March 2011

Arts & Letters

‘The Many Worlds of RH Mathews’ by Martin Thomas

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

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?

From the front page

Composite image of Nationals MP George Christensen and Greens leader Adam Bandt (both images © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images)

Friends like these

Labor distances itself from the Greens, while the Coalition does little to condemn the actual radicals in its own ranks

Image of Abdul Karim Hekmat. Photograph © Sam Biddle

Australia needs to hear asylum seekers’ stories, in our own words

Our presence has preoccupied the nation, but our stories have been excluded from the national narrative

Image of Australian Bicentenary protest, Sydney, NSW, 1988

The stunted country

There can be no republic without constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians

Image of Oscar Isaac as William Tell in The Card Counter. Photograph © Focus Features

Debt burden: Paul Schrader’s ‘The Card Counter’

The acclaimed writer-director indulges his experimental streak in a thriller that inverts the popular conception of the gambling man

In This Issue

Economies of scale

Peter Weir’s ‘The Way Back’ and Leon Ford’s ‘Griff the Invisible’

Stanley Melbourne Bruce in the early days of his prime ministership, c. 1923. © Newspix/News Limited

Balancing acts

David Lee’s ‘Stanley Melbourne Bruce’ and David Bird’s ‘JA Lyons’

Yongle Emperor, of the Ming Dynasty, shown in the Dragon Chair. The original hanging scroll is held at the National Palace Museum, Taibei. © Wikimedia Commons

Cry freedom

Niall Ferguson’s ‘Civilisation: The West and the Rest’

Margaret Scott, pictured here in 1994, was a pioneer of Australian ballet and became the first director of the Australian Ballet School in 1964. Courtesy of the National Library of Australia. © Angela Lynkushka

Maggie’s war

A chapter in the life of ballet legend Margaret Scott


More in Arts & Letters

Image of Gerald Murnane

Final sentence: Gerald Murnane’s ‘Last Letter to a Reader’

The essay anthology that will be the final book from one of Australia’s most idiosyncratic authors

Image of The Kid Laroi

New kid on the block: The Kid Laroi

How Australia has overlooked its biggest global music star, an Indigenous hip-hop prodigy

Still from ‘No Time To Die’

The Bond market: ‘Dune’ and ‘No Time To Die’

Blockbuster season begins with a middling 007 and a must-see sci-fi epic

Abbotsford I

New poetry, after lockdowns


More in Noted

Cover of ‘Crossroads’

‘Crossroads’ by Jonathan Franzen

The acclaimed US author’s latest novel is a 1971 church drama modelled on ‘Middlemarch’

Still from ‘Yellowjackets’

‘Yellowjackets’

The US drama about teen plane-crash survivors is a heady mix of folk horror and high-school betrayal

Still from ‘New Gold Mountain’

‘New Gold Mountain’

SBS’s Australian goldfields series looks beyond colonial orthodoxies to tell the neglected stories

Cover of ‘The Magician’

‘The Magician’ by Colm Tóibín

The Irish novelist’s latest ponders creativity and the unacknowledged life of Thomas Mann


Online exclusives

Image of Abdul Karim Hekmat. Photograph © Sam Biddle

Australia needs to hear asylum seekers’ stories, in our own words

Our presence has preoccupied the nation, but our stories have been excluded from the national narrative

Image of Oscar Isaac as William Tell in The Card Counter. Photograph © Focus Features

Debt burden: Paul Schrader’s ‘The Card Counter’

The acclaimed writer-director indulges his experimental streak in a thriller that inverts the popular conception of the gambling man

Image of The Beatles and Yoko Ono during the ‘Let It Be’ sessions. Image © Apple Records / Disney+

‘Get Back’ is ‘slow TV’ for Beatles nuts

Despite plenty of magical moments, Peter Jackson’s eight-hour epic is the work of a fanatic, and will likely only be watched in full by other fanatics

Image of John Wilson in How To with John Wilson. Image courtesy of HBO / Binge

Candid camera: ‘How To with John Wilson’

Both delightfully droll and genuinely moving, John Wilson’s idiosyncratic documentary series is this month’s streaming standout