Sound and vision blog

29 June 2021

True Echoes: Cambridge Expedition to the Torres Strait Islands, 1898

The Alfred Cort Haddon 1898 Expedition (Torres Strait and New Guinea) cylinder collection (C80) is a collection of 140 wax cylinders recorded as part of the 1898 Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to Torres Straits. The collection is made up of two parts; 101 cylinders recorded in the Torres Strait Islands in Australia and 39 recorded in what is today Papua New Guinea.

Members of the 1898 Cambridge Expedition on Mabuiag, Torres Strait. From L – R: WHR Rivers, Charles Seligmann, Alfred Cort Haddon (seated), Sidney Ray and Anthony Wilkin

Above: Members of the 1898 Cambridge Expedition on Mabuiag, Torres Strait. From L – R: WHR Rivers, Charles Seligmann, Alfred Cort Haddon (seated), Sidney Ray and Anthony Wilkin. Reproduced by permission of University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology N.23035.ACH2

I am currently researching the cylinders recorded in the Torres Strait Islands as part of True Echoes, a three-year project funded by the Leverhulme Trust and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). This collection of wax cylinders is hugely significant; they are the earliest ethnographic sound recordings in the British Library’s Sound Archive and the earliest recordings made in Oceania.

Of these 101 Torres Strait cylinders, 92 have been digitised, including three probable Torres Strait cylinders recently identified within other collections at the British Library. Unfortunately, some cylinders cannot be digitised because they are broken or have been damaged by mildew or mould.

The expedition was organised by Professor Alfred Cort Haddon (1855-1940), a distinguished natural scientist and ethnologist who was instrumental in establishing anthropology as a discipline at the University of Cambridge. Although trained as a marine biologist, his first visit to the Torres Strait Islands in 1888 was “the turning point in his life”, reshaping both his career and the field of anthropology (Quiggin 1942:81). He returned to the Torres Strait Islands in 1898 to focus on ethnology and to document traditional knowledge, including music and dance, which he noted was impacted by the effects of colonialism in the region.

The Torres Strait Islands were of particular interest to researchers of the time due to their location between the “distinctive cultural, geographical and biological zones” of Australia and New Guinea, enabling researchers to develop “European theories in both natural history and ethnology” (Herle & Rouse 1998:12).

Expedition members included William Halse Rivers Rivers (1864–1922), a physician specialising in experimental psychology and physiology; Charles Seligmann (1873–1940), a pathologist specialising in tropical diseases; Charles Samuel Myers (1873–1946), a physician who specialised in psychology and music; William McDougall (1871–1938), also a physician; linguist Sidney Ray (1858–1939), and Anthony Wilkin (1877?–1901), the expedition’s photographer.

The cylinders came into the British Library as part of the larger Sir James Frazer collection from the University of Cambridge. They were re-identified in 1978 following a visit to the British Institute of Recorded Sound (BIRS) by Alice Moyle (1908–2005). The BIRS later became the British Library's sound collections. Moyle was formerly the Ethnomusicology Research Officer at Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies (AIAS), now Australian Institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS). She spent a month in England from 23 August 1978, following retirement from her position at AIAS. During this trip, she spent two weeks at BIRS to discuss the plans for transferring the Torres Strait (“Myers”) cylinders to tape. She also offered assistance in sorting the Australian cylinders. She completed a “preliminary sort” of the cylinders, and later wrote about “scaling ladders and investigating the dusty corners” of the BIRS.

The 1898 cylinders have little accompanying documentation, aside from inscriptions on the cylinder containers and some small paper inserts. However, many of the recordings correspond to songs and ceremonies described in the six Reports of the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to Torres Straits published between 1901 and 1935. Historical research conducted by myself and Vicky Barnecutt, True Echoes Research Fellow, as well as Alice Moyle’s findings have enabled us to enhance the metadata and documentation for this important cylinder collection. This has included re-instating attribution for many of the recordings, which feature a variety of performers from at least four of the Torres Strait Islands, including Mer / Murray Island, Mabuiag / Jervis Island, Saibai Island, and Iama / Yam Island. The expedition members often named and directly quoted Torres Strait Islanders in their publications, helping me to identify individuals featured in the recordings. For example, Peter, Tom Noboa and Waria (hereditary chief of Mabuiag) worked as Sidney Ray’s main consultants on Mabuiag, and Ulai and Gasu are featured in many of the recordings made by Myers on Mer / Murray Island.

Both Ray and Myers have been identified as the sound recordists of the Torres Strait cylinders. Myers spent most of his time on Mer / Murray Island and many of his recordings can be categorised into three groupings; Malu, keber and secular songs. The Malu and keber songs are ceremonial songs. Malu (or Malo) refers to the Malu-Bomai belief system, which was the “major religious belief system on Murray Island before the London Missionary Society arrived in the Torres Strait in 1871” (Koch 2013:15). The Keber songs are associated with the Waiet belief system and were “performed during periods of mourning” (Lawrence 2004:49) and as part of “funeral preparations” (Philp 1999:69).

The secular songs include kolap wed or “spinning top songs”; Myers noted that kolap spinning had "recently been the fashionable excuse for an island gathering" and these songs were performed while sitting in a circle and spinning the tops (Myers 1898:87; 1912:240).

C80/1032 is an example of a kolap song. The inscription on the cylinder lid and the note inside the cylinder box indicate that this is an older song, possibly composed by Joe Brown (also known as Poloaii) and sung by Ulai. These men were both from Mer / Murray Island and contributed to a number of the recordings in the cylinder collection.

A kolap (spinning top) song, Mer / Murray Island (C80/1032)

Top spinning on Murray Island / Mer, 1898

Above: Top spinning on Murray Island / Mer, 1898. Photograph taken by Anthony Wilkin. Reproduced by permission of University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology N.23184.ACH2

Ray produced recordings on Mabuiag, Saibai and Iama / Yam Island. His linguistic research was published in Volume III of the Reports. This includes a transcription and translation of the Story of Amipuru as told by Waria, which can be heard on cylinder C80/1041.

The Torres Strait collection contains recordings of songs from other cultures, including those from Samoa (C80/1055, 1488), Rotuma (C680/722, C80/1061) and Japan (C80/1049-1051). We think that these were recorded on the Torres Strait Islands.

The Torres Strait cylinder collection is large and complex. True Echoes is working in partnership with AIATSIS, as well as local communities in the Torres Strait Islands, in order to understand the collection more fully. Participatory research in the Torres Strait Islands is being planned for later this year and we hope that the sharing of local knowledge and cultural memory will enable the cylinder collection to be accurately catalogued and made more visible and accessible for the communities from which the recordings originate. Following participatory research, we hope to share the cylinder recordings and research findings via the True Echoes website.

Grace Koch (History Researcher) and Lara McLellan (Manager, International Engagement) from AIATSIS travelled to Thursday Island, Torres Strait, from 1–8 May 2021 in order to make contacts with relevant people and organisations that will be involved in the project and to learn the best ways to observe cultural protocols. Grace writes:

“Before the trip, we had circulated information about the project and had made printouts of the research documents compiled by Rebekah Hayes, listings of people recorded on the cylinders, and bibliographies of all of the Torres Strait material held in the AIATSIS collections.

“Meetings were held with staff and representatives from the Torres Strait Regional Authority (TSRA) and Gur a Baradharaw Kod Torres Strait Sea and Land Council (GBK) as well as with Flora Warrior, a descendant of Net (Ned) Waria (Mabuiag I.). The Chair of GBK, Lui Ned David, is a descendant of Maino (Iama and Tudu Islands), who was a friend and mentor to Haddon on both the 1888 and 1898 trips. We also located descendants of Noboa (spelt today as Nubuwa) and Nomoa (spelt today as Numa), both of Mabuiag, and Ulai of Mer.

Grace Koch with Lui Ned David, Chair of Gur a Baradharaw Kod Torres Strait Sea and Land Council (GBK). Thursday Island, May 2021

Above: Grace Koch with Lui Ned David, Chair of Gur a Baradharaw Kod Torres Strait Sea and Land Council (GBK). Thursday Island, May 2021.

Above: Lara McLellan (L) and Grace Koch (R) with Flora Warrior, a descendant of Net (Ned) Waria, who features on some of the 1898 wax cylinder recordings. Thursday Island, May 2021.

Above: Lara McLellan (L) and Grace Koch (R) with Flora Warrior, a descendant of Net (Ned) Waria, who features on some of the 1898 wax cylinder recordings. Thursday Island, May 2021.

“All of the people with whom we spoke are involved in cultural maintenance and education, so are enthusiastic about the project. We are partnering with them to shape it in ways that will be most helpful to them and to the British Library. The work will ensure that the connections to specific islands, clans and families will be respected.”

Rebekah Hayes

True Echoes Research Fellow

Bibliography:

Herle, Anita and Rouse, Sandra (eds.) 1998. Cambridge and the Torres Strait: Centenary essays on the 1898 anthropological expedition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. [British Library shelfmark General Reference Collection YC.1998.b.5990]

Koch, Grace. 2013. We have the song, so we have the land: song and ceremony as proof of ownership in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander land claims. AIATSIS research discussion paper no. 33. Canberra: AIATSIS Research Publications. Available as a PDF online.

Lawrence, Helen Reeves. 2004. “‘The great traffic in tunes’: agents of religious and musical changes in eastern Torres Strait”. In: R. Davis (ed.) Woven Histories, Dancing Lives: Torres Strait Islander Identity, Culture and History. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press. [British Library shelfmark Asia, Pacific & Africa YD.2005.a.5328]

Moyle, Alice. 14 November 1986. Letter to Ray Keogh [Held at AIATSIS, MS3501/1/129/18]

Myers, Charles Samuel. 1898-1899. Journal on Torres Straits anthropological expedition. [manuscript] Haddon Papers. ADD 8073. Cambridge: Cambridge University Library.

Myers, Charles Samuel. 1912. “Music”. In: A.C. Haddon (ed.) Reports of the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to Torres Straits, Volume IV, Arts and Crafts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 238-269. [British Library shelfmark General Reference Collection YC.2011.b.632 vol. 4]

Philp, Jude. 1999. “Everything as it used to be:” Re-creating Torres Strait Islander History in 1898. The Cambridge Journal of Anthropology, Vol. 21, No. 1, pp. 58-78. https://www.jstor.org/stable/23825691

Quiggin, Alison Hingston. 1942. Haddon the Head Hunter: a short sketch of the life of A. C. Haddon. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. [British Library shelfmark General Reference Collection 10859.n.10.]

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