Breaking new ground: early Australian ethnography in colonial women's writing

Erica Kaye Izett

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

4991 Downloads (Pure)


In the nineteenth century, Aboriginal art was scarcely appreciated by white Australians as fine art. For this reason, our knowledge today of Aboriginal artworks and artefacts from that time relies almost entirely on the writings and collections of explorers, natural scientists, government surveyors, magistrates, protectors and missionaries who worked as amateur, albeit passionate, ethnographers. The records of their activities, in the form of diaries, letters, memoirs, scholarly articles and scientific texts, along with the collections that they accrued, were the basis of much of the scholarship on the early reception of Aboriginal art in Australia. Until now, this scholarship has drawn almost entirely on the views of male ethnographers. The history of nineteenth-century female ethnographers in Australia and their collecting practices was yet to be written. This thesis makes a significant inroad into this history.
Over the course of the last three decades, many feminist historians sought to revise the conventional history of colonial Australia and, in so doing, assessed the relationships between early nineteenth-century female colonists and Indigenous people. These histories tended to oscillate between interpreting the early female colonists’ accounts of Indigenous people as being either complicit with, or resistant to, the colonial project. More recently, so-called ‘post-binary’ feminist critiques complicated the moral assumptions of earlier feminist scholars. However, the focus of the latter on theory and ideologically encoded critique could obscure the relational nuances, transculturation and Indigenous agency recorded in early ethnography, especially in the writings of nineteenth-century white women, which were often more transparent, anecdotal and personal than those of their male contemporaries.
My argument is that some of these women, from standpoints that reflected their relational and emplaced domestic realms, recorded significant intimate dialogue and alternative perceptions of their embedded intercultural relations. Thereby, they complicated the usual dichotomies of much male racialising ethnography and objectifying documentation, dichotomies that some feminist scholars used in their critiques of these early women. An investigation of the documentation of their dynamics of transculturation, I argue, tends to de-essentialise colonial encounters, upsetting hard and fast ideological boundaries in the complications of social life.
Thanks largely to feminist historians, in recent times the role that white women played in the reception of Aboriginal art in the first half of the twentieth century – ranging from Daisy Bates’ collecting practice, articles on Aboriginal art and commissioning of artists’ books and drawings, to Margaret Preston’s advocacy of Indigenous designs – is increasingly becoming an accepted part of anthropological and art histories. However, there is a general silence around the role women played in nineteenth-century ethnography, which my thesis aims to redress. It does this by beginning with a broad-ranging assessment of feminist revisionist histories and the writings of colonial women with Indigenous content, before analysing ethnographic studies by colonial women, including Charlotte Waring Barton, Louisa Atkinson, Isabella Dawson and Ethel Hassell.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Publication statusUnpublished - 2014


Dive into the research topics of 'Breaking new ground: early Australian ethnography in colonial women's writing'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this