We at HAR were very excited to learn about the recent publication of Recording Kastom: Alfred Haddon’s Journals from the Torres Strait and New Guinea, 1888 and 1898. The book features the previously unpublished journals of Cambridge zoologist and anthropologist Alfred Haddon, who worked in the Torres Strait and New Guinea in 1888 and 1898. “Kastom” is a dynamic concept which refers to contemporary knowledge and practices that derive authenticity from a perceived origin in the pre-colonial past. It’s defined further in the Torres Strait Islander Commission Act (2005 (2019)): “Ailan [Island] Kastom means the body of customs, traditions, observances and beliefs of some or all of the Torres Strait Islanders living in the Torres Strait area.” Haddon’s extensive documentation, originally seen as salvage ethnography, is currently used by Islanders as a means of connecting with the past and as a crucial resource for maintaining and revitalizing aspects of kastom in the present.

Recording Kastom analyzes and contextualizes the journals and intimate documents Haddon sent to his wife Fanny for information and safe-keeping. These documents reveal many details of day-to-day life in the field, including the central role played by the Islanders in his collecting practices. The book’s authors, Anita Herle (AH) and Jude Philp (JP), agreed to virtually sit down with HAR editors Cameron Brinitzer (CB), Freddy Foks (FF), and Laurel Waycott (LW) for a chat. What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation.

LW: Could you tell us the story of how this book came to be published? Why now, given the history of the journals?

AH: Jude and I have been working with Torres Strait Islanders and in the Torres Strait for a long time. Jude did her doctoral fieldwork in the Torres Strait in 1995–96. We’ve done a lot of collaborative work including the Centenary Exhibition marking the 1898 Expedition which we co-curated in consultation with Islanders. Over the last 20–25 years we’ve hosted numerous Islanders who have come to connect with the Haddon collections in Cambridge, which is particularly remarkable given how far away it is from the Torres Strait.

One of the things we’ve been committed to is making information, knowledge, and materials accessible to Islanders. Jude was very actively involved in a Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology project in 2011 to return all of Haddon’s photographs from the Torres Strait to the actual communities where Haddon worked, which involved taking a suitcase full of captioned prints and giving community presentations. This was another step in an ongoing process to make accessible and return materials that are part of the archive. A few Islanders had seen Haddon’s journals in Cambridge and were very excited about seeing more so we knew that there would be strong interest in that material.

And, at the same time, intellectually, we wanted to demonstrate the continuing importance of historic ethnographic collections, for source communities as well as scholars and anthropologists. The Haddon material is a very important part of the early history of British anthropology. The journals tell us so much about what actually happened in the field at exactly the moment that fieldwork was being advocated as the central methodological practice for this nascent discipline.

LW: The book is on beautiful paper, filled with images on nearly every page, including many in full color; it’s a really sumptuous object. As material culture people yourselves, was the physical form of the book important to you in putting this together?

AH: Jude and I went to the wall at Sydney University Press, stressing the importance of a high quality printed publication! We are both material culture people: we work in museums, we do exhibitions, we do exhibition catalogues and we spend a lot of time trying to design things (even though we are not professional designers). The Haddon material is so rich! Through our consultation with Islanders, two things were clear from the beginning: that a hard copy of the book was going to be important first in terms of distribution, and second in terms of the way people show things to each other. The whole sociality around this object was going to be really important. Also, a purely digital version didn’t make sense because there were technological challenges, especially in the outer islands, where people have phones, but not that many people have computers or WiFi and signals are unreliable.

I remember the day very well when Jude and I went for the meeting at Sydney University Press, and we made this passionate plea for what the book had to be. I said, “It’s got to look right, but it’s also got to feel right, it’s got to be something you want to hold in your hands and look at.” So we were quite concerned with the thingy-ness of the book itself. The way you design a book influences how people engage with it.

Elaborate turtle-shell mask. Collected by Haddon on Nagir Island, Torres Strait, 13 August 1888. MAA 1890.182.

CB: I’m very intrigued that this was partly out of a sense of the social practices in which it would be shown and discussed and shared, and I’m curious how you melded your senses as museum anthropologists and material culture experts with a sense of another set of social and cultural practices for showing, sharing, and discussing such things.

JP: We learned from taking the photographs back and through other sorts of work over the years that there are different ways of owning things and being part of things. People in the Torres Strait share resources in specific ways. There was really the need to have a physical book, and a book that would last. So, we considered everything from the stitching to the paper. The number of images meant we couldn’t have paper that would bleed through, but at the same time it couldn’t be too shiny because it’s really sunny in the Torres Strait and light reflects really strongly, and most people are going to be sitting outside reading it, and so all of those environmental conditions in which the book would be were also part of the thingy-ness of the book itself.

We both feel that the other things Haddon collected, such as objects, photographs, and sound recordings, are integral to reading the journals. So it was also important to have all of those images and footnotes linking people back to the institutions where those things are now located. Quite often books won’t place as much emphasis on the institutional catalogue numbers for each image, but giving that detail was a very important part of the process. If you’ve got limited WiFi but you want to search the British Museum for this one object, the quickest way is to use the catalogue number. We were trying to think from the outset about how people can work outwards from the book.

LW: The practical aspects are really interesting. Books are very old technologies, but they’re the right tool for the job in this case. I was curious about the choice to reproduce the letters to Haddon’s wife Fanny, or “the journal,” in full, and not the letters Haddon wrote to his children, because they seem very closely connected.

AH: Unlike the letters Haddon sent to his children, the sections of the journal that Haddon sent as a series of letters to Fanny in both 1888 and 1898 were a chronological record of his experiences. There were also practical constraints—the book was getting really long, and we had so much material that could potentially be cross-referenced. We had similar limitations with the photographs and the artifacts. We were able to publish only a small percentage of what was actually collected. We included one letter to his son that has three lovely little drawings in it. But we didn’t include the journals after they left the Torres Strait. We didn’t because…you couldn’t have held it in your hands! I love those letters and they’re really endearing, but it would have been an extra sixty pages. But it’s a good question—we cried over all the things we couldn’t put in.

Haddon’s letter to his son Ernest describing his trip through the Central Islands to Mowatta. Thursday Island, Torres Strait, August 1888.

JP: Once we decided also that it was not going to include the Borneo section or even the journey out, the focus really was toward Torres Strait Islanders and the region, so those letters home to his children became less important in telling that story.

CB: We also wanted to ask a question about the conceptual work that you’re doing with this book—specifically, with the term you use of activating the archive. We’re curious to hear about how you think about the relation between “activating the archive” and intellectual and political projects of decolonizing the history of science, the history of anthropology, and anthropology.

AH: Good question, and with lots of layers. It would probably be more correct to call it “co-activating anthropology’s archive,” because the decision to do this was a collective decision that was taken over time. And it took some time to make the decision about whether it would be worthwhile.

JP: Can I just interject to note that when we went to the Torres Strait the first time with the journal idea, if people had said “no,” that would’ve been it.

AH: Certainly, that was essential to it going ahead. We wouldn’t have done it unless we had the support of the community. In terms of my own work, I’ve always been really interested in what actually happens in the anthropological field. Many historians of anthropology have written a lot about fieldwork but they rarely looked in any detail into what actually happened in the field. That is one of the things that Jude and I have always been very interested in—what actually happens when you get these really different knowledge systems together? You’ve got the motivations associated with a developing discipline; you’ve got this group of people who are having their customary ways disrupted by colonialism, the growth in global trade, and the influx of people into the area, missionaries, etcetera. What’s actually going on there? I think the complexity that the journal points to is really good to think about when we’re talking about broader processes of decolonization that we and other museums have been working towards for a few decades—to better understand the context in which specific material was obtained, make collections accessible, and to pursue different forms of return and different ways that one can collaborate with originating communities.

JP: In some ways, “activating the archive” is natural because you’re always embedded in tiny details of information that have big ramifications—both in terms of the people that get connected up in certain histories, and also the understandings of whatever it is that you’re researching. That kind of activation is a normal process that you do through exhibitions. Whereas, for me anyway, decolonization is what happens next, now it’s off in the world. As Leah Lui-Chivizhe says in the afterword, it’s really exciting to see what people might do now that they have access to the information that is contained in the journals.

AH: One of the take-homes is to argue for the importance of these kinds of historic materials for creating more nuanced stories. We were talking about decolonization, which is very much to be welcomed, but sometimes the configurations produce very polarized historical stories. Better understanding of the complexity which we’re talking about is an example of the far-reaching value of archives, both for originating communities and others. There are a lot of different ways of doing this, but it is important to take into account the specificities of the original encounters, the kind of material that was generated, and the relationships that were there in the past and are there in the present. So I’d like the book to be a model perhaps for what one can do with historical archives, while being aware that there is no one model that fits all. This is an example of trying to tell a much more nuanced and inclusive kind of history.

We just don’t know what’s going to come out of this, where this is going to go. A very conventional thing to say is that it will help us to be slightly more revisionist in professional academic histories of anthropology. But I’m also really interested in how people in Torres Strait—and much more broadly—are actually going to use this book. Jude and I were very conscious when we were doing this project—and the reason we put so much care into the footnotes and cross references and the index (which nearly killed us!)—is that this book will be a very important reference for a whole range of interests in the future. And we wanted to take care in how we assembled it to try and activate the potential of what it is that you can do with anthropological archives and see where they might lead. Our biggest disappointment is that we were not able to go back and distribute the book directly because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Thanks to support from the Torres Strait Regional Authority, the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander studies, and Monash University Indigenous Study Centre we were able to distribute well over 100 copies of the book to community organizations, libraries, schools and contributors across the Torres Strait and to libraries and indigenous centers on the Australian mainland. We really want to know what’s going to happen and what kinds of discussions Haddon’s journals are going to raise. At the same time, we’re also very aware that we will never know a lot of what is prompted by this publication. Many of the stories that families and communities share are private, and we just have to accept that. And, in a certain sense, it’s a whole different stage of thinking about the interaction between ways of presenting knowledge, different ways of recording and distributing knowledge, that goes back to the original interests that we had in what happened in 1888 and 1898.

FF: Did the experience of putting this text together change how you’ve both thought about Haddon in relation to the history of anthropology more broadly. Both Kuklick and Stocking made Haddon a central figure in their histories.[1] Has the process shifted your view of Haddon? Has it made him more important, less important? Do you agree or disagree with things that have been written about him now having got the book out?

JP: Anita will answer, as I do less Haddon scholarship. The main thing that changed for me was understanding the amount of world affairs that he’s invested in. That varies throughout the journal in the written “conversation” with Fanny. In writing to her, the weighty news of international events is mentioned which is something that’s shared even though they’re a long way away from each other for a long time. This gives a sense of what he’s driven by, so the anthropology itself is obvious, you can see it where he’s really excited about this or musing on those bigger questions of how anthropology might be useful. You can see his attitudes change quite quickly in 1888, but when you take in these conversations with Fanny about larger things around the world you can see other musings that come to fruition when he’s a much older person leading and encouraging government people to take up the discipline. So the amount of that kind of conversation in the journals was really interesting in terms of Haddon and my view of him.

AH: Of course Jude and I had been privileged to read the journals over 20 years ago and had relatively easy access to them. So I would say that doing this project didn’t so much change what some of my thoughts were in 1998 (the centenary of the expedition and the publication of Cambridge and the Torres Strait: Centenary Essays on the 1898 Anthropological Expedition) as expand them. The journals tell you about the interactions in the field and the relationships that were developed over time with people that Haddon was working with. They tell you about how that influences his work and how that dynamic works—that for me wasn’t something new.

Haddon’s friends and assistants with Gizu (seated) and (l–r) Waria, Paipi, and Noboa, Mabuiag Island, Torres Strait, 1898. MAA N.22988

What was new for me in looking at it in such detail and going through it with Jude, who has done so much research on New Guinea history as well as in Torres Strait, was the incredibly insightful perspectives into what was going on with colonialism in the region, and the huge numbers of people that are threaded through Haddon’s narrative. I wasn’t looking for that before. I was looking at what happened on Mer when they did the Malo-Bomai ceremony, what happened with the re-enactment of the death of the cultural hero Kwoim on Mabuiag, and how ethnographic information was elicited. As part of the process of editing Haddon’s journals we provided footnotes for hundreds of people and that was a lot of work. We became acutely aware of this incredibly complex network of colonization, trade, and missionaries, which seemed incidental before. So, another aspect of the journals is that they tell you so much about that broader context and all these different players and how cosmopolitan it was. There are several occasions when Haddon is getting on a boat and he relates to Fanny the different types of people on-board, noting for example: there’s a Jewish person (that’s Seligman), and there are people from all across the Pacific and there’s a Malay and there are Japanese and an African person who has come via the Caribbean and he gives these kinds of lists a couple of times. So the broader context of what was going on in the region was highlighted by doing this project.

CB: Given that many historians of anthropology have credited Haddon with being the first to use the term “the field” in the context of anthropology, and that he actively advocates for fieldwork in publications and his presidential addresses around the turn of the twentieth century, I’m curious if you have any insight about where his concept of the field was coming from. I know that he was part of the field naturalist club in Dublin; and, obviously there’s a concept of the field coming out of zoology and emerging marine biology in the late nineteenth century. But I was curious if through the journals or through your own research you’ve seen any glimpses or clues as to where he’s bringing that concept from.

JP: I’d say it’s traditional to maritime expedition people—like Thomas Huxley—it’s that kind of biological fieldwork. You’ve got in the ten years, twenty years, before Haddon, Haeckel and Miklouho-Maclay doing fieldwork of smaller kinds, and which he as a young marine biologist obviously read and would be interested in. So, the way I read him, anyway, it’s a tradition that he’s a part of and that he’s embedding in zoology: “I’m going to spend one month here, I’m going to spend three months there, I’m going to do this zoological work, that’s what it’s going to take”—because, for example, preservation methods were not good enough yet for polyps. There’s that beautiful passage where he talks about maybe being the first person to see this blue coral polyp opening because of where he is, in that situation (p. 93). So I think that it is a very real notion for him that to be there is to learn better. And he applies that, and some of the biological process, into what is then a focus not into the water but onto the people that he is with.

AH: I would say it’s also about the division of labor. It’s the idea that the professional or the developing anthropologist is someone who is actually doing primary research themselves, not just filtering through other people’s accounts or trying to analyze the research that someone else has done. The people who are doing the on-the-ground research are the ones who are analyzing that research, and I think that’s really important. When I make the claims about Haddon, I don’t want to be too British-centric here. We know about the important work that Boas was doing with the Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw at exactly the same time as the expedition was in the Torres Strait. There were people from other countries who were doing research that we would now call fieldwork. I think the claim is that there was this clear methodological sense of what Haddon was doing. And direct fieldwork was something that the so-called Cambridge School very much promoted, particularly in the BAAS (British Association for the Advancement of Science) edition of Notes & Queries in 1912, but also before that. Fieldwork became more formalized. The disciplinary practice of fieldwork was developed by various people in different places and under different circumstances over time. Nevertheless, there were some very special things that happened in the anthropological field during Haddon’s expeditions and a close reading highlights the extent to which named Islanders actively contributed to recording their kastom.

CB, FF, and LW: On behalf of HAR, thank you for your time, it’s been a pleasure!

Recording Kastom: Alfred Haddon’s Journals to the Torres Strait and New Guinea, 1888 and 1898 is available via Sydney University Press and in the UK through the MAA’s shop and online sales.

Additional References:

Herle, Anita and Jude Philp. 1998. Torres Strait Islanders: An Exhibition Marking the Centenary of the 1898 Cambridge Anthropological Exhibition. Cambridge: University of Cambridge, Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

Herle, Anita and Sandra Rouse, eds. 1998. Cambridge and the Torres Strait: Centenary Essays on the 1898 Anthropological Expedition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Herle, Anita. 2003. “Objects, agency and museums: continuing dialogues between the Torres Strait and Cambridge.” In Museums and Source Communities, edited by Laura Peers and Alison Brown, eds., 194–207. Routledge.

Herle, Anita, Jude Philp and Jocelyne Dudding. 2015. “Reactivating visual histories: Haddon’s photographs from Mabuyag 1888, 1898.” In Goemulgaw Lagal: Cultural and Natural Histories of the Island of Mabuyag, Torres Strait, edited by Ian McNiven and Garrick Hitchcock, Volume I, 253–88. Brisbane: Queensland Museum.

[1] Henrika Kuklick, The Savage within: The Social History of British Anthropology, 1885–1945 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991); George W. Stocking, Jr., Victorian Anthropology (New York: The Free Press, 1987); George W. Stocking, Jr., After Tylor: British Social Anthropology 1888–1951 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995).

Anita Herle: contributions / website / ach13@cam.ac.uk
Jude Philp: contributions / website / jude.philp@sydney.edu.au
Cameron Brinitzer: contributions / cbrinitzer@mpiwg-berlin.mpg.de / Max Planck Institute for the History of Science
Freddy Foks: contributions / website / wfoks@princeton.edu
Laurel Waycott: contributions / website / laurel.waycott@ucsf.edu / University of California, San Francisco