Howitt, Alfred William (DNB12)
HOWITT, ALFRED WILLIAM (1830–1908), Australian anthropologist, born on 17 April 1830 at Nottingham, was eldest son in a family of four sons and three daughters of William Howitt [q. v.] and his wife Mary Howitt [q. v.], the well-known writers. After home instruction at Nottingham and Esher, his parents in 1840 took him and their other children to Heidelberg to continue their education. They returned in 1843, living successively at Clapham (1843-8) and St. John's Wood (1848-52), while Alfred studied at University College, Gower Street. In 1852 William Howitt with two of his sons, Alfred and Herbert Charlton, went to Australia, partly to visit his own brother Godfrey, who had been for some time settled at Melbourne in medical practice. After two years' wandering in Australia William Howitt returned to England, leaving his two sons in Australia. Herbert Charlton was subsequently drowned while bridge-making in New Zealand.
Alfred first farmed land belonging to his uncle at Coalfield near Melbourne, and then took to cattle droving. He soon acquired the reputation of an able, 'careful, and fearless bushman. In Sept. 1859 a committee at Melbourne commissioned him to explore Central Australia from Adelaide. He reported adversely on the character of the country. After serving as manager of the Mount Napier cattle station near Hamilton he was sent by the Victoria government in 1860 to prospect for gold in the unknown region of Gippsland. He made a scientific and practical study of gold mining and of the local geology, and by his advice the goldfields on the Crooked, Dargo, and Wentworth rivers were opened. On 18 June 1861 he was appointed leader of the expedition in search of the explorers Robert O'Hara Burke [q. v.], and William John Wills [q. v.], who had disappeared the year before in the then unknown region toward the Gulf of Carpentaria. He was absent from Melbourne from 14 July to 28 Nov. 1861, advancing rapidly despite the difficulties of travel, and found the one survivor of the last expedition (John King) on Cooper's Creek, far in the north, and brought him back to Melbourne. At the end of the same year Howitt again visited Cooper's Creek, and succeeded, after a leisurely journey, in bringing back the remains of Burke and Wills to Melbourne on 28 Dec. 1862. For these services Howitt was made in 1863 police magistrate and warden of the goldfields in Gippsland. He held these posts till 1889.
From his early days in Australia he had devoted himself to scientific observation. With especial eagerness he studied the aboriginal population. During the expedition of 1862 he thoroughly familiarised himself with the social organisation of the Dieri tribe about Cooper's Creek. At Gippsland he came into close touch with the Kurnai tribe, who adopted him by formal initiation as a member and admitted him to their secret ceremonies. He thus went beyond any other European in his study of the Australian aboriginal. Moreover, he spared himself no pains in corresponding with others who were to any extent in a position to observe any facts in connection with his own favourite subject, and he sifted and arranged the information thus gained with extraordinary care and aptitude. To Brough Smith's 'Aborigines of Victoria' (Melbourne, 1878) Howitt contributed 'Notes on Aborigines of Cooper's Creek' and 'Notes on the System of Consanguinity and Kinship of the Brabrolong Tribe, North Gippsland.' Lorimer Fison [q. v. Suppl. II], whom he had casually met in the bush some years before, joined him in 1871 in his investigations,'and helped him to interpret his facts. Together the two friends published 'Kamilaroi and Kurnai' (Melbourne, 1880), which embodied the results of their inquiries and 'reflections on group marriage and relationship and marriage by elopement, drawn chiefly from the usages of the Australian aborigines. In 1880 Howitt and Fison also published 'The Kurnai Tribe, their Customs in Peace and War,' with an introduction by Lewis H. Morgan (Melbourne, 1880). Again in 1885 Howitt contributed an important paper on Kurnai rites to the 'Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute.' Other important memoirs on the tribal systems by Howitt, writing either separately or jointly with Fison, followed in the same periodical until 1907.
In 1889 Howitt left Gippsland to become secretary of mines in Victoria, and in 1896 was appointed commissioner of audit and a member of the public service board; these two appointments he held until his retirement from public service in 1901. Until his death he pursued his studies in ethnology and other branches of science. An important treatise, 'The Eucalypti of Gippsland,' was issued together with a valuable paper on the 'Organisation of the Australian Tribes' in the 'Transactions of the Royal Society of Victoria' in 1889. Finally in 1904 Howitt published his chief book, 'The Native Tribes of South East Australia.'
Fison and Howitt may fairly claim to be pioneers of the new anthropology, and by their researches into the organisation of the human family to have given the study the character of an exact science. The American investigator, Lewis Morgan, in his great book on the 'Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family' (1869), led the way, but they went on their own lines further than he, notably in regard to systems of marriage and relationship among aboriginal Australians.
After retirement from the public service in 1901, Howitt lived chiefly at Melbourne in the enjoyment of widespread recognition as an ethnologist. In 1904 he received the Clarke memorial medal from the Royal Society of New South Wales. In 1905-6 he was chairman of the Royal Commission on coal raining in Victoria. On 27 June 1906 he was made C.M.G. In 1907 he was president of the meeting at Adelaide of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science; and in the same year he was the first recipient from the same; association of the newly instituted Mueller medal. He died at Melbourne on 7 March 1908 (barely three months after the death of his associate Fison). He married on 18 Aug. 1864, at Adelaide, Maria, daughter of Benjamin Boothby, judge of the supreme court at Adelaide; she died in 1902, leaving two sons and three daughters. A portrait of Howitt in bas relief is on the monument to Burke and Wills at Melbourne, Victoria.
[The Victorian Naturalist, vol. xxiv. April 1908, by Howitt's friend. Prof. W. Baldwin Spencer; (Melbourne) Argus, 9 March 1908; Man, viii. 1908; Johns's Notable Australians, 1908; J. G. Frazer's Howitt and Fison, art. in Folk Lore, June 1909, pp. 144 seq.; unpublished despatches; public records; information supplied by G. Harry Wallis of the City Museum, Nottingham.]