State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 43 Autumn 1989


The A. W. Howitt Papers

The Alfred William Howitt Papers1 in the La Trobe Library's Australian Manuscripts Collection are a rich source of information for the reconstruction of Victorian Aboriginal history. They contain notes and correspondence that are representative of the way he gathered knowledge about the Aborigines. The most important information in the papers is derived from Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal informants, much of which Howitt collated in his book The Native Tribes of South-east Australia (1904).2 Although he took notes from published works such as Dawson,3 Smyth,4 and Morgan,5 they are not substantive.
Howitt (1830–1908) was born at Nottingham, England, on 17 April 1830.6 In 1852 he arrived in Victoria to try his fortune on the goldfields. In 1854, he farmed land near Melbourne belonging to his uncle, Dr. Godfrey Howitt. In 1859 he lead an expedition seeking pastoral land near Lake Eyre in South Australia. When he returned he took a position managing a station near Hamilton, only to be approached by the Government to lead a gold prospecting party in Gippsland. In 1861, Howitt lead two rescue expeditions to find the ill-fated explorers Burke and Wills. In 1863 he was appointed police magistrate and mining warden of the goldfields in Gippsland. He was acting secretary of mines and water supply from 1889 to 1895 and then became commissioner of audit and a member of the Public Service Board until his retirement in 1902. He died at Bairnsdale on 7 March 1908.
Hewitt's interest in Aborigines began during his 1861 rescue expedition, when he had some involvement with the Dieri Aborigines of Cooper's Creek. He continued his interest in Gippsland where he employed the Ganai (Kurnai) people in his hopgarden. In 1872 he began corresponding with the Reverend Lorimer Fison, which led to a friendship that lasted for many years. Together they published several articles and a major work Kamilaroi and Kurnai.7 After retirement Howitt settled at Metung where he continued his work in Aboriginal ethnohistory.
Nineteenth century collators, such as Howitt, Curr,8 and Smyth, were driven by a ‘sense of urgency’, an imperative to record as much Aboriginal knowledge before it was lost, especially in Victoria where Aboriginal culture had been reduced to a thing of ‘shreds and patches’.9 The material for their work came from three main sources: published accounts of explorers, settlers and missionaries; replies of settlers who corresponded with the collators, or answered the questionnaires sent to them; and groups of Aborigines with whom the writers were familiar, or from particular Aboriginal informants.10
The practice of sending questionnaires to correspondents had considerable merit because it collected material from people with first-hand knowledge of the Aborigines who probably would have never published it. However they were often framed in such a way that they solicited answers that confirmed the ideological presuppositions of the collator. Howitt's questionnaire contained eighteen questions on Aboriginal customs, beliefs, tribal nomenclature, social organization, and language.11 A problem with using aged Aboriginal informants in the latter part of the nineteenth century was the fact that they were often a generation or more removed from ‘traditional’ pre-contact life, and may not have had access to full knowledge of the pre-colonial situation.
Howitt's papers contain correspondence from informants such as A. L. P. Cameron,12 Joseph Shaw,13 and Joseph Guthridge.14 Cameron visited the Framlingham Aboriginal mission in January and November 1884 and sent Howitt information on the Djab wurrung, Girai wurrung, and Dhauwurd wurrung tribes. In May 1885, he was at Wanganella and sent notes concerning the Barababaraba, and in June 1886 he wrote from Quamby, near Woolsthorpe, on Aboriginal mound sites in south-western Victoria. Joseph Shaw, the superintendent at the Coranderrk Aboriginal station, sent Howitt information he obtained from Barak and other aged informants in December 1897, and July 1900. Joseph Guthridge of Lancefield wrote in November 1906 confirming Howitt's 1904 northern boundary of Woi wurrung.
A strength of Howitt's papers is that they contain many notes obtained from Aboriginal informants including Donald Cameron of the Djubagalg-gundidj clan of Wergaia;15 Sergeant Major (1838–1903) of the Wungaragira-gundidj clan of Djadja wurrung,16 and John Connolly a Jardwadjali speaker.17 The most extensive notes are from William Barak (1824–1903), the sole ngurungaeta (clan-head) from 1874 onwards of the Wurundjeri-balluk clan of Woi wurrung.18 Barak was an eleven year old witness at John Batman's 1835 ‘treaty’ with Bun wurrung and Woi wurrung clan-heads, and in 1845 as a member of the Native Police Corps, he accompanied G. A. Robinson on an expedition from Melbourne to Lake Hindmarsh and on to southeast South Australia.
Howitt's papers, like all source material for the reconstruction of Aboriginal history, should not be used uncritically. Researchers need to be aware of the ideological context in which his writings were produced. Indeed by learning his categories of thought it is possible to identify his selectivities and silences. These can be exposed by asking questions such as: What aspects of the total lifestyle and culture are recorded? Why do we learn so little about the activities of women and their role in Aboriginal society? Why so little about food gathering, daily

Batchelder & O'Neill, “A. W. Howitt,” albumen silver carte-de-visite c. 1860s, purchased 1989.

camp activities, tool making, and exchange, compared with tribal fights, burial customs, and certain ceremonial customs?19 Despite these shortcomings one of Hewitt's strengths was his recognition that he was studying a remnant people who had experienced a rapid collapse of their traditional way of life. In short he was aware of his methodological inadequacies, and some knowledge, even if incomplete, is preferable to none at all. In spite of their selectivities and silences, Howitt's papers remain a rich information source which reward investigation.


A. W. Howitt Papers MS 9356 (hereafter referred to as ‘HP’), La Trobe Collection.


A. W. Howitt, The Native Tribes of South-east Australia, (London: Macmillan, 1904).


J. Dawson, Australian Aborigines; the languages and customs of several tribes of Aborigines in the Western District of Victoria, Australia (Melbourne: Robertson, 1881).


R. B. Smyth, The Aborigines of Victoria; with notes relating to the habits of the natives of other parts of Australia, 2 vols, (Melbourne; Victorian Government Printer, 1878).


J. Morgan, The Life and Adventures of William Buckley, edited with an introduction and notes by C. E. Sayers, (London: Heinemann, 1967) [first published 1857].


W. E. H. Stanner, ‘Alfred William Howitt’, Australian Dictionary of Biography (Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 1972), vol 4; see also M. H. Walker, Come Wind, Come Weather, (Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 1971).


A. W. Howitt & L. Fison, Kamilaroi and Kurnai, (Melbourne: George Robertson, 1880).


E. M. Curr, The Australian Race; its origin, languages, customs, places of landing in Australia, and the routes by which it spread itself over that continent, 4 Vols., (Melbourne: Victorian Government Printer, 1886–7).


P. Corris, Aborigines and Europeans in Western Victoria (Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, 1968). A. P. Elkin ‘The development of scientific knowledge of the Aborigines’ in H. Sheils (ed) Australian Aboriginal Studies, (Oxford UP. for A.I.A.S.) 1963:3–28.


R. Lawrence Aboriginal Habitat and Economy, (Canberra: Department of Geography, School of General Studies, The Australian National University, Occasional Papers No. 6., 1969).


Lawrence (ibid) reproduces Howitt's circular letter and questionnaire.


HP Box 1050/1 (a), Correspondence from A.L.P. Cameron 8/5/1885; Box 1053/1 (a), Correspondence from A. L. P. Cameron and enclosures 23/1/1884; Box 1053/1 (d), A. L. P. Cameron to A. W. Howitt 29/1/1884.


HP Box 1054/1 (a), Joseph Shaw to A. W. Howitt 4/12/1897, 27/7/1900.


HP Box 1054/1 (b), Joseph Guthridge to A. W. Howitt 20/11/1906.


HP Box 1053/1 (c), ‘Notes by Howitt from information provided by Donald Cameron’.


HP Box 1053/6 (c), ‘Notes by Howitt from information provided by Sergeant Major and Tommy Ngaui’.


HP Box 1053/5 (c), ‘Mukjarawaint vocabulary compiled from information obtained by John Conolly’, ‘Questions for John Connolly including notes on the Jajaurung tribe’, Map and notes by Howitt on the Mukjarawaint tribe.


HP Box 1053/2 (b/c), ‘Notes by Howitt on the Kulin nation from information provided by William Barak’ c. 1882.


I. McBryde ‘Ethnohistory in an Australian Context: independent discipline or convenient data quarry?’ in Aboriginal History 3(2):128–151.