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Philip Jones - Encounters between exploring expeditions and Aboriginal people in colonial Australia

Archibald Meston’s expedition campTo some degree, the very question of encounters between expeditions and Aboriginal people in colonial Australia involves redefining an expedition as, ipso facto, an assemblage of Europeans, animals and equipment passing through country which was not their own—country which belonged to others, and country through which access was either to be negotiated or assumed, regardless of risk.

Some attention has been paid to the subject of rituals of encounter on the Australian frontier, but this literature is confined mainly to well-known sites of first contact, in particular at Botany Bay and Port Jackson. It has not always been easy to understand the varying responses of Aboriginal people to first European presence: the Australian situation is less amenable to analysis than, for example, the highly structured and formalised protocols of encounter (the powhiri) practised in Maori society, observed during the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries.

Even greater variability applied to the series of encounters unfolding across the continent, as Europeans contacted one Aboriginal group after another in circumstances ranging from organised landings by military parties to localised and informal attempts at settlement beyond existing frontiers. Given this variability, it may be rewarding to concentrate on the phenomenon of contact as defined above—between a moving assemblage of Europeans, animals and equipment and the Aboriginal owners of the country through which they travelled. Against these predictable elements, it may be possible to observe the nature of encounter as other factors vary—the size of the expedition, its proximity to water, whether it is armed, whether trade goods were deployed by either Europeans or Aboriginal people, the demeanour of the expedition leaders and the nature of their policies regarding ‘fraternisation’, the extent to which expedition camps were guarded, and so on.

Of course, all these factors, and others, help to define the phenomenon of the inland expedition itself, as well as the protocols of frontier encounter and its mediation. In general, my paper will assume the validity of the anthropologically derived conclusion that indigenous protocols of encounter, within Australia and on other continents, had one principal aim—that of incorporating strangers within the ‘host’ social system. I will particularly examine the role of objects in that process, and the degree to which objects became loaded with expectation and reciprocal obligation as they were enlisted in these encounters. The tension between this primary objective of social incorporation, and the expeditionary aim of reaching its goal uncompromised and unencumbered by exotic social relationships, is clearly at the heart of this paper, and its elucidation will cast new light on the colonial encounter and on the expeditionary enterprise.

My paper will draw upon my existing analyses of expeditionary encounters in Aboriginal Australia, but I intend to cast the net much wider, surveying the key Aboriginal–European encounters in all the major inland exploring expeditions of the colonial period, as well as encounters occurring during the survey and building of the Overland Telegraph Line during the 1870s.


Philip JonesPhilip Jones has worked as a Curator at the South Australian Museum since the mid-1980s. He is a graduate in law and history from the University of Adelaide, where his doctorate concerned the history of anthropological collecting. He has curated more than 30 exhibitions dealing with Aboriginal art, history and material culture, anthropological and frontier encounters. These have included exhibitions dealing with the 1891 Stirling-Kintore Transcontinental Expedition, the 1894 Horn Scientific Exploring Expedition, the ornithological expeditions of Captain SA White, and the 1948 American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land. His most recent exhibitions and publications include Australia’s Muslim Cameleers: Pioneers of the Inland, 1860s–1930s, with Anna Kenny (2007, revised edition 2010) and Images of the Interior: Seven Central Australian Photographers (2011).

Philip has undertaken fieldwork in the Simpson Desert and Birdsville Track region, particularly in collaboration with linguist Dr Luise Hercus, resulting in publications dealing with the history and ethnography of the region. More recently he has been working with Warlpiri people of Yuendumu on art history projects and is writing a new book on the history of the Yuendumu Doors. He is also is currently engaged in an investigation of the respective roles of Francis Gillen and Baldwin Spencer in anthropological history and material culture, a history of the South Australian Museum and a biography of the colonial artist George French Angas.

His particular interest in the provenance of artefacts and in the history and context of their collection underpins much of his exhibition research and writing. In 2007 he published Ochre and Rust: Artefacts and Encounters on Australian Frontiers, which won the inaugural 2008 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction. The book traces the paths artefacts follow, from their makers to their collectors, as a means of re-examining frontier history.

Philip has previously analysed expeditionary encounters in Aboriginal Australia in Ochre and Rust, in his 1996 survey of inland exploring expeditions published in Exploring Central Australia: Society, the Environment and the 1894 Horn Expedition (1996, eds  SR Morton & DJ Mulvaney), and in his annotations and notes relating to Aboriginal encounters on Charles Sturt’s inland exploring expedition in The Central Australian Expedition, 1844–1846: The Journals of Charles Sturt (2002, ed Richard C Davis).

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