NOOSA - Beatrice Mary Blackwood (1889–1975) was born into a wealthy family in England and attended Oxford University, gaining a degree in English and a distinction in Anthropology, a field in which she sought to excel and in which she continued to work at Oxford until a few days before her death.
Blackwood never married and conducted some exacting field trips. Her second, in 1929, was to Buka and Bougainville and she was the first woman anthropologist to travel to the region.
Her third, in 1936, was to the New Guinea interior to become the first anthropologist to study the Anga people. “As far as I can find out, no one has worked among the Kukukukus, so I hope it will be worthwhile,” she wrote at the time. She was to be disappointed
Now Frances Larson has brought Blackwood’s exploits to light as one of five “hidden heroines of British anthropology” in a book, ‘Undreamed Shores’, which has been reviewed recently in both The Spectator by Caroline Moore and The Guardian by Kathryn Hughes. (And thanks to Bernard Corden for drawing them to my attention.)
Blackwood was “determined to escape from being ‘a mere snapper-up of museum specimens’ and to do real fieldwork” amidst a Stone Age community in which she could immerse herself.
But the government anthropologist in PNG, Ernest Chinnery, consistently assigned her settlements within hailing distance of the local police station.
It seems Chinnery was obsessed with the idea of European women getting raped by local men, even though there was no record of it ever happening.
So her initial activities were restricted to villages on Buka and north Bougainville where, as the locals said, ‘Mission e capsize altogether fashion belong before’ [the missions had done away with past practices].
When her next trip to PNG came round in 1936, Blackwood was alive to the prospect of being hived off to a place where there had been considerable outside contact. But the least contaminated tribe she could find also proved to be a disappointment.
This time it was the Anga tribe where she encountered a culture already muddled by colonial interventions: metal tools, under the sway of the local Lutheran mission, and growing cash crops to sell to gold miners.
Blackwood persisted but found herself thwarted by taboos and a reluctance by the men to enjoin conversation. She joked that their “two main — and almost only — interests were food and fighting”.
Her best asset was a kitten she had taken with her and with which “some of the toughest old warriors would spend hours trailing bits of string for her to play with”.
At the end of both expeditions to New Guinea, Blackwood felt herself a failure for not making the real breakthroughs she sought.
When she returned to Oxford from New Guinea in 1938, she brought with her more than 2,000 artefacts and reels of film, three of which survive in the university’s Pitt Rivers Museum. Valuable enough but far short of her desire for the freedom of fieldwork.
Blackwood was to gravitate to becoming a curator at the museum, “passionately knowledgeable” as one reviewer wrote, but “determinedly private”.
Of great interest to Papua New Guinean readers – especially as Larson’s book covers the stories of five anthropologists of which only Blackwood researched in PNG – is a detailed chronology of her life with much more information about her work in Bougainville, Buka and amongst the Anga people.
Beatrice Blackwood may not have achieved all she would have wished in her career but there can be no doubt she assembled a great deal of material and gave a great deal of thought to many of the questions about humanity that anthropologists seek to address.
In one of the boxes of papers assembled after her death was a lecture manuscript in which she warned against those who sought to make political use of the language about ‘race’.
Race was a physical trait, not a cultural or linguistic one, she wrote:
"We cannot stress too often or too strongly the fact…that classifications suggested by language or other kinds of purely cultural evidence may be entirely misleading if they are accepted as a guide to racial distinctions.
"It is a great pity that so much of the earlier work did not take sufficient account of this distinction – partly owing to lack of knowledge, and to the fact that linguistic data is so much more easily collected than physical data."
Beatrice Blackwood has provided us with a legacy, and there are more than a few gems in that treasure trove for Papua New Guineans.