Australia's first peoples
WARNING: Visitors should be aware that this website includes images and names of deceased people that may cause sadness or distress to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
The census of 1911 could not provide accurate figures for Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population. Urban-dwellers and those in the employment of white people were counted, but those beyond easy reach of the census collector were not. At this time Australia’s Indigenous peoples lived in diverse ways: some in missions and settlements, but many on their own lands and all seeking to maintain their culture and language.
Writing in 1913, the Australian Statistician, GH Knibbs, lamented the dearth of information about what he described as a ‘remarkable and rapidly-disappearing race’:
Practically all that has been done to increase our knowledge of them, their laws, habits, customs, and languages, has been the result of more or less spasmodic and intermittent effort on the part of enthusiasts either in private life or in the public service.
Sharing the belief that time was running out, professional ethnographers, such as Walter Baldwin Spencer and Herbert Basedow, and amateurs, such as Edmund Milne, were compelled to build large collections of Indigenous cultural material.
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Albert Mackenzie, aged 15, from Weipa Presbyterian mission, with the chair he made before it was sent to Brisbane for exhibition, 1913. Cape York Collection, Hibberd Library, Weipa.
ABORIGINAL WORK. AN INTERESTING COURT.
Mission stations had a splendid display, which speaks well for the training the aboriginals are obtaining … The exhibits came from Mapoon, Weipa, and Arukun. The work was exceptionally good … comparing favourably with the work in the schools section. In the collection was a chair made by a boy named Albert Mackenzie, and presented by him to the P.W.M.U. for the president’s use.
Brisbane Courier, 13 August 1913, p. 11. Read the full article in Trove
The missionary chair
Albert Mackenzie, a 15-year-old boy from the Weipa Presbyterian mission in far north Queensland, made this chair without using any nails. It was exhibited at the Brisbane Exhibition in August 1913 and reminds us how missionaries trained Aboriginal children to be ‘productive’ in ways that were valued by the colonising society. Boys were taught woodwork, leatherwork, welding and brickmaking, and girls learned to sew, crochet and cook. The chair was presented to the president of the Presbyterian Women’s Missionary Union (PWMU) of Queensland, to thank this philanthropic group of women for their financial support of the mission.
The ladies of the PWMU had been resourceful and successful fundraisers for about 20 years. Their most lucrative initiative was a cookbook, which sold more than 225,000 copies and was revised in 22 editions until 1981. From 1894 to 1900 the cookbook raised about £1500.
White Queenslanders learned about the local Indigenous communities through displays at the Brisbane Exhibition: in 1912, when Brisbane’s population was about 70,000, some 163,000 people attended show week. Most, however, had little direct contact with Aboriginal people, who had been driven out of the city.
Albert Mackenzie’s skilled work surprised many visitors. Newspaper reports commented on the ‘quality and range of the work’, and presented the samples of Aboriginal work on display as evidence ‘of the advance shown by the natives in the difficult process of emerging from their state of primitive barbarism into a condition approaching semi-civilisation’. The displays in the exhibition’s ‘Aboriginal Court’ enabled the state government to give the impression that Aboriginal people were compliant, useful workers, who not only could be taught new skills that contributed to the state’s economy, but were also safely segregated on missions and reserves.
While the chair was seen as a symbol of gratitude, respect, skill and appreciation, the ‘benign’ impression conveyed through such displays of craft was in striking contrast to the lived reality of many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Most Indigenous Queenslanders knew forced removals, high mortality rates on reserves, missions ravaged by epidemics and control imposed on their communities by the Aboriginals Protection Act of 1897.
The minutes of the PWMU meeting held in St Paul’s Hall on 5 September 1913 describe the president, Mrs Stewart, sitting in Mackenzie’s chair for the first time. In 1990 the chair was moved into the vestry of St Paul’s Presbyterian Church, Brisbane. In 2010, it was donated to the National Museum of Australia.
Poopra (wooden digging stick) collected by Edmund Milne from Jack Shepherd, 1913. National Museum of Australia. Photo: Lannon Harley.
Edmund Milne's collection
In 1913, Edmund Milne was a senior railway official in Orange, a New South Wales town about 250 kilometres west of Sydney. He was also a collector of Aboriginal artefacts, and had built a significant and well-documented collection over 30 years. It was to be a good year for him – he collected 24 items in 1913, comprising wooden and stone implements as well as a photograph.
Milne also visited several historic sites in 1913. In July, Milne and a small group of associates embarked on a search for a site mentioned by explorer John Oxley. In 1817, Oxley and his party had found an Aboriginal burial site marked by two carved trees. Milne was interested in carved trees and, as the first mention of such trees in the literature, this site was of particular importance to him. Armed with a copy of Oxley’s journal and advice from an Aboriginal informant, Jacky Narang, Milne’s party located the site on what is now Kiacatoo station, between Condobolin and Lake Cargelligo, about 200 kilometres west of Orange. In 1914, largely on Milne’s initiative, a monument was erected there.
Milne was not just a collector; he took an interest in Aboriginal cultures. He knew a number of Aboriginal people, from whom he collected artefacts. One of these people was Jack Shepherd, a Ngemba man who died at Bourke in 1916. Milne acquired 16 artefacts, including this poopra (wooden digging stick), dated between 1908 and 1914 and associated with Shepherd. It is likely that Milne would have visited Shepherd when he went to Byrock and Bourke on railway business. Aboriginal people in small towns sold artefacts to visitors and, given that the ‘Shepherd artefacts’ in Milne’s collection exhibit no visible use-wear, it is likely Shepherd made them to sell rather than for his personal use.
At a time when there was much denigration of Aboriginal people and culture, Milne proclaimed a contrary opinion. In a 1911 lecture Milne espoused the view that ‘the Australian aborigine was not the most degraded and lowest form of the human race’. Milne described Aboriginal people as ‘no worse or no lower than our own forefathers’.
Milne had a broad understanding of Aboriginal cultures and a reputation as an amateur ethnologist and gentleman scientist. Robert Etheridge junior, the Australian Museum’s director, sought Milne’s help with two of his books: on the enigmatic cylcons (ceremonial stones) published in 1916 and, two years later, on carved trees. Milne contributed substantially to the latter, published the year after he died. His scientific work had earlier been recognised in 1914, when he was asked to deliver a paper on carved trees at the Sydney section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science congress.
Certainly in at least one regard, Milne was ahead of his time. Unlike almost all of his contemporaries, he recorded the names of Aboriginal people associated with several artefacts that he collected, many believed to be their makers. The National Museum of Australia is fortunate to have such a significant collection.
David Kaus, Senior Curator, National Museum of Australia
Baldwin Spencer (front right) and Frank Gillen (front left) with (back from left) Purunda (Warwick), Mounted Constable Harry Chance and Erlikilyika (Jim Kite). South Australian Museum .
Pioneering anthropologist Walter Baldwin Spencer and his close collaborator, Patrick ‘Paddy’ Cahill, a buffalo farmer at Oenpelli (Gunbalanya) in Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, amassed a remarkable collection of Aboriginal bark paintings. Spencer spent most of 1912 in the Northern Territory, where he acted as Special Commissioner and Protector of Aborigines. He also carried out extensive fieldwork and collected bark paintings that he later gave to the Museum of Victoria.
In his role as director of the National Museum of Victoria, Baldwin Spencer asked Paddy Cahill to commission several bark paintings from Gaagadju artists. In all, about 170 paintings were commissioned in this way between 1912 and 1922. The works on show in Glorious Days are from the earliest consignment, and include classic ‘X-ray’ paintings collected in the region of the East and South Alligator rivers, Arnhem Land, in 1912. Animals like the tortoise and fish were a popular theme in the earliest paintings that Spencer and Cahill collected.
Spencer was one of the greatest early collectors of Aboriginal art. Yet his attitudes were complex, combining paternalism with a genuine fascination with Aboriginal culture.
Arnhem Land bark painting
Warraguk (spirit being), Arnhem Land, Northern Territory collected by Baldwin Spencer and Paddy Cahill, 1912. Museum Victoria.
When early anthropologist Baldwin Spencer collected this painting, he identified the subject as Warraguk, a spirit who walks around during the day searching for ‘sugarbag’ (honey) and rests at night, hanging like a bat from trees. This is one of the first paintings Spencer and Paddy Cahill collected in the country around Oenpelli (Gunbalanya) in 1912.
Erlikilyika (Jim Kite)
A BLACK GENIUS
In an upstairs room at the Selborne Hotel on Thursday I saw the triumph of the aborigine’s handiwork. They ought surely to be purchased for the national collection. Jim Kite was then with Mr. Kearnan, who interviewed him for me … The table was spread with perhaps a score of valuable and diversified creations of the black’s extraordinary intellect. All the creeping and jumping things … and peoples of the bush were there fixed on the immaculate white background of kaolin ornaments.
Adelaide Register, 18 July 1913, p. 7. Read the full article in Trove
In the early 20th century, Aboriginal people were largely excluded from mainstream society. Yet some individual Aboriginal people stand out for their contribution to Australian history or art and, as in the case of Southern Arrernte artist Erlikilyika (Jim Kite), received some recognition at the time.
In 1901–02, Erlikilyika provided major assistance to an anthropological expedition led by Baldwin Spencer and former post and telegraph master Frances James (Frank) Gillen. He not only helped look after the camp and horses but also proved an important intermediary between the anthropologists and the Aboriginal people they were studying. Erlikilyika also liked to draw and, by 1913, he was sculpting in kaolin (clay). That year he was taken to Adelaide where his art was described as a ‘triumph’.
Herbert Basedow, about 1920. National Museum of Australia .
Herbert Basedow was an anthropologist, geologist and medical doctor who used photography to document his many expeditions into central and northern Australia in the early decades of the 20th century. In 1913 he was working as a general practitioner and consulting geologist in Adelaide while, at the same time, pursuing his passion for Australian Aboriginal studies.
In 1911 Basedow had spent a brief period in Darwin as Chief Medical Inspector and Chief Protector of Aborigines for the Commonwealth. While there, he made a small but significant collection of Aboriginal artefacts from Bathurst Island. On his return to Adelaide, Basedow photographed the collection and used the images to illustrate his paper, ‘Notes on the Natives of Bathurst Island, North Australia’, published in 1913.