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Aboriginal fires observed by William Finlayson
Title : Aboriginal fires observed by William Finlayson Aboriginal fires observed by William Finlayson
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Creator : Finlayson family
Source : PRG 290
Date of creation : 1883
Additional Creator : Finlayson, William, 1813-1897
Format : Manuscript
Dimensions : 330 mm x 210 mm
Contributor : State Library catalogue
Catalogue record
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Firestick farming was practiced by the Australian Aboriginal people for thousands of years before white settlement. This practice burnt off old grass, enabling lush new growth to flourish. This attracted game for hunting. The practice also served to thin the vegetation and produced a more open landscape, suitable for animals to graze. Many Australian plants are well adapted to fire regimes and require it for their seed to germinate.

William Finlayson arrived in South Australia on the John Renwick in 1837. During 1883 he wrote down reminiscences of his voyage and the early days of the colony. In this extract he describes his view of the Adelaide Hills as he travelled up Gulf St Vincent prior to disembarking:

...before next day's sun arose a great change had taken place in the landscape before us. The watchers on deck, for many did not go to bed that night, beheld a fire on one of the hills which seemed to spread from hill to hill with an amazing speed. What is the meaning of this, every one asked but no one could answer. All on board were now awake and on deck looking at this grand yet, to us, who knew not of its cause, fearful conflagration. Since then I have seen many fires of the like kind but never one so grand and extensive as this, it seemed as if the whole land was a mass of flame. Still the question was unanswered what is the cause, what is the meaning of this. Knowing ones shook their heads and said I believe, it is a signal like the beacons of old to the tribes beyond the hills to gather, they have seen our ship and will come to destroy us, - others would say as they gazed at the grand sight before us - don't you see that savage throwing wood on the flames and some persuaded themselves that they could see - at the distance of 15 miles the form of a man. We sat long watching this grand and mysterious sight, - then toward morning, having committed ourselves to our heavenly Father's care retired again to rest. In the morning what a change had taken place, the whole range as black as midnight - except where trees were burning. The white dry grass was all gone, and shortly after we landed the mystery was explained - at the end of summer as this was, the natives set fire to the long dry grass to enable them to obtain more easily the animals and vermin on which a great part of their living depends. No tribes from beyond the hills ever came to molest us.

Related names :

Finlayson, William, 1813-1897

Coverage year : 1883
Period : 1836-1851
Place : South Australia
Region : Adelaide metropolitan area,Mt Lofty Ranges and Eastern Plain
Further reading :

Ellis, R.W. 'The Aboriginal inhabitants and their environment' Natural history of the Adelaide Region, edited by C.R. Twidale, M.J. Tyler & B.P. Webb. [Adelaide]: Royal Society of South Australia, 1976, Chapter 8

Pyne, Stephen J. The still-burning bush, Carlton North, Vic.: Scribe, 2006

Internet links :

State Library of South Australia. Factsheets: Aboriginal Australia

Australian Museum Online - Dreamtimesearch for Timeline



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