Academic journal article Oceania

'By the Facts We Add to Our Store': Lorimer Fison, Lewis Henry Morgan and the Spread of Kinship Studies in Australia

Academic journal article Oceania

'By the Facts We Add to Our Store': Lorimer Fison, Lewis Henry Morgan and the Spread of Kinship Studies in Australia

Article excerpt

The late nineteenth century theory of 'primitive society' was rooted in the developmental or evolutionist hypothesis that all societies passed through the same definable stages on a long passage from a primitive to a civilised state. There has been an exhaustive investigation into the construction and reification of this idea that human society and material culture--weapons, housing, religion, morals, family and law--evolved gradually and that 'modern savages' provided a window to the origins of human institutions (eg Kuper 1988; Stocking 1987: Trautmann 1987; Wolfe 1999). Rather less attention has been paid to those who were uneasy about evolutionism--prior to the sustained attack by Franz Boas--or questioned the methods of the early popularisers of the theory. (1) The following article investigates the spread of Lewis Henry Morgan's kinship studies through the Australian colonies in the 1870s and the growing doubts of his principal collaborator, Methodist missionary Lorimer Fison, on some of the primary points of evolutionist anthropology. While historians such as Wolfe have assumed that colonial ethnologists, including Fison, largely accepted the metanarratives of their metropolitan mentors and questioned only the details of their theories (Wolfe 1999: 93-103), it appears that Fison was not convinced by many of the assumptions of the armchair theorists and believed that their conclusions were drawn from insufficient or incorrect data. Yet he was largely unsuccessful in his attempt to critique the methods of the nascent discipline; his call to the theorists to ground their analyses in data, to 'count our acquisitions to knowledge by the facts we add to our store, and not by theories which overleap the facts', went unheeded (Fison 1880:164).

In December 1872 the thirty-seven year old Lorimer Fison presented a paper on 'The Classificatory System of Kinship' to the Royal Society of Victoria in the imposing public library of the gold rich capital of Melbourne. The novel study of kinship was known to only a handful in the Australasian colonies and the first section was an introduction to the theory and early findings of American lawyer Lewis Henry Morgan which had just been published as Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity (1871). Fison described how he was initiated into the study at his mission station on the banks of the Rewa River on the Fiji island of Viti Levu in 1869 via Morgan's kinship schedule. He explained Morgan's thesis of two distinct forms of kinship: the 'Descriptive' types of Europe and the Middle East, so called because Morgan believed these peoples understood the 'real' forms of biological kinship via the nuclear family; and the 'Classificatory' systems of East Asia, the Americas, Africa and the Pacific Islands. The Classificatory system was profoundly baffling to the European observer: aunts could be mothers; cousins could be siblings; the uncle frequently outranked the father while land and relationships might be tracked through the mother. Morgan sought to divine the purpose behind this alterity and devised a schema of the development of the human family from a primitive to a civilised state. All variations of kinship could be plotted to the following stages:

--Promiscuous Intercourse,

--the Cohabitation of Brothers and Sisters

--the Communal Family,

--the Tribal Organization,

--the Barbarian Family,


--the Patriarchal Family the rise of property,

--the Civilized Stage of the Family (Morgan 1868: 479-80).

According to Morgan evidence of the earliest stages of communal marriage could be found amongst the Hawaiians whose royal system of brother/sister incest was believed to be a common form (Gardner 2008:147; Morgan 1868; 1877:403). The next stage could be found in North America as the Ganowanian (matrilineal) form, where brother sister marriage was no longer permitted and groups were separated into marriage 'tribes' (moieties) which became evidence of the earliest division into political units. …

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