“The advance of settlement which has, upon the frontier at least, been marked by a line of blood…” – Craig Horne, quoting Alfred Howitt.
One day, I searched online for “Arrernte skin names”. I was undertaking self-education – finding some pieces of further information in a family history that, while known, had also been fragmented by previous governmental policies. I found an octagonal line diagram that not only showed me why my father had one skin name and I another, but also laid out how I was related to various people in the Arrernte system and who I could marry. In short, via a simple line diagram, I got a clearer picture of cultural connectedness.
On reading Horne’s biographical exploration of his ancestor – anthropologist, explorer, scientist and public servant Alfred Howitt – I now understand what a fraught place this simple image of kinship came from. If Howitt hadn’t been attempting to siphon knowledge from Kurnai peoples in Victoria in order to validate his Darwinist and white supremacist understandings, perhaps Brabiralung knowledge man Tulaba would not have arranged a series of matchsticks in a similar way to that line diagram to demonstrate the complexity of local kinship. And perhaps we would not have similar diagrams made by Howitt’s contemporaries that highlight other kinship structures from clans across the country.
Line of Blood: The Truth of Alfred Howitt, constructed via archival documentation, family history, Howitt’s works and external accounts, is an informative and often harrowing read. We are introduced to a man who was born into a progressive and unconventional (for the time) literary family. He came to Australia to seek his fortune in the goldfields and then became the celebrated finder of the remains of Burke and Wills.
Though his fortunes fluctuated over the decades, Howitt’s documentation of Kurnai society and culture led to him achieving recognition. While Horne takes care to not diminish these achievements, he unpacks the character of a man who was an arch-conservative and who exploited Indigenous knowledges and peoples to service his own Eurocentric biases.
At times, I found myself recoiling from the page. Yet through his work, Horne reminds me that due to the processes of colonisation and the roles people like Alfred Howitt played in justifying these practices, often we – Aboriginal people – are left to reconstruct cultural knowledge documented by those who were deeply invested in our communities dying out.
Horne’s work is a timely example of the truth-telling that needs to occur in this country for us to reach maturity. Line of Blood is an apt title for a work that not only covers the bloodshed across this country but also the ancestral legacies we must confront.
Melbourne Books, 272pp, $34.95
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 26, 2023 as "Line of Blood: The Truth of Alfred Howitt".
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