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'A triune anthropologist appears'?: Gerhardt Laves, Ralph Piddington and Marjorie Piddington, La Grange Bay, 1930.

Abstract: In April 1930 Ralph O'Reilly Piddington, his new wife Marjorie (nee Barnes), and the American linguist Gerhardt Laves left Sydney for their first fieldwork in north-western Western Australia. Piddington had recently completed his bachelors degree in psychology and anthropology, Marjorie had suspended her studies. Laves, from Chicago University and a student of the famed North American linguist Edward Sapir, had been especially recruited by AR Radcliffe-Brown, the Foundation Professor of Anthropology in the University of Sydney. Their destination was La Grange, at that point well known to anthropologists from Sydney, both AP Elkin and the racial psychologist SD Porteus having worked there. The trip to Perth was via the transcontinental rail line and then by boat and truck. It was a journey not only to find a niche in the new discipline of social anthropology but also to possibly make a career, in linguistics for Laves, and psychology and social anthropology for Ralph Piddington. It is unclear what scholarly ambitions Marjorie harboured at the time. It was a journey that established and directed their future careers, although at the time they were joyfully unaware of the consequences, both professionally and personally, of this expedition.


Anthropologists, especially the first generation of Australian social anthropologists, were sent to the field as part of a wider project to capture what they could of Aboriginal life 'before it's too late'. AR Radcliffe-Brown, Foundation Professor of Anthropology at the University of Sydney, set out a plan to obtain information to fill the gaps in the knowledge then known about the lifeways of Aboriginal peoples. Most researchers had completed an undergraduate degree in anthropology and were sent out to complete a higher degree, a Master of Arts, the highest degree offered by the Department of Anthropology at the University of Sydney at that time. It was hoped that there would be established a group of trained anthropological workers who could continue to undertake further research. Initially, as a result of a shortage of trained researchers, Radcliffe-Brown recruited anthropologists from Britain and America.

Research funding was obtained through the Australian National Research Council (ANRC), which was responsible for administering the funds provided by the Rockefeller Foundation. The Rockefeller Foundation subsidised the Chair of Anthropology as well as providing an initial grant of 30 000 [pounds sterling] over five years for anthropological research (Fisher 1980, 1983; Mulvaney 1988; Peterson 1990). The choice of fieldworker and field site was made on the recommendation of a Committee of Anthropology, chaired by the Professor of Anthropology at the University of Sydney, and consisting of representatives of all states, usually the chief protector or similar functionary, and a representative from each state university (Mulvaney 1988). This set up an alliance with government, the ANRC, and the academy which had the potential to create difficulties for the research program (e.g. Gledhill 2000; Gray 1994).

Radcliffe-Brown was of the view that at various locations in northern Australia, particularly northwestern Western Australia, Arnhem Land and Cape York, people could be found who, while not necessarily living an unhindered, pristine pre-contact life, were sufficiently close to that time. He concentrated on men over 55 years of age, who would most probably be least affected by settlement and its consequences, and who would most probably be initiated and recall ceremonies and rituals. The history of settlement, often violent, disruptive, and destructive of people's lives, was generally ignored or framed in a benign way in the name of science. (1) W Lloyd Warner (et al. 1928:68), an American anthropologist who worked in Arnhem Land during the late 1920s, observed that Radcliffe-Brown:
 treats the human native as the chemist does his
 substance ... if he admits human sympathies and
 interests, he impairs the validity of his work. He then
 becomes a human being. The ideal anthropologist must
 not judge 'this is good, or this is bad', he must only
 record and deduce.

WEH Stanner (1969:4), who trained under Radcliffe-Brown and Raymond Firth, and who was a contemporary of Piddington and Laves, commented later that he had been:
 taught to turn my back on the speculative reconstruction
 of the origins and development of primitive
 institutions, and to have an interest only in their
 living actuality ... [but] an interest in 'living actuality'
 scarcely extended to the actual life-conditions of the

Following on from Stanner then, the aim was to find out whatever one could of the fast disappearing past of Aboriginal life--before it was too late--and produce it as the ethnographic present which denied any historicity. In Radcliffe-Brown's view, linguistic research was critical. He considered the only way to obtain good linguistic material was by employing top-class linguists. Gifted amateurs, he had concluded, were not able to engage in systematic collection and analysis. Until then he provided his researchers with a method of collecting linguistic data. He advised his students to collect this data by the use of coloured strips. Radcliffe-Brown (1929a) informed his students in the field that:
 Some linguistic slips have been sent to you by parcel
 post ... On the white slips I put the name of the language
 in the top right corner and then on the left hand side the
 native word and its meaning in English. Beneath these I
 generally put a sentence or two containing the word as
 an illustration of its use. The blue strips are for making
 comparative vocabularies of English-Native, so that
 the English word stands first and then following are
 the native equivalents in each language with the names
 of the language beside them. I use the yellow strips for
 working out the grammar. For instance, I generally put
 things like suffixes and prefixes with examples of their
 use, or else special grammatical constructions, and I
 then fasten all the slips dealing with any particular
 grammatical element. I hope you will be able to make
 something of this description.

This was an unsatisfactory method and he needed more if there was to be a systematic linguistic survey of Australian languages, which he saw as an urgent need.


In this paper, I narrate a journey to the field of Gerhardt Laves, Ralph Piddington and his wife Marjorie, using the extant but limited archival material available. It was a unique expedition as there had been no previous attempt to send two researchers, a linguist and a social anthropologist, into the field to work together. The most well known are husband and wife teams, such as Ronald and Catherine Berndt. Other anthropologists had travelled together, such as CWM Hart with W Lloyd Warner to Darwin, but they then went their separate ways, Hart to Melville Island and Warner to Arnhem Land. Others had worked in similar areas: Donald Thomson and Ursula McConnel, both in Cape York, far north Queensland, yet independently of each other. It is unlikely, however, that Radcliffe-Brown deliberately sent Piddington, his wife, and Laves to La Grange, in north-western Western Australia. It may be more than a coincidence but there is no evidence of this. But it could be seen as fitting in with his general plan and perhaps he hoped more might have come from their potentially collaborative work.

La Grange had been visited by Elkin and Porteus, both short visits, but Piddington and Laves worked the same field site at the same time, as well as staying longer, close on three months. As a consequence there was a certain fascination with La Grange by the anthropologists at the University of Sydney. It had a further interest anthropologically, which is developed in this paper. Elkin, who had provided Radcliffe-Brown with a plan of research in the north-west of Western Australia, told him there was much that could be done at La Grange anthropologically as well as being ideal for linguistics and phonetics.

Unfortunately, there are limited data available on the fieldwork done by many these early fieldworkers, although in correspondence to colleagues and others and through a careful reading of field notes, when they are available, much can be gleaned. Few anthropologists of the inter-war period narrated their journeys to the field, or provided commentary on life in the field (cf. Hays 1992; Porteus 1969:51-90; Stanner 1979). Piddington destroyed his Australian material--correspondence and field notes--sometime in the late 1930s, when he was lecturing at Aberdeen University (Kenneth Piddington [Ralph's son], pers. comm., February 1993). Laves has left little by way of correspondence, and his field notes are extensive and linguistically rich with only few references to events in the field. For this paper, I have relied heavily on Laves' field notes for a description of events in the field. Marjorie Piddington (nee Barnes) did not train in anthropology, although she assisted Ralph in the field and had decided to work with the women at La Grange. The paucity of archival material is enhanced by references to other fieldworkers of the time, particularly AP Elkin, and SD Porteus. In this way we can build a picture of the journey to north-western Western Australia, and obtain a flavour of the time.

The reference to 'a triune anthropologist' was made in jocular fashion by Laves, and doubtless reflected the state of affairs between the three of them at the time. Whichever way we wish to read the reference, there was a common objective and they worked collaboratively in the field, sharing informants, knowledge, and field notes. Laves, in particular, used whatever myths Ralph and Marjorie obtained, as well as critically evaluating, linguistically, those collected previously by Elkin. They did not produce any shared publications, although there are occasional references, in Laves' notebooks, to them witnessing and recording events, such as a funeral. After they completed their work at La Grange, Laves and the Piddingtons went their separate ways (Gray 1994, 1997a).

Finding suitable researchers

Radcliffe-Brown (1929b) announced in his report to the ANRC that 'G Laves (University of Chicago) has been appointed visiting Investigator ... for the purpose of carrying out an investigation of three native languages in Western Australia, and he proceeded to Western Australia in April'. Laves arrived in Australia in August 1929; he had an MA from the University of Chicago, which he had completed in the same year, and was a student of the famed North American linguist, Edward Sapir. Radcliffe-Brown had especially recruited Laves on the personal recommendation of Sapir, and enabled him to obtain a two-year visiting fellowship through the ANRC, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. (2) Laves (1929a), on the other hand, told Radcliffe-Brown that he had selected Australia for linguistic and climatic reasons.

Initially Laves was engaged to conduct a linguistic survey that took in much of coastal Australia, excluding Victoria and Tasmania, (3) although Radcliffe-Brown wanted to confine him to the study of one or two languages. Laves (1931a) was excited that he had the 'whole linguistic continent' to himself and had had only 'to choose' a site, he told Fay-Cooper Cole, Chairman, Division of Anthropology and Psychology, at the University of Chicago. Cole, who was both an intellectual mentor and supervisor of Laves, supported him working in Australia under Radcliffe-Brown as he was confident that it would prove invaluable in obtaining sufficient data for a doctoral thesis. While Laves' work was mainly linguistic, it could nevertheless give him an opportunity to do ethnological work: Cole (1929) told him to 'be sure and gather all you possibly can along these lines, and if you can do anything on the physical [anthropology] side', a field on 'which we need much information'; Cole had a profound interest in material culture and physical anthropology. Laves spent the first part of September in Sydney working with Radcliffe-Brown and mapping out where he would best serve the cause of linguistic investigation, and be trained in field method by Radcliffe-Brown.

Marjorie Piddington had enrolled but not completed the first year of a degree. Anthropology was a second-year subject, and records of the University of Sydney show that she was enrolled in 1926 and that she did not return to complete her degree. (4) Ralph Piddington had recently graduated in psychology and anthropology. He had completed his bachelor's degree in 1928, and the following year had worked as an assistant psychologist at the Australian Institute of Industrial Psychology. Piddington was part of a cohort of young anthropologists who went through the University of Sydney, who developed a strong sense of themselves as emissaries of a new discipline. Piddington (1955) commented, some years later, that he enjoyed the 'solidarity ... [during] the old days of the Group', as he called them, their solidarity being increased by anthropology's newness and hence its opposition to other 'decaying disciplines'. These young anthropologists of the Sydney department, confident in themselves and their position, were on a journey to find a career in the new discipline of social anthropology. Laves was part of an older department but it had, in the year he came to Australia, undergone change and moved from Boasian anthropology to embracing the new social anthropology promoted and developed by Radcliffe-Brown and Malinowski: Radcliffe-Brown was invited to take up a Chair at Chicago (Darnell 1990:212; Eggan 1963).

The decision by Radcliffe-Brown to send them to La Grange was influenced in part by AP Elkin who had done anthropological work in the Kimberley between 1927 and 1928, also under the auspices of the ANRC. Radcliffe-Brown had asked Elkin, while in the field, to look out for suitable future sites for study and Elkin had recommended La Grange as especially suitable for linguistic research. Elkin (1930) explained why he thought the Karadjeri and a DeGrey tribe as the 'obvious fields'; he suggested that:
 three months (about), wisely put in the middle of the
 season, might be spent to the best advantage amongst
 the Bad. Many of these speak helpful English. Some
 of the women, especially at Lombadina [sic] Mission
 could help him with the construction. There are at least
 60 men and I think more in three or four main groups.
 Initiation ceremonies are performed. The myths could
 be got with the same comparative ease as amongst
 the Karadjeri. He might be able to ascertain something
 definite about Totemism there, and also re terms which
 I can give him, and which are, I think, of important significance.
 I feel there is so much that can be done there,
 and ought to be done now, while it would be ideal
 for linguistics and phonetics. The men are a great lot;
 helpful; and very sympathetic to the Anthropologist ...
 Unfortunately, the culture is much broken down.

Laves also considered the Broome region to be a good place for linguistic fieldwork: that the indications were two different types of language adjoined which he vindicated in his study of one of each type, Karajarri and Bardi (Baard) (David Nash, pers. comm., 7 December 2005). Elkin spoke to Laves and Piddington about his fieldwork experiences and provided them with material from his field notes for their use in their field. (5) As a courtesy, Radcliffe-Brown also sought advice from AO Neville, Chief Protector of Aborigines, regarding suitable sites for study, although Elkin considered Neville's anthropological and linguistic knowledge as meagre. Approval from Neville had also been obtained for Laves and the Piddingtons to work with Aborigines on government reserves and mission stations.

The journey to La Grange

Laves and the Piddingtons (6) departed from Sydney on 11 April 1930 for La Grange Bay, about 90 miles (c. 145 kin) south of Broome. They were no doubt excited at the prospect of working with Aborigines in a remote part of north-western Australia. It is probable that Ralph and Marjorie had had no social or professional contact with Aboriginal persons. It was the first fieldwork undertaken by Piddington. Marjorie's ambitions in regard to anthropology are unknown; she was there to help Ralph and no doubt experience the journey. Laves already had some experience of fieldwork both in New Mexico, under Sapir and Cole, and in parts of northern New South Wales when working with Radcliffe-Brown.

The first part of their journey took them by train to Melbourne and Adelaide and from there on the transcontinental railway to Perth where they arrived on the day before Easter Friday 1930. They passed through Ooldea and Kalgoorlie, which had impressed Elkin with what he saw as the degradation of Aboriginal peoples, begging for food, dressed in tatters. In an interview with a reporter from the West Australian, Elkin described (Anon. 1927):
 a pathetic sight on the trans-continental line. At one
 stopping place there was quite handsome-looking
 native who went to the passengers begging for money.
 Using the formula which the stewards urged him to
 use, he was presently handed a bone with a little meat
 on it, and a crust of bread, and he stood there gnawing
 at that bone with the flies crawling all over him. My
 contention is that if a man is treated like a dog it is only
 natural to suppose that he would act like a dog.

Laves and the Piddingtons, in the words of Gerhardt, 'enjoyed the jaunt across the continent immensely especially the Transcontinental where H[is] M[ajesty's] G[overnment] does himself proud'. Laves told Radcliffe-Brown that they took some amusement 'at wondering' what their 'fellow travellers finally decided about the youthful trio: certainly not honeymooners. Perhaps trapeze artists [in a circus]. Marjorie felt a trifle uncomfortable by my remark, intended for the galleries, at breakfast on the train, "I wonder whether our tents will arrive in time", followed shortly by, "I shouldn't like to ship elephants from Sydney to Perth by train"' (Laves 1930a). It seems that Laves often played such jokes on his fellow passengers. On his way to Australia he was 'taken as a Mormon', which caused Cole (1929) to observe 'that [as] a pillar of the church [he] had to protect the young ladies on the boat' and he hoped his 'newly acquired religious training will not affect your work in Australia'.

On arrival in Perth they met Neville, who, as he had for Elkin and Porteus previously, assisted the young anthropologists to prepare for the journey north. Neville advised them with regard to clothing and equipment, and provided an introduction to the north through the various agents of government control. Laves and Piddington had consulted also with Elkin, who told them where to purchase particular goods and whether it was best to purchase in Perth or at Broome; for example, 'native tobacco' and white suits were cheapest in Broome. (7) Laves (1930a) observed that Neville was 'very obliging to us although he was more or less on holiday. I had the feeling that the thrill of helping anthropologists bush is beginning to wear off for him especially when the latest variety in the form of a triune anthropologist appears.' Overall, Laves thought that Neville was of little help. They stayed at the Palace Hotel, and on Tuesday 21 April they took a short trip, by motor car, to Fremantle where they boarded the SS Koolinda, bound for Broome.

Leaving Perth ... travelling to La Grange

Reconstructing their journey to Broome is no easy task as they left little by way of correspondence, and their notebooks, as indicated above, are either nonexistent or rarely mention day-to-day events. It was an eight-day trip on the Koolinda, the state government's mail steamer, described by the journalist and writer Ernestine Hill (1956:90-1):
 that hurries up and down the 5000 miles of coastline
 twelve times a year, the Nor'wester's life-long friend ...
 [S]he brings all the necessities of life. From flour and
 potatoes to wedding rings and the bride. Every soul
 on the electoral rolls, and a good few who are not, are
 known to her. She carries them away to be born, to
 school, to marry, and to die ... The Koolinda is 2000 tons
 of sheer kindliness, the homeliest ship personality of the
 Australian coasts, and the only thing in the far North-West
 never known to be late ... Passengers range from
 baronets to blackfellows, with many an old bushman
 who has lived on flour and tea and bully beef for fifty
 years getting used to civilization on his holiday south,
 with a steward to answer every wish.

To get a feel of the journey for an anthropologist we can refer to those of Elkin and SD Porteus. Each went about his business. Elkin, for example, wasted no time in questioning Aboriginal people on the boat. Elkin (n.d.) told Sally, his wife, that he commenced his research work when 'half-way up, four blacks got on, two returning to the Forrest River and two to Hall's Creek, south of Wyndham. I did some useful work.' From the photograph on the cover of Tigger Wise's (1985) biography of Elkin, we see a man suited with a pith helmet, purchased under the direction of Neville. The passengers may have looked askance at Elkin, a man in his early 40s with a serious demeanour, eager to investigate the lives of Aborigines. He was an Anglican curate and no doubt had the bearing of one, although he masked this most of the time when doing fieldwork when he adopted the persona of a scientist. The superintendent, Rod Schenk, castigated him for not declaring that he was a fellow Christian when he stayed at Mt Margaret Mission, in late December 1930 (Gray 2002:34-7). The Australian-born racial psychologist, Stanley Porteus (1969:93-5), recalled his journey on the Koolinda in his autobiography, some 40 years later, which may assist us to better appreciate the curiosity of their fellow travellers and the scepticism with which anthropologists were considered:
 Since full professors are so scarce in Australia, the
 title brought me deference and helpful attention in
 Perth, but at the gangplank ... its magic disappeared.
 No one without compelling business was on the ship ...
 Everybody on board knew all about his neighbour's
 cattle and private business, how many half-caste
 children he was reputed to have fathered, how much
 he owed the banks, whether his wife was expecting or
 expected to return from the south, how much he was
 drinking, or how close to bankruptcy he happened to
 be ... But whatever reason [SC] Childs [who accompanied
 Porteus] and I had for going to the Kimberley was
 a matter for wonder and even suspicion. It was certainly
 of no use explaining that I was a psychologist going out
 to the vast Kimberley region to study the natives. In the
 first place no one on board except ourselves could even
 spell psychology; and in the second my announced
 purpose merely excited unseemly mirth. Blackfellows,
 by common consent, had no mentality. Any old timer
 could tell you that ... It took ... several days ... before
 the ship's company evolved a satisfactory theory as to
 why we were on board ... The only professors who had
 visited these parts were geologists who, if not interested
 in oil, had secret information about vast stores of gold,
 silver, tin, copper, uranium, etc.... I never shook off the
 idea that I was a geologist in disguise.

He also commented on the 'floods of drunken or half-sober conversations'. Piddington, who was not averse to a drink, and later in his life became well known for his heavy drinking, may have joined in. (8) It is likely, if we glean anything from their train journey, that Laves had a good time making up stories regarding their work, and so on. Whether triune collected genealogies, spoke with Aboriginal passengers or simply enjoyed the boat trip is unknown. However, Laves (n.d.b) related that Elkin did tell them that, when they arrived at Broome, they were to ask at the hotel for 'George' and/or 'Charley', both 'Karidyeri from who [we] might get the dope'. They stayed at the Governor Broome Hotel, which consisted of about six iron cottages, at a cost of ten shillings a day.

At La Grange

Two years earlier, in September 1928, Elkin (1928a), when casting round for a way to get to La Grange, considered using the 'police buggy and mules to go to La Grange ... as a car would cost about 10 [pounds sterling]'. Elkin (1928b) did not make the trip to La Grange until the middle of September 1928, and then he travelled by car, which was cheaper than travelling by lugger. Laves (1930d) and the Piddingtons travelled to La Grange by lorry, although Elkin had recommended going by the lugger that travelled between Broome and La Grange Bay. Piddington at this stage handled the accounts through his cheque account as cash was not readily available to the travellers. It was a matter settled later with HG Chapman, the treasurer of the ANRC. Chapman, who misappropriated some 15 000 [pounds sterling] from the ANRC, suicided in May 1934; he had frequently accused researchers of poor accounting, and accused Piddington, when he returned, of failing to provide an adequate account of his expenditure. (9)

Laves (1930d) described La Grange as a small settlement consisting of 'four households'. He told Cole that 'on the principle that it takes twenty acres to feed a head of cattle these people are scattered miles apart, the natives providing the necessary communication and help each "suburb" to remain abreast of the latest gossip'. When they arrived they were put up in 'the provision shed, used also by the cattle dippers at other times'. Soon after, the Piddingtons were provided with a room at the Post Office to sleep in, spending their days at the 'blacks camp' about a quarter of a mile (c. 400 metres) away (Piddington 1930a; Spurling 1930).

The 'triune' settled into the rhythm of fieldwork and soon became used to paying for informants' time with 'sticks of tobacco and other trifles'. Their life was pretty simple and they were enjoying it 'hugely' (Laves 1930f). Sometimes they shared informants. Piddington (1930a) commented that they were 'troubled by an alternation of feast and famine in the matter of informants; last week Gerhardt and I had only one man between us for a period of about three days; whereas for the past three days we have had about a dozen'. Laves (1930d) was particularly pleased with the way his work was panning out and told Cole that:
 The past ... weeks ... [have] been most rewarding, for all
 the material comes from a background of culture about
 as real as any to be found in Australia. The texts roll
 into my notebooks ... I feel from their form and their
 vividness of expression how much they form a part of
 the natives' life. Especially with the material 'sacred' to
 the initiated men only, the close relation to the initiation
 rites, which are still held, is most obvious.

The choosing of informants is clouded in mystery: what made a person volunteer to be an informant? Were they go-betweens? Had they experience of white people previously? Acted for missionaries, police, pastoralists and such like? On what criterion did anthropologists choose an informant, and what made them elevate one person against the other? I suspect it had to do with the personableness of the informant, an ease in dealing with the work of the anthropologist/ linguist, an appreciation of the anthropological enterprise as well as an ability on the part of the informant to grasp the needs of the anthropologist/linguist. Were people attracted to the material goods provided as a reward for providing information? Did this encourage participation? Laves (1931a), for example, on occasion paid sixpence for each story. Once an anthropologist/ linguist had worked in an area, an understanding of the anthropological enterprise developed and those who had worked as informants offered their services again. Is it self-selection as Sutton (2002; also Sanjek 1990:107-8) has suggested?

Piddington used Elkin's 'main informant', the 'headman' Yuari (also known as Timothy, who was also a main informant for Laves), who Piddington (1930a) considered:
 an excellent man on ceremonies and myths [but] quite
 unsatisfactory on social organization; he himself having
 married 'no proper right' by taking a woman of the
 wrong section (it is not an inter-tribal marriage) is eager
 to justify his actions by minimising the importance of
 the marriage regulations.

Anthropologists of the time collected genealogies as a matter of course and were able to judge the quality of the informant by the way he presented his genealogy (Gray 1997b). Piddington (1930a) had collected a number of genealogies, 'but few really satisfactory ones'.

Another feature of anthropological fieldwork at the time was the way in which anthropologists were presented with and subsequently accumulated artefacts. Anthropologists were instructed to make collections that could be brought back to Sydney and used as teaching tools, and to form the basis of a national ethnographic collection. Storage was, however, a problem. When Elkin (1928c; also Porteus 1969:98-101) was at La Grange, he recorded that on the second day after his arrival 'the men took me to their sacred ground to show me their sacred objects and to sing me sacred songs ... They also brought me various curios'. Piddington (1930a) noted that:
 the people were eager to bring us objects [artefacts]
 for the collection, which is growing rapidly owing to
 the fact that Yuari uses his official position to pillage
 the sacred storehouse. We have now several specimens
 of everything except spear throwers and circumcision
 knives, and Yuari has promised to secure these for us
 in due course.

Piddington was commenting indirectly on the biological degeneration of Aboriginal peoples as well as expressing concern over the degeneration of Aboriginal culture. A characteristic of this discourse is the conflation of culture and biology (Cowlishaw 1987). These views were further elaborated in their field report (Piddington & Piddington 1932:346, 350, 352) when they observed that:
 the effect of white influence upon the culture has been a
 general weakening of tribal tradition. The aspect of the
 culture which has suffered most is the local organization;
 many of the natives are content to live away from
 their own country ... but there exists a very powerful
 bond between a man and the district in which he has
 been reared. The kinship organization has also suffered
 disintegration, though the more binding usages and
 prohibitions associated with it are still maintained ...
 [Nevertheless] many of the [initiation ceremonies] have
 now fallen into disuse.

Marjorie's work with women was likewise affected; (10) Ralph Piddington (1930b) told Radcliffe-Brown that she 'was not having much success finding ... informants [as] white influence appears to have affected the women more than the men'. This may have resulted from her inexperience but this did not deter her. Ralph remarked that Marjorie's help in the field was 'invaluable, especially in the collection of genealogies and myths; of the latter there are an extraordinary number, many of which should be of considerable value'. Piddington (1930b) had brought with him 'several books dealing with Australian animals, birds et cetera' which, he expected, 'would be of use ... in dealing with Karadyeri [sic] mythology'. He had worked on the assumption that if people were shown images, photographs or drawings of various animals, birds and such like, they would be able to provide him with stories.

Although neither Ralph and Marjorie Piddington nor Laves left much by way of correspondence or field diaries describing their experiences, we can gain some insight, from Laves' correspondence to Cole and Radcliffe-Brown, into the way he and Piddington worked, the way Aboriginal residents worked with them and, incidentally, the social interaction in a small settlement like La Grange. (11) Towards the end of June, Marjorie and Ralph had left to do some fieldwork south of La Grange, which Laves anticipated would enable him to have some time to himself and 'find time for a bit of reading'. Laves (1930d) told Cole that:
 [n]ot a day had passed without visitors white and
 black (in addition to the regular informants, who come
 during the day). One afternoon I had just sat down
 to alphabetize some 600 slips when a little old man
 of seventy appeared. No introductions or excuses for
 dropping in. He simply sat down and talked oblivious
 that I went right ahead with my work. He was one of
 the many odd individuals up in this country whose profession
 consists of carrying their 'swags' about, having
 a look at the country ... The next morning for breakfast
 another old chap dropped in ... Another version of the
 yarns I had heard last evening ... And then my informants
 came so he quietly disappeared.

 Another evening I had my table covered with slips
 when I heard voices--laughter and arguing in the near
 distance. A little later a bit of whispered palaver at the
 fence so I took my lantern and welcomed in four young
 blackfellas. They had heard of my making records of
 marungu (12) songs and wanted to hear the 'gamapin'.

 They were all young fellows only one having been
 through the first stage of the initiation, and roared with
 laughter at hearing songs and passages (dialogues)
 from stories which they knew so well. Finally I played
 a record of myself giving one of the dialogues ...
 Unfrotunately [sic] I could not play all of them as
 certain ones were rai (sacred) (13) nor did I play a record
 of my chief informant's funeral 'oration' on the death
 of his elder wife. (14) Since they have a fair command of
 English I explained 'Ol' Man River' to them, it being a
 'proper blackfellow song alonga my country'.

 Imagine the four kids sitting in a row staring fixedly
 at the kerosene lantern while the music was going on.
 The little fellow at the far end would occasionally peep
 out furtively from behind his older neighbour to have
 a quick look at the big fella doctor, all thirty-two [teeth]
 gleaming out of the black darkness of his round face.
 By and by I fixed a plate of biscuit with butter and
 jam including three gingersnaps. Naturally somebody
 got left, the little Stopke. So I buttered an extra biscuit
 with plenty of jam. Hardly a peep out of the lot of
 them. I have a habit of perching myself Turk-fashion
 atop a petrol case. No sooner than I had seated than
 I heard a scuffle of feet and the others followed suit;
 the eldest, who had the distinction of being employed
 by the local sandalwood cutter, maintained his dignity
 (he had shoes) by tucking only one leg under. Finally
 some one whispered galaya: gardaga (enough: asleep).
 We played 'Ol' Man River' again and they walked off
 into the darkness.

Piddington and Laves attended the funeral of Hamlet, 'elder wife' of their main informant, Yuari (Timothy), on 9 June 1930. In a sensitive account, aware of their intrusion, Laves described in detail the events surrounding her death and burial. Both men were included in the funeral and were allotted specific tasks, most of which appeared to be related to their being part of the non-Indigenous authority structure at La Grange. They were joined by EC Mitchell, the Protector, and Mr Price, 'the aged former protector'. They were asked if the grave was deep enough; Laves (1930g) also commented on the rather apologetic manner of 'Sambo', a brother of Timothy; nonetheless, work had to continue and arrangements were made for one of the family to 'come over tomorrow'.


While at La Grange, Elkin had stayed with John Spurling, 'an elderly man', who was in charge of the Government Aboriginal Feeding Station. He was described by Ernest C Mitchell (1933), Protector of Aborigines, as 'a mild mannered, weak man, whose greatest crime may have been promiscuity, gladly accepted by the female and condoned and approved of by the old men'. The cooking for Spurling, Elkin (1928c, d) informed his wife, was done 'for the most part, by a nice black gin, helped at times by a Malay-black half caste [Lucy]'. Towards the end of September, Spurling (1930) notified Neville that the Piddingtons and Laves had left La Grange. Laves had left early in August, and the Piddingtons soon after. Spurling vented his spleen over the Piddingtons; he described Laves as a gentleman who had bid him farewell and thanked Lucy 'for having made bread for him and for washing his clothes'. (15) Laves also sold his surplus supplies to Spurling. Piddington, Spurling (1930) declared, did not have the 'decency to come and thank the woman [Lucy] for her services'; he also accused Piddington of engaging in local politics by supporting the local postmaster and his wife who were 'trying to do me personal injury' and causing 'trouble amongst the natives'. This is the first hint of trouble between Piddington and Spurling (Gray 1997a).

By mid-July, the good relations that existed between Laves and the Piddingtons had started to deteriorate; Piddington (1930b) told Radcliffe-Brown that 'Gerhardt, who appears to be staying here indefinitely, is the only feature of our fieldwork which can definitely be described as a hardship, since the flies and mosquitoes have not bothered us as we expected they would and the climate is, at present, perfect'. Laves (1930h), once he had left La Grange, referred to a 'wearisome sora (16) with Ralph over not too significant issues'. It is unclear what led to this apparent rupture between Laves and the Piddingtons. Spurling (1932) had commented, in a letter to Neville, that Laves had formed the 'opinion that Piddington was mad', but Spurling is an unreliable witness. The irritation may have simply been that Piddington was too wild and drank too much for Laves' liking. Ralph Piddington drank heavily, and this was an allegation made by Neville as a result of information from the hotelier at Broome, and the local police; it may have caused problems for their friendship, but I suspect that if it was a factor it was minor. (17) Laves was born into a conservative German Lutheran family in which he learnt a strong moral sense of right and wrong (pers. comm., Ted Laves, 30 March 2006), and was sexually inexperienced, which is evident from reading his diary of events at Darwin. (18) I am inclined think that the irritation was political and personal; Ralph Piddington had a strong sense of social justice, which is evident from his representations to Neville over the ill-treatment and violence of the sandalwood cutters to both Aboriginal men and women, including the misappropriation of rations from the Feeding Station by Spurling and the sandalwood cutters. Piddington's father, Albert Bathurst, was an industrial barrister well known for his support of labour causes; his mother, Marion, was a supporter of Marie Stopes and a eugenicist (Curthoys 1988, 1989; Gray 2002). Laves, on the other hand--as is evident from various parts of his papers--was anti-communist, anti-worker and pro-American capitalism as well as possessing a certain ethnocentricity about America vis-a-vis Australia. The contention between Laves and the Piddingtons may have extended to Ralph's (it probably included Marjorie but she is not mentioned by Neville in the government files) concern over the treatment of Aborigines at La Grange, added to the fact that he made a point of informing Neville of the situation as he and Marjorie saw it (Gray 1994, 2002; Piddington 1932). (19) Laves made no reference to the treatment or conditions of Aborigines, nor did he cause any trouble with the non-Indigenous residents (Gibson 1934). In fact, Neville (1933) informed his Minister regarding Piddington's allegations that there was a letter from Laves 'offering to support Spurling in the event of trouble following Piddington's charges'.

Marjorie and Ralph returned to Sydney via Perth. Laves remained in the field, moving first to Cape Leveque Light House, then Lombadina Mission. (20) From there he travelled north where he made a grammar of the Bard language and undertook a short survey of the languages to the north as far as Port George IV Sound. In January 1931, he went to Albany in south-western Western Australia and spent two months studying the Kurin language. (21) He then proceeded to the Northern Territory, via Adelaide and Sydney, by train, 'the impressive but decidedly strenuous journey through the desert, a bit of a holiday in Sydney and now by cargo vessel to Darwin, Northern Australia'. Laves (1931a) spent a good deal of time in Sydney:
 going over the notes of my four languages and also
 gave a few lectures on the southern languages to some
 of the other research people. The latter task was most
 healthy for me by way of giving me experience presenting
 my material orally. The striking similarities of the
 more southern languages were again brought home to
 me upon working over my earlier notes.

He conducted intensive linguistic investigations among Daly River communities and in Darwin, returning overland and sampling by survey work some northern Queensland languages from informants at Cairns, Townsville and Palm Island. Raymond Firth, acting Professor of Anthropology, declared that in the two years that Laves had been in Australia, he had added significantly to the study of Australian linguistics. (22) Many present-day linguists would wholeheartedly agree (Nash 2006). Laves (1931b) left Australia for Chicago in late August 1931, expecting to return sometime in 1934.


At the end of December 1931, Radcliffe-Brown (1931), then at the University of Sydney, was confident that Laves' work would constitute the 'first scientific study of Australian languages', and he looked forward to the completion and publication of this work. By 1936 his optimism was replaced by disappointment; Radcliffe-Brown (1936) told Elkin that Laves:
 has been a great disappointment to me. It seems that he
 is not really good enough as a linguist to carry out the
 task I set him--which I admit is a very difficult one. He
 left Chicago more than a year ago to go to Yale ... I will
 get in touch with him and see what I can do to get some
 of his material published. The Australian languages
 need to be worked by an absolutely first class linguist
 so that the work may be done in a thoroughly scientific
 fashion. I do not know [TGH] Strehlow personally but
 it is quite clear that he has not had the proper training
 for the linguistic work that is needed in Australia, I
 suspect that, like the other Adelaide people, he may not
 recognise the fact.

When Elkin, who had replaced Firth in 1933, was seeking contributions for a volume on Australian Aboriginal languages, he sought one from Laves. '[It is] a great shame', Elkin (1937) told Piddington, 'for he possesses material which would be of great value in our present studies'. (23) Piddington (1937) too was unable to provide a suitable contribution as he had no deep knowledge of the Karadjeri language. Laves published only two articles on his Australian work (Laves 1928, 1929b), apart from a presentation to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (Atlantic City) in 1931.

By 1936, Laves had probably given up Australian Aboriginal linguistics (Nash 1993). It is possible that he did some linguistic work while teaching at Navajo schools in New Mexico during 1937, as American Indian languages was a project of Sapir, and Laves, like many of his generation, had an interest in American Indian languages and archaeology (Darnell 1990:238-52). It is unclear what happened in his relationship with Sapir, and it is possible that Sapir did not promote Laves, when he was at Yale, somehow finding him and Australian Aboriginal languages inadequate for his needs. This is speculation on my part. It is significant to note that Laves was not included as part of that Yale group of linguists and anthropologists, trained by Sapir, who went onto develop careers in the United States and who remained a recognisable group throughout their careers (Darnell 1990:367). (24) Laves may have seen his future elsewhere. Added to this was the matter of sufficient funds for Australian research; the reduction in Rockefeller Foundation funding for anthropological research no doubt contributed to Laves leaving the academy and opting for reliable employment elsewhere. One of his children told David Nash that their grandfather was keen for Laves to get a 'proper job', which suggests that Laves was presented with some sort of ultimatum (Nash, pers. comm., 5 November 2004). Subsequently, he took up a position with the International Harvester Company in Chicago where he remained until his retirement. Laves never returned to the academy.

As far as I can determine, after the Piddingtons left La Grange, Laves did not meet them or have any contact with them again. Laves' Australian story is concluded. Ralph and Marjorie Piddington were just embarking on another journey which would dramatically affect their future personal and professional lives.

In September 1930, Ralph and Marjorie Piddington left for Honolulu to undertake a special course in psychology with SD Porteus. The plan was that, on completion, Piddington would return to La Grange Bay and conduct various psychological tests prepared by Porteus. On their return to La Grange in August 1931 they realised that, despite his assurance that he would look into the various matters of ill-treatment, abuse and theft of rations by Spurling and the sandalwood cutters, Neville had enabled Spurling to remain as Protector, and some of the sandalwood cutters were employing Aboriginal labour. This led to further complaints by Spurling against Piddington who, on his return to Perth, did not meet with Neville; instead he and Marjorie returned to Sydney and, in January 1932, he published an article condemning the Western Australian government and its treatment of Aborigines (Gray 1994, 1997b; Piddington 1932).

The upshot of this was that Neville complained to the ANRC, which then supported him against Piddington; however, by the time these complaints were acted on, Piddington was in London doing his doctoral studies under Firth and Malinowski. He was unable to secure work in Australia and remained in virtual exile until his death in 1974. While in London, his marriage to Marjorie ended, and he remarried in 1936. After a lectureship at Aberdeen, he returned briefly to Australia as deputy principal of the Australian army's School of Civil Affairs (the precursor of the Australian School of Pacific Administration), and after the war was appointed Reader in the University of Edinburgh, and from there to the foundation chair of Anthropology at Auckland University College.


A version of this paper was first presented to the Twenty Twenty-nine conference, Perth, 19 November 2004. It has been considerably rewritten. I thank two anonymous referees for their helpful suggestions.


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Geoffrey Gray



(1.) Julie Marcus (1992:100), for example, observed that 'the failure to explore the racist nature of the Australian state in most Aboriginal ethnography derives from that state power' and a reluctance to bring into view this power and violence.

(2.) The Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Chicago was considered, at the time, to be the premier department in the USA (Darnell 1990:212).

(3.) '[T]he few aborigines left in Victoria are of no further use to either the linguist or the ethnologist. New South Wales is fast following suit but this generation at least can still offer plenty of linguistic material and, to a man who knows what he wants a good deal of ethnology' (Laves n.d.a).

(4.) She was enrolled in Philosophy I. Student record of Marjorie Eileen Barnes, University of Sydney Archives.

(5.) There is a marked-up copy in the Laves Papers.

(6.) Marjorie Eileen Barnes and Ralph O'Reilly Piddington married on 23 February 1929 in Sydney. Both were aged 23.

(7.) Laves (1930b:76-9); Laves' notebook contains a list of items taken to the field, the cost of such items and such like.

(8.) Piddington was well known for liking a drink. He and CWM Hart, who were friends in their undergraduate days and continued their friendship after university, maintained a correspondence in the 1930s and an occasional correspondence after that. Hart often addressed Piddington as 'Dear Drunk'. (copies of this correspondence is in my possession, courtesy of Dorothy Billings and Kenneth Piddington). There are stories of his heavy drinking told by his colleagues at Victoria Barracks, Melbourne, during the war, and during his tenure at Auckland University.

(9.) Laves experienced no trouble with Chapman, unlike most of the other researchers, including Piddington (Laves 1930e). Wise (1985:116) has provided an imaginative explanation of Chapman's suicide and Elkin's role in it; cf. Elkin (1934); Moran (1939:267-87); Weickhardt (1989:161-6); various National Library of Australia: MS 482.

(10.) There is some work on the 'woman question/problem', that is, the use of women and often the wives of male anthropologists in the field, to specifically investigate the life of women, in the literature but it is still an undeveloped area of research (in particular, Cheater 1993: 262-86).

(11.) In a recent publication, two writers have discussed the significance of Laves' work in relation to native title claims, as well as demonstrating the quality of his linguist material (Bowern 2003; Sharp 2003).

(12.) marungu (modern orthography marrungu) means 'people' (in Karajerri); it is a variant of marrngu which means 'person, initiated man' (pers. comms, David Nash and Janet Sharp, 9 November 2004).

(13.) rai (modern orthography rayi) is widely used to refer to 'spirit'. 'It is used more commonly in religious expressions these days' (pers. comm., David Nash, 9 November 2004, quoting Janet Sharp).

(14.) Timothy (Laves n.d.c): this was recorded after the funeral as neither Piddington or Laves had their notebooks at the time.

(15.) Spurling was later accused of abducting 'the Aboriginal woman Lucy'. See various in State Records Office WA: ACC993, 27/36.

(16.) Determining the meaning of sora is difficult, although it suggests a subtlety on the part of Laves. Sora is defined in the Oxford Reference Dictionary (1996) as sora rail, a small American crake frequenting the marshes of Carolina. We may understand the reference to sora as a play on 'rail', that is, the use of abusive language, hence a 'wearisome sora'.

(17.) Raymond Firth (1993) described Piddington as 'rather "wild" at times'; also Laves (1930i, 1931a).

(18.) I have no wish to explicate this at the moment; I will at a later date deal with his diaries, which are written in German. I thank Christine Winter for translating and transcribing these diaries for me.

(19.) Gray (1994) has a transcript of Piddington (1932). The missionary activist Mary Bennett (1930) noted that that 'it would appear that no permanent reform can be made during the present regime, and the only effective remedy would be to appoint a new Protector with the needed qualifications, and, preferably a married man'.

(20.) Bagshaw (2003:33) mistakenly claims that Laves was at La Grange for approximately seven months 'of linguistic fieldwork ... from March 1930, during which he knew and worked with Piddington'.

(21.) Laves (1931a) informed Cole: 'I have made a study of a language in the region of Albany, Western Australia, ie the extreme south of Western Australia. Although the natives there had been under white influence for over a century, I was able to make good progress with the language and even obtain a fair number of texts of ethnological value. By offering a sixpence per "story" I managed to speed up the work and finished the language in eight weeks.'

(22.) Firth (1931) informed the ANRC that, in addition to extensive survey work, Laves made an intensive study of six languages in widely separated parts of the continent. After some training under Radcliffe-Brown, 'he began with (1) Kumbaingeri [Gumbaynggir] (northern NSW coast), and some study of other NSW languages (including the poorly documented Anewan [Nganyaywana] language). In April 1930 he moved on to (2) Karadjeri [Karajarri] (La Grange, near Broome). In October 1930 Radcliffe-Brown advised the addition of (3) Barda [Bardi] (Cape L'Eveque Peninsula, north of Broome) (4) Kurin [Goreng] (near Albany, southern WA) (5) Hermit Hill [Matngela] (Daly River) and (6) Ngengumeri [Ngan' gimerri] (Daly River).'

(23.) It is apparent, when reading through his papers, that he did an impressive amount of work on organising and analysing his research. It is an even greater shame that this was kept out of circulation for nearly 60 years (Nash 1993).

(24.) Darnell (1990) makes no mention of Laves in her biography of Sapir.

Geoffrey Gray is a Research Fellow at AIATSIS. <>
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