European colonisation is portrayed mostly as an era of brutal subjugation of Indigenous peoples, but new studies are showing the cultural engagement may not always have been so crudely one-sided.

In 1914, as Europe was on the brink of war, an expedition of several hundred scholars from the UK's finest institutions sailed to Australia. Guests of the Australian Government, these members of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS), many of them anthropologists, undertook a whirlwind schedule of lectures, state events and field trips.

Professor Lynette Russell.
Photo: James Braund

Their visit reflected a fascination by British scientists, the public and humanitarians in the indigenous people of the colonies; an interest dating back to the mid-19th century. Scholastic debates had begun to grapple with the origins and hierarchy of races.

Whether turned to the native people of New Zealand, North America, South Africa or Australia, the nascent discipline of anthropology had begun asking who these people were, how they lived, and how European settlers should relate to them.

Today, the voluminous BAAS archives are at the heart of a research project exploring the history of this elite group of scientific minds and the global network they spun to glean information from the furthest corners of the British Empire.

"The BAAS was crucial to scientists engaged with anthropology. Soon after its inception in the 1830s, it became a powerful carrier of debates about human difference," explains Dr Leigh Boucher, a Macquarie University historian who is part of an Australian Research Council (ARC) funded project looking into the BAAS studies.

"While based in the UK, the network of members stretched around and beyond the British Empire. Together, these imperial interlocutors forged a global community of authors, correspondents and readers who often used their colonial experiences to claim authority," she says.

By the time the BAAS experts arrived on Australian shores, similar expeditions had already visited Canada (in 1897 and 1909) and South Africa (in 1905). For Monash University historian Professor Lynette Russell, leader of the ARC project, the BAAS expedition embodies the story of early anthropology. She says it also provides glimpses of Aboriginal empowerment in the face of forces that tried to subjugate them.

Professor Russell, who is the director of the Monash Indigenous Centre, describes a field trip to South Australia's Coorong region, encompassing the vast mouth of the Murray River, in which the BAAS scientists were chauffeured to a corroboree staged by the local Ngarrindjeri people. The visit was organised by a business-savvy Aboriginal elder.

"There is one little cryptic comment made by someone at the corroboree," says Professor Russell. "This person describes the Aboriginal promoter of the corroboree as a man who would have found a comfortable career as an entrepreneur in London's West End."

Agents in history

Professor Russell explains that Australian Aboriginal people had been ranked near the bottom of the racial hierarchies of the 19th century, far lower than the native people of North America or New Zealand. Their acts of resistance and engagement were either dismissed or misunderstood by Europeans who were much more familiar, for example, with the organised guerrilla warfare of the Maori people or the native people of North America. By contrast, Australian Aborigines were seen as passively accepting European colonisation.

Portrait of A.W. Howitt, 1900, Tom Roberts, Monash University Collection.

But events such as the Coorong corroboree present historical opportunities for a different reading. Here, the comment about the corroboree promoter suggests the local Aboriginal group cannily brokered a deal for the performance of the ceremony and dances, and probably for payment.

"The reality, we find, is far more complex than this idea of anthropologists studying disadvantaged, disconnected, disassociated Aboriginal people. My argument would be that Aboriginal people were never that disconnected or disestablished," Professor Russell says.

The terminology of anthropology suggests this was indeed the case. Aboriginal men and women who engaged with researchers are termed "informants", which inherently indicates that a choice was made to engage and offer information. This might have been due to cultural pride, an impulse to have one's stories recorded in the face of impending colonial change, financial gain or just plain curiosity in the engagement.

Golden age

The BAAS expedition to Australia appears to have been far more interested in people than other expeditions. At the front of the expedition handbook was a chapter on Australian Aborigines. For the Canadian expedition, a similar chapter was placed after chapters about Canada's natural environment.

The approach to South Africa was different again. "The South African handbook includes anthropology, but it is more concerned about how to govern these large numbers of people. It uses anthropology very specifically in terms of control," Professor Russell says.

An explanation for Australia's ascendance in global anthropology dates back to the discovery of gold in the fledgling colony of Victoria in 1851. The influx of capital and fortune seekers could easily have launched Melbourne onto the usual trajectory towards becoming a big "flashy" city.

But instead, Professor Russell says, Melbourne became an intellectual scene of international standing. "There was a community of intellectuals through the Mechanics' Institutes, the Royal Society of Victoria, and various philosophical and other societies. Every night you could go to lectures, and many of them were about what was paternalistically phrased 'our Aborigines'."

The anthropologist Baldwin Spencer in Alice Springs, 1901. Photo: Reproduced courtesy of Museum Victoria

In 1854, the National Museum of Victoria was established and initiated a long history of documenting the lives of Australia's first peoples. This was particularly so after the 1899 appointment, as museum director, of Sir Baldwin Spencer, an anthropology pioneer internationally. With his connections to London luminaries in this field, Spencer strongly influenced the anthropological angle of the BAAS expedition. Professor Russell is fascinated by early anthropologists such as Spencer and his peers.

Above her desk hangs the painting Portrait of A.W. Howitt by prominent Australian artist Tom Roberts, which was commissioned by Spencer. Alfred William Howitt was an explorer, magistrate and natural scientist, whose 1904 tome on the Aborigines of south-eastern Australia is a cornerstone of early Australian ethnography.

"Howitt engaged with Aboriginal people and wrote volumes of observation. These are of course patronising and paternalistic, as one would expect from a man of the 19th century. But in his personal correspondence there were also expressions of friendship, of admiration, and even – one might say – of affection and love," Professor Russell says.

Through Howitt, she was also captivated by the diaries of George Augustus Robinson, appointed the Protector of Aborigines in Victoria, and her interest has now evolved into a broader study of Victorian ethnographers, funded by the ARC. This study also includes the often-unrecognised wives, daughters and mothers who assisted in the work.

Later this year, Professor Russell will begin a visiting fellowship at the University of Oxford, using the BAAS archives there to better study the Australian expedition and how it differed from similar journeys to Canada and South Africa.

The project brings this remarkable expedition out of the shadows of World War I, which erupted as the BAAS scientists reached Adelaide, in South Australia.

In many ways, her work represents an inversion of the mass arrival of these scientists from the UK a century ago. Professor Russell is an Australian academic travelling to the UK to conduct fieldwork within an institution regarded as a repository of that country's knowledge of the world's indigenous peoples.

"I'm collecting the collectors," she observes wryly.

50 years of Indigenous engagement

Half a century ago, in 1964, Monash University took the then-radical step of establishing a centre dedicated to research and study about Australia's Indigenous people.

It was a move in keeping with the iconoclastic outlook of the young university, which had enrolled its first students only three years earlier.

The Monash Indigenous Centre (originally called the Centre for Research into Aboriginal Affairs) was the first such centre in Australia and remained the only one for nearly 20 years.

Under the initial direction of Dr Colin Tatz, it assumed a broad role combining not only research and teaching but also engagement with real-world issues. This philosophy continues under the current directorship of Professor Lynette Russell.

One of the centre's most significant programs, the Monash Orientation Scheme for Aborigines (MOSA), was launched in 1984, with Associate Professor Isaac Brown as inaugural director.

The scheme's brief was to redress inequities in education for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. It was the first program of its kind in the country. The Yulendj Indigenous Engagement Unit now continues the work, recruiting and supporting Indigenous students through pathway programs, academic support and the promotion of excellence among Indigenous scholars.

In MOSA's first year, nine Indigenous students enrolled; now there are more than 170 studying in a range of disciplines. In 2014, Monash University is celebrating 50 years of contributing to greater understanding of Aboriginal history, anthropology, culture, identity and literature, and of supporting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in accessing higher education.