Theodore Francis Bevan 1860-1907
Theodore Francis Bevan 1860-1907
Early in 1886, Theodore Bevan, a 25-year-old Londoner of Welsh descent lay in his Port Moresby bed racked with the ‘fever-and ague fiend’ (most likely malaria). He had been busy trading for bech-de mer and incidentally collecting ‘curios’ along the Papuan coast, west and east of Port Moresby, for some six months in his cutter Electra, this being his third visit to British New Guinea. He had just sent 1440 of these ‘curios’ to the Colonial and Indian Exhibition in London. Lack of fresh food and being constantly at sea weakened his resistance to the ‘plague’ that was sweeping the coast and killing many people.
I would sink off into an uneasy slumber at, say, three pm and sleep seemingly for years and ages, all through my past life and far into futurity, and at last awake (judging by the sunlight that another day had broke), only to find, by reference to the inexorable time piece, that these aeons of ages had winged in but ten minutes’ actual oblivion from the realities of a sternly matter-of-fact world (Bevan 1890: 169).
Theodore Francis Bevan c.1888. Unknown photographer. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Image Nr 33429.
He rose from his bed at times to continue his trading activities but in the end he experienced such ‘frightful fevers’ that ‘it became a matter of indifference to me whether I survived or not’ (ibid:175). In late June 1886, he dragged himself to a schooner and took passage to Sydney where he slowly recovered in the Blue Mountains. He was warned by a doctor that should he be mad enough to return to New Guinea, he should take a coffin with him.
But in November of that year he secured from Robert Philp of Burns Philp & Co. ‘the free use of a steam launch for six weeks work in any part of the country I cared to select’ (ibid: 185). He decided on the Papuan Gulf despite Andrew Goldie’s warning that ‘The water is in parts very shallow, with sandbanks running as far out as five miles to sea; and numerous rivers of discoloured water, having their origin in the great mountains’ [to the north] (ibid: 185-6).
Bevan left Thursday Island on 17th March 1887 on the Victory and headed for the Papuan Gulf. He had with him the Melbourne photographers George Bell and Henry Langford and intended to collect natural history specimens and artefacts from the settlements he visited.
Commencing in the Kikori River delta, they discouraged an attack by about sixty men in canoes by sounding the ship’s whistle and firing shots wide of the mark. Further up the river, at a settlement Bevan recorded as Tumu, they initiated peaceful contact by offering ‘turkey red’ cloth and hoop iron for which they obtained a bow and bone-tipped arrows. They took the eastern tributary, the Sirebi (which Bevan named the Philp in honour of his benefactor) and proceeded as far up that river by rowboat to within ‘25 miles’ (actually 50 miles) of the British/German border running through present day Mt Karimui.
Returning down to the Kikori Delta, they visited the people of Moko (Varaibari), then crossed the Gulf eastwards a hundred kilometres to arrive at Vailala on 9th April. The captain of the Victory, Frederick Boore, recorded in his diary for that date: ‘About 7pm several canoes came off and we done a considerable amount of trade with them’. The next day: ‘Daylight, the natives came off in large numbers. Bought a considerable amount more of curios’.
East-south-east along the coast at Motu Motu , where in September 1885 Bevan’s cutter Electra had almost been wrecked, Boore reports that ‘Bevan, the two photographers and myself went ashore in boat. Took splendid photographs of the native groups, their village and sago cleaning’. Turning back westwards they visited Karama, Silo and Kerema, trading for more ‘curios’ at each village.
Sago processing, Motu Motu, 11 April 1887. Photo: Bell & Langford. Royal Geog. Soc. London, D009/008344.
Back at ‘Ballala’ (Vailala) on 13th April, Boore notes: ‘Took some splendid photographs of native group and the village, and done a considerable amount of trade for curios’. Moving on further west to Orokolo, there was more trading. Further on they sailed into a broad estuary that Bevan named the Stanhope (now Pie), following it north for over 50 km before turning back and following a connecting stream to the western-most branch of the Purari delta; Bevan named it the Queen’s Jubilee River in honour of the 50th year of Queen Victoria’s reign.
About 24 km up this branch of the Purari, they came across a village on the north bank named Evorra, marked on 1965 maps as Evarra. Bevan counted fifteen houses and some 200 people and recorded a vocabulary of these Namau speakers.
Carved and painted bark waistbelts tightly pinched the abdomens of the males, who also wore white groin shells and pearl-shell breastplates of crescent shape, while the younger men adorned their persons with the brilliant leaves of variegated crotons. Among novelties obtained at this village were flat masks of semi-oval shape, varying in length from one to eight feet. These were constructed of fibre of a sterculiaceous plant, with a raised rim down the middle from top to bottom, and at one end a projection shaped like a nose with two eye-apertures alongside. The whole was decorated with an irregular semi-serpentine pattern in black and white, and the rims were edged with cane frilling. Human and cabalistic representations carved on small flat slabs of bark and palm frond were also new to my previous experience of Papuan ethnology. Specimens of both descriptions were hung up in front of the houses apparently as emblems (Bevan 1890: 198-9).
Evorra village, Purari Delta, 21 April 1887. Photo: Bell & Langford. Royal Geog. Soc. London, D009/008331.
These masks were called aiaimunu and represent spirits of the bush. Apparently, Bevan did not go inside the men’s houses (ravi) and therefore did not see and collect the carved boards called kwoi.
Further upriver they found only sago-processing/gardening camps. Boore notes in his diary of 21st April: ‘At 2.50 pm came to an anchor off a deserted village. Bevan, photographers and others went ashore in a boat and took a photograph of it and two or three curios that had been left as a taboo, leaving a few pieces of turkey red [cloth] in exchange.’ The next day, Boore again records that they passed ‘several deserted villages. Boat went ashore and took the taboos, leaving some trade in exchange.’
The expedition continued upriver reaching shallow water among foothills on 23 April and on the 25th turned back along the way they came, reaching the coast on the 28th and Motu Motu on the 29th. Here the expedition members were photographed among a large group of villagers. On the 30th, they steamed south-west across the Gulf of Papua to arrive back at Thursday Island on 3 May 1887.
Members of the 1887 Victory expedition among local people at Motu Motu, 29 April 1887. Bevan in white shirt left of centre. Photo: Bell & Langford. Royal Geog. Soc. London, D009/008345.
Bevan summed up the results of the trip:
As a result of thirty-four days actual exploration, two principal new rivers - namely the Douglas [Kikori] (with its tributary the Philp [Sirebi]) and the Queen’s Jubilee [Wame, the western branch of the Purari Delta] were discovered, and each was followed up for a distance of nearly one hundred miles (1890: 201-2).
Fifty photographs, including many of new tribes and scenery, were obtained and interesting additions to our knowledge of the flora, fauna, ethnology, and anthropology of New Guinea have been contributed by means of the collections made (ibid: 207, Bevan’s emphasis).
Part of Bevan’s 1887 ‘Victory’ Expedition collection in Sydney.
Photo: Royal Geog. Soc. London, D009/008353.
1. Hohao, Dublin 334:1890. 2. ‘Taboo’, SAM A.7426. 3.Wood club, SAM A.7633.
4. Aiaimunu mask, Dublin 351:1890. 5. Mask, SAM A.7437. 6. Aiaimunu mask, SAM A.8554.
7. Eharo mask, SAM A.7444 (a pair to this is in Dublin - 346.1890). 8. Hohao, SAM A.7680.
9. Eharo (‘crocodile-man’), SAM A.7440. 10. Eharo (pair to SAM A.7440). Probably Dublin.
Part of Bevan’s 1887 ‘Victory’ Expedition collection in Sydney. Royal Geog. Soc. London, D009/008353a.
1. Under-arm shield, SAM A.7408. 2. Aiaimunu mask, Dublin, 349:90.
3. Aiaimunu mask, Dublin, 348:90. 4. Hohao, SAM A.7679. 5. Fishing float, SAM A.7667.
6. Eharo mask in the form of a drum, Dublin, 329:90. 7. Small hohao, Dublin, 342:90.
8. Aiaimunu mask, SAM A.7421. 9. Eharo mask, Dublin, 352:90.
The artefacts from this expedition were photographed at what was presumably a Burns Philp warehouse in Sydney; approximately half were sent to the 1887 Queen Victoria Jubilee exhibition in Adelaide and subsequently purchased by the South Australian Museum (Craig 2010). Another substantial component of the collection appears to have been sent to the 1888 Centennial International Exhibition in Melbourne. Subsequently, the government of Victoria sent at least some of the Bevan collection to the Paris Universal Exhibition in 1889. At the recommendation of A.C. Haddon, the Museum of Science and Art (now the National Museum of Ireland) in Dublin purchased 51 Bevan items from the Royal Commission for Victoria in 1890. A few of these were published in Douglas Newton’s 1961 Art Styles of the Papuan Gulf.
Two Bevan masks in the Pacific Cultures Gallery of the South Australian Museum, Adelaide. Left: A.7444, eharo; probably Orokolo. Right: A.8554, aiaimunu, Evorra, Purari River. Photo: Barry Craig.
Bevan exhibits in the Pacific Cultures Gallery of the South Australian Museum, Adelaide. Photo Barry Craig.
The 1440 artefacts sent by Bevan to the Colonial and Indian Exhibition in London in 1886 was afterwards purchased by the New South Wales government and presented to the Imperial Institute in London (Bevan 1890:169 footnote). The Imperial Institute was the brain-child of Prince Albert and officially opened in 1893 but had a troubled history. Most of the Institute buildings were demolished in the 1950s and 1960s to make way for an expansion of the University College of London. The Imperial Institute, renamed the Commonwealth Institute, moved to a new building in London in 1962, but in 2002 that closed down and the collections moved to the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum in Bristol. I contacted the BCEM hoping to hear they had at least some of the Bevan collection but was informed they had no ethnographic collections at all! The list of 1440 artefacts published for the New South Wales Court of the 1886 London exhibition (Richards 1886) suggests this collection from the south-east coast and eastern islands of Papua, earlier than the collections made by Sir William MacGregor, would be of singular significance if it could be found. This would require diligent search of archives by a scholar in London.
Thirteen items in the British Museum collected by Bevan were sold at a Sotheby’s auction to Sir Augustus Wollaston Franks and donated by him to the Museum in 1890. Most are from Milne Bay and therefore likely to have been collected by Bevan in 1885-86.This suggests that the collection Bevan sent to London in 1886 and presented to the Imperial Institute may have been dispersed at auction and by other means during the Institute’s troubled history. The Macleay Museum at the University of Sydney has at least seven items from Bevan, probably from his first 1887 trip on the Victory. No doubt other Bevan items will be found.
Bevan made no collections during his second 1887 trip on the Mabel. The Mabel expedition was his last trip to New Guinea. He returned to Australia and in 1890 published Toil, Travel and Discovery in British New Guinea. He married Sarah Taylor in 1892 and died of consumption in 1907, age 47, in Sydney. He had no children. There is no evidence he kept a personal collection.
Bevan, T.F. 1890. Toil, Travel, and Discovery in British New Guinea. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co.
Boore, F.A. 1887. A Journal 17 March-3 May 1887 made on a voyage along the Aird River, New Guinea. Mitchell Library, Sydney, MSS 1770.
Craig, B. 2010. ‘Scenes hidden from other eyes’ – Theodore Bevan’s collection from the Gulf of Papua in the South Australian Museum. The Artefact 33: 30-48.
Newton, D. 1961. Art Styles of the Papuan Gulf. New York: Museum of Primitive Art.
Richards, T. 1886. New South Wales at the Colonial and Indian Exhibition. London: Government Printer.