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Alfred William Howitt (1830–1908)

by W. E. H. Stanner

This article was published:

Alfred William Howitt (1830-1908), by Batchelder & O'Neill

Alfred William Howitt (1830-1908), by Batchelder & O'Neill

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H25326

Alfred William Howitt (1830-1908), explorer, natural scientist and pioneer authority on Aboriginal culture and social organization, was born on 17 April 1830 at Nottingham, England, the oldest surviving son of William Howitt and his wife Mary, née Botham. He was educated in England, Heidelberg and University College School, London. In 1852, under the press of family needs, he went with his father and brother Charlton to Melbourne where they had been preceded in 1840 by William's youngest brother Godfrey. A reunion was one purpose of the visit but William and his sons also intended to try their fortunes on the new goldfields. They did so with modest success at intervals in the next two years. The experience turned the course of Alfred's life. He learned to live with confidence in the bush, and its natural phenomena, so strange and as yet so little studied, stimulated his mind to their scientific study. In 1854 his father and brother returned to England but Howitt elected to remain, thoroughly at home in the Australian scene.

Young and handsome, of short and wiry build and notably calm and self-possessed, he fulfilled his mother's prophecy that 'someday Alfred will be a backwoodsman'. For a time he farmed his uncle's land at Caulfield but, unattracted by the life, turned again to the bush and as a drover on the route from the Murray to Melbourne made the passing acquaintance of Lorimer Fison. An experienced bushman and ardent naturalist, Howitt was sent in 1859 by a Melbourne syndicate to examine the pastoral potential of the Lake Eyre region on which Peter Warburton had reported rosily. He led a party with skill and speed from Adelaide through the Flinders Ranges into the Davenport Range country but found it desolated by drought and returned to warn his sponsors. His ability as a bushman and resourceful leader came to public notice when, after briefly managing a sheep station at Hamilton and prospecting in Gippsland, he took a government party through unexplored alpine country to gold strikes on the Crooked, Dargo and Wentworth Rivers. He was an obvious choice as leader when in 1861 the exploration committee of the Royal Society of Victoria decided to send an expedition to relieve or, as the worst fears sensed, to rescue Robert O'Hara Burke, William Wills, John King and Charley Gray. Howitt's discharge of this assignment was exemplary. Without blunder or loss he twice led large parties on the long journey to Cooper's Creek. He soon found King, the only survivor, and took him to a public welcome in Melbourne but avoided the limelight for himself. Then, at request, he returned to bring the remains of Burke and Wills to the capital for interment. On the second expedition he had explored a large tract of the Barcoo country.

For his services Howitt was appointed police magistrate and warden of the Omeo goldfields, and in 1863 began a distinguished career of thirty-eight years as a public official, twenty-six of them as magistrate. In 1889 he became acting secretary of mines and water supply and in 1895 commissioner of audit and a member of the Public Service Board. He retired in January 1902 on a pension but served on the royal commission which in 1903 examined sites for the seat of government of the Commonwealth, and was chairman of the royal commission on the Victorian coal industry in 1905-06.

Such a career would have sufficed an ordinary man but Howitt attained greater things within it. Physical and intellectual fatigue seemed unknown to him. 'What are they?' he asked drily at 75 when Fison inquired if he never felt the infirmities of old age. In his long magistracy he travelled enormous distances annually (in one year, it was said, 7000 miles [11,265 km]) on horseback throughout Victoria. He read while in the saddle and studied the natural scene with such assiduous care that from 1873 onward he began to contribute to official reports, scientific journals and learned societies papers of primary value on the Gippsland rocks. He pioneered the use in Australia of thin-section petrology and chemical analysis of rocks. His fundamental contribution was his discovery and exploration of the Upper Devonian series north of Bairnsdale. He also made important studies of the Lower Devonian volcanics in East Gippsland and compiled magnificent geological maps of the area. In botany his Eucalypts of Gippsland (1889) became a standard authority and he collected hundreds of varieties of ferns, grasses, acacias and flowering plants. But his greatest eminence came from his work in anthropology, which was his main interest and relaxation after 1872.

On his expedition to the Barcoo Howitt had met members of the Yantruwanta, Dieri and other tribes while they were uninfluenced by Europeans. He learned, though inexpertly, something of their ecology, languages, beliefs and customs. The experience confirmed in him a dissociation between the Aboriginals as an object of scientific interest and as a challenge to social policy. Family letters show that he went to central Australia sharing the racial and social prejudices of the day. His attitudes softened later but nothing in his writings suggests that he ever agreed with the condemnation of Europeans for their treatment of native peoples expressed in his father's polemical Colonization and Christianity (1838). Even in official roles—he was for a time a local guardian of Aboriginals in Gippsland and in 1877 sat on the royal commission which inquired into their whole situation—his attitude appears always to have been that of the dispassionate scientist. His view of their problems did not extend beyond charitable paternalism and segregated training in institutions. His dealings with Aboriginals were cordial and appreciative if somewhat calculated, and he had no difficulty in finding long-serving helpers among them in all his inquiries. But he saw them as a people doomed to extinction by an extraordinary primitivity, and this quality aroused his scientific interest.

In the 1860s Howitt read widely and deeply on the evolution of man and society in the literature of Charles Darwin, Lubbock, Galton and Tylor, and probably knew something of Maine, McLennan and Bachofen. He turned this new-found thought towards the Aboriginals and about 1864 began, without definite aim, to record all he could learn of the Kurnai and other south-eastern tribes. He needed only occasion and motive to synthesize his knowledge with the brilliant vision which 'ethnology' was beginning to hold out—a new, universal, comparative science of custom. Both were provided when Fison returned to Australia in 1871 from Fiji. Howitt responded to Fison's public request for information and help in a study of the kinship, affinity and marriage systems of the Aboriginals, and in 1872 the two entered into an enthusiastic collaboration.

Howitt as anthropologist developed through four phases. The first in 1861-71 was one of unwitting preparation. In the second in 1872-80, after induction by Fison into the viewpoint and methods of Morgan's Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family, he immersed himself in systematic study. He gave all his leisure to direct inquiries in the field, the development of elaborate questionnaires, their circulation to possible informants, to voluminous correspondence and to writing. In 1873-78 he published twelve brief but informative memoirs, some of which drew on the data collected in the 1860s. In 1879 he completed his part of Kamilaroi and Kurnai, which appeared under his and Fison's names in 1880 and was recognized throughout the world as a landmark in the new 'anthropology' replacing 'ethnology'. Howitt's clear account of social organization was, when based on fact, rightly praised, but its reliability was later questioned.

In 1881-90, his third and probably best phase, Howitt continued active and productive. He wrote eighteen substantial papers, some of them of permanent value if their substance is rid of adherence to Morgan's evolutionist hypotheses, by which Howitt was progressively captivated. He shared the contemporary presumption that social phenomena could be understood through their development, which comprehends what is most significant in their nature. But the substance of his work disproves that he supposed development to exhaust the significances. His scientific mentality was excellent, cautious towards the possibility of 'false facts' and ready to see his own theories toppled. He was sharply aware that co-existent facts also required explanation. Such contemporaries as Lubbock, McLennan and Lang, with rival theories about the development of particular institutions, and successors like Robert Mathews, Thomas, Malinowski and Alfred Radcliffe-Brown, some of whom revolted against 'conjectural history', did not readily see that his work had importance independently of the overriding obsession that the stratified evidences of pristine family, sexual and marriage forms were visible like fossils in a living society. More appreciative eyes, disregarding such outmoded views, now recognize that Howitt greatly widened the base, improved the methods and deepened the insights of a nascent science. He wrote in a careful, informed way on a wealth of empirical topics—boomerangs, canoes, name-giving, cannibalism, migrations, wizardry, songs, message-sticks, sign-language—but most valuably on the kinship structures and intergroup relations of social life.

In two productive years, 1883 and 1884, Howitt showed his growing span and competence in seven papers, two of them with Fison. One, on initiation, was praised for its lucidity and detail by Tylor, who read it for Howitt to the Royal Anthropological Institute, London, on 11 December 1883. It set a new standard of ethnographic description and analysis and, with a second paper on the same subject, made possible the first comprehension of the form, management and significance of initiations as ceremonious disciplines shaping personality under social, moral and religious sanctions. Other papers made serviceable if now superseded distinctions between 'local' (geographical or territorial groups) and 'social' (marriage, descent and kinship categories) organization which in cross-relationship give Aboriginal society its characteristic structure. For this achievement Howitt most deserves remembrance.

As early as 1878, in his schematic presentation of Brabrolong kinship and his first sketch of Kurnai initiation, he showed some grasp of the anatomy of Aboriginal society. Its emergence in the papers of the third phase is a fascinating anticipation of insights that did not mature fully for another half century. By 1890 he wrote so explicitly, in comparative contexts, of the 'social structure' or the 'organic structure' of Aboriginal society that he must be credited with Fison as the first to adumbrate the essence of the 'structural-functional' perspective in modern social anthropology. No one before him could have written from empirical knowledge that 'aboriginal society as it exists in Australia is organized in a comparatively complete manner', and that 'the whole of the customs which form the foundation and the superstructure of aboriginal society ramify so much that in order to understand any part it becomes necessary to study the whole'. These insights were far removed from the imaginary stratigraphy of fossil customs.

In his last phase, 1891-1907, Howitt was a high official with little opportunity for fieldwork yet wrote with unflagging zeal two dozen papers and The Native Tribes of South-East Australia (1904); although a summation of his work it is probably not his best memorial. In his last years he still had formative ideas to offer on many topics, including the ritual significance of the newly-discovered bullroarer and the ethnological puzzle of the Tasmanian and Australian Aboriginals. His output was the more remarkable in view of protracted, and on his part courteous, controversy with anthropological critics, the counter-attraction of botanical and petrological research and the cares of high office. After the only illness of his life he died on 7 March 1908 and was buried at Bairnsdale. He was predeceased in 1903 by his wife Maria Robinson, daughter of Judge Benjamin Boothby, whom he had married in 1864, and was survived by two sons and three daughters.

Howitt was a fellow of the Geological Society of London and the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain, and a councillor of the Royal Society of Victoria. He was much honoured towards the end of his life. The Royal Society of New South Wales awarded him the Clarke memorial medal in 1903 and the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science the first Mueller medal in 1904. When he visited England that year the University of Cambridge awarded him an honorary doctorate in science and he was made C.M.G. for services to the State and to science. In 1907 he was president of the Adelaide meeting of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science, but he is best remembered as one of 'the band of brothers', Fison, Sir Walter Baldwin Spencer and Francis Gillen, who laid the foundations of Australian anthropology.

Select Bibliography

  • P. Corris, Aborigines and Europeans in Western Victoria (Canberra, 1968)
  • D. J. Mulvaney, ‘The Ascent of Aboriginal Man: Howitt as Anthropologist’, in M. H. Walker, Come Wind, Come Weather (Melb, 1971), pp 285-312
  • W. B. Spencer, ‘Alfred William Howitt’, Victorian Naturalist, vol 24, no 12, Apr 1908, pp 181-89
  • J. G. Frazer, ‘Howitt and Fison’, Folk-Lore (London), vol 20, no 2, June 1909, pp 144-80
  • M. E. B. Howitt, ‘The Howitts in Australia’, Victorian Historical Magazine, vol 3, no 1, Sept 1913, pp 1-24
  • D. J. Mulvaney, ‘The Australian Aborigines 1606-1929: Opinion and Fieldwork’, Historical Studies, Australia and New Zealand, vol 8, no 30, May 1958, pp 131-51
  • A. P. Elkin, ‘A Darwin Centenary and Highlights of Field-Work in Australia’, Mankind, vol 5, no 8, Nov 1959, pp 321-33
  • D. J. Mulvaney, ‘The Anthropologist as Tribal Elder’, Mankind, vol 7, no 3, June 1970, pp 205-17
  • Howitt papers (State Library of Victoria)
  • private information.

Additional Resources

Citation details

W. E. H. Stanner, 'Howitt, Alfred William (1830–1908)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 15 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (Melbourne University Press), 1972

View the front pages for Volume 4

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