Emeritus Professor Ronald M. Berndt and Dr Catherine H. Berndt
examine a bark painting from their collection [P5020]
Ronald M. Berndt and Catherine H. Berndt
Ron Berndt, or ‘Prof.’ as he was known,
outside the former Fairway site of the
Anthropology Department, 1974 [P34933]
Ronald M. Berndt
Ronald Berndt mounting an exhibition of Aboriginal art
at the Perth Town Hall, 1957 [P1012]
Significance‘Ron’s legacy is immense and permanent: the huge outpouring of scholarly works; the Berndt collection which he and Catherine so generously donated to the Anthropology Research Museum...; the scholarship he fostered and nurtured; his unforgettable zest for life and work; and his deep and heartfelt concern for the appreciation of Aboriginal Australians, so many of whom he was proud to call his friends’
Ronald Berndt seated with Buramara, Elcho Island,
recording a song cycle [P18114]
Emeritus Professor Ronald M. Berndt’s passing leaves a great gap in Australian, and indeed world, anthropology. His outstanding contribution to knowledge of Australian Aboriginal societies was made in close collaboration with his wife, Dr Catherine, who will continue their work.
‘Prof.’, as he was widely known, was born in Adelaide to an Australian-born French Huguenot mother and a German father. He was proud of his ‘revolutionary’ forebears: not only the Huguenot connection and that he was born on Bastille Day, but that one of his ancestors was Martin Luther’s secretary. Named by his mother after the Murray River of South Australia and addressed as Murray by her among few others, his parents had a profound influence on their only child. His father was singularly unsuccessful in trying to engender an interest in football (Prof. preferring to sit in the stadium reading Gibbon or Herodotus instead of watching the game!), but his own fascination in the study of other cultures found an early admirer. They regularly took long walks, lasting all day, which took in the Adelaide Library and the South Australian Museum, as well as visiting the homes of his father’s friends, crowded with the curiosities of many cultures. He began to collect from an early age, often saving his sixpences from lunch to buy a book, or an artefact. He was photographed, at the age of 8, dressed as an ‘Aboriginal warrior’, a favoured costume! (He had intended to publish this in the Memoirs but was unable to even make a start on this writing despite his great interest in this project.)
His father encouraged him to take on some sort of professional training when he left school, and he embarked on a course (short-lived) in accountancy. He subsequently developed a strong dislike for mathematics, even though (as Head of Department he had to cope with it throughout his career.) Instead, he was attracted more and more into Anthropology, starting with a childhood fascination with the Great Pyramids of Egypt, even teaching himself to read hieroglyphics. He started his writing career with a series of modest articles on numismatics for his uncle’s country newspaper. Later, he was appointed Honorary Ethnologist in the South Australian Museum. N.B. Tindale and C.P. Mountford encouraged him to further develop his interests, and he met a number of local Aborigines, including Albert Karloan, who were regular visitors to the Museum. Karloan invited him to Murray Bridge, and here Prof. carried out his first ‘real’ research which, continued a few years later with Catherine, has been prepared for publication by Melbourne University Press as A World That Was (1993).
He was invited to join a scientific expedition to Ooldea, on the Trans-Australian Line, sponsored by the University of Adelaide Board for Anthropological Research. Professor J.B. (‘Bertie’) Cleland and Professor T. Harvey Johnson both encouraged him to obtain formal training in the discipline, and he travelled to Sydney in 1940 to study under Professor A.P. Elkin. At the time, this was the only place where Anthropology was taught in Australia.
Travelling to Sydney was a major event in a personal sense, as well, for it was there, in Elkin’s study on their second day at university, that he met his wife-to-be, Catherine Helen Webb, a 22 year old New Zealander. They were married in 1941, honeymooning in the Adelaide Hills while Prof. wrote (in collaboration with Harvey Johnson) a paper on ‘Death and Burial at Ooldea’, and Catherine painstakingly wrote an essay on Durkheim. Their dedication to their writing, and to each other, never faltered from that time.
A small grant from the Australian National Research Council enabled Prof. and Catherine to travel to Ooldea for a year's solid fieldwork, camped in their tents in the sand hills some distance from the Mission but closer to the main Aboriginal camp. Conditions were difficult: their experience at Ooldea was to provide the experience they would later need for work in even more remote communities. It also yielded a vast amount of social anthropological material on traditional Aboriginal culture in this region and the adaptations already being made to external pressures. Their Ooldea Report was published in Oceania, subsequently as an Oceania Monograph, and remains virtually the only full ethnography from the Western Desert.
While continuing their graduate studies at the University of Sydney, the Berndts’ completed a survey of Aboriginal-European relations in South Australia and western New South Wales for the A.R.C., the first ‘applied anthropology’ project to be undertaken in Australia. It was subsequently published, in a revised and very much narrower form, as From Black to White in South Australia (1951).
They were encouraged by Elkin to travel to the Northern Territory in 1944, who had arranged their appointment as anthropologists/welfare officers to the Australian Investment Agency (owned then, as now, by Lord Vesty) in order to investigate reports of atrocious Aboriginal labour conditions. The context in which this research was carried out was simply untenable: Vesty’s viewed them as ‘recruitment officers’; a role Prof. and Catherine the refused to adopt. Their persuasive questioning and quasi-independent investigation caused considerable concern among vested (no pun intended) interests in the Northern Territory. Conditions were nothing short of atrocious. The concern of the Administration reflected the support it leant to the project. Prof and Catherine decided to resign in 1946 because of constant interference and obstruction by Vesty’s company, but not before they had obtained the material they needed for their report to Elkin and the Federal Government. Their confidential report to the Government was a decisive critique of Vesty’s, and was secured for many years, only one original and two carbon copies existed. The Federal Government’s then Minister for the Interior received one; the then Professor of Anthropology at the University of Sydney received the other (i.e., A.P. Elkin). The third copy sat, for many years, on the Berndt’s bookshelves. A revised and expanded version of this report was published as The End of an Era (1987).
After working for several months on the Daly River, cut off from the outside world by floodwaters, they returned to the University of Sydney where Elkin appointed them to their own research positions within the Department. The small income they derived from these freed them to travel to north-eastern Arnhem Land, to Yirrkala and later elsewhere, to conduct detailed anthropological research. Their project was strongly supported by E.W. Chinnery, Director of Aboriginal Welfare in the Northern Territory, even if it had C.P. Mountford in tears at the thought that the Berndts would go before him. W. Lloyd Warner’s classic study, Black Civilization provided an inspiration for their work in this area, which they continued to visit to in several field trips right through to the early 1980s. Several major monographs resulted, including Kunapipi (1951), Djanggawul (1952), An Adjustment Movement in Arnhem Land (1962), Love Songs of Arnhem Land (1976), and Man, land and myth in Northern Australia: the Gunwinggu people (1970). Their love of Arnhem Land and its people never dwindled: they seriously contemplated settling for ever on the north-eastern coastline, but to be anthropologists, they knew they had to leave, yet to return not once but many times again.
They completed their studies, with Catherine receiving a MA with first class Honours in 1949, and Prof. his BA (1950) and MA with first class honours (1951). Prof. and Catherine knew they needed to obtain their doctorates to complete their professional training and, feeling already too closely identified with Aboriginal studies, decided to focus their attention on a very different field. Leading anthropologists such as Raymond Firth and Margaret Mead urged them not to shift to the newly established Australian National University, as Nadel encouraged, but to study overseas; after deep consideration, they chose the London School of Economics, under the supervision of Firth himself.
Prof. and Catherine travelled by flying-boat from Sydney to Port Moresby, setting off the day after Catherine slipped in the street and sprained her ankle. She did not realise the hardships this would cause until she had to be sat on a donkey and was carried into the Eastern Highlands of New Guinea. It was an inauspicious beginning to what they would both subsequently refer to as their most difficult research.
They worked in a district far south of Kainantu that, at the time, was only just being brought under the administration. `Pacified' was the term used by the administrators. Elkin, then maintained an armoury at the Sydney Department, and Prof. was supplied with E.H. Stanner’s pearl-handled pistol, in a leg-holster, in protection against possible hostility. It was never used, although I recall Prof. recalling that he wondered whether he would, on more than one occasion, have to fire the pistol! In the air, as a threat, needless to say. He always wondered what ever happened to the pistol, let alone the amoury.
Two periods of research between 1951 and 1953 yielded material for their doctoral dissertations, which were written up at L.S.E. after a sometimes ‘interminable’ voyage by ship to London. They greatly enjoyed their life in London, loving their walks between L.S.E. and the London University, (always via the British Museum), and between all this worked very intensely on their writing-up. Catherine focused on myth (a two volume work which, in such length, remains unpublished). Prof's Excess and Restraint (1962) caused quite a controversy among anthropologists, some of whom claimed it was ‘all made up’. Several subsequent researchers have, in their own records, concurred with some of the more ‘outlandish’ practices Prof recorded.
A Carnegie Fellowship enabled Prof. and Catherine to make their first visit to North America, on their way back from London to Australia. The experience of meeting so many anthropologists (many of whom were rather different from the ‘British school’) greatly influenced the style they sought to establish in what was to become their own department. In particular, their visits to the Lowie Museum and Kroeber Museum provided the inspirational base for the establishment of the Anthropology Research Museum at the University of Western Australia which, its Board of Management hopes, will be renamed by this University as the Berndt Museum of Anthropology in recognition of the contribution of both Prof. and Catherine to anthropology in Western Australia. The University of Western Australia remains the only tertiary institution in Western Australia to offer a full undergraduate and post-graduate programme in Social Anthropology in this state.
Although they could have returned to Sydney, they chose to settle in Perth (‘the crayfish were so cheap’, Prof. always [somewhat regretfully] recalled). They were also excited at the prospect of having the opportunity to set up an entirely new department, only the third in Australia after Sydney and the Australian National University. Prof. applied for and was subsequently offered a newly established Senior Lectureship in Anthropology at the University of Western Australia funded, on an interim basis, by the Carnegie Corporation. He immediately sought to develop teaching in the discipline.
Right from the start, Catherine was employed in a part-time capacity only, a perplexing arrangement for any newcomer such as myself, but one which reflected the discriminatory policy of the day that spouses should not be permitted to teach in the same department of the University. Many of us are familiar with F.D. McCarthy’s experience. Nevertheless, as Prof. said many, many times, the Department could simply not ever have got off the ground without her: she shared the same heavy teaching load as fully-tenured staff through all the years up to Prof’s retirement, she introduced the teaching of Linguistics at the University of Western Australia, and her contribution to the development of the Department was always by Prof. as an equal one, even though this was not recognised by the University until it conferred an Honourary Doctorate in Letters to Catherine in 1983. In 1987, Prof was similarly honoured.
To begin with, what was known as the Centre of Anthropology was housed in the Department of Psychology located in Little Irwin Street at Crawley. Catherine managed, somehow, to evade Professor Ken Walker’s attempts to sidetrack her into Psychology research, since she and Ron saw that this would have prevented the development of Anthropology as a separate discipline. The first classes were held in 1956, with six students in the second year unit; a third year unit commenced the following year, and postgraduate studies were added in 1959.
Prof. was promoted to Reader in 1959, and appointed Peter Lawrence as his first tenured staff member in 1960. The Centre became a Department in 1963, and the Chair was advertised a year later. The University Administration procrastinated considerably over the appointment, so Prof. threatened to accept the offer of a Chair at the University of California, Davis. He was suddenly offered the Western Australian Chair; the very next day!
Prof. remained Head of the Department until shortly before his retirement: at the time of his original appointment to the Chair, he was appointed Head as Professor of Anthropology. At that time, all Professors were also Heads of Department automatically, until their retirement. Nevertheless, Anthropology was the first Department to implement a Student Advisory Committee, well before the radicalisation of Australian campuses in the late 1960’s, and this continued until the mid 1970's when the political pressures that initiated it were apparently dissipated.
This period also saw the most dramatic growth in the Department, from two established staff in 1960 to sixteen full-time staff in 1978. The Department was relocated from the Fairway buildings into the long-awaited new Social Sciences Building in May 1976. This also saw the formal establishment of the Anthropology Research Museum to house collections assembled by staff and students of the Department, as well as the unsurpassed Berndt Collection. Despite the heavy demands of administration and teaching, Prof. and Catherine insisted on maintaining what some others could view as an almost obsessive regime of research writing; for the both of them, writing up the results of their research was the essential goal: all other considerations would have to be subsumed.
As the years passed, they were able to return to the field less frequently, and focused instead on writing up as much as they could. Prof often said how much he enjoyed writing, he couldn’t let a day go by without writing more than a few pages, by hand at first, in his incomparable script, then revising them and typing the draft out himself on his old Imperial ready for his typist. He never wrote in the mornings, preferring to allocate that time for administration and, in retirement, to coming into the Department for four mornings each week to tackle an ever increasing volume of correspondence.
It was in retirement, too, that he relaxed from the demands of heading the Department and the responsibilities associated with this position. He enjoyed morning tea in the Tea Room; bewailing the steady encroachment of the Department of Economics into the Social Sciences Building and, in particular, the loss of most of `his' fought-for Tea Room to computers! His fight continues!
The writing went on, deliberately and with great dedication, and he would often say ‘There just isn't enough time. I need another thirty years’. Despite the great volume of the Berndts’ publications, these really represent only the tip of an iceberg. What he really meant is that he needed another three hundred years! This really is not an exaggeration.
Sadly, he didn't get more than two of these years following his diagnosis of cancer. In fact, he died very close to two years after his diagnosis, delayed by the incompetence of his family physician. Yet he worked on, with Catherine beside him, both maintaining their well-established pattern of life as a matter of principle: he always said that the most important thing was writing. How many of us have all been told that!
They were equally determined to complete as much writing as they could. The publication of The Speaking Land (1989) prompted a further volume, this time on song poetry, as a companion volume to be called ‘The Singing Land’. Sadly, and quite ironically, Prof completed almost all of his chapters (others were being written by Catherine) and had to stop in the middle of the pentultimate chapter, entitled ‘Death and Transfiguration’, when his health suddenly deteriorated.
He shared with all of us his enthusiasm and passion for Anthropology, and in particular Aboriginal Anthropology, as an enlightened disciplinary insight that, he believed, could perhaps help people to appreciate the richness and diversity of each other's societies. His involvement in setting up the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, and years following as a member of its Council; with his wife, his involvement in the establishment of what is now known as the Aboriginal Arts Board of the Australia Council; the State (W.A.) Advisory Council on Aboriginal Affairs to the (then) Department of Native Affairs (subsequently reformed under the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 as the Aboriginal Cultural Material Committee); as founder-member of the Aboriginal Advancement Council (W.A.) Inc., and as Founding President of the Anthropological Society of Western Society: all these, and other groups, benefited from the wisdom of his experience. It is an experience so many of us have benefited from. We remember his contribution to our discipline of Anthropology.
It is with profound regret that members of the Editorial Board of Anthropological Forum mark our respect for the passing of the founder of this Journal. We offer our deepest sympathy to Dr Catherine Berndt for this immeasurable loss.
John E. Stanton
Student, Colleague and Friend
Dr Catherine H. Berndt, 1988 [P18101.02]
Catherine H. Berndt
Significance“Her total commitment, as for Ron, to the Aboriginal people of Australia continued unabated; her world was filled not only with memories of times past, but just as importantly, with the issues of today. She and Ron were both so proud that so many Aboriginal people were taking their rightful place in Australian society, just as Maori people have in her native New Zealand. Catherine was a very private person, very shy with so many ‘pink’ people, as she preferred to call the so-called ‘people without colour’. She was totally relaxed, though, and indeed voluble with the people she felt so much at home with. In many ways, most of her closest friends were Aboriginal people, Aboriginal women, people like her beloved friend and colleague Mundja at Balgo, and the deceased Mondali in Arnhem Land, and also Pinkie Mack in South Australia. There are so many more—no other Westerner has had the privilege, and indeed honour (because that is how she viewed it) of working with so many Aboriginal women across the continent, from so many different backgrounds. ” - Dr John E. Stanton, Eulogy, Catherine Helen Berndt: 23 May, 1994, Karrakatta Cemetery, Perth.
OBITUARY: CATHERINE HELEN BERNDT nee WEBB 8.5.18-12.5.94A Sad Song of Summer