My Dear Spencer: The letters of F. J. Gillen to Baldwin Spencer
Hyland House, $49.95 hb, 554 pp
When Baldwin Spencer, the eminent Professor of Biology at Melbourne University, arrived in Alice Springs in 1894 as a member of the Horn party, the first scientific expedition to Central Australia, he knew very little anthropology. Edward Stirling, South Australia’s Museum Director who would write their chapter on anthropology, was not much better off. The man who was in the know was the man on the ground: Frank Gillen, the local Telegraph Officer, Magistrate, and sub-Protector of Aborigines. A genial, curious, open-minded fellow of Irish Catholic faith, Gillen had been in the region for nearly twenty years.
From the start he’d been a bushman with a real interest in the Aborigines. He liked to make lists of Aboriginal words, and go over into ‘the Nigger camp and have a yabber’. As the scholarly editors of this volume point out, we have to drop some of our prejudices about prejudices and place a man like Gillen in his times in order to appreciate him today. His colonialist diction pales into insignificance when we realise that, by 1891, he was sufficiently a friend of the Aborigines to have brought the notorious Constable Willshire to court for the murder of native peoples. Willshire was acquitted in a now infamous trial in Adelaide, where his legal council was backed by pastoralist money and a public campaign against the gall of a man like Gillen. But what Gillen lost in terms of white kudos he gained in respect and affection from the Aborigines who knew him.