Dr David Lawrence

Frederick Watson Fellow 2005

Topic: The early ethnographic writings of EW Pearson Chinnery: Government Anthropologist of New Guinea
Dr Lawrence presented a paper on his findings at the National Archives of Australia in Canberra on 28 March 2006.

Biographical note

Dr David Lawrence is a Visiting Fellow in the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies at the Australian National University. An anthropologist by training, he has published widely on the history and culture of indigenous societies in the Asia Pacific region. His doctoral thesis, awarded by James Cook University, was on traditional economic aspects of coastal fishing life which link the people of the Torres Strait Islands and the Papuan Coast.

Dr Lawrence’s recent books are Kakadu: The Making of a National Park and The Great Barrier Reef – Finding the Right Balance, both published by Melbourne University Press. The study of Kakadu was a finalist in the year 2000 New South Wales Premier’s History Awards for the Australian History Prize.


Dr Lawrence’s Frederick Watson Fellowship helped him write a book on the anthropologist E W Pearson Chinnery. Chinnery served in New Guinea for many years and succeeded FE Williams as Government Anthropologist in the territories of Papua and New Guinea. Chinnery saw himself as a facilitator who actively encouraged the work of famous field anthropologists such as Margaret Mead, Reo Fortune and Gregory Bateson.

Dr Lawrence explored the colonial experience through the work of government anthropologists from the 1920s to 1940s. He contends that many of the current dilemmas facing development in the southwest Pacific were recognised as potential issues by officials such as Chinnery.

Following his New Guinea service, Chinnery was appointed as Director of Native Affairs in the Northern Territory, as well as the Commonwealth Adviser of Native Affairs and later Australian Adviser to the United Nations Trusteeship Council. Comparing Chinnery’s opinions and policies in New Guinea with those implemented in the Northern Territory was an important aspect of this study.

The National Archives has a wealth of records that are essential to understanding cultural contact and social changes resulting from the penetration of European influence in the pacific region.


EW Pearson Chinnery (1887–1972) occupied a number of senior positions in the Australian colonial administrations of the territories of Papua and New Guinea in the 1920s and 1930s. He was an important administrative official at a time when Australia took significant steps to improve the quality of the field staff in the territories. However, Chinnery is not regarded as an important figure in the history of Australian anthropology.

This paper offers some explanation as to why he is largely ignored, but seeks first to examine how and why Chinnery developed in interest in ethnology during his initial service in Papua and later when a student at Cambridge in 1919 and 1920.

References to records in the National Archives collection cited by Dr David Lawrence

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2018