‘The Passion of Private White’ by Don Watson 

Passion of Private White

Don Watson

The Passion of Private White

Scribner, 2022

336 pages, 24 plates

I found reading this book both a humbling and a deeply moving experience. It is first and foremost a biography of the Australian anthropologist Neville White, but it is also an ethnography of two very different communities—the Yolngu people who live in the region of Donydji in Central Arnhem Land and a group, a “tribe,” of Vietnam veterans. The genius of the book is that it centers on the personal ethnography of Neville as the fulcrum between the two worlds—the Vietnam vets and the people of Donydji, conveying both his perspective and his passion. Don Watson was given access to Neville’s notebooks and accompanied him into the field with the vets. I have known Neville for many years, and I have worked with the Yolngu people for nearly as many years as he has. Watson’s account rings true to my experience. Of the Vietnam War and its effect on the young Australians who took part I know very little; it is not an experience that I share with Neville. In 1967 when he was on patrol as an Australian conscript in Vietnam, I was an undergraduate student marching through the streets of Central London, shouting with the crowd ‘Hey Hey LBJ – how many kids did you kill today’.

Watson’s narrative cuts brilliantly across time. The different threads of the narrative come together as one continues reading. We begin by visiting Donydji in 2005, then move back to working-class Geelong in the 1950s, religiously divided between Protestant and Catholic, then to Vietnam in 1966, then back—or is it forward?—to Donydji and the Vietnam vets working at constructing buildings for the community. We move into a more narrative mode interspersed with historical and anthropological vignettes as Neville’s career develops. But we already have hints at how things may fit together and the nature of Private White’s passion.

People who know Neville cannot but know a few facts that are central to his life: that he fought in the Vietnam war, that his father was the boxer and boxing promoter Leo White, that the death of his close Yolngu friend Yilarama was an immense tragedy.  But much was clearly not being said. In this book the account of his service in Vietnam is harrowing and appears to hide nothing. The sense of the alienation, the senselessness and horror of war, the guilt felt at the deaths of friends and colleagues left behind when his time of service was over. The sounds, smells, tastes, and images of war continue to be part of his life, and the image of a photograph of the wife and two children falling out of the breast pocket of a dying Vietnam soldier is a recurrent theme. Many years later a diagnosis of PTSD made sense of some of the pain, trauma, and illness that he suffered. 

After he was demobilized Neville joined the Moratorium, but the sight of students waving Viet Cong flags and “calling fellow soldiers ‘criminals’ left him, he said, ‘troubled’ and ‘angry'” (50). He was able to separate the wrongness of the war from the comradeship of the conscripts.  Following the end of the fighting, Vietnam became the war that people wanted to forget, and there was no place for the former soldiers to communicate their experience of “patriotism, bravery, loss, suffering, sacrifice, fear, violence, duty” on the battlefield (ibid.).

On his return from the battlefront Neville went to La Trobe University where he met Don Watson. A fellow student at the time, Watson initially gained fame as the speech-writer for the Australian Labour Party Prime-Minister Paul Keating in the 1990s, and has subsequently become a major historian of Australian cultural life. Following his undergraduate degree Neville undertook postgraduate research on Indigenous Australian populations focusing on peoples’ adaptation to the environment. His interest in the crucial relationship between ecology and population genetics led him in the mid-1970s to focus his research on communities that continued to live off the land in their own country. 

He began his career as a biological anthropologist undertaking surveys of fingerprints as genetic markers, and increasingly engaged with broader anthropology as he developed relationships with specific Yolngu communities. Biological anthropology has at times been viewed critically in Australia because of its presumed association with nineteenth century theories of racial hierarchy—theories which, nevertheless, the discipline has long been at the forefront of challenging. At the same time, population genetics is increasingly of importance to understanding health, and questions of the origins of human populations remain a topic of interest. Watson records Neville’s reluctance to use “invasive” methods. He also provides balanced and accessible accounts of the findings of his research and the ways in which the social, the cultural, and the biological are interwoven. Watson’s summary is that “in order to understand what modifies the genetic composition of populations […] biological anthropologists must examine the complex interactions between their subjects understood biologically, and the culture and ecology they inhabit” (121). 

Frances Morphy and I first met Neville in 1974 shortly after we began our own research into Yolngu art and language. It was one of those moments in Northern Territory history when government policy appeared to be in touch with Yolngu aspirations. The findings of the Woodward Commission meant that the possibility of Aboriginal Land Rights legislation was in the air, and the Uniting Church was preparing to hand over the management of its missions to Indigenous community leaders. In Eastern Arnhem Land, the outstation movement had resulted in people moving back to their clan homelands. The mission policy was to restrict outside visitors to the homelands until they had had the time to establish themselves. For a week we shared the mission guest house with Neville and a colleague while they negotiated permission to visit the coastal settlement of Baniyala whose leader he had previously worked with. We got on well but were a little jealous when he finally got permission to visit; we had to remain in Yirrkala!

Subsequently the focus of Neville’s research moved to the inland community of Donydji on the edge of the Parsons Range, where Neville increasingly became as committed to the people there as he was to his comrades in Vietnam. He worked closely with the Ritharrngu people who lived there, learning their language, extensively mapping their country, and recording their way of life. He became increasingly concerned with a disconnect between government policy and the aspirations and needs of the community in an era of constant change (White 2016).

Watson charts how Neville moves from being an interested and sympathetic observer to being a participant in Yolngu lives. He captures the contradictory, if perhaps complementary, components of the ethical position of an anthropologist in the field. A non-judgmental and non-interventionist perspective on others’ cultural practices exists often alongside a sense of remorse for one’s inevitable entanglement with the project of colonization. But this in turn can open anthropology’s redemptive possibilities, almost impelling intervention when so many things seem to be going wrong (188-9). For Neville, as Watson writes, “The feelings might have been all the stronger because he had fought in a postcolonial war and found it eminently agreeable to be disengaged from the ‘home’ society which, in the name of false gods, had sent him there” (189). 

The book edges towards a defining moment when Neville’s commitment to Donydji and his experience—and the long-term trauma—of Vietnam come together, almost demanding a course of action. “Whatever it was that drove him—empathy, ego unrestrained, a crease in his psychology—what mattered was what could be fixed, the concrete expression of a man’s duty to others” (227). Neville acted by bringing his fellow Vietnam vets together to work for the community in Donydji, building facilities that neither the Federal nor Northern Territory governments were able to provide. The working party in turn enables Watson to move backwards and forwards in time as the conversations around the campfire in Donydji bring out recurrent memories of Vietnam, the nightmares that the survivors share and the ways in which they support one another. 

Neville’s resolve brought him into almost permanent conflict with the various government departments responsible for the provision of health and education services, housing, and infrastructure for communities across the region. The struggles at Donydji are a microcosm of the problems across all remote homelands communities that are exacerbated by underfunded and sometimes dysfunctional local organizations and constantly changing government policies, often ideologically determined and never decided locally (Morphy 2016). Watson’s account seems unbelievable but sometimes it was just like that: “people were always flying away or driving off in their shiny new Land Cruisers” (213). 

The book is very much a biography in which the subject was allowing himself to be closely observed. Watson “sometimes wondered if Neville knew he was fighting the tide of history, and if that was what attracted him.” We don’t know what Neville thought on that question. But on other occasions there is a sense of co-authorship; not only did the two men witness many of the same events but Neville gave Watson access to his field notes and the book contains rich accounts of life at Doyndji, to the extent that the reader feels present. The description of Tom’s funeral is particularly powerful and conveys a sense of being there.

We feel the force that drives Neville forward through life and keeps him going; how he can be so persuasive and make you want to work with him, yet at the same time how he can be a difficult combatant. I was struck by the phrase “His words flow quickly just as his gait.” In 1986 Neville was on sabbatical leave at the Institute of Biological Anthropology at Oxford, accompanied by his wife, Alicia Polakiewitz. He was hosted by the distinguished biological anthropologist Geoffrey Harrison, a great admirer of his research. I was a lecturer at the Pitt Rivers Museum. Neville lived nearby and took charge of my health. Every other day he would pick me up from my house and we would go for a run around the University Parks. He would disappear into the distance and I would catch up with him doing press ups on a park bench. With a cheery smile he would leap up and run on to his next exercise station. I was much fitter by the time his sabbatical ended!

The book ends on a semi-positive note: “The people have not left.” Their determination to stay on their homelands and their commitment to living on country, no matter what obstacles are put in their way, seem unwavering. Building relationships is central to all human societies and Neville, in bringing the people of Donydji and the vets together with passion and commitment, has shown what is possible.

Works Cited

Morphy, Frances, and Howard Morphy. 2016. “Thwarted aspirations: The political economy of a Yolngu outstation, 1972 to the present.” In Experiments in Self-determination: Histories of the Outstation Movement in Australia, edited by Nicolas Peterson and Fred Myers, 301-22. Acton: ANU Press.

White, Neville. 2016. “A history of Donydji outstation, north-east Arnhem Land.” In Experiments in Self-determination: Histories of the Outstation Movement in Australia, edited by Nicolas Peterson and Fred Myers, 323-346. Acton: ANU Press.

Howard Morphy: contributions / Howard.Morphy@anu.edu.au / Australian National University

1 Comment

  1. Being in a way part of the book gave me an insight into my self,Don thoughts on Nev just ring a bell as I have known him in all stages of his life.
    A great insight into the spending of money to assist aboriginals yet as Nev and I worked out about 98% ends up in the pockets of white and yellow fellas.
    Just a few thoughts from an old Digger

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