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From the Frontier

Outback Letters to Baldwin Spencer

From the Frontier by John Mulvaney
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This is the story of three men and three frontiers.

In the nineteenth century the centre of the continent was, to white Australians, a vast forbidding emptiness. The completion of the Overland Telegraph Line in the 1870s brought with it a new knowledge of the area, as well as a number of intruders to a landscape familiar to Aboriginal people for thirty millennia. Among the newcomers were a policeman, Ernest Cowle, and a telegraph official, Paddy Byrne, living in frontier settlements hundreds of kilometres from the nearest Europeans.

From 1894 to 1925, Cowle and Byrne wrote letters to pioneering anthropologist and biologist, Baldwin Spencer, whom they had met during the 1894 Horn Scientific Expedition to central Australia. Neither expected their letters to be read by any person other than Spencer, and both made observations which they would never voice to each other. Yet through their letters, and the Spencer and Gillen books, they became linked to such giants of intellectual history as James Frazer, Emile Durkheim and Sigmund Freud. And both became figures, however minute, on the frontier of discovery, of new ways of looking at human experience in all its diversity.

The subjects of their letters were the Aboriginal people, the landscape in which they lived and the unusual flora and fauna of their habitat. These earthy and thoughtful men offered an extended report from the frontier of the relations between white and black Australians, a place then characterised by mutual incomprehension, outbreaks of violence and the vast distance between two seemingly incompatible ways of responding to an extreme environment.

A moment in time, a place on the edge, two men writing to a third; From the Frontier combines local history, race relations and scientific discovery, and enters a place whose very strangeness tells us much about our past-and our present.

Allen & Unwin; September 2000
352 pages; ISBN 9781741153866
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Title: From the Frontier
Author: John Mulvaney; Alison Petch; Howard Morphy