Erhard Eylmann's Missionary Position

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    Abstract

    The German anthropologist Erhard Eylmann relied heavily on assistance provided by missionaries when he undertook fieldwork in Australia. During two periods at the Hermannsburg mission he developed a strained relationship with Carl Strehlow. In his major work Eylmann wrote a damning critique of missionaries. While there was a level of personal animosity between Eylmann and Strehlow, at the heart of the antagonism were fundamental differences concerning the nature and function of the discipline of anthropology. The missionaries sought anthropological knowledge to promote mutual understanding, above all through language, as a prelude to conversion to Christianity. They proceeded from the assumption that the future of Indigenous Australians would be within the context of the adoption of Christian belief systems. Eylmann in contrast took the view that the differences between Europeans and Indigenous Australians were physical, essential and insuperable. Sceptical about the possibility of achieving mutual understanding, he devoted his fieldwork primarily to describing, recording and collecting for the purpose of assembling a detailed record of a population he believed destined for extinction. Eylmann and German missionary anthropologists such as Strehlow had in common that they stood outside the paradigm of British social evolutionistic thinking which dominated Australian anthropology around the turn of the century at the time. At the same time, the differences in the anthropological endeavours of Eylmann and Strehlow indicate the great breadth of approaches opening up within German anthropology. In particular they point to the emergence of an ‘antihumanist’ turn at the end of the nineteenth century.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)240-255
    Number of pages16
    JournalAnthropological Forum
    Volume27
    Issue number3
    DOIs
    Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 2017

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