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You no big fellow Master
the Anthropologist's eye for the Bushie Lubra

by Timothy Mason, IUFM de Versailles, 2000-11-24

The following article is a preliminary draught of a paper presented at the colloquium L'impudeur* (shamelessness) at the Institut Charles V, université de Paris VII, on 24/11/00. Organized by la Société d'Etudes Anglaises Contemporaines with le Centre d'Etudes et de Recherches sur la Littérature Anglaise de Paris 7

I want to thank Marie Maldague, who read the paper at an earlier stage and made several highly pertinent remarks that lead me to change things quite radically. Her further comments are one of the reasons why what I said on the day differed fairly substantially from what you will read here. I also thank Jeff Siegel, who was kind enough to answer my questions about Australian pidgin.

I make reference to several photographs in the course of the article. Many of these are of Arrernte or of members of other Aboriginal Australian communities, and for that reason I have not made them available here. If you wish to consult them, they will be found in the volumes by Spencer and Gillen, and in the collection of Gillen's letters.

If you find an interest in this document, you may also want to look at my other essays on Spencer, Gillen, and early anthropology, which will be found here. I also have some links towards other web-available material on the history of anthropology, which will be found here.

Shame is a certain *kind of* sorrow which arises in one when he happens to see that his conduct is despised by others, without regard to any other disadvantage or injury that they may have in view.

Shamelessness is nothing else than a want, or shaking off, of shame, not through Reason, but either from innocence of shame, as is the case with children, savage people, &c., or because, having been held in great contempt, one goes now to any length without regard for anything. 1

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a) The three protagonists

My text is taken from a letter written by Frank Gillen to his colleague in ethnography, Baldwin Spencer. Gillen was, at that time, in charge of the telegraph station at Alice Springs. He was also the local magistrate, responsible for the administration of justice throughout a large area of thecentral Australian desert, and Sub-Protector of the Aborigines, a task which he took very seriously. In 1891 he had a policeman, the infamous constable Willshire, charged with murder2; the constable, his defence paid for by a group of cattle farmers, became something of a celebrity after his acquital, but it has been argued that Gillen's action marked a turning point in relations between the forces of order and the local people. Gillen himself was proud of the fact that he had never used a gun on an Aborigine, and he insisted that firearms should only be used in the last resort.

Gillen was the very type of a rough diamond; conceived in Ireland and born in Australia3, son of an immigrant labourer, he began to earn his living at the age of eleven as a post-boy, and then rose through the telegraph service, acquiring certification through attending evening classes at the South Australian School of Mines and Industries. He was never to feel confident about his literacy, and let Spencer write all the books to come out of their partnership, even asking his more educated colleague to script his lantern-slide shows.

By all accounts, Gillen was a man possessed of empathy; he made friends easily, although he seems to have had a quality of doggedness in conversation which earned him the soubriquet of 'the Pontiff', and lead to many jokes about the effects of his anthropological interrogations of the Aborigines. He made friends among the Aborigines themselves and he would appear, after a fashion, both to have respected and to have been respected by them.

Spencer also seems to have had a knack for making friends. He would have considered himself - and was considered - a cut above the unschooled Irishman, and sometimes treated him with good-natured condescension, apparently referring to him as 'a muddy-minded Milesian moon-calf'4. But the friendship between them lasted until Gillen's early death in 1912, and was more than professional. Spencer also got on with other members of the outback crowd, and was able to persuade them to run around collecting specimens for him. For at the outset, the English university professor (himself an immigrant) was a biologist, holding the chair at the University of Melbourne, and his early forays into the interior of the continent were in pursuit of the unidentified - but primitive - species that Australia bristled with.

He met Gillen when a scientific expedition of which he was a member stopped off at Alice Springs, and the long conversations that the two men had, in which Gillen told his guest of the things that he had observed among the Arrernte5, must have reminded him of the time that he had spent studying under Tyler and talking with Frazer. As a biologist, he was interested in the Australian marsupials because they seemed to offer a living example of what early mammals must have been like. To the nineteenth century post-Darwinist, the Aborigine had a similar attraction. Several times in his writings about the peoples of Australia he was to make the point that these Stone-Age men and women offered the man of science a window through which to view the beginnings of our race6.

What with one thing and another, the two men encouraged in each other the ethnographical ambitions that were to lead to their producing a series of books that were to be used extensively not only by Frazer, but also by Durkheim, by Freud and by Lévi-Strauss 7. In their work, they followed a pattern which had already been set by their immediate forebears in the field, Fison and Howitt. One of the men - in their case, Gillen - was to be the field contact, seeking out informants and gathering information, while the other - Spencer - was the theoretician, the academic, the guarantee of the scientific adequacy of their work.

From the moment of their first meeting, the idea germinated of using Gillen's knowledge and his contacts as the basis for a large-scale study of Arrernte cosmology and ceremony. The two men corresponded on a monthly basis, with Gillen sending both letters and field-notes to Spencer, and receiving demands for information or clarification from the latter. Spencer visited on occasion; he spent two particularly long periods with Gillen, once to witness a full set of initiation ceremonies, and once to travel with Gillen from Alice Springs to the northern coast, collecting anthropological and zoological specimens as they progressed. But in the main, it was Gillen who did the leg-work.

Polly appears about half a dozen times in the letters that Gillen wrote to his colleague and friend - today no one knows quite who she was; Mulvaney, Morphy and Petch speculate that she may have been the woman known as Tryphena, one of Mrs Gillen's two personal maids mentioned in Spencer's Wanderings in Wild Australia, but this is, of course, a name given her by her employers and conceals her indigenous identity. One of the photos published in the Letters gives her name as Aritcheuka 8, but we are not told how or by whom she has been identified.

Polly is written into the record as a comic figure; we first meet her as 'the portly Polly', yelling in fear as she comes across a snake. We are treated to examples of her 'Blackfella English', such as 'Puff fessa acoorna him Monkey yab'. At one stage we learn that she is pregnant, despite her age, and Gillen has a certain amount of fun at her expense over the infant's skin-colour - Polly believes that the white flour served at the station may lead to her baby's being white. The last time she appears, Gillen tells us that she 'was scooting away for the hills, swearing like a tom cat in a fit', when she realized that he was looking for his camera to photograph her to show Spencer what she looks like when suffering from 'gummy eye' brought on by the local flies.

But I want to suggest that the woman that Gillen afflicted with the patronising diminutive may have been of some stature among the Arrernte. Her husband, whom Gillen calls Solomon, was one of the elders who allowed the two anthropologists to view the inner mysteries of initiation, and it seems not unlikely that Polly herself would have been one of the more prominent women. It is not clear how she came to be recruited into the Gillen household, but one may speculate as to whether the decision to work for the white man would not have been taken without some discussion and without a collective seal of approval. I cannot demonstrate this to my own full satisfaction, but I think that we need to bear the possibility in mind in what follows.

b) The Ethnological Project

Lowie, in his history of anthropology, reports how one of the early figures of the discipline, Sir John Lubbock, in his book 'Prehistoric Times', declared that some savages had no feeling of shame and were at the same level of civilization as the wild beasts9. While not all of his colleagues shared as low an opinion of those that they nonetheless regarded as 'primitive', almost all of them believed that peoples such as the Australians were representative of some previous stage of culture. The great interest that men like Frazer or Morgan showed in the work of the Australian ethnographers was sparked by their belief that it was here that science would find the clues that would permit them to reconstitute the lives of our earliest forebears. Spencer and Gillen subscribed to this view : the Arrernte were living fossils, relics of the stone-age. As such, they were unlikely to share the sensibilities and sensitivities of the civilized. In their 'Across Australia', written for the popular market and published in 1912, the year of Gillen's death, they describe the Arunta as 'howling savages' and insist upon the crudity and backwardness of their culture 10.

Indeed, if we reduce the concept of shame to a feeling of sexual modesty, the savages that Spencer and Gillen believed they were studying could be expected to have no such notion; not only did they wear no clothing - the men did not even adopt the penis sheath that was found in Malanesian societies - but still maintained the vestiges of primitive promiscuity. It was believed at the time by a number of authorities, including Frazer, that primitive humanity had practiced some form or other of group marriage. McLennan maintained that brothers would hold a wife in common, while Morgan believed that groups of brothers would marry groups of sisters, and that within this group marriage individuals would have sex with each other indiscriminately. Both Frazer and Morgan hoped that the Australian ethnographers would find evidence of such an organization among the Aborigines 11.

Although Spencer and Gillen were by no means as much under the remote control of their metropolitan mentors as some commentators have suggested 12, they did set about looking for evidence of group marriage among the Arrernte and their neighbours in the Northern Territory. They thought that they had found traces of it in the pirrauru system, in which a woman could take - usually with her husband's permission - a lover who was considered to have rights over her which, although weaker than her husband's, were nonetheless considered legitimate. It was also the case that travelling Aborigines would be offered access to the wives of their hosts when they stopped over in an encampment for the night. To the Victorian mind, women who allowed themselves to be treated in this way must have seemed to be very little more than sexual objects, to be accorded little respect. In several of his letters, Gillen reports excitedly to Spencer that he will be able to confirm the theory, even at one point linking what he believes to be reports of total promiscuity with habitual cannibalism, involving the eating of children. On the face of it, both Gillen and Spencer might expect an Aborigine woman to have few scruples about allowing herself to be photographed naked.

c) Anthropologists, Aborigines and Images

Both Spencer and Gillen saw the camera as a wonderful tool for the ethnographic trade.. The two men were keen photographers, and their work is characterised by an extensive use of photographic illustration. They distinguished carefully between their professional and their non-professional shots; they were careful to ensure that the images appearing in their scientific publications represented the savage in his pristine state, uncontaminated, as Spencer often put it, by civilisation. Gillen is chagrined to discover that a piece of modern equipment has been left lying about in the background to one of his group portraits of the tribal elders, for example, and although Spencer notes that the Aborigines in general would take and wear the cast-off clothes of the settlers 14, the published photographs almost all show the Arunta as wearing nothing more than a girdle of human hair or a head-band.

The servants and other workers engaged by the Telegraph company or by local farmers, however, would usually be fully clothed, at least during working hours15. But a photo such as this one would have been no use to the two ethnologists for their book; on the contrary, Spencer went out of his way to stress the fact - if fact it was - that the Arrernte were almost untouched by white mores, for only by so doing could he maintain the belief that their work was, as the title of his last book, published in 1925, affirms, a Stone Age People.

And so it was that the ethnological photographs are of Aborigines naked, showing their ritual scars and their genitalia. Among the Arrernte, the ethnographers do not seem to have met with a great deal of resistance, although later they were to come across a Woramongu elder who objected strongly, warning his comrades that the photographers were stealing their heart and liver. (Gillen defused this situation with a bellow of laughter 16). This, in the light of what we know about the reactions of non-Western peoples to the camera when first introduced to it, and of the often hostile feelings about photographs still common today among many Australians, is perhaps of some significance. Perhaps the Arrernte were more ready to trust the two anthropologists - or perhaps, as I shall argue, they considered that the game was worth the candle. For the moment, let us turn to one occasion upon which Gillen's request to take a photograph was turned down in no uncertain manner.

A woman's parts

a) 'No big fellow' - Polly's put-down

In a letter to Spencer dated 20th Dec., 1895, Gillen gives an account of a conversation that he had with one of his wife's maids, named Polly :

Your parcel of tobacco was duly conveyed to old Poll whom it has utterly demoralized. She bids me Yabba, 'Thank you longa Puff-fessa, me big fellow look out longa rat and all about lizard by and bye longa cold weather'. I had hoped to send you a photo of her au naturel by this mail but when, after handing her your tobacco, I approached her on the subject with exceeding delicacy, she gave me a look which I shall never forget and scathingly remarked, 'You all the same Euro, you canta shame! You no big fellow master! You picaninny master'. The emphasis on the picaninny was something to remember for ones lifetime. Since then she reverted to the subject to tell me that, 'That one big fellow master Puff fessa no yabba like it that him no poto-grafum, poto-grafum, poto-grafum lubra all day. Very good longa bushie lubra, no good longa Station lubra' and in a final burst of indignation she wound up by saying, 'No good no good potografum lubra cock!'17

We do not have Spencer's half of the correspondence - which, it is believed, was destroyed by Gillen's wife, Amelia, after her husband's death - so we cannot tell whether the idea of the photo was Gillen's own or whether he was put up to it by Spencer. However, the immediate link between the Professor's gift and the mention of the photo, coupled with the trepidation with which Gillen approached his task, suggest that he may well have been attempting to fulfil one of his colleague's wishes. He is taken aback by the vehemence with which Polly expresses her indignation, and in particular by the way in which she tips him from 'big fellow' to 'picaninny', from sub-protector of the children of nature to a grubby brat. (He is also likened to a kind of kangaroo, the Euro, which was probably felt to be particularly disgusting by the Aborigines because of its all-year-round sexuality, which included mating while the female was still suckling its young - an act which the Arunta, like other Australian peoples held in strong distaste).

b) Spencer and the Aborigine Woman

If we look at the text of the letter, it seems that although Gillen is shocked and humiliated by Polly's reaction, he is not altogether surprised. It seems that he is caught in a tense tug of war, in which his day-to-day relations with Polly, with Solomon, with the men and women of the Alice Springs' Arrernte continually strain against his long-distance relationship with Spencer and with other members of the Australian establishment 18. On this reading, what Polly sees as his kangaroo-like lubricity emerges from his desire for Spencer's friendship, but is accompanied by his recognition of Polly's selfhood. Gillen, then, is not exactly shameless.

Spencer is rarely touched by such scruples. His encounters with the Arrernte or with other Aborigines are far more fleeting and distant, and his eye is cold. Nevertheless, a current runs through his writing that suggests that his reaction to his subjects is not entirely scientific. He writes about the Aborigine women in a tone which is quite different from that which he adopts in his descriptions of the men; he returns time and again to the observation that the pretty girl becomes an ugly old crone in the space of about five years. On occasion the connoisseur of femininity and the scientific experimenter join their hands upon the pen. In the following passage from Across Australia, we can sense beneath the surface objectivity and contempt a movement which he might well be loath to recognize:

One day, at Alice Springs, we saw a native woman walking along quite comfortably, with a big bowl of grass seed balanced on her head, her left arm was around a child, sitting straddle-legged across her hip, and under her right she held a second bowl of seed. Wondering what she would do, we threw her half a stick of tobacco. It fell on the ground and without a moment's hesitation she picked it up with her right foot, using her right toe as we should do our thumb, transferred it to her right hand and went on with a smile. After you have become accustomed to the graceful carriage of a savage woman, the walk of ordinary white woman seems, by comparison, like an awkward waddle.19

We can sense here at the very beginnings of the anthropological enterprise the strain that will become one of the staples of what some specialists see as the National Geographic approach to ethnography 20. Is it this which comes across in one of the most well-known of Spencer's photographs? In this we see a young mother who might well be the woman in the passage we have just read. She looks gravely back out at us from the photograph, a large and heavy child perched upon her left hip, a pitchi balanced upon her head and a stick in her right hand. This image was to become an Australian icon, reprinted and re-used regularly 21 - at one time as an advertisement for beer - and its popularity undoubtedly derives from the way it speaks to sexual desire. Spencer's photography does not always lend itself to such readings, by any means, but in this particular image, he displays to our gaze one of the first of the many 'exotic beauties' whose bare breasts and curved bellies have aroused the concupiscence of white males as they turn the pages of magazines ever since.

Spencer would not have been expecting the same thing from Polly; he probably hoped to place her among his crones, for she was - according to Gillen - and old woman. The one photograph of her in the Mulvaney volume shows a rather dignified figure, but, as we have seen, Gillen saw her otherwise and appears to have shared his vision with Spencer. Nevertheless, Gillen may have felt that Polly's anger was a little unjust, particularly in her comparing him unfavourably with Spencer himself, whom she praised as incapable of such lack of grace.

Gillen feels shame; Spencer, on the other hand, shows no sign of doing so; Spinoza had it that the savage was shameless, but in our case, it is the civilized anthropologists who is incapable of conceiving that he might behave in such a way as to be despised by a mere 'nigger'.

The unscrupulous anthropologist

a) Stealing Stones

But Gillen's shame can be understood as a measure of his recognition of the station Arrernte. Living with them on a day by day basis, this man who was by nature open and friendly, found himself coming to appreciate the 'niggers' as individuals. Taking his appointment as Sub-Protector seriously, he also came to see the other white men whose casual violence and contempt for the Aborigine he had to deal with a critical eye, until he was able to write to Spencer, on quitting Alice Springs:

I will miss them more than the whites I shall go with regret and don't mind admitting to you that I shall feel parting with the blacks more than with the whites22.

But while he may have had little time for the men such as constable Willshire, he was almost painfully eager to earn the recognition of the university professors who regularly made their way to Alice Springs. He swayed back and forth between the Aborigine and the academic eye, joking with Solomon at one moment, and sending off his latest biological specimens at the next.

At about the same time as he asked Polly to let him photograph her, Gillen was becoming uncomfortably aware of other acts of moral carelessness on his own part. The Arrernte associated their souls with the sacred objects that Gillen and Spencer call Chooringa; these objects were kept in specific sacred places. From time to time, one group might offer some of these objects to another group - always in the expectation that, sooner or later, the gift would be returned. From a very early stage in the conquest of Australia, the immigrants began to collect these objects, and anthropologists were even more assiduous in hunting them out and carting them off than were the herders and gold-prospectors who pushed their way into the outback. Gillen himself had participated in the pillage. Writing in 1894, he says:

Have got a splendid lot of stone Chooringa together since you left, including some from the Katyche tribe, Barrow Creek. Some Glen Helen natives are now En route with a selection from a tribe inhabiting that locality of which I think you have some personal knowledge, since you left I have learnt that a number of Chooringa belonging to the Chichika tribe are deposited in a cave known to one of my Niggers and situated about 105 miles North West of here and I am about to organize a little expedition to annex the whole collection.23

However, there is evidence that Gillen already had an inkling of what he was doing; in a letter dated the same year to one of his other academic mentors, Edward Stirling, director of the South Australia Museum, who had encouraged the telegraph men to collect ethnographical items 24, speaking of another haul of Churinga, he writes:

I used to have scruples about invading their sacred spots but the pernicious example of a distinguished FRS has demoralized me. 25

Once again we find that Gillen has been caught between his human - and, in many ways, humane - relationship with the Aborigines, and his wish for recognition by one of his scientific friends. His scruples have given way before the blandishments of the English intelligentsia to whom he was - partly in vain - to strive to belong for the rest of his life. But he never manages to quite view the men and women of Australia with the requisite objectivity, and as he reaches further into their religious and spiritual beliefs, so it becomes difficult for him to ignore their feelings about the Churinga. Certainly he has some idea of their importance for the Aborigines, for in March of 1895, he writes:

Under the old order of things and without the restraining influence of a Sub-Protector, any Woman or uncut youth seeing this pole (used in the subincision ceremony) would be killed or at least blinded with firesticks, the same penalty is attached to looking at the Chooringa Stones or sticks and I have known many poor wretches, male and female, to be blinded for yielding to a momentary curiosity and in some cases for what was a purely accidental view.26

As understanding grows, he begins to put a rein on his rapacity 27. By 1896, he is referring to an occasion when two investigators broke into a Churinga store-house as 'the Kudinga robbery'28, and will only take them himself when they are offered to him. He hears that 'one old fellow' has been killed for showing an anthropologist where the stones are. The full extent of his conversion is made clear in a letter dated 30th July, 1987, when he writes:

... there must be no more ertnatulinga (Churinga storehouse) robberies. I bitterly regret ever having countenanced such a thing and can only say that I did so when in ignorance of what they meant to the Natives - To fully realize this one requires to go as I did a few weeks ago with bush natives to their ertnatulinga and watch them reverently handling their treasures - It impressed me more than anything I have witnessed 29

b) The meaning of the stones

However, it is not clear that either Gillen or Spencer ever understood the full extent to which they overstepped the mark. The word Churinga, according to Strehlow and to Roheim, can be derived from two terms: the first is 'tsu', and designates something which is both secret and shameful, and the second is runga, indicating personal ownership of a very intimate nature 30. The Churinga, then, carry a semantic load that makes them similar to our own 'private parts'.

In fact, the Churinga are central to the whole Arrernte world-view; they are associated with the eternal spirits of which individual Aborigines are but brief temporal manifestations31. This is one of the reasons why it is unlawful to pronounce the names of the recently dead - or, as the significance of the photograph becomes clear - to look at representative images of dead people 32.

The Churinga are offered by initiated men to other initiated men, and may be thus transferred from one camp to another, from one ertnatulinga to another. But they do not leave the circuit of exchange. Both Spencer and Gillen believed that they were seen as initiated by the Arrernte elders, and if they were correct in this, then they may well have been offered sacred stones in their capacity as fully adult males. Under usual circumstances, they would be expected, sooner or later, to return them to their original keepers. However, by then placing them in museum collections, they took them out of the exchange network; their Arrernte informants must have rapidly understood that once a churinga had been presented to one of the anthropologists, it would disappear from stock - and with it would go the soul of one of the ancestors.

The welcoming subject

a) Tolerated theft?

Why then did the elders allow Spencer and Gillen to take photographs, and why did they allow them to take away a number of the sacred stones? We are on purely speculative ground here, but I believe that it is possibly the case that the Arrernte were fully aware of what they were doing, that they opened their mouths and showed their secret stones and ceremonies to the two anthropologists for their own very good reasons, and that they were using the two men, hoping to obtain something far more important than a condescending friendship or a pair of used trousers.

In a long and interesting argument, the anthropologist and social activist, Bruce Reyburn, advances a similar idea; the Aborigines deliberately set out to reveal their secrets to Spencer and Gillen because they saw the two men as 'plenipotentiaries' of the British Imperial power, and hoped to persuade them that it would be possible and desirable to negotiate and to bring an end to the land-grabbing and the massacres. Certainly it is difficult to believe that the Arrernte really accepted Spencer and Gillen as fully initiated males; they had not undergone sub-incision, and neither of them could exhibit the scars or shed the blood that would indicate their trustworthiness. Nevertheless, we find that time and time again, the elders seem not only willing but eager to reveal to them the mysteries of their beliefs. Spencer, in a letter to Fison, expresses his surprise at being allowed to witness one of the more important ceremonies (the Engwura) but observes that 'they seem really anxious to let us know all about them'33. And Gillen notes that, on a trip out to Ilyaba, about a hundred miles from Alice Springs, '(t)he niggers out there were evidently glad to see me and quite as a matter of course showed me the ceremonies'34. When the two men make their trip across the center of Australia, they are surprised, but gratified, to find that in practically every port of call, the people just happen to be holding one of their important ceremonies. Often, the old men of one or another of the tribes accompany them on their journey, pointing out places mentioned in the sacred stories, and explaining their significance. At one stage, they are even taken by Waramunga old men to the dwelling place of the great snake, but seem to have little consciousness of the favour that is being shown them35.

We cannot know for certain what it was that motivated the Aborigine elders, although one may speculate. As the European immigrants spread throughout Australia, it will must have become evident to a number of Aborigines that it might only be a matter of time before their culture was completely eradicated; already they were having difficulty persuading the young me to allow themselves to be initiated, although relatively few among their number had turned to the Christian church. Did the elders see the efforts of the ethnologists as an opportunity for them to record, as best they might, the truths to which they had been witness? Although the Aborigines of the central area had, until the later years of the century, been largely spared the immediate consequences of conquest and displacement, the pushing of the railway into the centre had introduced them to the realities of conquest. As Gillen wrote on January 31st, 1896:

From what I gathered on the way up, and from what he (an Aborigine informant) tells me, utter demoralization has set in amongst the Urrapunna and the Arunta where they come together, they were, during the construction of the Railway, in the hands and under the influence of something like 1500 Navvies ... Many of them died from typhoid and other diseases and now they are setting aside their ancient tribal laws and marrying anyhow 36

The elders knew that their ceremonial beliefs might well not survive. And indeed, when Spencer returned to the scene of his earlier investigations in around 1925, he found that none of the group that he and Gillen had worked with were still alive. Spencer noted several times that the young men were considered unworthy to fully initiated into the inner secrets, and concluded that he and Gillen had witnessed the very last of the great Arrernte ceremonies. It is in part due to their having recorded them that they are still accessible to the descendents of the participants today.

I believe that it is quite possible that the old men knew very well what they were doing37. Just as desert seeds may encapsulate themselves during a long dry season, waiting for rain, the Arrernte elders - who knew about writing and had seen books on the shelves of the settlers - may have stored their spiritual sustenance between hard covers.

b) Blood shown and blood hidden

Whatever the case, the Arrernte seem to have been willing participants in these violations. But we need to follow the Churinga a little further. The stones - which are to seen simply as one manifestation of the concept referred to by the Arrernte term are to be handled only on speical occasions and by particular individuals who have passed through a series of initiatory rites affording them the highest degree of status. These rites centre around the shedding of blood by the males through their penises. Subincision involves opening the penis and collecting the blood; the scar which forms over the wound may never be allowed to heal over completely, and the penis may be opened on subsequent occasions to shed blood once again.

This blood is understood to be menstrual blood; the men see themselves as having taken on the task of ritual, collective menstruation which was originally that of the women. Some of them see this as 'a trick we have played on the women'; much of the secrecy that surrounds initiation and other rites seems to be designed to keep women from getting to the bottom of the trick. It is not clear, however, whether the men are successful in this; even to play the small but important part in the various ceremonies that they do, women must enjoy a more extensive knowledge of the true nature of the events that they witness than the men claim to believe that they do, and in their own stories, songs and rites, they show that they have their own versions of the sacred knowledge. It seems that while open flouting of the rules can and does lead to swift and awful punishment, there is a tacit agreement to share an inner core of meaning without which the different groups cannot live through their lives together. The unwary youth or woman who, by act or word, publiceses their familiarity with secrets is punished for his or her shamelessness, rather than for their possession of the knowledge in itself38.

That the men menstruate collectively is known - and, it would seem, must be known - by all, but is not acknowledged by all. What about the menstruation of the women? This, as is the case with many peoples, including our own, is considered dangerous, and a woman who has her period must ensure that the males - particularly the young ones - are not contaminated by her39. (One wonders whether Polly's anguished reluctance may not have been due to this; although Gillen always speaks of her as 'old Poll', we know that she was still menstruating, for, as has been noted, she becomes pregnant). Although it seems that some Aborigine societies practised collective female menstruation, this does not appear to have been the case among the Arrernte, where it would have been a private affair, during which the woman would withdraw from the social round, except at the time of a girl's first menses.

It does need to be stressed that these periods of seclusion would not be as frequent as once a month; menstruation among women living in small-scale societies is, for a number of reasons, less frequent than it is in our own. Persistent malnutrition, regular pregnancies and the habit of late weaning which suppresses the fertility cycle to at least some extent, meant that women would only need to obey menstrual taboos at comparatively long intervals 40. It does seem, however, that once a group becomes sedentary and has a regular source of nutrition - as will have been the case for the Arrernte around Alice Springs - then the fertility cycle becomes more regular. If this is so, then the group of people studied by Spencer and Gillen will have been faced with a set of pressures which would have put a great strain upon their cultural resources.

Hence, perhaps, Polly's appreciation of the clothing that the station provided; the editors of 'My Dear Spencer' remark at one point upon the fact that the 'bulky clothing (worn by the station Aborigines) must have proved an unhealthy hindrance'. But, as we have noted, Polly appears to have seen the clothing as an advantage; is it to be altogether ruled out that her embrace of full European dress, even during the hot summer days in the Australian desert, could have had something to do with the fact that it may have enabled her to conceal the increasingly frequent menstruations brought on by her interrupted access to station rations 41 - at least from the Gillens, whom she may have expected to object to her working in the kitchens during her periods?


In his confrontation with Polly, Gillen may have stumbled upon a truth about his relationship with the Arrernte that it was difficult for him to face. The importance of his work with Spencer was posited on the fact that the people they were studying were as close to the realities of stone-age existence as it was possible to be: the Arrernte, out in the middle of the Australian desert, offered the very last chance to observe the lives of our ancestors before they were destroyed and obliterated. Polly's distinction between the station lubra and the bushie lubra may finally be understood as more pointed than it appears on the surface: the Arrernte knew that they need the white man's photograph machine, his marks upon paper, his recording regard. Through their pretence that Spencer and Gillen were initiated - a return, in a way, of the fond contempt which the anthropologists felt for the black fellow - through their acceptance of the risks involved in allowing them to tread upon the secret grounds, and handle - or even steal - the sacred objects, the Arrernte elders were, it seems likely, playing the anthropologists at their own game. Today's Arrernte have done much the same thing in using the most up-to-date video equipment to record and celebrate their cultural rituals. But Spencer and Gillen's subjects were not willing to show everything; there were places the anthropologists could not go. And there were things they could not see; Polly's pudenda were among these.

Gillen's shamelessness, then, is, we may surmise, constantly controlled and checked by those whose susceptibilities he apparently overrides and ignores. As Polly's solemn face stares stonily out at us from the photograph that she did allow Gillen to take, and as the elders of the tribe allow us to examine their fly-gummed eyes and their handsome noses, we should not allow ourselves to be taken in by the assumption that they did not know what was going on. Although their names appear rarely in the two volumes of 'The Arunta', that book may be said to be as much theirs as it is that of the two men who are named as its authors.

Shamelessness may be, as Durkheim suggested of crime, and Becker of deviance, always founded in and supportive of a recognition of the prevailing standards of modesty. The fool, the clown, the criminal and the deviant offer themselves as exemplars and markers of social limits. But these limits are not, as Durkheim would have it, 'social facts'; they are the subject of ongoing negotiations, of recall and of forgetting. The shamelessness of children and savages, as invoked by Spinoza, or the shamelessness of anthropologists, arise from situations in which the rules are not (yet) clear, and lend themselves to the rule-makers and the rule-keepers as opportunities to rework the deep design within their social tapestry. Gillen, teetering on the permeable, but nevertheless real frontier between two mutually incomprehensible cultures, was continually driven to touch a bed-rock of what may well be fundamental human rules. Spencer, spending most of his time in the laboratory or the lecture-hall, and unpossessed of Gillen's capacity for empathy - and, perhaps, of Gillen's religious upbringing - sees little reason to accommodate the susceptibilities of this dying race.

Spinoza distinguished two forms of shamelessness; one is innocent, and the other a knowing disregard for the opinion of others. Gillen partakes of both; continually in the discourse that I have evoked here we see him oscillating between knowingness and deliberate blindness. His approach to Polly is almost guilty, as he attempts to seduce her with a gift of tobacco. His first scruples as to robbing the churinga store-houses give way to rapacity only to return once again as he witnesses an old man's attachment to the stones. In Gillen's sudden re-awakening to shame as he meets, and turns away from, Polly's gaze, we may read a fleeting consciousness of how the ethnographer's ethnography is written.


1 Spinoza, Short Treatise on God, Man, and His Well-Being: Part 2, Chapter 12. - ON GLORY, SHAME AND SHAMELESSNESS

2 This action may have helped him enormously in his later anthropological undertakings. See Mulvaney (in Mulvaney, Morphy and Petch, 1997, p. 10)

3 Frank Gillen was born on 28th of October, 1855. His parents had embarked for Australia from Plymouth in March of that year, after marrying in County Cavan in January. (Mulvaney in Mulvaney et al., p. 1)

4 In one of the letters, Gillen writes: I shall have given you reason to refer to call me a muddy minded Milesian mooncalf - which, being used to it, I don't in the least mind. (Mulvaney et al., p. 212.

5 Today the name of this Central Australian people is usually spelled 'Arrernte', but Spencer and Gillen's orthography is 'Arunta'.

6 For example, he writes in Across Australia, an account of their trip through the central desert, 'To us the whole time had been full of interest. We had been living amongst and witnessing the daily life of savages who were yet in the Stone Age, and whose manners of life, customs and belief were akin to those of the early ancestors of mankind - just as the quaint, egg-laying and pouched mammals upon which they fed were akin to, in fact the surviving relics of, ancient groups of primitive animals which have elsewhere been replaced by higher forms.' (Spencer & Gillen, 1912, p. 290).

7 And Rudyard Kipling based one of his tales in 'The Just-So Stories' on an Aborigine myth which he must have gleaned from Spencer and Gillen.

8 From further evidence in Mulvaney et al., it would seem that this is, in fact, the name of one of the other maids, called 'Dolly' by the family.

9 Lowie, 'Histoire de l'ethnologie classique', p. 29.

10 It must always be remembered that though the native ceremonies reveal, to a certain extent, what has been described as an 'elaborate ritual', they are eminently crude and savage. They are performed by naked, howling savages, who have no permanent abodes, no clothing, no knowledge of any implements, save those fashioned out of wood, bone, or stone, no idea whatever of the cultivation of crops, or of the laying-in of a store of food to tide over hard times and no words for any numbers beyond three or four. Across Australia, p. 6.

11 For an account of this matter, see Hiatt, pp. 36-56.

12 See the editorial matter to 'My Dear Spencer', and my essay 'The Anthropologist's Bagmen'.

13 Mulvaney et al., p. 97.

14 In the coastal districts of the south-east of Australia, they used to make very serviceable fur cloaks, but in the whole of the Central area they go stark naked and have no idea of clothing, until they come into contact with the white man, when they soon learn to appreciate the government blanket and any cast-off clothing which is given them by the settlers ... (Spencer & Gillen, 1912, p. 186).

15 Gillen's successor at Alice Springs insisted that the house-servants should leave their clothes behind them whenever they went back to the Aborigine camp, for fear that they would sully them.

16 Mulvaney et al., p. 348.

17 Mulvaney, Morphy & Petch, pp. 89-90.

18 I suspect that Gillen's refusal to write for the scientific world - despite Spencer's encouragement - may have had something to do with his inability to adopt the objective, etic approach that Spencer himself adopted. As we shall see, Spencer often appears to put his Aborigine informants on a par with his zoological specimens. While Gillen does his best to follow suit, he obviously feels uncomfortable about it.

19 Spencer and Gillen, 1912, p. 196.

20 For some consideration of the National Geographic's 'Western patriarchal gaze', see Kathryn Van Spanckeren's review of Lutz and Collins' 'Reading National Geographic' for The American Quarterly, 48:1, 1996, pp. 167-77, at

21 See

22 Mulvaney et al., p. 254.

23 Mulvaney et al., p. 52 - from the first letter, written in 1894.

24 Mulvaney et al., p. 6.

25 Mulvaney et al., footnote on page 59. The 'distinguished FRS' is Stirling himself.

26 ibid, p. 74.

27 See, for example, the letter dated 14/3/96, where, after witnessing one of the ceremonial exchanges, he does not even ask for a coveted churinga, writing 'I wouldn't have had the heart to ask the old fellow for his newly restored treasure. His affection for them was quite pathetic.' ibid, p. 108.

28 ibid, p. 164.

29 ibid, p. 178.

30 Strehlow, Roheim, cited in Moisseef, p. 87.

31 On this question, see Moisseeff.

32 See Simon Pockley, 'Blinding the Duck; Aboriginal Representation, Censorship and Restriction On-line', at for some discussion of this. Pockley's site is a multi-media archive which takes a trip across Australia by his father as its starting point, and which includes a number of photos of Aborigines - to some of which he has felt it necessary to limit access.

33 Mulvaney et al., note 331, p. 144.

34 Mulvaney et al., p. 173. Gillen also notes, without comment, that one of the old men who had spent so much time showing him the Engwura ceremonies just happened to be there on a visit.

35 Spencer & Gillen, 1912, p. 410-12. See Reyburn's commentary on this.

36 Mulvaney et al., p. 99. Interestingly, Spencer, in his writings, holds the 'demoralization' to have taken place rather later; after, in fact, Gillen had collected the material upon which their magnum opus was based. This allows him, of course, to continue the fiction of the 'uncontaminated' stone-age tribe.

37 Although I agree with Reyburn (see his account of Spencer and Gillen's encounter with the Warramungu at in seeing the Aborigines as deliberately setting out to reveal their secrets to the two anthropologists, I do not interpret this in the same way.

38 Compare the case of suicide in the Trobriand Islands reported by Malinowski; the young man was driven to his fate by the fact that 'what everyone knew' - that he was having an incestuous affair with a classificatory sister - became public rather than private knowledge when a jealous youth made an open accusation.

39 Moisseeff holds that Australian Aborigines do not lay much stress on menstruation; the information on pre-contact practices is scarce, but what there is suggests that although they were not subjected to the kind of seclusion that obtains in many communities, considerable care had to be taken by menstruating women. See, for example, Berndt and Berndt.

40 Australian Aborigine women and those of some Southern African peoples experience only about 160 periods during their lifetime after undergoing an average of six pregnancies and three years of breastfeeding per child (Thomas and Ellerston, the Lancet, March 11, 2000). It should also be mentioned that the Arrernte practice of cutting the inside of the vagina at marriage may very well have had the effect of lowering fertility and interfering with the menstrual cycle).

41 We may note in passing that at about the same time that Spencer and Gillen's work was making a great impression in the intellectual milieu of the Occident, the sociologist and anthropologist W.I. Thomas was wondering whether our ancestors had not adopted clothing specifically to deal with the problem of menstruation. He decided that this was not the case, but it is tempting to speculate as to whether there is any connection between the quantity of clothing adopted and the frequency of the average woman's periods.


Berndt Ronald M. and Catherine H Berndt with John E Stanton, The World that Was; the Yaraldi of the Murray River and the Lakes, South Australia, Melbourne University Press at the Miegunyah Press, 1993

Frazer, J.G., The Golden Bough; A Study in Magic and Religion, Abridged Edition, Macmillan, 1987.

Hiatt, L.R., Arguments About Aborigines; Australia and the Evolution of Social Anthropology, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1996.

Lowie Robert, Histoire de l'ethnologie classique des origines à la deuxième guerre mondiale, Payot, 1971.

Malinowski, Bronislaw, The Sexual Life of Savages in North-Western Melanesia; An Ethnographic Account of Courtship, Marriage, and Family Life among the Natives of the Trobriand Islands, British New Guinea, Beacon Press, Boston, 1987.

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Morphy, Gillen - Man of Science, in Mulvaney et al., pp. 23-50.

Mulvaney, John, Howard Morphy, and Alison Petch (eds.), My Dear Spencer; The Letters of F.J. Gillen to Baldwin Spencer, Hymand House, Melbourne, 1997.

Mulvaney, John, F.J. Gillen's Life and Times, in Mulvaney et al., pp. 1-22.

Reyburn, Bruce, Wrong Way Land Claim Part One, at

Spencer, Baldwin, and F.J. Gillen, Across Australia, Macmillan, London, 1912, 2 vols.

Spencer, Baldwin, and F.J. Gillen, The Arunta, Macmillan, London, 1927, 2 vols.

Testart, Alain, De la nécessité d'être initié; Rites d'Australie, Société d'ethnologie, Nanterre, 1992.