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Fison, Lorimer (1832–1907)

by W. E. H. Stanner

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

Lorimer Fison (1832-1907), Wesleyan missionary, anthropologist and journalist, was born on 9 November 1832 at Barningham, Suffolk, England, the thirteenth of twenty children of Thomas Fison, farmer, and his cultivated and idealistic wife Charlotte, daughter of Rev. John Reynolds, who translated seventeenth-century religious writers. After schooling in Sheffield, Lorimer enrolled at Caius College, Cambridge, in June 1855. Tutored by his brother-in-law, Robert Potts (1818-1881), a Trinity don, he showed promise in mathematics. He also performed satisfactorily in classical and theological studies but was rusticated after two terms because of a boyish escapade. The affair left a lifelong wound but he accepted his lot stoically and left England for the Australian goldfields. It was possibly the second visit. In a letter written to Lewis Henry Morgan on 26 March 1880 Fison spoke of a 'return' to Australia after leaving Cambridge, and there is other slender and less dependable evidence to that effect. All that is certain of his Australian experiences until 1861 is that he passed through a severe personal crisis on the diggings: the news of his father's death caused him intense grief and he underwent a paroxysmic religious conversion at an open-air evangelical meeting. He left the goldfields, intending to complete his studies for a degree at the University of Melbourne, but he became a Wesleyan and, learning of the need for missionaries in Fiji, offered himself. He was ordained and in 1863 sailed for Fiji with his Welsh bride Jane, née Thomas.

Fison proved more than a match for the challenge of a still barbarous and turbulent region. According to Rev. Dr George Brown, he was 'one of the best missionaries whom God has ever given to our Church'. Large and imposing, kindly and cheery though formidable when aroused, in whom wit, common sense and intelligence combined, Fison became the confidant and adviser of natives, officials and settlers alike in his seven years at the Viwa, Lakemba and Rewa stations. The Fijians were drawn to him by repeated proof of his courage, honesty and devotion, and by the ease with which he learned their languages and customs. He was an eloquent preacher, a splendid conversationalist and a felicitous writer. He worked vigorously against the blackbirders and was of service in the tangle of Fijian, Tongan and international affairs that preceded the cession of the islands to Britain. In 1871 with a large reputation he left for pastoral work in New South Wales and Victoria. His health impaired but with the highest goodwill of the Wesleyan Conference of Australia, he returned to Fiji in 1875 to serve until 1884 as principal of the Navuloa Training Institution, on which he left an enduring mark.

In Fiji in 1869 Fison responded, at the suggestion of Professor Goldwin Smith, to an appeal by the American ethnologist, Lewis Henry Morgan (1818-1881), for information on the kinship systems of primitive peoples. He wrote a well-digested account of the Fijian and Tongan systems in time for inclusion as a supplement to Morgan's illuminating book, Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family (1871). On his return to Australia in 1871 Fison transferred his new scientific interest to the Aboriginals and through the newspapers sought help in the study. One who responded was Alfred Howitt and in 1872 they entered into a collaboration and loyal friendship that endured until 1900.

They amassed a large body of cohesive data on Aboriginal kinship, family and marriage forms and many empirical features of social organization and culture, by means of direct observation, face-to-face discussions with informants and the circulation of printed lists of questions to Europeans with Aboriginal contacts. This first study of Aboriginal actuality, though among broken tribes, was made by regularized methods under the control of theoretical concepts. Howitt was guided by Fison who understood the classification of kinship terminology and its related categories of thought as few scholars then did. Both were inspired, though not slavishly, by Morgan's evolutionist ideas. In 1880 their compendium, Kamilaroi and Kurnai, was published hurriedly to avert 'secret piracy'. Dedicated to Morgan, it was rightly acclaimed a landmark in anthropology. As none before, it made clear the segmentary character of Aboriginal society, including that most crucial structure, the articulation of territorial groups with social categories, but collapse of the evolutionist perspective and long bickering among contemporary scholars obscured the merit of this pioneer work. Fison wrote his sections in his second period in Fiji, after contributing information to Morgan's Ancient Society (1877).

Although heavily burdened by mission tasks including original works in Fijian, Fison worked indefatigably at anthropology. In 1881 he wrote a brilliant treatise on Fijian land tenure which had effect on three governments and in 1903 earned him tardy commendation from the Colonial Office. He continued to publish gracefully and informatively on a wide range of Fijian customs in 1881-95. Two joint papers of the 1880s remarkably anticipated the essentials of the organismic and structural-functional perspectives of modern social anthropology. The long mortification of never having a degree ended with honorary awards of an A.M. by an American university and a D.D. in Canada.

After four pastoral years in Hawthorn and Flemington Fison retired from the ministry in 1888. Poor and in failing health, he settled in Melbourne to earn a livelihood by journalism. He published Tales from Old Fiji edited in 1904 and edited the Spectator and Methodist Chronicle until 1905, when his lot was eased by the grant of a British government civil list pension of £150. He was a founder and one of the first fellows of Queen's College, Melbourne. In 1892 he was president of the anthropology section at the Hobart meeting of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science. In 1894 he was among the representatives of Australian science at the British Association meeting at Oxford, where his work was fully acknowledged. He died at Essendon, Melbourne, on 29 December 1907, survived by his wife, two sons and four daughters.

Select Bibliography

  • C. Irving Benson (ed), A Century of Victorian Methodism (Melb, 1935)
  • C. B. Fletcher, The Black Knight of the Pacific (Syd, 1944)
  • G. Brown, ‘Lorimer Fison’, Australasian Methodist Missionary Review, vol 17, no 10, Feb 1908, pp 1-3
  • J. G. Frazer, ‘Howitt and Fison’, Folk-Lore (London), vol 20, no 11, June 1909, pp 144-80
  • B. J. Stern (ed), ‘Selections from the Letters of Lorimer Fison and A. W. Howitt to Lewis Henry Morgan’, American Anthropologist, vol 32, no 2, Apr 1930, pp 257-79 and vol 32, no 3, part 1, July-Sept 1930, pp 419-53
  • Age (Melbourne), 31 Dec 1907.

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Citation details

W. E. H. Stanner, 'Fison, Lorimer (1832–1907)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/fison-lorimer-3523/text5423, published in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 26 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

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