William Rivers was not always interested in Anthropology. In fact, he was originally so uninterested that when an uncle (James Hunt 1833-69), left him a number of books on the subject, he refused them. Likewise, when invited to join the Cambridge Anthropology Expedition to the Torres Straits in April 1898 by Alfred Cort Haddon, he declined, recommending his former student, Charles Myers, in his stead. By the time of his death, however, he was noted as a skilled field-worker in the subject, had written several papers, created a methodology that would become famous, and made studies in Egypt, Melanesia, India, back home in England and as far away as Australia. His Fellowship at St John’s (1902) was awarded largely on the merit of his anthropological work and he is remembered as a major, if controversial, figure in its establishment as a university subject along with Ethnology (Paul Whittle ‘A Founding Father Worth Remembering).He even once said that he would like ‘He made Ethnology a Subject’ as his epitaph.

A C Haddon

A C Haddon

What changed the Doctor’s mind was Haddon’s repeated invitation. Eventually the fact two of his former students were to participate in the expedition and curiosity; a ‘desire for change and novelty’, got the better of him and he agreed to go as one of the party’s psychologists Taking little more than what could ‘fit into a handbag’ (Slobodin) , he travelled to Murray Island, near Australia, with Haddon Myers, William McDougall, another former student, Sidney Ray, C.G Seligman, and Anthony Wilkin, as photographer.

Part of the CAETS Team, Rivers far left

Part of the CAETS Team, with Rivers far left

Rivers task was to assess the colour vision of the natives and for the first days, this had to be carried out at his bedside as he had become sun-burnt on the journey and was too ill to proceed further. Despite this, he noticed the warmth of the welcome he was given and retained a strong fondness for the area, and concern for the inhabitants, for the rest of his life. He began to construct genealogical records as far as the traditions of the people would allow, in an attempt to discover whether particular sensory traits were hereditary. This could be complicated since the terms for various relationships within families did not correspond to the manner in which Europeans categorise their siblings, parents, uncles, aunts etc and finally, he arrived at a new technique, which he called the ‘Genealogical Method’. It has been used innumerable times since by experts and students alike and many regard it as Rivers’ most important contribution to anthropology. He would be no doubt delighted that this was successfully utilised many years later in attempts by the local people to prove ownership and regain control of their former land from the Queensland authorities of Australia


The same area now

The expedition ended in October and the group returned to England where Rivers ran similar tests for comparison purposes, doing so again in 1900 when he, Myers and Wilkin traveled to Egypt. Now very interested in anthropological fieldwork, he took several more trips to Melanesia and other regions including India where, in 1902, he made an in-depth study of the Toda people, publishing a report detailing his findings in 1906.

Toda huts, from Rivers' 'The Todas', 1906

Toda huts, from Rivers’ ‘The Todas’, 1906

The Todas had actually been examined before but Rivers’ outlook made a difference; wittingly or no, his underlying expertise in psychology gave him a slightly altered perspective as opposed to the general anthropologist of the time; a unique insight and a desire to portray the value of individuals he encountered. He was also keen to promote the need for precision and considered technique in such investigations, which he lamented to be absent from the science at the time (see preface of ‘The Todas’ W. H. R. Rivers, 1906) and hoped that his book would not only provide information of the Todas but suggest too how examination should be carried out “So that readers may assign its proper value to each fact..And may be provided with definite evidence.”

In 1907, Rivers once again visited Melanesia, with the accompaniment of Arthur Maurice Hocart,* focusing on the islands of Eddystone, and Simbo in the Western Solomons. They were the first anthropologists to spend so long (three months) ‘immersed’ in a society for observation; a ‘pioneering’ and ‘remarkable’ expedition, in the words of the authors of ‘The Ethnograpic Experiment‘. Their work mainly concerned recording the crafts, belief systems and everyday actions of these people because the doctor had been worried that these were being gradually eroded by the (not always benign) influence of the white man (The Disappearance of Useful Arts, W. H. R. Rivers, 1912 : The History of Melanesia, W. H.R. Rivers, 1914).

the problem persisted not just on a practical level. Rivers noticed how the changes and loss of regard for their traditions left the inhabitants depressed and apathetic in comparison to what he witnessed in earlier visits and feared what would become of them in the future. Hocart also frequently referred to the despondency of the native people is his account of their stay, and  Christine Dureau, Dr of Anthropology, to illustrate, uses his narrative to compare with another made by an observer in the 18th century. This observer recorded the islanders as being ‘autonomous and assertive’, showing a great change occurring between the times before and after ‘British Pacification’. Rivers writings betray his growing belief that the native, however primitive his life might seem to European culture, led just a valid a lifestyle as those in more ‘civilised’ societies – after all their people had lasted just as long, and that they should be respected for such

A Native helping Rivers with the colour vision test in the Torres Straits

A Native helping Rivers with the colour vision test in the Torres Straits

In Rivers’ own words, the ‘Great White God’ no longer held so exalted a place in his own perception. He had long begun to see the value in the ways of what colleagues called his ‘Headhunters.’ As work-based as these trips to various countries were, they represented far more to the doctor; the etiquette expected of the average Victorian or Edwardian, let alone a Cambridge Don, meant nothing to them, and they took each person as they appeared; Rivers could for once be himself, be relaxed without having to conform to the sometimes petty or restrictive notions he encountered back home where, with his complex expertise and personality, he did not fit comfortably into traditional categories. The ease he felt on these trips with the laughing, friendly natives (Slobodin) only emphasized the rigid, by-the-book existence that England represented for him now.  The natives did not expect him to speak or dress in a certain style or repress his natural feelings and reactions. Much as co-workers, friends, and family teased him, he was far happier ‘out in the field’, and anthropological travel became almost vital to his well-being in a way that those at home, with their own ironically backward view of tribal life, could not hope to comprehend.

*A more comprehensive account of each expedition can be gained from several sources, including the works of A.M. Hocart from whom, in the recording of his time in the Solomons, one can discover some of the widest comments on the Rivers as a man, rather than just a scientist that it is easily possible to access. Where it not for constraints placed upon space available on free websites, more would be included here from that source. Rivers obituary by L E Shore also gives a very detailed account of Rivers influence in related subjects
• ^Ethnology and Ethnography, primarily sciences which deal with man as a racial unit and with the distribution over the earth of racial units. They include a comparative study of the physical characters of the races of mankind and also a comparative study and classification of peoples based upon cultural conditions and characteristics.”