless it has been burnt in the previous summer becomes exceedingly hard, and is usually refused by the stock . The fires are never general and if not intentionally lighted by the Europeans for the purpose mentioned, are kindled by the Natives for the purpose of more effectually securing their game; which is captured in extraordinary numbers where a strong wind impels the flames.
I think I may with safety say, that since I have resided in this district no damage has occurred from Bush fires where common precaution has been made use of to prevent the calamities supposed to attend a fire of that nature. [A lengthy discussion of domestic fires, smoking, and the law has been omitted] To frame a statute forbidding the Natives to fire the bush would I fancy prove abortive; and could such a law be carried out in practice I should conceive it to be an unjust one. The Aborigines look forward to the summer season with the same feelings as Europeans. To both it is the time of harvest. It is then that they gather in by means of these fires their great harvests of game; and altho [sic] in many districts they have been bribed (or paid) for not setting fire to the bush, I look upon it as unjust to demand them to abstain from securing their game or their means of subsistence in a manner which they find to be the most effective.
As well might we compel them to desist from smoking opossums out of trees, on the grounds of such a practice injuring our timber, as to enforce the former rule because our sheep lack feed.
[The last few paragraphs mainly discuss feed for sheep, and have been omitted.]
I have the honor to be Sir
Your obed. Srvt.
Francis Corbet Singleton
At Bunbury, on the coast, south-west of Wungong Catchment, the relationship between settlers and Nyoongar seems to have been amicable, so deliberate burning to harm the settlers was unlikely. Besides, George Eliot, the Resident Magistrate there, like Molloy at the Vasse, regarded fire as a benefit rather than an evil. He offered the following thoughts.
Resident’s Office, Bunbury, March 9th 1846
I beg to acknowledge the receipt of a Circular from your Offce of the 17th Ulto requesting me to offer any suggestion experience may dictate on the subject of the prevention of fires made accidentally or otherwise by the Natives in the Bush.
In answer thereto I beg to state that the only means I am aware of for that purpose would be for the Government to offer a Reward to be given at the commencement of the Rainy Season to the Natives of the districts that have been least burnt. Such a measure would probably partially prevent burning the Country and would also perhaps induce the Natives to stop those fires that come from a distance. At the same time I must observe that in my opinion every Settler ought at the beginning of the dry season to burn a strip of country in the immediate neighbourhood of his homestead by these means he would be perfectly secure from Bush Fires and by merely giving up a day or two’s work probably save his property from destruction.
I am not myself at all adverse to the practice of burning the Country inasmuch as it produces better food for the stock and also destroys an enormous number of Reptiles and Insects which would in a few years were it not for the fires increase to such a degree as to render the country almost uninhabitable.
In this District the Natives if they wish to burn any swamp or piece of country in the Vicinity of dwellings always come first to ask my permission.
I remain Sir,
Your obedt. Servant