George Windsor Earl — 'a single glance is sufficient'

Born in London, George (Samuel) Windsor Earl travelled by ship to India in 1827 as a midshipman at the age of 14 and then to Western Australia in 1830 as an indentured settler. He returned to the sea in 1832, travelling extensively between Batavia and Singapore, and rose to command his own trading brig in only two years, aged just 21. After a period back in England, he became involved in the promotion of permanent British settlement of the north coast of Australia, returning in 1838 to establish Port Essington with the North Australia Expedition. The challenges of the Port Essington settlement and several other ventures crushed Earl and he was invalided from Port Essington to London in 1845. Another attempt to launch his Australian career, this time by promoting cotton cultivation and steam transport between Sydney and Singapore, resulted again in poor health and an enforced convalescence in England. By 1855 he was once again in Australia and Singapore, shuttling from one position as a resident administrator to another until his death in 1865, en route to England from his last post at Penang.[43]

A skilled linguist, hydrographer, navigator, and draughtsman, Earl came to fame initially through the publication of a series of papers and books on the Indian Archipelago, combining his own experiences with a close knowledge of the relevant Dutch sources. He was able to secure a London publisher for his first major work, a translation of Kolff's (1840) account of his 1825 expedition to the Arafura Sea. While in London in 1845, he began to produce a series of articles on racial types for the Journal of the Indian Archipelago and Eastern Asia, edited by J.R. Logan, his principal sponsor, and published in Singapore. These articles were then collected and reprinted in 1853, when Earl was undergoing another period of convalescence in England, as The Native Races of the Indian Archipelago: Papuans — the first and, as it transpired, only volume of a planned series which was to have included separate works on Australians, 'Malayu-Polynesians', and Moluccans.

Earl's Papuans would remain the standard reference on the subject throughout the second half of the nineteenth century and his reputation as the first anthropologist of the Papuans endured into the twentieth. Earl's status as an authority on Papuans was widely acknowledged amongst those of his peers with regional field experience, such as the Dutchmen Jan Pijnappel (1822-1901) and Pieter Jan Baptist Carel Robidé van der Aa (1832-1887) and the Englishman John MacGillivray (1821–1867).[44] In the 1920s, reviewing the state of knowledge about the races of the Netherlands East Indies, J.P. Kleiweg de Zwaan (1925:83-8) would single out Earl as the point of departure in his canonical sequence of researchers in regional anthropology. Earl himself met or corresponded with leading ethnologists of the day such as Logan and Prichard, with the latter referring respectfully to his field experience (1847:227): 'Mr. Earle [sic] … is better acquainted from personal observation and intercourse with the Papua race than any former voyager has been'. Even Crawfurd (1852:clxi), not known for generosity in his personal appraisals (and discounting the observations of citizens of other European nations), asserted that 'Mr. Earl saw much more of the Negroes of New Guinea than any other Englishman' and quoted him at length. Another influential metropolitan anthropologist, the Frenchman Armand de Quatrefages (1810-1872), founded his analyses of Papuans and Negritos (1895) almost entirely on Earl's writings. Earl was also cited as a local authority on more general matters by authors such as Darwin and Wallace,[45] both of whom drew on his observations on the influence of deep-sea channels on bio-geographic discontinuities in the Indian Archipelago.[46] Perhaps Earl's most enduring claim to fame, though it is poorly known, was his invention in 1850 of the term 'Indu-nesia', later adopted and modified by Logan as 'Indonesia'.[47]

Whatever his proficiencies as a navigator in the Eastern Archipelago, once amongst the shoals of metropolitan scholarly society, Earl evidently lacked either the social standing, the connections, or the cunning of Crawfurd. Though he addressed the Royal Geographical Society twice (in 1837 and 1845), he never sought to become a member, apparently because he felt snubbed by the lack of acknowledgement in a paper published by the Society of material from his 1845 address.[48] Thereafter, and possibly as a consequence of this perceived rejection, Earl (1853:23, 68) developed a deep antipathy to metropolitan scholarship, citing approvingly only what he termed the 'unbiassed testimony' of other field observers whose evidence, being 'perfectly innocent of all ethnological theories … must be considered incontestible [sic]'.

As had Crawfurd, Earl sketched his image of the Papuan character on a canvas supplied by other inhabitants of the archipelago whom he designated the 'Malayu-Polynesians'. For Earl (1849-50:67), the distinction between the two was almost self-evident: 'The physical characteristics of the Malayu-Polynesians are so distinct from those of the Papuans, that a single glance is sufficient to detect the difference between the races'. The Malayu-Polynesians, he suggested (1849-50:3), had left their influence even in New Guinea in a 'line of improvement' that extended along the northern coast and eastwards into the Pacific.

Following established convention, Earl (1853:1, 3) opened his book on Papuans with the observation that 'their most striking peculiarity consists in their frizzled or woolly hair', deferring to Crawfurd's gloss of pua-pua or papua as 'crisped'. But in place of Crawfurd's confident 1820 account of a uniform Papuan type, Earl proposed considerable variety in features such as stature and in skin colour. Though he identified the Papuans as a single 'race', Earl (1849-50:2) found evidence for variation between at least two 'tribes': an earlier, short-statured group, limited to the interior of New Guinea, whom he actually labelled 'pygmies', two decades before Schweinfurth's more celebrated 'discovery' of African pygmies (Bahuchet 1993); and tribes of larger — or, occasionally, 'gigantic' — Papuans inhabiting the coastal zones. In his account of the Papuans, Earl (1853:6, 7) chose to challenge or directly contradict many of Crawfurd's points of contrast between the 'brown' and 'black' races. He regarded the Papuans as 'physically superior to the races of South-eastern Asia', while 'with regard to mental capacity, also, they are not inferior to the brown races'. Earl's explanation for the domination of Papuan communities by Malay traders and raiders was based not on inferiority but on the Papuan 'impatience of control' and 'want of organization'. Their 'inextinguishable hatred … towards those who attempt to settle in their territory' he explained not in terms of an innate savagery, for Papuan slaves elsewhere in the archipelago were 'remarkable for a cheery and obedient disposition', but in terms of the history of their treatment by Malays and a desire to protect their land from foreigners. 'It is an error', he concluded, 'to suppose that these poor creatures disappear before civilization. Their chief destroyers are the wild and warlike hunting tribes of the brown race'.

Earl's lasting reputation as a field observer conceals a nice irony, however. He read voraciously and 'pumped' other travellers, such as Owen Stanley and Dumont d'Urville, for information; but, as Reece observed more generally, 'gaps in his first-hand knowledge … did not inhibit Earl from presenting himself as an authority'.[49] Although he travelled widely between northern Australia and Singapore — evidently visiting the islands of Aru, Kai, Babar, Timor, and the neighbouring Serawatti group, for each of which he later published his own word lists (Earl 1848) — I can find no evidence that Earl ever actually laid eyes, or set foot, on New Guinea.[50]

[43] For further details of Earl's life, see Gibson-Hill 1959 and Reece 2002.

[44] MacGillivray 1852, II:76; Pijnappel 1853; Robidé van der Aa 1885.

[45] Camerini 1994:85,105, note 47.

[46] Earl 1845. In private correspondence dated to 1859, Darwin, commenting on Wallace's paper 'The Zoological Geography of the Malay Archipelago' (published later in 1860), needled Wallace by drawing his attention to the priority and similarity of Earl's 1845 paper (Marchant 1916:114); Earl (1845:362) had noted the limited distribution of several marsupial species in support of his argument for delineating the 'Great Asiatic Bank' and 'Great Australian Bank' which would later be recognised as Sunda and Sahul, respectively (Ballard 1993). Wallace replied defensively, suggesting that, due to Earl's 'imperfect knowledge of the natural history of the various islands, he did not fully appreciate the important results of this observation' (quoted in Fichman 1977:51-2).

[47] Jones 1973. Like Dumont d'Urville's 'Melanesia', Earl's 'Indu-nesia' was explicitly racial in its reference (1849-50:71): 'the time has arrived when a distinctive name for the brown races of the Indian Archipelago is urgently required … By adopting the Greek word for 'islands' as a terminal, for which we have a precedent in the term "Polynesia," the inhabitants of the "Indian Archipelago" or "Malayan Archipelago" would become respectively Indu-nesians or Malayunesians'.

[48] Earl's complaint at his treatment by the Royal Geographical Society imparts something of the flavour of the competition for advancement in London's academic societies: 'it was bad enough to be snubbed by the geologists, and to have my labours for years pronounced worthless by a set of quacks who had only a smattering of the science which they professed to lead, but to find them coolly appropriating the very theory they combined to upset, is more than even my patient nature can bear' (Earl to Beaufort, 24 April 1852, quoted in Allen 1969, I:312-13).

[49] Reece 1982:20, 37; 2002:4. Sir Thomas Mitchell, the Surveyor-General of New South Wales, described him more harshly — and somewhat unfairly — as a member of the school of 'theoretical travellers' (quoted in Reece 2002:19).

[50] Quatrefages (1872:622) and other readers of Earl bemoaned the 'truly rare modesty' that had led him to reproduce the descriptions of others rather than offer his own direct observations on Papuans. The German anthropologist and ornithologist Adolf Bernhard Meyer (1880:350) asserted that Earl had travelled widely along the north coast of New Guinea; but the only published claim by Earl, who was usually quick to indicate those locations that he had personally visited, that might suggest an intimate knowledge of the island is the following rather ambiguous statement: 'My limited experience with regard to New Guinea would not authorize me to say that no difference exists between the coast and inland native of this great island' (1849-50:3, original emphasis ).