A Very Human Survey: The Cross-Cultural Inquiries of R. H. Mathews

Publication Type:
Journal Article
Public History Review, 2006, 12 pp. 12 - 26
Issue Date:
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In addressing the life and legacy of R. H. Mathews (1841-1918), this article queries the emphasis on 'otherness' that is common in much post-colonial commentary. The focus here is on the sharing of knowledge and other experiences of familiarity across cultures. Mathews was an Australian-born surveyor who turned to anthropology in the 1890s, publishing prolifically in Australia and overseas. Well known in Aboriginal communities through much of eastern Australia, he took advantage of contacts he had developed during his career as a surveyor. Such experience gave him a personal understanding of the land which greatly influenced his anthropological writing. In addition to direct interview, he also acquired information through correspondence with graziers and officials with Aboriginal employees or other connections with indigenous people. The article draws from some of these letters, many of which survive in the extensive R. H. Mathews Papers at the National Library of Australia. To date, the main source of information on Mathews has been a three-part article by A. P. Elkin published in the 1970s. Much information has since become available, including the testimony of Aboriginal informants who were recorded by Janet Mathews, a grand daughter-in-law of R. H. who worked for the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies as it was originally known (now AIATSIS). Mathews close connections in the Aboriginal world did nothing to protect him from the internecine feuding that characterised Australian anthropology in the Federation era. The article argues that Mathews' standing was damaged by a conspiracy involving the Melbourne-based Professor W. Baldwin Spencer who persuaded J. G. Frazer and other scholars in Britain never to acknowledge him or cite his work.
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