Historic Aboriginal images reveal outback life

By Natsumi Penberthy 12 June 2012
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In the 1920s, Herbert Basedow collected more than 1000 surviving indigenous artefacts, 2200 negatives and 800 plants.

WARNING: This story contains images of deceased people that may cause sadness or distress to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

SOME SAID THAT Herbert Basedow – an unusually tall, sometimes abrasive, middle-class jack-of-all-trades – would have reached greater eminence if had focused his talents. As it was he covered an impressive range of professions, working as a geologist, medical doctor, anthropologist, naturalist, politician, author and indigenous advocate. 

The most lasting contribution of this South Australian-born all-rounder, however, was his expertise in Aboriginal culture. His obituary in the eminent scientific journal Nature in 1933 read, “since the death of Sir Baldwin Spencer [in 1929] Dr Basedow had been generally recognised as the first authority on the Aborigines of Australia”.

Basedow’s Aboriginal photographic and ethnographic collections

In his early life Basedow worked as a geologist, often travelling into the interior on exploratory expeditions. Between 1903 and 1928, Basedow went on 12 large expeditions, mainly looking for mineral deposits, into northern and central Australia. In 1919 and 1920 he also led indigenous medical relief missions into northern South Australia. 

While away, Basedow discovered many species of plants and animals, including a mollusc. The National Museum of Australia also holds more than 1000 indigenous artefacts that Basedow collected, and Australian herbaria contain 800 plant specimens that he gathered. Part of his legacy is photographic collection of more than 2200 negatives held at the National Museum of Australia.

As early as 1934 the Australian government bought part of his rare ethnological collection, which is now housed in the Australian Institute of Anatomy, Canberra.

Herbert Basedow’s interest in indigenous issues

In 1911, Basedow had left geology to follow his anthropological interests and went to work as the Chief Medical Officer and Chief Protector of the Aborigines in the Northern Territory for the federal government. After 45 days he resigned from his position because he said the legislation was “unworkable”. His staff mourned his departure, but Basedow was also said to be unhappy with the sedentary and bureaucratic nature of the position.

Controversially, Basedow’s anthropological papers theorised that caucasians and Aboriginal people were genetically related. This theory was relied on by the Australian government when the WA Chief Protector of Aborigines imposed ‘half-cast selective breeding’ programs. However, many argue that Basedow was also very interested in preserving the traditional indigenous way of life because in 1914 he tried to persuade the government to make 155,400sq.km in the Tompkinson, Mann and Musgrave ranges, SA, an Aboriginal reserve. His request was denied. Basedow also created the Aborigines Protection League to lobby for their better treatment and better medical care for SA Aborigines.

As an author Basedow published The Australian Aboriginal in 1925, a 400-page book pitched at a general readership, illustrated with his own photography. It was well received and the South Australian newspaper The Mail reported: “It is easy for the inhabitants of this country to forget their responsibility towards the offspring of the original owners of the land, but forgetfulness does not attenuate the obligation, which always exists. Dr Herbert Basedow has done much to awaken interest in the vanishing Aboriginal races.”

In 1928, Basedow joined the Country Party and was elected to the South Australian parliament, lobbying for better indigenous welfare, religious instruction in schools and extending the railway line north from Oodnandatta. His political career had ups and downs, due to what some described as an inability to work with others, and he lost his position in 1930 regaining it again just before his death in 1933. 

Basedow’s varied life ended suddenly when he died of deep vein thrombosis in 1933. Just a year before the NT’s Northern Standard wrote: “His scientific interest in the Australian Aborigine – about whom he probably has knowledge superior to that of any living person-does not crowd out his human sympathy for them. Several years ago, by appealing for fruit and other commodities he saved the lives of hundreds… in Central Australia.”

His second book Knights of the Boomerang: Episodes From a Life Spent Among the Native Tribes of Australia was published posthumously in 1935.

A Different Time: The Expedition Photographs of Herbert Basedow 1903-1928  is an exhibition of Herbert Basedow’s photographic work that can be seen at the South Australia Museum from 11 May to 24 June, 2012.