March 2011

Arts & Letters

‘The Many Worlds of RH Mathews’ by Martin Thomas

By Henry Reynolds

With The Many Worlds of RH Mathews, Martin Thomas has brought back anthropologist Robert Hamilton Mathews from almost total obscurity. Thomas has pursued his man with forensic intensity, and astutely located him in time and place. This alone is a significant achievement. But in so doing he examines many wider themes that inhere in the story. He employs the story of Mathews’ public career to examine the world of Australian – and indeed English-speaking – anthropology in its formative years in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Thomas considers the place of Indigenous people in Australian society at the time and reflects on the wider colonial encounter.

Mathews was the son of Irish emigrants who had fled Ireland under suspicion of murder before pursuing and gaining respectability in the colonies. He had a successful career as a licensed surveyor, became wealthy and attained mild eminence as a justice of the peace – nothing to render him either memorable or historically important. But in 1892, at the age of 51, something extraordinary happened to him: Thomas describes the life-changing experience as a sudden onset of ‘ethnomania’. Mathews became obsessed by the need to find out and record everything he could about the remaining Indigenous communities in south-east Australia.

The mystery of his sudden ethnomania derives as much from the timing as the task. As a surveyor, he had travelled incessantly across New South Wales and had obviously met many Indigenous people while on his professional excursions, but there is no evidence that he made any attempt to collect information or artefacts before 1892. Some general characteristics of the time allow Thomas to approach (but not penetrate) the mystery. There was a strong sense in white Australia that the Aborigines were dying out, particularly in south-east Australia. This was at the moment when European thought, deeply penetrated by Darwinian evolution, considered that those viewed as primitive held the secrets to the early history of the human race.

These two facts help explain both the energy and urgency of the Mathews crusade and the interest that his work evoked in intellectual circles in many parts of the world. Between 1893 and 1912 he published 171 articles in learned journals in London, Washington, Vienna, Berlin and Paris, as well as the Australian states. It was an extraordinary achievement – a forgotten contribution to anthropology and to the cultural history of the continent. Fortunately he has now found a worthy and persuasive champion.

We are left in no doubt that behind the book is a powerful and well-informed intellect. But the repeated intrusions of the author’s persona make it seem as though he finds himself quite as interesting as Mathews, and assumes his readers will feel the same. Nonetheless Thomas is a fine advocate and writer, able to create not just a memorable montage of Mathews and his milieu but an unforgettable one

With The Many Worlds of RH Mathews, Martin Thomas has brought back anthropologist Robert Hamilton Mathews from almost total obscurity. Thomas has pursued his man with forensic intensity, and astutely located him in time and place. This alone is a significant achievement. But in so doing he examines many wider themes that inhere in the story. He employs the story of Mathews’ public career to examine the world of Australian – and indeed English-speaking – anthropology in its formative years in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Thomas considers the place of Indigenous people in Australian society at the time and reflects on the wider colonial encounter.

Mathews was the son of Irish emigrants who had fled Ireland under suspicion of murder before pursuing and gaining respectability in the colonies. He had a successful career as a licensed surveyor, became wealthy and attained mild eminence as a justice of the peace – nothing to render him either memorable or historically important. But in 1892, at the age of 51, something extraordinary happened to him: Thomas describes the life-changing experience as a sudden onset of ‘ethnomania’. Mathews became obsessed by the need to find out and record everything he could about the remaining Indigenous communities in south-east Australia.

The mystery of his sudden ethnomania derives as much from the timing as the task. As a surveyor, he had travelled incessantly across New South Wales and had obviously met many Indigenous people while on his professional excursions, but there is no evidence that he made any attempt to collect information or artefacts before 1892. Some general characteristics of the time allow Thomas to approach (but not penetrate) the mystery. There was a strong sense in white Australia that the Aborigines were dying out, particularly in south-east Australia. This was at the moment when European thought, deeply penetrated by Darwinian evolution, considered that those viewed as primitive held the secrets to the early history of the human race.

These two facts help explain both the energy and urgency of the Mathews crusade and the interest that his work evoked in intellectual circles in many parts of the world. Between 1893 and 1912 he published 171 articles in learned journals in London, Washington, Vienna, Berlin and Paris, as well as the Australian states. It was an extraordinary achievement – a forgotten contribution to anthropology and to the cultural history of the continent. Fortunately he has now found a worthy and persuasive champion.

We are left in no doubt that behind the book is a powerful and well-informed intellect. But the repeated intrusions of the author’s persona make it seem as though he finds himself quite as interesting as Mathews, and assumes his readers will feel the same. Nonetheless Thomas is a fine advocate and writer, able to create not just a memorable montage of Mathews and his milieu but an unforgettable one.

Henry Reynolds
Henry Reynolds is an eminent Australian historian and author. His books include An Indelible Stain?, The Other Side of the Frontier and Why Weren't We Told?

'The Many Worlds of RH Mathews: In Search of an Australian Anthropologist' By Martin Thomas, Allen & Unwin, 472pp; $59.99

March 2011

From the front page

Six years and counting

There is no hope in sight for hundreds of people on Manus Island and Nauru

The Djab Wurrung Birthing Tree

The highway construction causing irredeemable cultural and environmental damage

Detail of 'Man, Eagle and Eye in the Sky: Two Eagles', by Cai Guo-Qiang

Cai Guo-Qiang’s ‘The Transient Landscape’ and the Terracotta Warriors at the National Gallery of Victoria

The incendiary Chinese artist connects contemporary concerns with cultural history

Image of Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese and CFMEU Victoria secretary John Setka

Judge stymies Albanese’s plans to expel Setka from ALP

A protracted battle is the last thing the Opposition needs


In This Issue

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

Bunyip Bluegum & Albert, A Magic Pudding

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

The devil within

Christian Democratic Party member Peter J Madden

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

NSW Labor

'How to Change the World: Tales of Marx and Marxism' By Eric Hobsbawm, Little, Brown, 480pp; $55.00

‘How to Change the World’ by Eric Hobsbawm


More in Arts & Letters

Image of Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum: A true journalistic believer

Celebrating the contribution of an Australian media legend

Image from 'Never Look Away'

Art life: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s ‘Never Look Away’ and Bong Joon-ho’s ‘Parasite’

By barely disguising an account of the life of Gerhard Richter, the German director fails the artist and filmgoers

Image from 'Mystify: Michael Hutchence'

All veils and misty: Richard Lowenstein’s ‘Mystify: Michael Hutchence’

The insider documentary that wipes clear the myths obscuring the INXS singer

Photo of Blackpink at Coachella

Seoul trained: K-pop and Blackpink

Trying to find meaning in the carefully formulated culture of K-pop


More in Noted

Detail of 'Man, Eagle and Eye in the Sky: Two Eagles', by Cai Guo-Qiang

Cai Guo-Qiang’s ‘The Transient Landscape’ and the Terracotta Warriors at the National Gallery of Victoria

The incendiary Chinese artist connects contemporary concerns with cultural history

Cover image of ‘The Other Americans’ by Laila Lalami

‘The Other Americans’ by Laila Lalami

An accidental death in a tale of immigrant generations highlights fractures in the promise of America

Still image from ‘Assembly’ by Angelica Mesiti

‘Assembly’ by Angelica Mesiti at Venice Biennale

The democratic ideal is explored in the Australian Pavilion’s video installation

Cover image of 'Animalia' by Jean-Baptiste Del Amo

‘Animalia’ by Jean-Baptiste Del Amo

The French author delivers a pastoral that turns on human cruelty


Read on

Image of Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese and CFMEU Victoria secretary John Setka

Judge stymies Albanese’s plans to expel Setka from ALP

A protracted battle is the last thing the Opposition needs

Image from ‘Booksmart’

Meritocracy rules in ‘Booksmart’

Those who work hard learn to play hard in Olivia Wilde’s high-school comedy

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg

The government’s perverse pursuit of surplus

Aiming to be back in black in the current climate is bad economics

Image of Blixa Bargeld at Dark Mofo

Dark Mofo 2019: Blixa Bargeld

The German musician presides over a suitably unpredictable evening


×
×