Howitt & Fison's Archive

Insights into Australian Aboriginal Language, Kinship and Culture

About the Project

This project is a collaborative effort to bring Aboriginal communities, historians, anthropologists and linguists and interested members of the public together to work on a treasure trove of materials gathered by Gippsland magistrate A. W. Howitt and Methodist missionary Lorimer Fison over 100 years ago. These early anthropologists worked in partnership with Aboriginal people and non-Aboriginal correspondents living across the Australian continent during the late 19th century. The documents they left behind are steeped in the colonialism of the era and reflect the power relations of settler colonialism but they are also amongst the best 19th century materials on language and ethnography available in Australia.

Howitt and Fison carried out some of the earliest anthropological research in Australia and left extensive archival materials on language, kinship, and social organisation. The records they kept are imbued with the cultural expertise of Aboriginal informants, notwithstanding that Howitt and Fison’s work was certainly shaped by the questions of colonial administration, social evolutionary theory and missionising. The word lists, detailed information about kinship and social relations, traditional stories and songs, some recorded in original languages are of immense value and could only be gathered by close engagement with Aboriginal people. We treat this materials as artefacts of deep and prolonged colonial encounter. The aim of this project is to return Howitt and Fison’s papers to Aboriginal communities and to the wider public in a way that brings to the fore their rich linguistic and ethnographic data as well as the relationships and histories of their original production. Where known, we will also give the names and identities of the people Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people that provided this information.

One of the critical aims of this project is to work with communities and interested people in the broader community to digitise all of the Howitt-Fison collection items, mostly manuscripts, wordlists and correspondence that pertain to Australian Aboriginal people. Following cataloguing, transcription and consultations with interested and relevant Aboriginal individuals and groups, the material will then be made available via our project website. The Victorian Corporation for Aboriginal Languages and Native Title Services Victoria are key partners in this process and we will also be seeking out other relevant organisations and groups in South Australia, New South Wales and Queensland as the project progresses. Furthering national recognition of the diversity of Aboriginal heritage, we will for make these meticulous 19th century records on Aboriginal cultures more accessible. These primary sources also add depth and detail to already published sources such as Howitt’s The Native tribes of South-east Australia (1904). This is information of deep significance, but at present largely unavailable to the community. By making this material available to a wider audience we hope to inspire a more interactive retelling of the colonial relationships and showcase important linguistic and anthropological material.

A rough sketch showing the localities of the various Australian Aboriginal groups mentioned in the Howitt papers.
A rough sketch showing the localities of the various Australian Aboriginal groups mentioned in the Howitt papers.