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Culture in Translation

Culture in Translation: The anthropological legacy of R. H. Mathews

Edited by Martin Thomas
Translations from the French by Mathilde de Hauteclocque
from the German by Christine Winter
Volume: 15
Copyright Date: 2007
Published by: ANU Press
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  • Book Info
    Culture in Translation
    Book Description:

    R. H. Mathews (1841-1918) was an Australian-born surveyor and self-taught anthropologist. From 1893 until his death in 1918, he made it his mission to record all 'new and interesting facts' about Aboriginal Australia. Despite falling foul with some of the most powerful figures in British and Australian anthropology, Mathews published some 2200 pages of anthropological reportage in English, French and German. His legacy is an outstanding record of Aboriginal culture in the Federation period. This first edited collection of Mathews' writings represents the many facets of his research, ranging from kinship study to documentation of myth. It include eleven articles translated from French or German that until now have been unavailable in English. Introduced and edited by Martin Thomas, who compellingly analyses the anthropologist, his milieu, and the intrigues that were so costly to his reputation, Culture in Translation is essential reading on the history of cross-cultural research. The translations from the French are by Mathilde de Hauteclocque and from the German by Christine Winter.

    eISBN: 978-1-921313-25-7
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgements
    (pp. vii-viii)
    M. T.
  4. Preface
    (pp. ix-xii)
    M. T.
  5. Note on Text
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
    M. T., M. de H. and C. W.
  6. Names of Aboriginal Groups and Languages
    (pp. xv-xviii)
  7. Maps
    (pp. xix-xx)
  8. Abbreviations
    (pp. xxi-xxi)
  9. Introducing R. H. Mathews

    • ‘Birrarak is the name given to me by the natives’ Ethnological Notes on R. H. Mathews
      (pp. 3-40)
      Martin Thomas

      In 1872, while surveying at Narran Lakes in New South Wales, R. H. Mathews wrote a letter to Mary Bartlett, who would soon become his wife. ‘I was talking to a blackfellow,’ he wrote, ‘who can speak English, and he told me a lot of their words and expressions which I made a note of in my book’.¹ He then complained: ‘I can’t find letters in our language to express the proper sounds.’ From the outset, Mathews was involved in a labour of translation.

      While evident in all his writings, the limits of translatability are most conspicuous in his descriptions...

  10. Part 1: Rock Art and Daily Life

    • Introduction
      (pp. 43-50)
      Martin Thomas

      In these three texts we meet R. H. Mathews as a student of rock art and as a close observer of daily life in Aboriginal communities. Evidence of his surveying background is apparent in all three publications, though with very different effect. The two rock art papers reveal his determination to measure, record and physically locate each art site discussed. In contrast, ‘Contributions to the Ethnography of the Australians’ (1907) takes us into the domestic environment of Aboriginal camps. In all these papers Mathews reveals a keen interest in how Aboriginal people deal with the practical problems of sustenance, survival...

    • Contributions to the Ethnography of the Australians
      (pp. 51-74)
      R. H. Mathews

      The Anthropological Society of Vienna has, in earlier issues, included some of my contributions, in which I have provided information about the natives of Australia, and which deal with sociology, language, initiation ceremonies and vendettas.

      In this article at hand I will provide a short outline of some particular mutilations, as well as other customs, including piercing of the nasal septum; extraction of teeth; amputation of fingers; mumbirbirri or scarification design; and dried hands as amulets. Further, I will deal with canoes and rafts, then give an account of dwellings, weapons, utensils, clothing, games, fire-making and other customs of daily...

    • Rock Carvings and Paintings by the Australian Aborigines
      (pp. 75-80)
      R. H. Mathews

      For more than 20 years, a colony of Aborigines has lived near the hamlet of La Perouse, situated on the northern shore of Botany Bay, about 16 kilometres south of Sydney, New South Wales, which today numbers about 40 people of both sexes, most of them half-castes. They are the last descendants of the aboriginal race who have lived in the area since the occupation of the country by the English in 1788. The government of New South Wales, while providing a weekly allowance for the elderly and disabled, demands that the others look after themselves. During my visit to...

    • Plan of some Drawings carved or painted on Rock by the Natives of New South Wales, Australia
      (pp. 81-86)
      R. H. Mathews

      In 1898 I sent to this Society a short article on a few prehistoric rock carvings and paintings, executed by the natives of New South Wales.¹ This article was well received and, in discussing it, our colleague, M. Capitan, expressed the opinion that these paintings and carvings bore great similarity to those found in certain districts of France and Spain, as well as the Yucutan. He added that their comparison with similar customs could only serve to shed more light on the subject.

      In the hope that a new study would be appreciated by the members of the Society, I...

  11. Part 2: Kinship and Marriage

    • Introduction
      (pp. 89-98)
      Martin Thomas

      W. Baldwin Spencer dismissed R. H. Mathews’ work on kinship as ‘an interminable series of papers dealing almost exclusively with the class names & marriages of tribes galore.’¹ While some readers might concur with this assessment, I would encourage patience in considering the kinship writings, despite the challenges they pose. This aspect of Mathews’ work is the least accessible to a contemporary audience. Yet for him it was the most important. No less than 71 of his 171 publications discuss marriage customs. Disagreements about kinship rules were at the heart of his dispute with Spencer and A. W. Howitt (see...

    • Social Organisation of Some Australian Tribes
      (pp. 99-108)
      R. H. Mathews

      In 1901 I contributed to this society an article containing certain rudimentary remarks on the social state of the Yungmunni and some tribes allied to them who occupy a large region of the plain separating the sources of the Roper and Daly rivers of the Northern Territory, the name given to the northern and central portions of South Australia.²

      Since that time, I have been able to procure for myself some more complete details on the sociology of the native tribes in question which I consider my duty to communicate to the society.

      More urgent matters have prevented me from...

    • Remarks on the Natives of Australia
      (pp. 109-116)
      R. H. Mathews

      In 1903 I published in this journal a short grammar and vocabulary of the Kumbainggeri language spoken on the northeast coast of New South Wales.¹ The following year I dealt with the elements of the grammar of the Tyeddyuwurru language,² in use in the central parts of Victoria, and described the important ceremony of initiation known as the Mŭltyerra, which is practised by the Kurnū tribe in New South Wales.³

      In the present article I shall describe the social organisation of a number of tribes inhabiting both sides of the Darling River in New South Wales. Then follows information on...

    • The Natives of Australia
      (pp. 117-122)
      R. H. Mathews

      The origin of Australia’s races is a subject of high interest; I will also attempt in this paper to give a brief explanation of the way in which this large island was populated, as well as its neighbour, Van Diemen’s Land. To solve this difficult problem we must turn to geography, botany, zoology and linguistics because, the Australian continent having no written history, all relative theory about its population must be in harmony with the facts revealed by these different sciences.

      In times past, the physical geography of Australia was not what it is today. Geological investigations have shown that...

  12. Part 3: Mythology

    • Introduction
      (pp. 125-132)
      Martin Thomas

      In an article on songs and songmakers, which R. H. Mathews must have read in his early days as an anthropologist, A. W. Howitt remarked that ‘there is but little of the life of the Australian savage, either in peace or war, which is not in some measure connected with song’.¹ So it is not surprising that oral traditions were an important aspect of Mathews’ cross-cultural research. His first contribution to the subject was a series of seven legends from various parts of New South Wales, published in 1898 as ‘Folklore of the Australian Aborigines’ by the anthropological magazine Science...

    • Some Mythology of the Gundungurra Tribe, New South Wales
      (pp. 133-138)
      R. H. Mathews

      The territory of the Gundungurra tribe includes Burragorang, Katoomba, Picton, Berrima, Taralga and Goulburn, with the intervening country. The Bunan ceremony of initiation² described by me in 1896 applies to the Gundungurra, in common with the Thurrawal and Thoorga tribes. In 1901 I published an elementary grammar of the Gundungurra language.³ In the present article I am submitting a legendary tale which I obtained personally from the remnants of the Gundungurra tribe now residing at Burragorang on the Wollondilly River.⁴

      The natives of this tribe believe that in the far past times, which they call the gun’-yung-ga’lung, all the present...

    • A Giant in a Cave—An Australian Legend
      (pp. 139-142)
      R. H. Mathews

      Among the remote ancestors of the Girriwurru tribe there was a man of great stature, whose body was covered with hair. He dwelt in a cave in a rock on the bank of the Hopkins river, in the vicinity of Maroona. The natives aver that, in the olden days, if any person went to this place, during Murkupang’s absence, the water in the river would surge up into the cave’s mouth, and prevent intruders from going inside. During the day he used to go out hunting around about Mount William, Moorabool, Kirk’s Mountain, and Mount Ararat.

      Murkupang’s mother-in-law resided near...

    • Australian Folk-Tales
      (pp. 143-146)
      R. H. Mathews

      The first of the following tales was told to me by an old blackfellow whom the white people called ‘Jerry’. He spoke the Jirringañ language, a grammar of which I published in 1902,¹ with the habitat of the Jirringañ tribe. The story of the Wahwee is current among the Wiradjuri, Kamilaroi, Wailwan, and other tribes of New South Wales. It was related to me by an old Kamilaroi black-fellow, named ‘Jimmy Nerang’, whom I met at the Bora ceremony held at Tallwood in 1895.² The Rev. Wm. Ridley mentions the Wawi (my Wahwee) as a monster living in deep waterholes.³...

    • The Wareengarry and Karambal
      (pp. 147-148)
      R. H. Mathews

      On the Clarence River there once lived seven young women who were sisters, named Wareenggary; they were members of the Bunjellung tribe, and belonged to the Wirrakan division.¹ They were very clever, and had yamsticks, in the ends of which were inserted charms, which protected the girls from their enemies. Every day they went out hunting for carpet snakes, and always carried their yamsticks with them on these occasions. A young fellow named Karambal, of the same tribe, and of the division Womboong,² became enamoured of one of these young women, and followed within sight of them every day, but...

    • The Hereafter
      (pp. 149-152)
      R. H. Mathews

      About three-quarters of a mile north-westerly from the Coolangatta homestead, the residence of the late Mr. Alexander Berry, is a remarkable rock on the eastern side of the Coolangatta mountain. This rock slopes easterly with an angle of about 30 degrees from the horizon, and on its face are six elongated depressions, caused by the weathering away of the softer portions of the stone. These places are suggestive of having been worn by the feet of many persons having used them, like the depressions worn in pavements by much traffic. This has given rise to a superstition among the aborigines...

  13. Part 4: Language

    • Introduction
      (pp. 155-166)
      Martin Thomas

      The first language documented by R. H. Mathews was Gundungurra, the tongue of the Blue Mountains and Southern Highlands of New South Wales.¹ Published by the Royal Society in Sydney, the paper was co-authored with Mary Everitt, a Sydney school teacher, with whom Mathews intended to collaborate further, but disagreements developed between them and Mathews never again worked with another writer.² He was essentially a one-man operation. He maintained great enthusiasm for linguistic study after that initial publication in 1900. Language elicitation can be found in 36 of his 171 works of anthropology. They describe, in varying detail, some 53...

    • The Wailwan Language
      (pp. 167-178)
      R. H. Mathews

      The Wailwan language, one of the idioms of the natives of New South Wales, is spoken on both sides of the Barwon river, from Walgett as far as Brewarrina; it can be heard all the way back up the Castlereagh, Macquarie and Mara rivers up to about 70 miles to the south, where it meets the Wiradyuri and Wongaibon languages. To the east of Wailwan, Kamilaroi is spoken, and to the north, Yualeai.

      The different parts of speech will first be dealt with, showing the declensions of the nouns and the adjectives, the modifications of the pronouns, the conjugation of...

    • Language of the Kūrnū Tribe, New South Wales
      (pp. 179-186)
      R. H. Mathews

      In a previous article addressed to the society, I dealt with the language of the Wailwan, one of the native tribes of New South Wales.² Here, I will attempt to show the grammatical structure of the language of the Kūrnū tribe, who occupy a large territory along the Darling river.

      The grammar of the Kūrnū language is one of the most interesting, because it possesses characteristics that I have not observed in any other of the native idioms in New South Wales. Thus, for example, it can be seen in the table of pronouns that their form is modified to...

  14. Part 5: Ceremony

    • Introduction
      (pp. 189-198)
      Martin Thomas

      R. H. Mathews recognised that ceremonial life was integral to the social cohesion of Aboriginal communities. The practice of initiation, he explained, ‘tends to strengthen the civil authority of the elders of the tribe and enables them to administer the laws in a more effectual manner’. Strengthened through ritual, Aboriginal law possesses ‘all the force of divine precepts … or the might of divine authority’.¹ Mathews’ interest in ritualistic practices dates from the beginning of his career as an ethnographer. His first publication in 1893, a paper on rock art, was quickly followed by a description of a Bora ceremony,...

    • The Mŭltyerra Initiation Ceremony
      (pp. 199-206)
      R. H. Mathews

      The following pages offer a brief account of the initiation ceremonies carried out by the Kūrnū, a native tribe of New South Wales. This tribe inhabits lands on both banks of the Darling river from Bourke downstream to near Tilpa, as well as north and southwards into the hinterland of the Darling extending over large stretches of country.

      The custom of induction in force among the Kūrnū is known by the name of Mŭltyerra, and as a description of it has not been attempted by any previous author, it is hoped that the following details will be sufficiently extensive to...

    • Initiation Ceremony of the Birdhawal Tribe
      (pp. 207-216)
      R. H. Mathews

      The ceremony of initiation described in the following pages, known as the Dyer-ra-yal, was in operation among the Birdhawal tribe, whose hunting grounds were situated in the northeast corner of the state of Victoria. The boundaries of their territory, which overlapped the New South Wales border, are fully set out in my paper on the ‘Birdhawal Language’, now in the course of publication elsewhere.¹ In the present article I shall deal only with the most important portions of the ceremony, and my description of even these will be curtailed as much as possible, in order to keep the paper within...

    • The Bundandaba Ceremony of Initiation in Queensland
      (pp. 217-222)
      R. H. Mathews

      The Bundandaba ceremony of initiation was practised by the aboriginal tribes who inhabited a part of southern Queensland, situated along the coast from the boundary of New South Wales northerly to the vicinity of Port Curtis, extending inland to comprise a zone from 150 to 200 miles wide. This area contains the country drained by the Burnett, Mary, Brisbane and other rivers, as well as the valley of the Dawson and upper portions of the Condamine River.

      The native inhabitants of the tract of country approximately outlined had two forms of initiatory rites. The preliminary rite was called Toara, and...

  15. Part 6: Correspondence

    • Introduction
      (pp. 225-230)
      Martin Thomas

      The contents of this volume are testimony to the highly globalised anthropological scene of the turn-of-the-century era. With his friendships in Aboriginal communities, his rural correspondents and his international network of publishing contacts, R. H. Mathews channelled the flow of information from the Australian backblocks to the major imperial centres. The postal system was as fundamental to him as the internet is to a researcher today. That he would have envied the instantaneity we take for granted is suggested when he grumbles to E. S. Hartland that his letters to Britain take a month to arrive. The system was fairly...

    • Letters to E. S. Hartland
      (pp. 231-244)
      R. H. Mathews


      Hassall Street, Parramatta

      New South Wales

      February 8th 1907

      Dear Mr Hartland

      Your kind letter of 16 Sept.r last reached me on 20th October, as well as your reprint. I have been very busy about many things since then and somehow put off writing to you sooner.

      I thank you very much for your suggestion that I should publish all my works, adjusted up to date. I have sent the part of my work which comprises N S Wales and Victoria arranged in the order in which I wish to publish it, to my son in England,...

    • Letters to R. H. Mathews
      (pp. 245-254)
      Moritz von Leonhardi

      Gross-Karben 9.6.1908



      Dear Sir!

      Thank you very much for your letter as well as sending some offprints of articles by you. I have instructed the publisher to send you a copy of Strehlow’s Aranda Legends on my behalf and will send you the next issues, too. I hope to be able to publish the second booklet in about two months; it will contain Loritja legends and the beliefs of both tribes about totemism and about Churinga.¹ I would be delighted if you closely took note of the publication and helped it to become known in Australia.

      I have...

    • Letter from R. H. Mathews to Moritz von Leonhardi
      (pp. 255-256)

      Hassall Street, Parramatta

      N. S. Wales

      April 21st 1911

      My dear von Leonhardi,

      By this mail I am sending you, under separate cover, a few new articles written by me since I last had the pleasure of addressing you, which I trust will be found of some interest to you in your valuable ethnological studies.

      You were kind enough to send me Mr. Strehlow’s work, in 3 parts, all of which reached me safely at different times. I think I wrote thanking for them when they were received. I do not know if you published more of the same book...

  16. RHM Bibliography
    (pp. 257-268)