Far more than a biography,
This review is from: The Many Worlds of R.H. Mathews (Hardcover)
Thoroughly scholarly yet also lyrical and deeply compassionate, this prize-winning biography of R.H. Mathews (1841-1918) - Irish-origin Australian surveyor and latterly amateur anthropologist - would be enjoyed by anyone with an interest in Aboriginal culture, Australian history, colonialism, Victoriana, and/or creative non-fiction. It is a great shame it is so rare in the UK, but anyone who can happily afford the current price tag will not regret their purchase.
Mathews, who grew up on a farm with Aboriginal friends, published hundreds of articles documenting the languages and kinship customs of a people he thought were on the verge of 'extinction'. He formed respectful relationships with his subjects, who trusted him with secrets he kept to his notebooks, and though he would have known not to write at all about some ceremonies, Thomas presents evidence that he was initiated by the Dharawal and Dhurga people. Mathews' personal approach and fieldwork conclusions differed from those of 'experts' in Europe, who disparaged him bitterly in their journals and private correspondence. This detailed reappraisal of his work not only at last gives him his due, but also presents a counter-narrative to that of the domination and despoilation of Aboriginal culture by European Australians.
For as the cover image suggests, this fascinating book is far from simply an account of the life of one white man and his obsessions. It is rather a biography of early Australian anthropology itself, exploring its internecine battles, arrogance, eccentricities and limitations, and eventually arguing for the evolution of the discipline into a restorative endeavour - Mathews' dogged field work, drawing on his surveying skills, is now used as evidence in Aboriginal land claims, while early recordings of 'dying' languages can be used to help revive them. Thomas also presents a strong case for the resilience and flexibility of Aboriginal culture which, far from dying, was forced to adapt to colonialism, and has done so in creative and resourceful ways. Always gracefully written, the book attains truly poetic resonance in the final pages, with a set of concluding images and reflections I won't spoil here but hope other readers reach on their own.