Skins of Tasmanian tigers in a Cambridge museum are reminders of ties between natural historians and colonial policies of genocide and eradication of species, a study says.
Remains of 12 thylacines — the extinct carnivorous marsupials also known as Tasmanian tigers — were sent to the University Museum of Zoology by Hobart-based solicitor and naturalist Morton Allport in 1869 and 1871. These include five skins that are among the finest examples of the animal’s original colour as they have never been displayed.
Now research by Jack Ashby, assistant director of the UK museum today, has found that Allport built a reputation as “foremost scientist in the colony” [of Tasmania] by providing grave-robbed Aboriginal remains and specimens of endangered animals to European institutions.
According to Ashby’s paper, in Archives of Natural History, English-born Allport (1830-1878) made a “limited” contribution to scientific knowledge and was “sloppy” in his scientific practice, for example by not recording specimens’ provenance. Instead he achieved his accolades by exploiting demand for remains that had rarity value as a result of institutionalised violence against Tasmania’s Aboriginal peoples and its thylacines.
Ashby said: “Early British settlers considered both thylacines and Tasmanian Aboriginal people to be a hindrance to colonial development — and the response was institutionalised violence with the intended goal of eradicating both.
“Specimens like the thylacines in our collection hold extreme power in allowing museums to connect people to this story. Although Allport did not send any human remains to Cambridge, I can no longer look at these thylacine skins without thinking of the human story they relate to. It shows how natural history specimens aren’t just scientific data — they also reflect important moments in human history, much of which was tragically violent.”
In the case of Tasmanian Aboriginal people, Ashby said they were victims of genocide perpetrated by Europeans. Settlers not only dispossessed them of land and introduced diseases, but also competed with them for food. In the “Black War” of the 1820s and 1830s, settlers killed them with impunity. “They are now shot, with as little remorse as so many crows,” a newspaper reported in 1828. From 1830, bounties of £5 per adult and £2 per child were paid on the capture of Aboriginal people, incentivising violent search parties.
The same year, bounties of £1 a head were introduced for bringing in dead thylacines — the largest marsupial carnivores of recent times. The animals, which resembled dogs and had striped backs, hence the “tiger” appellation, were widely blamed for killing settlers’ sheep. In fact, most sheep were killed by dogs introduced by the settlers themselves.
Ashby said: “Outrageously, despite state-sponsored violence committed against thylacines and Tasmanian Aboriginal peoples, they were both described by the colonists as being at fault for what happened to them — that they couldn’t cope in the ‘modern’ world.”
He found that, as populations of Tasmanian Aboriginal people and thylacines diminished rapidly, demand for their remains in museums and private collections increased. The remains were intended to validate artificial hierarchies that identified Aboriginal people and marsupials as inherently lower than European people and animals.
Such was the context in which Morton Allport operated. He had arrived in Hobart with his parents as a baby and was a solicitor by profession, despite spending much of his time on his interests in natural history and art and endeavours to develop the colony. By the time of his early adulthood only a small number of Aboriginal people were known to survive on the island of Tasmania and their extinction was believed to be imminent.
Allport’s actions in the name of science included acquiring the skeleton of William Lanne, considered a “prize specimen” as he was, wrongly, believed by colonists to be the last Tasmanian Aboriginal man when he died in March 1869.
The research, shows how Allport was involved in a clandestine tussle for Lanne’s body with William Crowther, honorary medical officer at Hobart General Hospital. Allport was seeking to obtain the remains for the Royal Society of Tasmania (RST), while Crowther intended to send them to the Royal College of Surgeons of England. The result of their competing efforts was that the remains were mutilated and Lanne’s skull is believed to have been taken to Britain by Crowther’s son and subsequently lost, while his skeleton went to the RST’s collection.
The events surrounding Lanne’s death have been at the centre of recent debate in Tasmania and this August it was agreed that a statue of Crowther, who became state premier in 1878-9, would be removed from Hobart city centre. But until now Allport’s role has been little explored.
The Lanne episode was not an aberration. When a woman called Truganini — who was wrongly thought to be the last surviving Tasmanian Aboriginal — was ailing in May 1874, Allport wrote to his fellow naturalist Charles Gould, in a letter referring to the sourcing of human remains: “The last of the Mohicans yet lives but very dicky.”
After Truganini died two years later, she was buried in spite of her stated wish to be cremated to avoid ending up as part of a museum collection. Subsequently the RST secretly exhumed her while Allport was its vice-president. Her skeleton became a travelling exhibit and was then displayed in the Tasmanian Museum from 1904 until 1947.
In total, Allport shipped five Tasmanian Aboriginal skeletons to Europe, identifying himself as the most prolific trader in Tasmanian bodily remains. He made clear in his letters, now mostly held by the State Library of Tasmania, that he had directed grave-robbing himself. Writing to the collector Joseph Barnard Davis to confirm the authenticity of skeletons he had presented to the Royal College of Surgeons of England, Allport said: “I can assure you I took no small trouble to see that the bones disinterred from a spot where none but Aborigines were buried.”
When it came to thylacines, Allport had a network of people across Tasmania hunting for them, alive or dead. Some of his country friends were not the hunters but rather middlemen with access to trappers and farmworkers. In January 1871, he wrote to the Belgian consulate: “The extinction of this fine marsupial the last of its race is probably only a question of a few years and the obtaining specimens though (now a rather costly undertaking) will soon be impossible.”
Ashby writes in his paper: “If Allport was concerned about the ethics of hunting a species facing extinction, he did not mention it. Instead, he used their induced rarity as a selling point.”
Although Allport wrote prolifically about the introduction of European fish species to Tasmania and Australia — in which he was involved — his publication record on native fauna was modest, at only three short articles. In his correspondence, he was explicit about the quid pro quo of providing animal and human remains for scientific honours.
Writing in December 1864 to his former teacher Thomas Ewing, who had returned to Britain, he said: “Mr Roblin [Thomas Roblin, curator of the RST’s museum] & I are now engaged in making a complete set of skeletons of our mammals for the museum and I would gladly do the same thing for any of the English Societies if I could be elected a Fellow in return. Is this possible?”
Allport was, in the end, made a fellow, or similar, of several societies in return for supplying specimens. Judging from the letters, the Musée Royal d’Histoire Naturelle in Brussels, Belgium, received more material from Allport than any other, followed by the British Museum and then Cambridge’s University Museum of Zoology.
The human remains that Allport sent to the UK are no longer held in British collections — they were either destroyed by bombing during the Second World War or have since been repatriated. However, many animal specimens are still held by the original recipients. Cambridge University’s collection of thylacines sent by Allport represents the UK’s biggest collection of this species known to originate from a single person.
Allport, who was praised at his death as a pillar of the community and promoter of education, wasn’t the only naturalist of his day to engage in practices that would now be considered unethical. Ashby said that understanding the extent of the broader trade of colonial specimens for honours requires further research.
He added: “Natural history museums were built in the context of extraordinary colonial violence. We have removed ourselves and our discipline from the kinds of conversations that have been happening in archaeology museums and ethnographic museums, which talk about impacts of colonialism a lot. Natural history museums are only now starting to realise that, actually, science is part of society and therefore subjected to the same biases and political processes that the rest of society is.
“This paper, specifically, is about drawing out those parallel stories of what was happening to the Tasmanian Aboriginal population and what was happening to thylacines. I stress that we shouldn’t view them as equivalent, but they were part of the same historical processes. So it is a really clear demonstration of how the human and environmental costs of the colonial project were entwined in how natural history was done in the 19th century.
“Natural history collections now have a really powerful responsibility to connect to this story, to tell how human and environmental stories can be drawn out from these questions. We are not just about scientific data, but about human stories as well.”
The museum is today launching a new web resource sharing the stories behind its collections. Permanent changes will also be made in the museum’s displays and interpretation. The work is part of the museum’s inquiries into legacies of empire and enslavement.
The last known thylacine died in 1936, although there have been numerous claimed sightings since. Tasmanian Aboriginal people, descended from survivors removed from the the island during and after the 19th-century genocide, now number in the thousands.