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

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