Australian Screen

Australia’s audiovisual heritage online

The Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to the Torres Strait (1898)

Synopsis

Yamaz Sibarud, a traditional song performed by ‘Maino of Yam’, is part of the Alfred Cort Haddon recordings of the Cambridge anthropological expedition to the Torres Strait in 1898.

Curator’s notes

This 1898 recording was made during the first ever British expedition to use the phonograph for research purposes – a tool that J Walter Fewkes had pioneered in the US as early as the 1890s to record Passamaquoddy First Nations people.

If it wasn’t for biologist Thomas Henry Huxley suggesting to Professor Albert Cort Haddon that he should go to the Torres Strait, this collection may not have existed. In this expedition, Haddon led a group that included Charles Seligman and WHR Rivers, both of whom had a medical background, as well as WM Dougall, A Wilkin, Sidney Ray and psychologist/musician CS Myers.

The expedition broke new ground in a number of different areas. For example, Rivers pioneered the use of genealogy to explain social systems, while Haddon is believed to have made some of the earliest ethnographical films, many of which survive today (see Torres Strait Islanders, 1898).

It’s unfortunate that many of the recordings from this expedition are of a poor quality. According to the British Library, which holds the original wax cylinder recordings, a lack of experience in using the equipment is a possible reason why the Haddon titles don’t match the quality of others in the Ethnographic Wax Cylinder Collection.

Regardless of the quality of the Haddon Collection, as it’s become known, these recordings and the hundreds of artefacts also collected by Haddon are still a vital source of cultural information for Torres Strait Islanders.
Most of the research from the 1898 expedition was published by Haddon in six volumes released between 1901 and 1935. It remains a seminal work in Torres Strait studies.

Over the years, many have travelled to Cambridge to see and hear parts of the collection. It has inspired contemporary Torres Strait Islander artists like Alick Tipoti, Dennis Nona and Billy Missi in the extraordinarily beautiful and spiritual work they’ve produced. To these artists, the idea of the Haddon Collection is as important as the collection itself. It has influenced the work of these print-makers because of what it represents – a body of work belonging to their ancestors, residing far away, recorded at a time when the work of Christian missionaries was slowly eroding the old traditions of music, song, story and dance. The Haddon Collection is a symbol for the impact of colonisation on their people, a concern that works itself through every aspect of their art.

Artefacts, films and song recordings like the Haddon Collection still have a valid and contextual place in the lives of Torres Strait Islanders today. These recordings act like a reference guide for Torres Strait Islander artists but are also still relevant to Islander academics, who are continually using and referring back to the Haddon Collection as a basis for their own work, recovering and re-contextualising these old anthropological treasures.