My Dear Spencer

Browsing through my bibliography over the past few days, I was reminded of two works that I read eighteen months ago or so that delighted me with their vitality and with the richness of the information they contained. I was all the more surprised at the time because they were not the kind of books that I would normally spend weeks with. They areFrom the Frontier: Outback letters to Baldwin Spencer (Allen & Unwin, 2000) edited by John Mulvaney with Alison Petch and Howard Morphy, and My Dear Spencer: the letters of F. J. Gillen to Baldwin Spencer (Hyland House, 1997), edited by the same team.

Spencer and Gillen have assumed the status of folk heroes in the world of Central Australian history, anthropology, and Aboriginal studies. (I want to say that there was once a bar called “Spencer and Gillen’s” on the first floor of the Todd Mall in Alice, but that may be my memory playing tricks with me after fifteen years.) Like folk heroes everywhere, their story has been variously interpreted and misinterpreted, their actual personalities obscured, and the importance of their work obscured as well by their legend. Together, these two volumes of letters bring their lives and work into clear focus and give them a vibrancy that even the rollicking good tales told in Across Australia (Macmillan, 1912) andWanderings in Wild Australia (Macmillan, 1928) fail to provide. (The latter title, incidentally, is a repackaging of the former, with additional material comprising its fourth quarter taken from Spencer’s investigations in the Top End during the years following Gillen’s death in 1912). In particular, the volume of Gillen’s letters to Spencer offers a great insight into their respective personalities and makes clear the importance of Gillen’s contributions.

The two men met in Alice Springs in 1894 at the conclusion of the Horn Scientific Expedition, on which Spencer served as zoologist. The Expedition had crossed Central Australia to explore and document its flora, fauna, and geology, as well as the lives of its Aboriginal inhabitants. Gillen had been employed on the Overland Telegraph Line since 1875, and by the mid-1890s he had administrative responsibilities, including the post of Sub-Protector of Aborigines, for the area stretching from Charlotte Waters north to Tennant Creek. Ernest Cowles and Patrick Byrne, whose letters to Spencer form the bulk of From the Frontier were employed as a policeman and telegraph official respectively during the last years of the nineteenth century. They too met Spencer as a result of the Horn Expedition.

In order to understand the relationships of the four men, it is necessary to understand something of the conduct of scientific research at the end of the nineteenth century, especially as it related to research in places like Central Australia, remote not only from the southern cities, but perhaps more importantly from the universities of England, which were considered the true seats of learning and knowledge at the time. Methodology reflected this social hierarchy. Research began in the field, where men like Cowle, Byrne, and Gillen collected the raw data and specimens–lizards and marsupials in Cowle and Byrne’s case, and Aboriginal word lists, stories, and ceremonial gear in Gillen’s. They passed these along with great difficulty to Spencer, who for much of the period of their collaboration was based at the University of Melbourne as Professor of Biology and Honorary Director of the National Museum of Victoria. Spencer himself was an Englishman educated at Oxford, and was guided in his research by Sir James George Frazer, author of The Golden Bough and among the first scholars to study religions comparatively, and in so doing establishing social anthropology as a discipline.

Frazer’s influence and importance would be hard to overstate. In effect, he set the research agenda for other scholars like Spencer, who in turn relied upon men with relatively little formal education to perform the field work. In this way, research often began with a theoretical or intellectual paradigm which led to a search for supporting (or disproving) evidence. The scholar, who required the serenity of the academy in order to formulate his theories, was usually at a severe remove from the researcher who collected the data.

Frazer was a proponent of the theory of social Darwinism, which held that the social organization and norms of primitive cultures represented earlier forms of social institutions found in more advanced (read European, especially British) societies. Social Darwinism itself is based on a misunderstanding of the fundamental principles of Darwinian evolution, one which implies that all later forms of physical evolution are necessarily more “advanced” than earlier ones, rather than simply representing variants, and one which also reflects the unshakable Victorian belief in the inevitability of progress.

One particular example of social Darwinism that held significant interest for Australian Aboriginal studies at the time of Spencer and Gillen’s early collaborations was the notion of “group marriage,” in which all or many women of a tribal unit were available as sexual and marriage partners to the men of the tribe. This theory of social organization had been elaborated by A. W. Howitt, one of the leading lights of early anthropological studies in Australia, and Lorimer Fison in Kamilaroi and Kurnai: group-marriage and relationship, and marriage by elopement, a study of tribes from the area southeast of Alice Springs which had been published in 1880. 

The intellectual excitement of reading especially Gillen’s letters to Spencer is to watch this model slowly turned on its head as Gillen’s enthusiasm for his collecting, his sympathy for his Aboriginal informants, and his ruthless and continuing examination of the data he collected lead the collaboration with Spencer to recast anthropological studies into something resembling modern practice wherein the collection of field data precedes the formulation of hypotheses. In his early letters to Spencer, Gillen speaks enthusiastically of Howitt’s theories and of his hopes to obtain further data from among the Arrernte in support of them. Indeed, it was the attempt to understand marriage patterns among the Arrernte that led the team to spend so much time trying to sort out the kinship and subsection organization of the Central Desert that is the foundation of much contemporary understanding of social organization among Aboriginal peoples. As Gillen collects more and more data and as he responds to Spencer’s analysis with insights of his own, we watch the theory of group marriage becoming less and less supportable. 

The letters from Cowles and Byrne detail the collection of other data, primarily zoological in content, and the tribulations of collecting, preserving, and transporting south the specimens gathered by the local indigenous people. The letters also reveal that despite their lack of formal education at an advanced level, both men were genuinely excited by the opportunity to take part in the research process, and put considerable effort, especially in Byrne’s case, towards learning Spencer’s trade, reading the latest research, and using it to inform their collecting practices. They are excited when a previously unseen or rare specimen is brought in, and frustrated when their Aboriginal associates return with yet another example of a well-documented species. Byrne’s bush erudition contrasts with Cowle’s misanthropy and his special disdain for the blacks who are, by and large, his only human companions in the desert at Illamurta. And yet, despite the clear contempt he has for the Aborigines, Cowle is attentive and careful and provides information about the indigenous people’s habits and movements in the countryside. 

But even more than the scientific story that unfolds in these pages, the human drama of Frank Gillen’s life that is chronicled in them makes these books unstoppable reading. Although published second, From the Frontier makes a good starting point, in part because it is briefer, and in part because Cowle’s and Byrne’s letters offer a preliminary portrait of Gillen that provide a context for reading Gillen’s letters themselves. Cowle and Byrne rarely miss an opportunity to comment with good-natured derision and mateship on Gillen’s religious beliefs (an Irish Catholic, Gillen was referred to by both men as “The Pontiff”), political views, and strange sympathies for the Aboriginal people. 

Gillen’s life was an extraordinary mixture of a crushing grind and exhilarating adventure. He struggled to support his family on the meagre wages of a civil servant, and he eventually abandoned Central Australia for a better paying post at Moonta, SA, but in doing so lost the opportunity to continue his research on indigenous life. The two extended periods of fieldwork he undertook with Spencer in 1896-97 and 1901-02 and the opportunities they provided him with for substantive dialogue with his mentor and colleague (the difficulties of communicating via the infrequent and ill-timed post are a frequent complaint of the letters) were clearly the high points of his career, but the preparations for these trips, especially the latter, are almost heart-breaking in their enumeration of Gillen’s fears that they may not happen at all, given his precarious financial position and the need to receive extended leave from his employment. 

Equally heartrending is Gillen’s self-effacement before Spencer. It seems clear from the letters that Spencer held Gillen in high regard, and certainly worked hard on his behalf to insure the possibility of their continuing collaboration over a decade. Spencer arranged for Gillen to give the presidential address to the anthropology section of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science in 1900, an honor uncommon for a man like Gillen lacking in academic credentials. Gillen was always aware of his position on the periphery of the scientific world, of being at the bottom of the hierarchy of scholarship that extended upwards to Frazer at Oxford. But he always hoped that his contributions would be fully recognized, and despite the fact that Spencer insisted on giving Gillen full credit as co-author on the major studies that emerged from their collaboration, the Australian scientific establishment never shared Spencer’s generosity and consistently overlooked Gillen’s achievements and expertise. 

The last decade of Gillen’s life before his death in 1912 was spent in obscurity. His declining health prevented him from undertaking further fieldwork, and his confinement to the areas around Moonta and Port Pirie, where his infrequent contact with Aboriginal people was limited to groups living on mission settlements and a generation removed from their traditional, nomadic lives, meant that his contributions to the study of anthropology were effectively concluded by 1903. Despite all the support from Spencer over the years, Gillen’s financial position never prospered, in part the result of his penchant for speculating in gold fields that never paid out. And sadly, this penury and lack of recognition embittered Gillen’s wife against Spencer, who burned all of his letters to Gillen after her husband’s death. 

Taken together, these two collections of letters provide a superb introduction and context for the scientific writings of Spencer and Gillen. They offer the delights of perusing primary historical sources not just for the development of anthropological thought and practice, but for the settlement and exploration of Central Australia (Cowle’s letters in particular offer insights into the mind of the desert policeman and a first hand account of the bad relations between settlers and indigenous people of the era). The accidental autobiography of Frank Gillen, filled with sorrows and joys, that emerges from My Dear Spencer makes better reading than most novels. If you have ever tried to read The Native Tribes of Central Australia and found it slow going, you will be amazed at the liveliness of the background that is contained in these letters and delighted by the humanity of the science therein.

Bibliographic excursus:

The major works of Spencer and Gillen include the following:

The Native Tribes of Central Australia. London: Macmillan, 1899.
The Northern Tribes of Central Australia. London: Macmillan, 1904.
Across Australia, vols. I and II. London, Macmillan, 1912.
The Arunta, vols. I and II. London, Macmillan, 1927.

The first two works listed publish the results of the major fieldwork Spencer and Gillen conducted together, while the fourth listed republishes those elements dealing specifically with the Arrernte people. Across Australia was prepared for a popular audience, and covers much of the same material, in a far more accessible style, that is treated in the scholarly works. Spencer additionally published two other works under his name alone:

Native Tribes of the Northern Territory of Australia. London: Macmillan, 1914.
Wanderings in Wild Australia. London, Macmillan, 1928.

These publications incorporate the research Spencer conducted in the Top End, primarily on Melville and Bathurst Islands, in the vicinity of Darwin, and along the Alligator Rivers. This period of his research resulted in the collection of bark paintings now in the Melbourne Museum, several of which were also featured in Crossing Country: the alchemy of western Arnhem Land art at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 2004.

All of these works, but especially the popularizations, Across Australia and Wanderings in Wild Australia, contain numerous superb photographs of individuals, ceremonies, and artifacts that will enrich anyone’s appreciation of indigenous art. A new, revised and expanded edition of The Photographs of Baldwin Spencer was issued in November 2005 by Melbourne University Press under their Miegunyah imprint and includes, in addition to 144 illustrations, essays by John Mulvaney, Howard Morphy, Nicolas Peterson, and Philip Jones.

One of the ironies of My Dear Spencer is that it contains no material relating to the times when Spencer and Gillen were actually engaged in their fieldwork, as no correspondence was required between the two men at those times. This lacuna is partially filled by the publication of Gillen’s notes kept during the 1901-02 expedition. Although it is a slight volume, it adds more material in Gillen’s voice to the record. A second publication to provide background on Gillen’s more youthful character is his early diary from his first days in the Centre.

Gillen’s Diary: the camp jottings of FJ Gillen on the Spencer and Gillen Expedition across Australia 1901-02. Adelaide: Libraries Board of South Australia, 1968.
Gillen’s First Diary 1875. Kent Town, Wakefield Press, 1995.

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