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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

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Philip Roberts (1922–?)

PUBLICATION: Douglas Lockwood, I, the Aboriginal, Rigby Limited, Adelaide, 1962

NAME: Phillip Roberts, Waipuldanya, Wadjiri-Wadjiri

SEX: Male


BIRTH PLACE: The lower Roper River in the South-East corner of Arnhem.



  • Larbaryandji: Roberts tribal country, just south of the Roper River mission. (p.31) He returned to Larbaryandji after three months working with Dr Langsford. (pp.195-197)
  • Roper River Mission: where he went to school and worked until 1953, and where he returned after travelling with Dr Langsford.
  • The Urapunga Cattle Station: where Roberts travelled to fix an engine, and meet Doctor Langsford. (pp.183-185)
  • Darwin, Katherine, Wave Hill, Victoria River Downs, Hooker Creek Settlement: places that Roberts visited while working for Dr Langsford. (pp.185-195, 201)
  • Rove River, Groote Eylandt and Umabakumba: places the Roberts visited while working for Dr. Rayment. (pp.201-206)
  • Maningrida Settlement: where Roberts lived for nine months and treated lepers. (p.219)


  • Roberts was invited to a conference on hygiene in Noumea in 1957, having worked on Sydney University research project on anopheles mosquitos. (pp.217-218)


  • Roberts worked as a stockman (pp.171-176) and mechanic (p.176-180) in exchange for food, tobacco and clothing at the Roper River Mission. At the time, he was content with this exchange.
  • The first wage Roberts received was 27 shillings a fortnight as a tracker for the Northern Australian Observer Unit in World War Two. (p.174)
  • Roberts worked first as a driver/mechanic, and later as a medical officer, for Dr “Spike” Langsford (p.180) Langsford taught Robert how to read medical slides and test faeces. (p.193) Langsford was employed by the Northern Territory Medical Service. However he paid Roberts directly, and also paid for his family to visit him in Darwin. (pp.194-195)
  • When Roberts returned to Roper River, he was implored to treat his fellow residents on a voluntary basis. (pp. 199-200)
  • Robert then worked as a medical assistant for Dr Tarlton Rayment, and was taught to use an X-ray machine. (p.201) As with Dr Langsford, Roberts had a mutually respectful, mentoring relationship with Dr Rayment.


  • Roberts’ tribal education and initiation included enduring painful circumcision, verbal abuse, and proscriptions against swimming, speaking to immediate family members and eating fats. (pp.33-36)
  • Roberts was forced to attend school at the Roper River mission, but was resistant to learning. He found the work very difficult because both he and his parents were illiterate, innumerate and did not speak English. (pp.65-66) He found much of his Western education irrelevant to his daily life, and preferred practical learning (pp.74-75)


  • Roper River Mission: where Roberts was educated and worked as a young man.
  • Royal Flying Doctor: tended to Roger Gunbukbuk’s injuries when his horse crashed with Roberts. (p.73)
  • The Department of Health: employed Roberts as a medical and research assistant. (p.118)
  • Darwin Hospital: where Roberts trained as a medical orderly under Dr Rayment. (p.23)


  • The Northern Territory Welfare Ordinance of 1957 declared Roberts a ward of the state. Roberts claims he did not feel the effects of this regulatory legislation in practice, particularly as a teetotaler, and he did not apply for exemption. He and his family were granted citizenship in 1960 by the Administrator of the Northern Territory, James Archer. (pp.236-240)


  • When Roberts was young he almost died because he was ‘sung’ by a Medicine Man, as punishment for a mistake made by an Elder during a ritual corroboree, the Yabudurawa. (pp.9-24) He was treated by Gudjiwa – the ‘Medical Man’ – who made him ingest wattle bark and who sucked blood from his body. (p.19)
  • He did not acquire any serious injuries as a hunter or stockman, and was grateful in retrospect because his medical training led him to question the efficacy of traditional treatments.


  • Roberts has four girls (Phyllis, Rhoda, Connie and Margaret). In his view, child-raising was women’s work. (p.151) However, he liked to take his children on ‘hunting walkabouts’ on the weekends.(p.221) He saw his training as a hunter as having qualified him to look after a wife and kids. (p.222)


  • Roberts married Hannah Dulban of the Wandarang tribe. She was not the woman who was promised to him at birth, whom he grew impatient waiting for (p.26). In Robert’s account, his wife acquiesced to all his commands. (p.151)


  • Robert’s mother, Nora, was in his account also subordinate to her husband. She caught leprosy when he was young, and died at the Channel Island lazaret near Darwin.
  • Robert’s father respected his brother-in-law’s right to oversee Roberts’ tribal education. (p.67) Nonetheless, he thanks his father for tutoring him in the ‘Tribal Way’. (p.181)


  • Roberts attended Sunday School at the Roper River mission and was baptized. (p.37) He makes biblical references in his writing (p.154) However, his religious loyalities are divided between Alawa and Christian religion, and he also questions the missionaries’ attempts to convert Aboriginal people. (p.100)


  • Sam Ulagang: a Ngandi man who taught Roberts to track, and break in horses. Roberts credits his own impressive hunting skills to Ulagang’s tough teaching methods. (pp.76-78)
  • Uncle Stanley Marbunggu: His tribal uncle, who was charged with the responsibility of ‘growing him up’. (p.67) This responsibility included overseeing his initiation, (p.33-36) deciding when to send him to school (p.67) and who would be his wife. (pp.109-111)
  • Les Perriman: The mission mechanic who passed his skill on to Roberts. (pp.176-180)
  • Constable Dan Sprigg; a Northern Territory Police Officer, who instilled in Roberts a belief that his future lay beyond the Roper River Mission. (p.184)
  • Doctor Langsford: His employer and mentor, who – along with Dan Sprigg – lessened his cynical views of Europeans.


  • Norms and protocol of the Alawa people: Roberts describes the Alawa kinship, daily practices, religious beliefs and ceremonies, marriage practices and conception myths (p.113- 115, 117) burial practices (p.127-128), attitudes toward outsiders and inter-clan warfare (p.13, 116), and the position of women (p.119, 150). Here the heavy hand of Lockwood is evident:  Roberts writes didactically to a non-Aboriginal reader, drawing comparisons with European practice so as to render them more palatable (e.g. layering weapons in kidney fat for luck is likened to kissing a horse shoes). (p.97) Roberts expresses pride in his Alawa education, and pessimism about the transmission of practical knowledge to future generations (p.95)
  • Cross-cultural encounters: Roberts relays his father’s narratives, which tell of the Alawa’s initial distrust and violent clashes with squatters, and their increasing interest in the material goods of the colonisers, particularly tobacco (pp.157-160) He also described the spread of communicable diseases that came with interaction with colonisers. (p.160) Despite their approach to Alawa idiosyncrasies, Roberts expressed gratitude towards the missionaries for protecting them from violent squatters.
  • Increasing familiarity with the ‘Big White World’ (p.21): Roberts is introduced to, and masters, modern technologies as a mechanic and medical assistant. Introduction to scientific thought allows him to act as a mediator between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal worlds, and causes him to reflect critically on classical medical practices.  His new knowledge of effective medical treatment provides him with a source of respect in both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal worlds. It also gave Roberts as sense of retribution when he was called upon to treat the daughter of the Medicine Man who had almost killed him as a child. (p.235)
  • Bi-cultural ambivalence: Despite his advance in settler-colonial society and awareness of scientific principles, Roberts still derives significant pride from his hunting skills, and holds beliefs in Alawa deities and important responsibilities during the Kunapipi ceremony. Particularly in his understanding of the body and healing, he recognizes the unresolved tension in his conflicting affiliations.

MODE OF LITERARY PRODUCTION: I, the Aboriginal was written by Douglas Lockwood. Lockwood claims to have written the book based on over a hundred hours of interviews with Roberts, who also scrutinized and approved draft manuscripts. (p.5)  Nonetheless, his intervention is evident.

Useful Links:

  • ‘Aborigine Host in Darwin’, Dawn (Darwin), June, 1993
  • Details the Royal visit to Phillip and Hannah Roberts’ residence. Roberts is described as ‘one of Darwin’s most respected citizens’)]

Source Project

This biographical entry was contributed by Australian Indigenous Autobiography Archive

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

'Roberts, Philip (1922–?)', Indigenous Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 19 April 2024.

© Copyright Indigenous Australia, 2012

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Waipuldanya
  • Wadjiri-Wadjiri

Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

Military Service
Key Places