The scientific exploration of Australia’s north was polyglot and multinational, writes Nicolas Rothwell
Towards the end of 1938, while leading the Frobenius expedition to northwest Australia, the German anthropologist Helmut Petri had a strange experience. He was staying at the native station of Munja, near the head of Walcott Inlet in the far north Kimberley: remote, forbidding terrain. He spent the afternoon in deep conversation with Munja’s Aboriginal spokesman Yaobida, going over several of the community’s social problems.
That same evening his expedition colleague Douglas Fox came riding back to Munja from Brockman Creek, well to the north, and told Petri that while there he had discussed the very same questions, at the same time, with the same Yaobida. The two ethnographers were shaken by this discovery.
“A rational explanation is hardly possible,” Petri wrote. He already knew that indigenous Australians believed the medicine men or magicians among them — and Yaobida was one — had the power to materialise their doubles, or alter egos, and hence to be, and act, in two different places at the same time. “No immediate scientific explanation offers itself,” Petri noted. “In my opinion, we have to accept it as it is.”
This is quite a sentence for a rational researcher in the modern mid-20th century to have dared to formulate in such calm, accepting fashion, let alone set down in print: there is really nothing else quite like it in the Australian anthropology of that era. Petri’s paper, with his account of this episode, unknown in this country until now, has at last been translated and published in a landmark collection, Cologne to the Kimberley, a volume that fills in a large missing jigsaw piece in the story of anthropological investigation on the Australian frontier.
How did we build up our knowledge of the far reaches of the continent: the savannas and the ranges, the plains and deserts, their wildlife, their peoples and the belief systems that held sway there? To a striking degree, we have rewritten our past and removed almost all memory of the European scientists and anthropologists who helped open up this world.
Few now know the work of the German geologist and fossil collector Erhard Eylmann, who made repeated expeditions through the red heart between 1896 and 1912, or the pioneer Norwegian naturalist Knut Dahl, who explored the Top End’s wild rivers by dinghy and wrote a majestic account of his experiences there. The scientific exploration of the north was polyglot and multinational, and went down broader avenues than those pursued by British-trained researchers.
The compiler of this collection, Kimberley specialist Kim Akerman, suggests that “the European trained anthropologists and linguists cast a wider net, one that embraced economics, material culture and rock art”. This body of work has long been in shadow, because Australia has become “a monolingual nation”.
It is now coming into the light thanks to the efforts of Hesperian Press, which published in 2011 a translation of Petri’s bleak masterpiece The Dying World in Western Australia and brought out Swedish ethnographer Eric Mjoberg’s bizarre Fitzroy Valley expedition journal the following year. With the appearance of Petri’s The Australian Medicine Man and Mjoberg’s Amongst Stone Age People in the Queensland Wilderness — which, despite its title, is an extended love song to tropical rainforest Aboriginal culture — a detailed assessment of this countercurrent in the study of northern Australia becomes possible at last.
Together, these titles sketch out a distinctive approach to the indigenous domain. European scientists and investigators tended to see clear parallels between their own religious and historical traditions and the remnant Aboriginal cultures they found in fast-paced dissolution all around them. Australian observers tended to adopt a more administrative approach. They had colonial eyes; they felt a burden of responsibility. Aborigines were thus always for them a problem to be managed and resolved, through some distinct pathway of policy, whether integrationist, assimilationist or separatist.
Many among the Europeans were inclined to draw close to the bush indigenous men and women they knew. There was Father Joseph Bischofs, who took part in ceremonial dances The Australian Medicine Man By Helmut Petri Translated by Ian Campbell Edited by Kim Ackerman Hesperian Press, 206pp, $55 Cologne to the Kimberley: Studies of Aboriginal Life in Northwest Australia by Five German Scholars in the First Half of the 20th Century Edited by Kim Akerman Translated by Margaret Pawsey Hesperian Press, 384pp, $70 Amongst Stone Age People in the Queensland Wilderness By Eric Mjoberg Translated by SM Freyer Edited by Asa Ferrier and Rod Ritchie Hesperian Press, 421pp, $110 with his flock when the acting superior at the Kimberley mission of Beagle Bay; there was the dashing German Pallotine priest Ernest Worms, a decorated Iron Cross veteran whose chief love in life was remote fieldwork; the Petris, too, Helmut, a renaissance man whose high cultural background guided his approach to the Aboriginal world, and his wife, Gisela PetriOdermann, who devoted her last years of widowhood to the indigenous peoples of the far northwest.
These researchers plunged very deep. Worms, who remains almost unknown outside specialist circles, collected vital records of Kimberley legends and beliefs: creation stories, justice rites and ceremonies, narratives that reveal the rainbow serpent’s cosmic significance. Helmut Petri developed a complex understanding of Aboriginal sacred objects and their place in the psychology of their owners. He was so captivated by the figure of the traditional healer, or medicine man, that he devoted an entire monograph to the subject. It was the fruit of his Frobenius years and it focused on the magic practices he encountered among the three main language groups of the north Kimberley: Worora, Ungarinyin and Unambal.
This is a social landscape Akerman knows well, and he can testify to the continued vitality of the magic doctors in recent times: “My own experiences in relation to medicine men, healers and sorcerers in northwestern Australia and the desert regions indicate that in some instances many individuals can and do employ some forms of magic for both positive and negative reasons — success in love, hunting or gambling for example, or to direct pain, flood, famine or pestilence, as required.”
A handful of fieldworkers have followed Petri, and in central Australia over the past decade a soft-focus enthusiasm for the healing arts of the traditional medicine man has sprung up, and found a degree of mainstream recognition — but these applied traditions are far from the hard, cold, disquieting world of magic transport Petri documents for the Kimberley.
The doctors he knew in the far north were men of power: they were summoned to their calling in a sequence of dreams. A night vision of water, pandanus and paperbark meant one’s spirit was travelling towards higher realms. These initial signs were routinely followed by an encounter with the rainbow serpent in all its glory: it was a being of immense size, with a snake’s body, human limbs and a crest of bright feathers on its head.
In this visionary experience, as Petri reports in his text, the magic man finds himself transformed. His organs are replaced with acute sensory receptors, he receives a new brain and white quartzite crystals are put into his body. For days he lies in a swoon, unconscious, as the serpent being’s plan is revealed to him, and he becomes conscious of his tasks in life. On waking, a brightness radiates within him, a sense of lightness fills him. He learns to see the future and to understand the past; he comes to sense things far away, he gains the facility to travel outside his body, he sees entire worlds beyond.
He has the power to heal sicknesses, he can shape-shift and bring rain. Above all else he becomes a poet of dance and song, whose compositions come to him in dreams. Life lies open
IT IS A CRIME TO ROB THEM OF THEIR INHERITED LAWS AND RELIGION