Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

Francis Edgar Williams (1893–1943)

by Michael W. Young

This article was published:

Francis Edgar Williams (1893-1943), anthropologist and public servant, was born on 9 February 1893 at Malvern, Adelaide, son of David Williams, architect, and his wife Annie, née Good. Educated at Kyre College, a Baptist school, and the University of Adelaide (B.A., 1914), he graduated with first-class honours and several awards. Although selected as a Rhodes Scholar in 1915, Williams enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force, serving for two years as a lieutenant in France and subsequently as a captain with Dunsterforce in Persia.

After the war Williams took up his scholarship at Balliol College, Oxford, where in 1921 he studied under R. R. Marett and gained a diploma in anthropology with distinction. In 1922 he was appointed assistant government anthropologist in the Territory of Papua, then firmly governed by (Sir) Hubert Murray. Williams was promoted to government anthropologist in 1928, a post he held for the rest of his life. In December 1926 he had married Constance Laura Denness, a kindergarten teacher from Vancouver, Canada.

During his distinguished anthropological career Williams undertook a remarkable amount of field-work. Of his nineteen years in the Territory, he spent more than five living in Papuan villages. Murray suspected that he was 'quite indifferent to discomforts', though Williams admitted to a 'sheer dislike of long isolation'. He completed major studies of seven distinct and widely separated cultures: Vailala (Purari Delta, 1922-23), Orokaiva (Northern Division, 1923-25); Keraki (Morehead River, 1926-32); Koiari (Central Division, 1929-31); Elema (Gulf Division, 1923-37), Foi (Southern Highlands, 1938-39), and Keveri (Eastern Division, 1940). He also made shorter studies of at least a dozen other societies.

Of the many reports he wrote for the Papuan government, four were published as monographs by Oxford University Press: Orokaiva Magic (1928); Orokaiva Society (1930) for which in 1928 he had been awarded an M.A. honours degree by the University of Adelaide; Papuans of the Trans-Fly (1936) which gained him a B.Sc. from Oxford (1934); and Drama of Orokolo (1940) for which he received an Oxford D.Sc. (1941). Among his other honours were the Wellcome gold medal for anthropological research (1933), the Cilento medal (1935) and a Rockefeller fellowship (1933-34). In 1939 he was elected president of the anthropology section of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science.

A careful and thorough ethnographer, Williams nevertheless admitted to being an indifferent linguist who rarely made the effort to learn vernaculars. His writing style was clear, candid, unpretentious, and at times wryly self-deprecating. While not a major theorist, he was a searching and rigorous one, who made some strikingly original theoretical observations. His analyses of certain systems of kinship and marriage, for example, foreshadowed exchange theory and the structuralism of Claude Lévi-Strauss.

While accepting in part the reigning doctrine of British functionalism, he had the practical experience to judge its limitations. For him, a culture was not an 'integrated system', but 'always … to some extent a hotch-potch and a sorry tangle'. In his isolation from the academy Williams developed his own approach and addressed those issues he saw to be salient in the cultures he studied, rather than those which his academic colleagues (notably Bronislaw Malinowski and A. R. Radcliffe-Brown) deemed to be important. The result was a body of published work unusual in its ethnographic range, integrity and pragmatic focus, albeit one unjustly neglected by his peers.

Although his published work has lasting scientific value, it was as an applied anthropologist concerned with 'native welfare' that Williams was employed; his salary was provided from a native benefits fund raised by taxing Papuans. An essential qualification for the job was the ability to get on with Murray whose large ego brooked no opposition. Williams was companionable, modest, yet forthright, and Murray respected him. Both were benevolently paternalistic in their attitude to Papuan welfare, but Murray did not take kindly to unsolicited advice, and Williams's innumerable recommendations were usually ignored. With Murray's warm approval, Williams founded and edited a monthly newspaper in simple English, the Papuan Villager (1929-42): designed to promote 'native education', its sententious content and patronizing tone made it more a vehicle for colonial propaganda.

Williams advocated the 'blending of cultures': the best of traditional arts and ceremonies with the most progressive elements of European culture, such that the Papuan remained recognizably himself. An impossibly fine line had to be drawn, for Williams abhorred crude 'Europeanization'. Christianity, he allowed, had to be part of the blending process. A rationalist himself, he was, nonetheless, largely sympathetic toward the work of the missions, while deploring the destructive effects of over-zealous missionaries. He attempted to interpret Papuan cultures so that they might be appreciated and even admired by Europeans for their rich artistic and ceremonial achievements. The hevehe ceremonies of Orokolo in particular impressed him deeply and he argued powerfully (but to little avail) for their preservation. His greatest coup, perhaps, was to prevent the suppression of the 'bull-roarer cult' in the Gulf of Papua.

He supported land reform, but—surprisingly for an anthropologist—was against communalism, believing that the sooner Papuans became individualistic peasant proprietors the better. He promoted the idea of village self-government, yet held no hopes of more general political developments in Papua: 'There is always the need for sober Toryism in our guardianship of the native'.

In May 1941, when the Pacific War was imminent, Williams was made responsible for air-raid precautions in Port Moresby. Soon afterwards he enlisted in Brisbane where he served with military intelligence, compiling manuals for the Allied Geographical Section. In early 1943 he returned to Papua to serve as a liaison officer with the rank of captain in the Australian New Guinea Administrative Unit. On 12 May 1943 he was killed in a plane crash in the Owen Stanley Range. Survived by his wife and son, he was buried in a military cemetery at Bomana.

Select Bibliography

  • F. West, Hubert Murray (Melb, 1968)
  • F. West (ed), Selected Letters of Hubert Murray (Melb, 1970)
  • E. Schwimmer (ed), Francis Edgar Williams (Brisb, 1976)
  • T. Austin, Technical Training and Development in Papua 1894-1941 (Canb, 1977)
  • Oceania, 14, no 2, Dec 1943, p 91
  • D. J. F. Griffiths, The Career of F. E. Williams, Government Anthropologist of Papua, 1922-43 (M.A. thesis, Australian National University, 1977)
  • Williams papers, 1921-43 (National Archives of Papua New Guinea).

Citation details

Michael W. Young, 'Williams, Francis Edgar (1893–1943)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 30 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (Melbourne University Press), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024