Walter Baldwin Spencer Regrets
One of the scientists who sought to delay harmful contacts by providing reserves was the biologist and anthropologist Walter Baldwin Spencer (1860-1929).
Oxford educated, Spencer took up the University of Melbourne's Chair of Biology in 1887. In 1894 he joined the Horne Expedition, a scientific party documenting the biology, geography and ethnology of Central Australia. There he met Francis Gillen, the Alice Springs postmaster and critic of police abuse of local Aborigines.
Gillen's good relationship with Arrernte people gave him access to much information about their culture. Spencer too found himself fascinated, and in 1896 he returned to Central Australia to study Aboriginal culture with Gillen. In 1899, their collaboration resulted in 'The native tribes of Central Australia', now recognised as one of the founding texts of modern Anthropology. Several more jointly authored books followed, and Spencer is now remembered more for his ethnography than for his biology.
The Commonwealth Government, having taken over the Northern Territory from South Australia in 1911, commissioned Spencer to advise on Aboriginal welfare in 1912. In 1913 Spencer recommended that the extinction of the Aborigines could be delayed if reserves were declared in remote parts of the Northern Territory - "if the aboriginals are to be preserved, and if any serious effort is to be made for their betterment."
Spencer's advice contributed to the Commonwealth's policy of setting aside very large and remote portions of the Northern Territory as reserves, where only a few missions were allowed to 'guide' the natives to a better life. Queensland, Western Australia and South Australia adopted similar 'reserve' policies, so that by 1938 significant tracts of remote Australia had been set aside for Aborigines' use.
Keywords: Alice Springs, anthropology, Baldwin Spencer, Walter, Central Australia, Northern Territory, Queensland, religion, reserves, South Australia, Western Australia, 1884-1938
Author: Rowse, Tim and Graham, Trevor