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state library of queensland
John Oxley Library

Archibald Meston Papers OM64-17

By Des Crump | 16 December 2019

Meston Vocabulary Notebook 6 - Birds.

One of the significant items in the State Library collections for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Languages webpages is the Archibald Meston Papers.  Items from this collection are featured in the Spoken exhibition.

Portrait of Archibald Meston,

Portrait of Archibald Meston, Negative number 68274, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. 

The Australian Dictionary of Biography lists Meston as a journalist, explorer and botanist; however, Archibald Meston (1851-1924) is best known for his role as the Protector of Aborigines for Southern Queensland 1897-1904.

Report on the Aboriginals of Queensland, RBJ 572.89915 MES

Meston was also the author of the ‘Report on the Aboriginals of Queensland’ which later formed the basis for the Aborigines Protection Act, 1897 (Queensland). In his role as Protector, Meston visited many Aboriginal communities and camps across Queensland and as an amateur ethnologist and linguist documented Aboriginal culture and language. Meston collected words and wordlists from sites across Queensland – these were later collated into various notebooks and cuttings.

Featured image for blog post 68317
South-East Queensland Placenames (Meston).

The State Library collections are fortunate to hold a significant amount of materials compiled by Meston. OM64-17 Archibald Meston Papers 1867-1960, according to the catalogue description is ‘a collection of press cuttings, notes, correspondence relating mainly to Aborigines in Queensland, in particular, to language’. Meston as a journalist had a diverse range of interests and these are revealed within the collection item - notebooks, cuttings, a manuscript for a Queensland novel, personal papers and correspondence can be found in the boxes.

Archibald Meston at an Aboriginal camp, 1904. 

Archibald Meston at an Aboriginal camp, 1904. Negative number 33262, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. 

Boxes 8431 and 8432 are of particular interest to community language workers and language researchers.  The contents include Vocabulary Notebooks compiled by Meston; Notebooks 5, 6, 7 and 8 were the focus of an initial digitisation project and include a broad selection of Aboriginal words gathered from across Queensland during the 1890's-1920's period. These notebooks are available online via One Search.

Meston Notebook 8 - Plants.

The notebooks and their associated wordlists includes Meston's collected wordlists, as well as references to other language work of the time, including Devaney's The Vanished Tribes which was published in 1929.

Meston Notebook 7 - Devaney wordlist.

While Meston had a strong interest in Aboriginal culture, he did not have linguistic training  and consequently developed his own peculiar way of recording the sounds and words of Queensland's Aboriginal languages. As with any language research, the work of Meston should be cross-referenced with other sources for the purposes of validation and authentication. In particular, it should be verified and interrogated against community knowledge.

Meston Notebook 5 - Bananas.

Due to the rambling nature of the notebooks, a full transcript of each is not available as the text is quite legible and self-explanatory. For example, the page above is from Notebook 5 and is a part of a discussion on banana tariffs in Honduras, Nicaragua and other countries to the US in comparison to Queensland! Despite these random entries, the following overview of the Meston Vocabulary Notebooks provides a summary of the contents.

  • Meston Vocab Book No 5 OM64-17 – small notebook containing miscellaneous notes and comments on a range of everyday topics. Includes some references to Aboriginal languages, mainly unidentified; some NSW language words as well as placenames.
  • Meston Vocab Book No 6 OM64-17 – small notebook containing miscellaneous notes, including geographical descriptions; comparative vocabulary of Aboriginal words collected at various police stations across Queensland, e.g. Gilbert River, Tinaroo, Nerang, Montalbion, Pine River, Strathmore, Camooweal, etc.
  • Meston Vocab Book No 7 OM64-17 – small notebook containing some miscellaneous notes, but mostly comprising Meston’s transcript of vocabulary from “The Vanished Tribes” by James Devney . The vocabulary list does not identify the source nor the name of the language.
  • Meston Vocab Book No 8 OM64-17 – small notebook containing miscellaneous notes on Aboriginal languages, including placenames of South-East Queensland. Language content is mainly drawn from Tom Petrie’s Reminiscences as well as notes on Thomas Mitchell's journal.

The Meston Papers are valuable research material for community language workers and often represent the only source for many Aboriginal languages of Queensland. The material covers an extensive area of Queensland as Meston drew upon the resources of police stations, pastoralists and others to add to his vocabulary collections. Additional information relates to family and community histories - this rich material is often seen as a 'silver lining to the darkness of the Protection era'.

State Library is exploring options for digitising other material from the Meston Papers to make them more accessible to language researchers and community members.

Desmond Crump, Indigenous Languages Coordinator, kuril dhagun

  • State Library of Queensland Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Languages webpages.
  • State Library of Queensland Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Languages blog.

Jarjum stories: A kuril dhagun showcase focusing on children’s books and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages. 19 October 2019-10 May 2020.

Spoken: celebrating Queensland languages: A major exhibition exploring the survival and revival of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages throughout Queensland. Join in the many talks and events to celebrate the rich and diverse languages spoken today. 21 November 2019 -19 April 2020.

UN IY2019 Links

UN International Year of Indigenous Languages webpages

UN International Year of Indigenous Languages Resources

References/Further Reading:

API-3 Archibald Meston Photograph Album ca. 1904.

OM64-17 Archibald Meston Papers.

Devaney, J. (1929) The Vanished Tribes. J A823.2 DEV

Meston, A. (1895) Queensland Aboriginals: proposed system for their improvement and preservation : addressed to the Honourable Horace Tozer. RBJ 572.89915 MES

Petrie, C. C. (1932) Tom Petrie’s Reminiscences of Early Queensland. J 994.32 PET

External Sources

Australian Dictionary of Biography online - Archibald Meston.


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