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There are a series of letters from Walter Baldwin Spencer to Edward Burnett Tylor in Tylor papers Box 13a PRM ms collections. These relate to other letters from Tylor to Spencer etc please see:

Spencer papers Box 1 [PRM ms collections]

Tylor papers Box 11a: Fison Part 1Fison Part 2

Spencer papers Box 1: Fison

Tylor papers Box 12: Howitt Part 1Howitt Part 2

Tylor Box 13a: Spencer

Spencer S12

The University of Melbourne 

May 23 1889

My dear Dr Tylor

I have been 'casting around' to see if there were any chance of anything being done for Mr. Fison. Anthropology is scarcely 'practical' enough for the Australian mind in fact a preliminary lecture would probably be necessary to enlighten the general Melbourne public with regard to the meaning of the word & the aim of any individual calling himself an anthropologist.

I did not meet Mr Fison for a long time in fact not till quite lately owing to my own fault but he is a delightful & most interesting man & not especially addicted to parsonic ways in fact rather the reverse (by which I do not mean anything bad).

There is no chance whatever, as yet, of a Professorship or even lectureship being provided at the University in fact there are other chairs such as those of modern languages & various medical ones which must first be created before we could reasonably hope for one of anthropology. However in connection with the University we have--worse luck--certain denominational colleges amongst others a Wesleyan: now Fison is of this manner of persuasion so a few days ago I suggested to the 'Head' of the College that it would be a feather in the College cap if a lectureship of Anthropology was founded with even a nominal salary for Fison. It would at all events be the first one in Australia & might become the centre for work of great importance which would amongst other things reflect great credit on the college. He was taken with the idea & now our only difficulty lies with Fison himself. He is very modest & says that his appointment to a lectureship in Anthrop. is very much as if an individual with a somewhat scanty knowledge of the inhabitants of the two square [insert] or rather cubic [end insert] inches of a mill pond were appointed a lecturer in Biology.

However I hope we may persuade him & I hope also that some wealthy brother may be moved to endow the chair at all events for a few years as a start.

Oxford news is somewhat astounding. I dont see how the electors can go beyond Lankester. Of the other candidates I think they chose the best though on this subject Hickson & I dont agree. In fact after Lankester & Milnes Marshall of Manchester I dont think there is anyone really worthy of the post--the younger candidates are much of a muchness. To us poor people living out here in exile it seems as if all these things were going on in another world. [1]

Australia is not a pleasant place to live in & though scientifically I have much to be thankful for yet I would with readiness come home to England for half my salary: one gets terribly tired of seeing nothing but gum trees which give a remarkably monotonous & lifeless appearance to all Australian scenery--at least Victorian. Ten lectures a week--numberless 'board' meetings--any amount of outside work & all examinations (no extra pay) to conduct are enough to take the heart out of the  most enthusiastic person. These students live for examinations & will have them but few have any idea of real work & in comparison with the English student, I am much struck with a great want of self-reliance & originality. Examination answers are always reproductions as nearly as possible of the very words of the lecture. It is partly due to the system here in past years some of the Professors having for 20 years [insert] & more [end insert] (or less) delivered word for word the same lectures quite regardless of anything in the way of new work or ideas. The students hence have by necessity become like parrots & the look of despair on their faces when one lectures a little too fast for them to take it down word by word is amusing & heartrending.

June 1. 89/ I intended posting this last mail but was prevented. Yesterday Prof. Haddon who has been up in Torres Straits called: he has gleaned some facts for you which seem to be of interest & says he has collected many good things anthropological some of which will I trust find their way into 'Pitt-Rivers'. [2] He goes home this mail. I wish it was possible for me to get out into outlandish parts but you can understand that the longest vacation I get being some 5 weeks & this is the middle of the summer & hurricane season--that it practically impossible. I suppose you never contemplate a visit to this part of the globe: there is much that would interest you & you might be the means of starting very much good work. Oxford vacations seem long enough to do anything in.

With kind regards to yourself & Mrs Tylor believe me

Yours very sincerely

W. Baldwin Spencer


[1] This must be a post in the Oxford University Museum presumably relating to the Linacre professorship. H.N. Moseley, who had taught Spencer, was very ill by this time though he was not replaced in his post until 1890-1891 when Edwin Ray Lankester was appointed. Arthur Milnes Marshall was Professor of Zoology at Owens College, Manchester. Spencer had also studied there.

[2] Alfred Cort Haddon, then Professor of Zoology at the Royal College of Science, Dublin; he had been carrying out fieldwork on the marine biology of coral reefs in the Torres Straits, aided by grants from the Royal Irish Academy and the Royal Society. He returned to the islands in 1898-1899 to carry out the famous Torres Straits anthropological Expedition. 


Spencer S13

The University of Melbourne

March 15 1898

My dear Dr Tylor

I have just despatched the ms. of Mr Gillen's & my work home to Mr George A Macmillan from whom I heard a short time ago telling me that you had been good enough to see him about the matter. [1] As I said before I had no idea when writing to you that Mr Frazer had communicated with Mr Macmillan and we are very much indebted to you for your help. Mr Macmillan tells me that he will submit the work to your judgment and I shall be very anxious to know what you think of it. There is of course much that has been known for long but in certain respects it gives I fancy a more detailed account of Australian natives than has yet been written & there are parts which I feel sure will interest you.

The photos. are in many cases unique & have taken us so much trouble to secure that I am hoping that we shall secure a good series in the work but it is of such a special kind & so unlikely to have more than a very limited circulation that we cannot hope for too much.

Mr Frazer has most kindly offered to read over the proofs for us to avoid the delay of sending them out here & Mr Macmillan speaks of asking you to be kind enough to glance at them also. I need scarcely say that we are very much indebted to you for your kindness. If the work meets with your approval we shall feel satisfied. I have only just time to catch the mail & so cannot write more now.

Yours very sincerely

W. Baldwin Spencer


[1] This was the manuscript of Native Tribes of Central Australia, published by Macmillan in 1899. 

[2] Further letters relating to this dispute are transcribed here and here.


Spencer S13 attachment

[Copied by Tylor's copy clerk]

March 4th 1898

Dear Macmillan

I have still on my mind the question of the way in which Professor Baldwin Spencer's Researches in Central Australia should be introduced to the public. Spencer writes to me agreeing to the arrangement made by Fison & Frazer without his knowledge. But it still remains that Spencer's Anthropological work was begun under my strong suggestion, & that he had arranged that his new book should come before the public through me. Now I think that Spencer's observations on Australian Totemism (as known to me through the paper in Nature which was sent to me to look through at his desire) [1] are destructive of Frazers theory of totemism in the Golden Bough, & that therefore Frazer is not the right person to write an introduction to Spencer's new book, which ought to stand on its own bottom. To put the matter brutally, in my opinion it would injure Spencer's observational work to be mixed up between the same covers with Frazer's theoretical opinions on this rather important anthropological subject. If Frazer is good enough to see Spencer's book through the press, well & good, but I think there should be no bleeding. [2]

Yours sincerely

E.B. Tylor



[1] W.B. Spencer and F.J. Gillen. 1897 'The Engwura' Nature 56: 136-9.

[2] There is no external persons introduction to the published volume, Native Tribes of Central Australia (1899). 


Spencer S14

[Tylor's handwriting] A[nswered] July 25

I am afraid you must have thought me rude in not answering earlier but your letter did not reach me in London which I left on Dec 28th & has only just come.


Feb. 19. 99

My dear Dr Tylor

I ought to have written to you before but my time in England was so occupied by work of different kinds and on the boat coming out I was so lazy that letter writing was put off.

First as to Miss Howitt's ms. With Balfour I called at your house [1] (as you had written to me saying that the ms. was there) but we could not get in & so B. went for it later. I am very sorry that neither Macmillan nor Nutt would publish it. Parts of it seemed to me to be good--the first portion especially. I sent it on to Frazer to read & am expecting it out here in a few days. Howitt was here yesterday & we talked the matter over. Miss H. will revise the ms. & I rather think that it will be published out here.

If Mrs Langton Parker's "Legendary Love" is worth publishing I am quite sure that Miss Howitt's work is--in fact Part I of the later seems to me to be much more valuable than anything in Mrs P's. [2]

Howitt himself is at work on a general account of the organisation of Australian tribes the writing of which will occupy him at least a year longer.

Now as to Frazer's totem theory. So far as Australia is concerned it seems to me to be at least well worthy of consideration.

I am strongly inclined to think that our Central tribes are likely to retain the most primitive features of any in Australia. The coastal tribes of the East & South East appear--in matters of organisation etc--to be the most modified & abnormal. Now all over the Central area from the Head of Spencer's Gulf indeed from the shores of the Bight right up to say four or five hundred miles south of Port Darwin the fundamental idea associated with the totems is that each totemic group is supposed to perform ceremonies the object of which (as in the Intitchiuma ceremonies of the Arunta) is to increase the number of the totemic animal or plant. In regard to other matters concerned with the totem--as for example how each individual gains his totemic name--these vary from tribe to tribe, but whilst this is so we find the one constant feature that the members of the totem group periodically meet together to perform ceremonies for the increase of the totemic animal or plant.

Now if we find a series of groups of tribes in which a certain series of features are characteristic of the totems and if we find say characters a.b.c. in one group a.d.e. in another & a.f.g. in a third then surely we are justified in regarding a as the one more  primitive & leading feature.

For example in the Arunta & other tribes we find (a) the performance of ceremonies for the increase of the totem (b) the totem name not of necessity following that of either father or mother (c) the totem not regulating marriage: in the Urabunna & other tribes we find (a) the performance of ceremonies for the increase of the totem (d) the totem name following that of the mother (e) the totem regulating marriage: in the Dieri & other tribes we find (a) the performance of ceremonies for the increase of the totem (f) the totem not regulating marriage (g) the totem name following that of the mother & so on. This one feature (a) being constant whilst all others vary incline one strongly to think that in it we find the fundamental idea of the totem so far as our Australian tribes are concerned & it appears to me to be the simplest attempt to account for the meaning of the totem. 

On the other hand I do not think that in our tribes there is any idea whatever of the 'soul' being placed in the totem animal or plant.

In the Arunta group of Tribes the traditions with regard to past times and the then social organisation etc are very full & explicit and as they refer to a state of affairs which is very different from the present one I cannot see that they are to be regarded simply as myths invented to explain the origin of the present customs. I am inclined to think that the most primitive state of affairs was probably that a man of one totem married normally a woman of the same. The present marriage system was introduced when totemism was well established--why it was introduced is a mystery but I believe that such arrangements are every now & again deliberately thought out & proposed by one or two of the wise old men (c.f. 'Native Tribes' p68 where the account is given of the ingenious way in which matters are planned so as to retain the individual in his proper 'class' if he passed from the Arunta into the Urabunna tribe etc).

In some tribes the division into two exogamic moities [sic] resulted in dividing the totems into groups in such a way that all the individuals of one totem were in one exogamic group and therefore the men of one totem were obliged to marry women of another while in other tribes local groups of one totem were placed some in one of the main exogamous groups some in the other. That is if we call the two exogamous groups of any tribe A & B & the totemic groups a.b.c.d. then in some tribes all of a (or b etc) belonged to A (or B) or some of a belonged to A & some to B.

The connection between Totemism & exogamy is merely a secondary matter exogamy having been as it were racked on in some, but by no means all, cases to totemism.

I sent home a short time ago a short paper to Frazer on these matters, at his request, as we had independently arrived at certain conclusions, telling him that he might either burn it or if he thought it advisable send it to the Anthrop. Inst. [3] Of course there are some very difficult & debatable points but the more one looks into the question of Australian totems the more evidence, I think, one sees in favour of the theory--of course I simply refer to Australian tribes. The great difficulty is that there is so little detailed information & that any other is apt to be misleading.

The statement, for example, that 'a man will not eat his totem', unless we have further details, is apt to give quite a wrong idea of the relationship between a man & his totemic animal. The celebrated remark of Grey on this subject was made with regard to natives whose fundamental idea of the totem was that they must now & again partake of it. [4] When Gillen & myself knew even a good deal more about the native than Grey did we thought that the totems meant much what he did but now with further knowledge I am quite sure that Grey only touched upon the very fringe of the subject. When an Australian tells you that he never eats his totem you may feel quite sure (1) that there are certain occasions on which he must & (2) that the fundamental idea of the totemic group is that the members are entrusted with the power & necessity of performing magic ceremonies to ensure the perpetuation of the totemic animal or plant or whatever it may be. 

I hope you will excuse this lengthy disquisition & with kind regards to Mrs Tylor believe me

Yours very sincerely

W. Baldwin Spencer


[1] Presumably Museum House, which Tylor occupied as Keeper of the Oxford University Museum until 1902.

[2] I can find no reference to Mrs Langton Parker's book Legendary Love.

[3] This is 'Some Remarks on Totemism as applied to Australian tribes', Journal of the Anthropological Institute 28: 275-280

[4] George Grey (1812-1898) Explorer, governor and politician.


Spencer S15


Ap 28/99

My dear Dr Tylor,

I am sending you for the Pitt Rivers Collection a few of the Churinga of the Arunta tribe. [1] You have not yet I think had any of these objects in the Museum. The stone ones are very old. Gillen & myself have a certain number which were secured before we really knew what they meant & how sacred they were in the eyes of the natives. Since we knew this we have not interfered with the churinga. There are hundreds of them stored in various 'ertnatulunga' in the Centre of Australia & if we had cared to do so we could have stolen them but this would have meant the loss of the confidence of the natives. During the last few months there has been a man travelling through the 'centre' who has bribed one or two of the natives who have been with white men to show him the stores & has appropriated them. We are very angry to think that while we have known about these & have purposely refrained from interfering with them some one like this man should come along & steal the whole lot. I dont know what he intends doing with them but I believe that he is bringing them home to England and only hope that he will distribute them.

Possibly he may send you some but most likely he is the kind of individual to store them up in his own house where they will be of no use either to him or to anyone else.

Gillen has now finally left the 'centre' after 20 years residence there & with the opening of a gold field the natives will rapidly degenerate--in fact they have already & with alarming rapidity begun to change.

We were only just in time for you can hardly realize how rapid the change is when once they begin to drop old customs.

What we most want now is for someone to work at the natives in the West & North West. I am afraid that most of those with whom Roth comes in contact are semi-civilized & at the present moment Roth is the only man in Australia who is in the position & able & inclined to work at the subject. [2]

We are hoping soon to hear something of what Haddon has done in the islands. [3]

Howitt is hard at work putting his big collection of notes, which he has been gathering together for years, into form for publication.

I hope that you keep well & with kind regards to Mrs Tylor.

believe me

Yours very sincerely

W. Baldwin Spencer


[1] Most of the 'churinga' [tywerrenge] from Spencer (and Gillen) in the Pitt Rivers Museum were acquired on the 1901-2 expedition, two others were acquired after Spencer's death donated by his daughters. None are said to have come in 1899 or via Tylor. It is therefore not clear what happened to these tywerrenge, or indeed whether they were ever sent. 

[2] Walter Edmund Roth, (1861-1933) studied at the Oxford University Museum with Spencer, later worked as Protector of Aborigines in 1898 in Queensland. 

[3] Alfred Cort Haddon's Torres Strait Expedition of 1898-1899.


Spencer S16


Sept 5.1900

My dear Dr Tylor,

I have to thank you amongst others for the possible opportunity of going into the more northern parts of Australia to study the native tribes there. [1] On receipt of the requisition the University at once granted me a year's leave & I am in hopes that the South Aust. Government will grant the same to Gillen. The only difficulty is the expense. I have to provide a substitute to do my work which means £500: Gillen I hope will get leave on full pay. Our government may give me, or may not, the £500 to pay for my substitute.

Then there remains the cost of the expedition which I estimate at about £800. We shall have pretty heavy expenses in the way of horses & stores all of which have to be carried long distances over difficult country.

Fortunately we have the stations on the overland telegraph line between Adelaide and Port Darwin as bases and my idea is to send stores on to these by camel teams which carry up the Government stores once a year.

The tribes along this route to the north of the Macdonnell Ranges are practically untouched by white men and we ought to be able to do some good work amongst them.

We shall of course go east & west of the telegraph line our movements being determined by the possibilities of travel (water supply etc) & the whereabouts of the native camps. In the far north I hope to be able to strike west into the tropical scrubs along the Daly River & then if possible south to the Victoria River. From the mouth of this we may get a passing steamer to take us up to Port Darwin & so home again by sea via Thursday Island & the east coast or perhaps along the West Coast. I have a great desire to properly investigate the remarkable drawings described by Grey on the Glenelg River.[2]

Howitt was speaking to me a few days ago about our chipped stone implements. These we find--often in very crude form like the Tasmanian ones--all over Australia. 

One has to be very careful in regard to forming any conclusion in regard to them. The same tribe which makes & uses them in abundance will at the same time make & use both beautifully flaked knives & axes & also ground axes.

Morton of course found in W.A., as many others have done, rude chips but it by no means follows that the natives who used these did not also use ground axes. The use of rudely made stone implements [insert] only [end insert] is a sign of degeneration as well as of primitiveness. In the Arunta tribe at the present day they never make flaked & ground axes such as their ancestors did: these have been replaced by the iron axe but at the same time for certain purposes such as breaking open the shells of fresh water mussels they still use a rudely chipped flint.

The palaeolithic implement is I believe, in Australia at least, always to be found in common use amongst tribes who also use ground axes. Much of course depends upon the nature of the available materials. If one tribe inhabits a district where there is only quartzite then of course its members make flaked implements but at the same time they barter these for ground implements with other tribes whose district contain a deposit of diorite & so provide them with a stone which can be ground.

The Arunta tribe have both quartzite & diorite and therefore they made chipped, flaked & ground implements. At the present day they can get iron axes & therefore they have ceased making either flaked or ground implements but they still make chipped stones for ordinary use as for example when they are camped by a water hole & the women (who do not possess iron axes) want to open mussel shells.

In the case of the Arunta tribe it is degeneration which has led to the use only of rudely chipped stones & such I think is the case in Australia generally.

I do not think that anywhere in Australia there is a really palaeolithic people. Amongst all our tribes either well-flaked (which are much more difficult to make than ground axes) or the latter were used side by side with rudely chipped flints: with the introduction & spread of the iron axe the flaked & ground axes ceased to be made & the result is that at the present day we find tribes who only use rudely chipped flints but whose ancestors made either flaked or ground implements according to the material which they possessed. If they had a hard quartzite then they flaked their implements: if they had a diorite then they ground them & if they had both then they both (as the Arunta did) flaked & ground them.

If Gillen & I go north we will look carefully into the matter but at present I think it is safe to say that we have no proof of the existence of any Australian tribe which uses only the so-called palaeolithic implements.

I have recently been arranging our Australian collections in a special gallery [3] & wish that you could see it as it would much interest you & is a really fine collection--probably the best extant. By means of descriptive labels I have tried to make it a kind of record of the aborigines which the ordinary public can understand & take an interest in. It is quite refreshing to see visitors reading the labels & examining the specimens.

If we go north I will write & let you know how we get on, meanwhile I am trying to raise the necessary funds.

Please give my kindest regards to Mrs Tylor. If there are any special points which you would like us to work up will you let me know as soon as you can for I hope to start off in February & after that hope to be beyond the reach of the post for at least 9 months.

Yours very sincerely

W Baldwin Spencer

P.S. Since writing the above I have seen the Premier of Victoria who was to say the least unsympathetic so that the Government will not provide the funds. However I am determined to go & am now trying to get one or two wealthy men to help us [4]



[1] Tylor had been one of the signatories of a petition [or requisition as Spencer terms it] to the Australian state governments to allow Spencer and Gillen leave of absence from their jobs to carry out anthropological fieldwork.

[2] Again this is a reference to George Grey.

[3] Spencer was Honorary Director of the National Museum of Victoria at Melbourne, he arranged a special display of his and Gillen's anthropological collections there. These objects are still held by that Museum.

[4] Spencer was successful in attracting support from David Syme, newspaper proprietor


Spencer S17

Charlotte Waters

Cent. Aust.

Ap 7.1901

My dear Dr Tylor,

This is only a line to say that we are on our way north--travelling rather slowly as we have much to carry & can only make short stages.

So far the principal thing which we have got is an interesting series of phonograph records of ordinary corrobboree songs, sacred ceremonial songs such as are used at initiation, short sentences etc. We had a very good phonograph & the results are I think satisfactory.

When we return we hope to be able to send you home reproduction of them. [1]

We have also been busy with the Cinematograph & if only the films print well I have already some interesting records of Rain dances & sacred ceremonies concerned with old totemic ancestors such as are shown to the young men at initiation. These in some cases are more interesting than polite. In a day or two we start off again and shall join a camp north of the Macdonnells where our work will begin in earnest. There we shall be able to secure more ceremonies. I wish we had two years in which to work but still I am hopeful of getting some good results in our one year which promises to be a very busy one.

Kindest regards to Mrs Tylor & yourself from

Yours very sincerely

W. Baldwin Spencer

We are nearly worried to death by myriads of abominable little flies.


[1] There are no phonographic records from this expedition in the Pitt Rivers Museum sound archives.


Spencer S18

This is going south 200 miles to the nearest P.O. by means of a stray traveller

Barrow Creek

June 17 1901

My dear Dr Tylor,

At the present moment we are right in the centre of Australia working at one of our depôts on the overland line 200 miles to the north of Alice Springs where we worked before. Fortunately for us as travelling is very slow work in this part of the world the natives have heard of our coming up and are coming in to see us which saves us a lot of time. We are at present working amongst the Kaitish Tribe. As you know it is no easy matter to penetrate the savage skull but we are making fair progress and getting a lot of information of various kinds. The totemic work is decidedly interesting: we have a gradual progression as we go north from the south where the totemic animal or plant is not eaten except on certain very special occasions to the north where as in this tribe it is freely eaten all the year round. Of course we are checking everything as carefully as possible and are expecting further interesting developments still further north and away down towards Carpentaria.

We are securing good photographic records of everything that we come across. Yesterday we got an interesting series illustrating the knocking out of a girl's tooth and at Alice Springs were lucky enough to see the whole series concerned with the setting out of an avenging party and the return of the same having killed their enemy. We are pegging away hard in the hope of being able to discover some meaning in the initiation ceremonies but so far without any success. "Our father did it in the Alcheringa and we do it" is the invariable reply though often they have detailed myths of who told their fathers to do it. There is not a trace here of any supreme 'good' spirit like Baiame or Daramlum. I cannot help thinking and Howitt thoroughly agrees with me that Mr Lang has read more into this than is really there. Strictly speaking I do not think that any of these central tribes have any truly 'religious' belief. They most certainly believe that they themselves control by magic the powers of nature and we can find no trace whatever of their ever invoking the aid of any being who could be regarded as a deity. However we may come across something like this later on and meanwhile are keeping ones eyes & ears wide open for all scraps of information of any kind. The piecing together of our work will be rather a serious matter.

The next tribe to which we come is the great one for stone knives both flaked and ground and we shall see the operations in both cases. This is a good instance of "palaeolithic" & "neolithic" implements existing side by side in the one tribe.

We are both in excellent health and busy from morning till night but one year is far too short for us to do what we want in though perhaps by the end of it we may be glad to get home again.

Please give my kind regards to Mrs Tylor. I trust that you are both well.

Yours very sincerely

W. Baldwin Spencer


Spencer S19


Aug 10.06

My dear Dr Tylor

I was delighted to receive your letter today and to hear that we are again to have another volume of your work.

You speak of our book on the "Central Tribes"--that I presume is the first one--surely Macmillans sent you a copy of the second one on the "Northern Tribes of Cent Aust" because there is much in that which would interest you in regard to primitive mankind.

I am persuaded that the idea amongst early human beings of children not being the direct result of sexual intercourse is, or was, wide spread.

There is no such thing in a savage people as an unmarried woman so that the savage has no opportunity of drawing any conclusion in this matter as between those who do and those who do not have marital relations. Further still the interval which elapses or may elapse between intercourse & the recognition, by the woman, of the fact that she is pregnant may is quite sufficient to prevent recognition of the fact that pregnancy is, of necessity, due to such intercourse. (Frazer I think first drew attention to this)

That an Arunta woman imagines, as she most certainly does, that the spirit of the child has enters her at the moment when the "quickening" takes place is surely the most natural thing imaginable.

Only yesterday evening I was in Adelaide, talking with a friend who like Gillen and myself has been out in the wilds of Australia amongst the savages who have not been touched by the missionary & he told me that amongst all of the savages whom he had met there was no idea of the direct connection between sexual intercourse and childbirth. [1]

Mr. Andrew Lang and his associate Mr Thomas are endeavouring to throw doubt upon our work & so is a certain German missionary named Strehlow [2] in Central Australia but I am convinced after long study amongst the natives that what we have written is quite true & represents their real belief.

Lang has really ridden to death his hobby of the belief of the primitive savage in an "all-Father" or a high ethical "Supreme Being". Gillen & myself have lived amongst them & seen them 'behind the scenes' when they have been performing their initatory ceremonies as, I think, no other men ever have. Even Howitt only saw the initiation ceremony as performed by civilized blacks who had for at least 30 years been under the influence of white men.

As you say the 'religion' of the Central Australian is a most curiously animistic one. I am not quite sure if, without considerable qualifications, this is the right term to apply to it. So far as I could ascertain, the natives do not suppose that trees or inanimate objects have any 'spirit part'--but they imagine that both trees and rocks are inhabited by human spirits. That is they imagine them to be the abode of spirit children who may undergo reincarnation. In the same way they imagine certain rocks to be peopled by animal spirits who may be driven forth by incantation to enter the bodies of the same living animals & be born again. This is evidently not the same belief as is implied in the term 'animistic'. The natives have no idea (that is in Cent. Aust.) that a tree, quâ a tree, has a spirit, but rocks & trees & divers other material objects have human spirits, or in some cases, those of animals such as kangaroos associated with them.

You ask about the Churinga attached to the nurtunja in the Oxford Museum. [3] Every one of these churinga is associated with some old mythic ancestor of the tribe and is supposed to be or to have been the abode of his spirit part. To realize how intensely real to the native is this "churinga belief" you need to have seen them handling and literally weeping over the Churinga while, during the performance of sacred ceremonies they are shown and explained to the younger men.

Unfortunately we suffer in Australia from the publication of divers and sundry individuals who have rushed into print with only a very superficial knowledge of the native. What we need most of all is an "index expurgatorius" in regard to Australian ethnology. Gason with his 'mura mura' or 'great spirit' of the Dieri--his account of which is simply misleading rubbish--is a good case in point. [4]

We have been very busy indeed during the past year or two in almost reconstituting our university courses and examinations and I have had no time for Ethnology but am beginning to hanker after some more work in the field. The difficulty is that I am a zoologist & not an ethnologist "by trade" & it is not easy to get away from the University though our authorities are most generous in this respect. [5]

With kindest regards & also very keen appreciation of your interest in the work of your old pupil

believe me

Yours very sincerely

W Baldwin Spencer


[1] This was probably Ernest Cowle, or (just possibly) E.C. Stirling. 

[2] Carl Friedrich Theodor Strehlow (1871-1922) Lutheran missionary based at Hermannsburg, father of T.G.H. Strehlow.

[3] 1903.39.1

[4] Samuel Gason, see here

[5] Spencer never held a formal post as an anthropologist, he remained the Professor of Biology at the University of Melbourne.

Transcribed by AP April 2013.

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