John Ewen Davidson

Author: Trish Barnard

Collector: John Ewen Davidson

Born: London, England, 2 March 1841

Died: Oxford, England, 2 September 1923

Active: Davidson collected from Cardwell, Tully and other places in North Queensland between 1867 and 1877.

Background biography:

John Ewen Davidson was a wealthy Scottish migrant credited with pioneering the sugar industry in North Queensland after establishing a cane farm in 1866 at Rockingham Bay near Cardwell. A well-educated man with a university degree, he traveled to sugar-producing areas around the world, including the West Indies and British Guiana, to research the industry. However his abilities were challenged by the adverse weather he encountered in North Queensland, such as the floods and cyclone of December 1866 that destroyed all 30,000 cane plants at his Bellenden Plains property near Tully. Davidson Road at Euramo, eight kilometres south of Tully, was named in his honour. According to the Royal Historical Society of Queensland, which holds his diaries, Davidson ‘was not averse to participating in punitive actions against local Aboriginal people’. In this, he contrasts with the Henry family who settled in the same area in 1879. Nonetheless, Davidson was an active collector of Aboriginal artefacts, a role he performed for the British Museum between 1872 and 1877.

Davidson relocated to Mackay in 1867. There, he developed rust resistant varieties of cane for the Queensland wet tropics and was Chairman of the board of the Mackay Planters’ Association from 1878 to 83.

Artefacts donated by Davidson in 1881 are also held by the Dresden Museum of Ethnology in Germany (Museum für Völkerkunde Dresden), A shield (Nr.33073) collected from the Mulgrave River has an inscription on the handle ‘Australia from Baessler’, which may suggest that Davidson had befriended the German anthropologist and photographer Arthur Baessler (1857-1907) when he toured Australia in 1891-1893. Baessler actively collected material for the Museum für Völkerkunde in Dahlem, Berlin (Ethnological Museum of Berlin since 1999) and took back to Germany particular drawings by Wurundjeri man William Barak of Coranderrk .

‘Interviews with German Anthropologists’,

J. A. Mills, ‘Davidson, John Ewen (1841–1923)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,

Tom Nicholson’s exhibition Traces towards four Coranderrk drawings in a Berlin store-room, Berlin, 26 — 31 October 2006.