Henry Ling Roth and The Aborigines of Tasmania

Henry Ling Roth
Henry Ling Roth (courtesy of Calderdale Museums Service).

Dr James Peters writes:

Henry Ling Roth (1855-1925) was a remarkable example of an “armchair” ethnologist. He wrote studies of indigenous peoples in West Africa, Borneo and Tasmania without setting foot in any of these locations. Despite this, Roth was no charlatan, and his work was praised by experts for its originality and thoroughness.

Roth spent his early adulthood working in Russia and Australia, before settling in Halifax, West Yorkshire, where he became associated with the local museum, Bankfield. He helped develop its collections, which included a good deal of ethnographical material. This obviously inspired him to study the subject further, and in 1890 he published The Aborigines of Tasmania, a detailed account of the history and culture of Tasmania’s indigenous population.

The book had a print run of only 200 copies, but it was graced with a preface by Edward Tylor, one of the leading ethnological authorities of the day.  The book was well received, and during the next decade Roth began work on a much-expanded second edition, which was published in 1899.

Title page for proposed third edition of The Aborigines of Tasmania (HLR/4/5)

The papers Roth accumulated in researching The Aborigines of Tasmania are now held by the Library and have been recently catalogued (the catalogue is available on ELGAR). They provide an invaluable insight into the ideas and working methods of the ethnologists of the time.

Roth was influenced by Edward Tylor, who believed Aboriginal Tasmanians were essentially a survival of Paleolithic Man, and therefore an important source of speculative information about how early man might have lived. The validity of this thesis was a key theme of Roth’s book.

Roth, however, only had limited evidence to work with. By the time he was writing, the Aboriginal Tasmanian population had suffered from the catastrophic effects of persecution and disease, and only mixed-race Aboriginals survived. Roth’s research was therefore conducted against a background not only of distance, but also rapidly disappearing information.

Here he depended on help from two Tasmanians: James Backhouse Walker and J. W. Beattie. The collection includes their letters to Roth which describe how they made casts of Aboriginal tools, scoured Aboriginal sites for objects, collected photographs and documents, and shared their own considerable knowledge. Walker also took cranial measurements of skulls of the indigenous  peoples, which were used for comparative anatomical analysis, considered important for demonstrating the Paleolithic thesis. Beattie conducted an ultimately successful attempt to photograph Fanny Cochrane Smith, one of last fluent speakers of an Aboriginal Tasmanian language.

Roth‘s own research was rarely speculative or theoretical. His method was to compare available views on a topic, and then offer his own judicious summary.  Much of The Aborigines of Tasmania comprises citations of other writers, and sometimes Roth’s own views can be hard to discern. Reviewers, however, liked Roth’s book. Walker told him: “you have now said the final word on our unfortunate Aborigines”; this was not true, but Roth’s book held the field for several decades.

The history of the European settlement of Tasmania and the subsequent treatment of Aboriginal Tasmanians have been controversial topics.  Roth was not an outspoken writer, but nevertheless he took the view that  “the war between the two races was considered by the colonists to be one  of extermination”, and expressed regret at the “sad and untimely destruction” of the indigenous islanders.

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