Robert Hamilton Mathews was an Australian surveyor and self-taught anthropologist who studied the Aboriginal cultures of Australia, especially those of Victoria, New South Wales and southern Queensland. He was a member of the Royal Society of New South Wales and a corresponding member of the Anthropological Institute of London.
Mathews had no academic qualifications and received no university backing for his research. Mathews supported himself and his family from investments made during his lucrative career as a licensed surveyor. He was in his early fifties when he began the investigations of Aboriginal society that would dominate the last 25 years of his life. During this period he published 171 works of anthropology running to approximately 2200 pages. Mathews enjoyed friendly relations with Aboriginal communities in many parts of south-east Australia.
Marginalia in a book owned by Mathews suggest that Aboriginal people gave him the nickname Birrarak, a term used in the Gippsland region of Victoria to describe persons who communicated with the spirits of the deceased, from whom they learned dances and songs.
Mathews won some support for his studies outside Australia. Edwin Sidney Hartland, Arnold van Gennep and Andrew Lang were among his admirers. Lang regarded him as the most lucid and ‘well informed writer on the various divisions which regulate the marriages of the Australian tribes.' Despite endorsement abroad, Mathews was an isolated and maligned figure in his own country. Within the small and competitive anthropological scene in Australia his work was disputed and he fell into conflict with some prominent contemporaries, particularly Walter Baldwin Spencer and Alfred William Howitt. This affected Mathews’ reputation and his contribution as a founder of Australian anthropology has until recently been recognised only among specialists in Aboriginal studies. In 1987 Mathews’ notebooks and original papers were donated to the National Library of Australia by his granddaughter-in-law Janet Mathews. The availability of the Robert Hamilton Mathews papers has allowed greater understanding of his working methods and opened access to significant data that were never published. Mathews’ work is now used as a resource by anthropologists, archaeologists, historians, linguists, heritage consultants and by members of descendant Aboriginal communities.