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Martin Thomas

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Barks, Birds & Billabongs: Exploring the Legacy of the 1948 American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land. 16-20 November 2009.

Martin Thomas

Martin Thomas

Research Fellow

Department of History

University of Sydney


Unpacking the testimony of Gerald Blitner: An Indigenous perspective on the Arnhem Land Expedition

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Early in the Arnhem Land Expedition, when the party was camped on Groote Eylandt, the Australian Museum anthropologist Frederick McCarthy wrote in his diary that he felt unable to sleep because 'the natives are almost completely civilised, speaking English well and have dropped their ceremonial and hunting life.' McCarthy would come to realise that Aboriginal culture was sufficiently resilient to survive the wearing of clothing or proficiency in English. Yet his sleeplessness is revealing, for it betrays the disjunction between the historical circumstances of life in Arnhem Land and the fantasies of a 'primitive' and 'stone-age' enclave that did much to inspire the Expedition. The clash between the expectations of the scientists and the reality of what they encountered had an enormous impact on the Aboriginal people who interacted with the Expedition: guiding, teaching, and transmitting ideas in a multitude of ways, whether it be through art or story, or the performance of aspects of their culture for camera and recorder.

Regrettably, there is little evidence of how Aboriginal people perceived the visiting investigators. This makes the testimony of Gerald Blitner especially valuable. Blitner, who died some four months after we recorded an oral history interview in September 2007, served as a guide and translator while the Expedition was stationed on Groote Eylandt. Gerald Blitner led an extraordinary life that is in many ways emblematic of the changes occurring in Arnhem Land around the time of the Expedition. He grew up in the 'half caste' mission on Groote, established by the Church Missionary Society. He contributed to the war effort and subsequently worked on Fred Gray's settlement at Umbakumba where he met the Arnhem Land Expedition. This paper will draw from both the Blitner interview and archival evidence, including observations on Blitner recorded by the Expedition party. Informed by the unique perspective of Gerald Blitner, this paper will unpack the intercultural exchanges that occurred during the visit, and scrutinise the resulting pressures on the Groote Eylandt communities, particularly the request by leader Charles P Mountford that he be allowed to document the lavish ceremony known as the Maraian, a secret-sacred initiation.

The National Museum of Australia thanks the children of the late Mr Gerald Blitner for generously allowing us to name and show photographs of their father.

left: Jerry [Gerald] Blitner holding a fish, 1948. right: Gerald Blitner recording his oral history in Darwin, 2007.
Left: Jerry [Gerald] Blitner holding a fish, Emerald River, Groote Eylandt, Northern Territory, 5 June 1948. Colour transparency by Robert Rush Miller. NLA PIC/12323/120. Courtesy National Library of Australia. Right: Gerald Blitner recording his oral history in Darwin, 2007. Photo: Martin Thomas.


Martin Thomas is a Research Fellow in History at the University of Sydney, the department where he first studied as an undergraduate. His later doctoral research was in cultural studies at the University of Technology, Sydney. His main interests are in the perception of landscape, the history of cross-cultural encounter and inquiry, and in the impact of technologies such as sound recording and photography that have transformed attitudes to space and time.

Martin is an oral history interviewer for the National Library of Australia and has had long experience as a radio producer and broadcaster. His radio work began in New York in 1991 when interviews with homeless people became the basis for the ABC documentary Home Front Manhattan (1991), a reflection on the First Gulf War. Since then he has made more than a dozen documentaries including This is Jimmie Barker (2000), a moving study of the Aboriginal sound recordist that was awarded the New South Wales Premier's Audio/Visual History Prize.

Martin's publications include The Artificial Horizon: Imagining the Blue Mountains (2003), winner of the Gleebooks Prize for Literary and Cultural Criticism in the New South Wales Premier's Literary Awards, and (as editor) Culture in Translation: The Anthropological Legacy of R H Mathews (2007). He is a leading authority on Mathews' pioneering contribution to cross-cultural research in Australia and is author of a biographical study, In Search of R H Mathews, to be published by Allen & Unwin.

Martin became interested in the Arnhem Land Expedition when he heard recordings from 1948 in the archives of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. This was the stimulus for ongoing fieldwork in Arnhem Land that involves study of historic film, audio and photography with senior traditional owners. In 2008 he was awarded a Smithsonian Institution Fellowship to study Arnhem Land collections and archives in Washington DC.

Note: The views expressed in speakers' abstracts are those of the individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Museum of Australia.