Caroline Tennant Kelly with two of her photos from the Cherbourg Aboriginal Settlement
Caroline Tennant Kelly with two of her photos from the Cherbourg Aboriginal Settlement (Source: Sydney Morning Herald at

In 1924 the first university Department of Anthropology in Australia was founded at the University of Sydney. The founding professor was Alfred Radcliffe-Brown, a theoretical anthropologist whose aim it was to have anthropology accepted as one of the natural sciences. Not a fieldworker himself he was nevertheless successful in establishing anthropological fieldwork in Australia and soon the new department had dozens of fieldworkers around Australia, in Papua New Guinea and on various Pacific islands. What these researchers expected to study was the social organization, the cultures and the languages of ‘native tribes.’ However, what they found was colonization in full swing: in Queensland, the 2nd or 3rd generation of post-contact aboriginals were mostly living in new social formations on missions and reserves.

And so these new fieldworkers abruptly faced a set of ethical questions for which they were unprepared. Should they seek out the small number of remaining groups who continued to live ‘in their natural state’? Or should they concentrate on studying the much larger numbers of aboriginal people living on missions and reserves, often with little regard to traditional group and clan affiliations? Should they seek out the testimony of elderly aboriginals born before colonization and focus on researching pre-colonial life? Or should they record ongoing transformations in the lives of these people? Should they concentrate only on the romanticized ‘full-bloods’ or also consider the experiences of the increasing number of ‘half-castes’? Was their role merely to record what they observed or should they speak out about the abject living conditions they observed? Who were their non-academic partners? The aboriginal people who they studied or the administrators who controlled access to the missions and reserves (as, at that time, most aboriginal people were wards of the state)?

Let me give you two examples. One of Radcliffe-Brown’s supervisees, Ursula McConnel went to Aurukun in 1927 to conduct ethnographic research among the Wik-Mungkana people on Cape York Peninsula, who today – on May 22, 2012 – are having 75,000 hectares of their land returned from the State of Queensland. In addition to her anthropological research focus on traditional social organization, culture and language, she also found a culture of abuse on the Presbyterian mission: inmates were punished for disobedience by whipping or by being chained to trees; imprisonment without food or water in a small iron shed was a regular occurrence. Other punitive measures included head shavings and chained work gangs. She also observed two women and three men being rounded up a gunpoint, chained together and force-marched a distance of 380 kilometres across the Cape York Peninsula for transportation to another settlement (see Kidd, 1997, pp. 119ff.).

What did Ursula McConnel do? Ignore these abuses as outside her research brief or bring them to the attention of the wider world outside the remote mission? She chose the latter path. The result was a media scandal, the first in a long list of public embarrassment for the Queensland state over its managment of aboriginal affairs throughout most of the 20th century. However, this was not followed by a public enquiry or any material change on Aurukun or any other aboriginal settlement. The only material consequence that followed was for anthropology and McConnel personally: administrators closed ranks against ‘the new science’ and anthropologists found it much harder, if not impossible, to gain permission to work with settled aboriginal populations.

McConnel found her field maligned as ‘ideologically eccentric and administratively naïve’ and was personally vilified as ‘objectionable,’ as having made ‘disloyal and damaging statements’ and as ‘very eccentric and somewhat hysterical’ (quoted in Kidd, 1997, p. 119). Judgements such as these came from the aboriginal affairs administrators but she had no support within her discipline, either.

A.P. Elkin, who became Radcliffe-Brown’s successor as Professor of Anthropology at the University of Sydney and who was to dominate Australian anthropology over many years, took a different approach to McConnel: instead of going to the media, he worked behind the scenes, including through lobbying his personal friend, the then-Home Secretary, to achieve a greater influence of anthropology over aboriginal administration. Faced with the charge that anthropologists were ‘not inclined to practicality’ (p. 123) he demonstrated his ‘practical’ approach by making sure that inconvenient anthropologists were cut out from National Research Council grant funding (p. 123).

Privately wealthy, McConnel’s research did not depend on grant funding but even so her career petered out and she never received the PhD nor the university position to which she aspired. The Australian Dictionary of Biography ends the entry about Ursual McConnel as follows:

The importance of McConnel’s scholarly contribution was recognized after her death. […] her publications form the foundations of present-day anthropological research on western Cape York Peninsula. She had devoted much of her life to this endeavour, driven by a sense of duty and justice towards the Aborigines with whom she had worked.

Another anthropologist of the time who had to face difficult questions of professional ethics was Caroline Tennant Kelly. A student of Elkin, she gained permission to conduct field work at the Cherbourg aboriginal reserve (where some of the surviving descendants of the Yiman peope, about who I wrote recently, were relocated). Elkin had assured the superintendent that ‘Mrs Kelly is possessed of plenty of common sense and tact and will not cause any implications on the settlement’ (Kidd, 1997, p. 125).

However, all her ‘common sense and tact’ did not prepare Tennant Kelly for the entrenched and grinding poverty she was to see at Cherbourg. Shelter and food were so inadequate as to be life-threatening and resulting in high mortality rates. Tennant Kelly was particularly dismayed to discover gross financial irregularities at Cherbourg. Under the 1897 ‘Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act’ wages received by aboriginal people were banked by the state. In order to access their own money aboriginal workers had to make a withdrawal application to the local ‘protector.’ Despite the fact that aboriginal people often earned less than a quarter of their non-aboriginal counterparts, the state of Queensland thus held a considerable private fortune. Mix a substantial sum of poorly accounted money with the fact that many aboriginals were illiterate, drug-dependent or ignorant of their (meagre) rights, you can imagine that fraud and financial malpractice were rife in this system.

As Tennant Kelly found, aboriginal people had to justify any expense for which they wanted to use their own money and she was incensed by the humiliation involved. Examples listed by Kidd (1997, p. 179) include permission denied for buying *two* pairs of trousers, on the grounds of ‘extravagance;’ permission denied for a ticket to visit the Brisbane Exhibition on the grounds of ‘lack of effort;’ or permission granted to purchase a coat on the grounds that the applicant was ‘a very careful boy.’

Tennant Kelly considered state control of aboriginal wages a form of economic slavery and started a national campaign to expose Queensland’s handling of aboriginal wages and savings to national scrutiny. Similar to McConnel’s experience a decade earlier, her lobbying did not affect policy in the short run but made her powerful enemies. The aboriginal protection board and even senior politicians lost no time in playing the gender card: ‘the activities of women Anthropologists [have] not been very satisfactory or harmonious,’ stated the superintendent (Kidd, 1997, p. 125). As McConnel before her, Tennant Kelly was personally attacked for spreading ‘beastly lies’ and even for her appearance: ‘It is no wonder she was taken for a half-caste. She dressed like a Native, sat under the trees with natives, often with her arms around them, her hair was always untidy’ (Kidd, 1997, p. 128).

How did fellow anthropologists react to the new scandal? Elkin stood by his student: ‘We are up against vested interests and cannot hope to obtain any desirable reform without drastic change in Government policy’ (Kidd, 1997, p. 135). McConnel, too, weighed into the debate but not with solidarity as one might have expected. She wrote a private note to the Superintendent, stating that Tennant Kelly was ‘not a fully qualified Anthropologist’ and suggested she could act as consultant on ‘any project concerning anthropological co-operation in aboriginal affairs’ (Kidd, 1997, p. 135).

Despite Elkin’s support, Tennant Kelly’s academic career, too, was going nowhere and, during the war she shifted her attention towards issues of migrant integration and Jewish settlement in Australia. She ended her working life as a town planner and died a recluse in 1989. Of course, all that changed with the rediscovery of her field notes, photographs and letters in 2010 and she now ranks as one of the pioneers of Australian anthropology.

Reading about the experiences of Ursula McConnel and Caroline Tennant Kelly as well as those of other anthropologists of their generation, I could not help but ask what would I have done? The questions of the relationship between research and activism raised by their experiences are uncomfortable ones. Our professional ethics make a clear distinction between research and activism and they are both guided by different sets of expectations. However, in the field the distinction between research and activism is largely artificial as these researchers found.

Speaking out about matters which were strictly speaking outside their field of expertise, these researchers were immediately personally vilified and maligned as putting their politics before their research. However, Alfred Radcliffe-Brown and A. P. Elkin, too, made political choices: to largely ignore fieldwork in favour of theory, as Radcliffe-Brown did, or to lobby behind the scenes and through established channels of government, as Elkin did.

What would you have done? Kidd, Rosalind (1997). The Way We Civilise: Aboriginal Affairs – the untold story University of Queensland Press

Author Ingrid Piller

Dr Ingrid Piller is Professor of Applied Linguistics at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. Ingrid’s research expertise is in the fields of intercultural communication, bilingual education and the sociolinguistics of language learning and multilingualism in the contexts of migration and globalization.

More posts by Ingrid Piller
  • Great post! Thought-provoking and informative. Perhaps it is a bit cliched, but it is worth pointing out that inaction is itself a form of action with plenty of political and social consequences to boot.

  • Thoroughly enjoyed the post. Thank you for informing us of the experience of these ethnographers – the choices they made and the varied consequences they faced – that could have been easily forgotten. As in the previous post (, the life stories of McConnel and Tennant Kelly put us in perspective on the gender politics in academia, urging us never to be complacent. I find “What would you have done?” rather difficult to answer, but it’s an important question as it necessarily invites us to expand our imagination (even including ‘inaction’ as Christof mentions above) and to think in terms of the intersection between research and activism in our own current research practice.

  • Jennifer Eagleton

    Not really related to this, but as my recent PhD topic involves a CDA of Hong Kong discussion of certain political issues shows — researching a topic like politics has made me get involved in the local political scene, as in protesting and writing letters to the editor and generally having arguments with people about politics!

    As a member of the society I am researching and as also an outsider (non-Chinese), my research has raised many interesting issues. The research changes the researcher!