The secret life of Hepburn Tindale


A not very good picture of Hepburn, but the best we could find

Today we go down a rabbit hole. It starts with what we thought was a cute story about (possibly) the first Christian in Perth to convert to Islam and ends with lies at the inquiry into the Forrest River Massacre. If that’s not a rabbit hole, we don’t know what is.

But first, the story we originally thought we were going to tell.

In 1935, Hepburn Joseph Tindale underwent a ceremony at the William Street Mosque to formally convert to Islam. An old Guildford Grammar School boy, he had studied at Oxford University, before taking a degree in theology, working in South Africa, and then coming here as a freelance journalist for Sydney’s Bulletin.

Taking the new name Sadig Akber, he spoke about how all people needed to unite under one God, and this would eliminate war and racism. Which we thought was rather inspirational, even if it’s not a solution to world problems that particularly appeals to us.

So needing to know more about Hepburn’s spiritual journey, we looked him up in the archives. Which is where the Forrest River Massacre comes in, because he was one of the key witnesses during the inquiry in 1927. Only there he held a Masters in Anthropology from Oxford, was a Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society and, as one of the leading experts on Aboriginal life, he was currently writing articles about them for the Manchester Guardian.

Which is a completely different story to the one he told eight years later.

As it happens, Hepburn was the cousin of Norman Tindale, whose anthropology is still considered masterful today. You’ve probably seen his map of Aboriginal language groups prior to European settlement. But Hepburn was not an expert on anything. In fact, he had no degree from Oxford, no Fellowship from the Royal Geographical Society, and had never written for the Guardian. To be fair, he had gone to Oxford in 1923 but left the same year with no qualifications.

But the inquiry didn’t know this and took him at face value as an expert on Aboriginal life in the Kimberley. Norman Tindale would have been. Hepburn Tindale was not. His testimony on how Aborigines lit fires and their cremation practices made it very difficult for the inquiry to prove beyond all reasonable doubt there had been a massacre.

So, it appears we have a Walter Mitty character, desperate to appear important in the eyes of others, and willing to do anything to be noticed. And the poor worshippers at the Mosque may have been the unknowing witnesses of yet another one of his fantasies. Certainly, we can’t find any more references to a ‘Sadig Akber’ after 1935, but the secretary of the Morowa Road Board in the 1940s was an ‘H. J. Tindale’. Could this be where our man finally ended up?