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Warning: This article contains disturbing descriptions about the practices of colonial settlers in Tasmania and violence against Tasmanian Aboriginal peoples.
Colonial settlers of the Victorian era were often complicit in atrocities committed against native populations — and new research is unveiling just how those stories intertwine with the lineage of museum specimens still on display today.
New details about the misdeeds of one prolific collector of human and animal remains are detailed in a paper by Jack Ashby, the assistant director at Cambridge University’s Museum of Zoology in the United Kingdom. The study, published Tuesday in the peer-reviewed journal Archives of Natural History, shines a light on past injustices and raises questions about the legitimacy of some academic honors bestowed on scientists of the era.
A review of letters and other documents about the British colonist Morton Allport, who lived on the Australian island of Tasmania in the 1800s, showed he explicitly requested scientific accolades in exchange for providing skins or bones of Tasmanian tigers and Aboriginal Tasmanian people — which he obtained by gruesome means — to European museums.
“In all, Allport shipped five Tasmanian Aboriginal skeletons to Europe, proudly identifying himself as the most prolific trader in Tasmanian bodily remains,” according to the study.
Most of the human remains have since been repatriated or were destroyed during war, according to the study, though one skeleton remains in a Belgium museum. But as many as 12 skeletons and skins of carnivorous marsupials called Tasmanian tigers, or thylacines, obtained by Allport are still at the Cambridge University’s Museum of Zoology where Ashby works, serving as a dark reminder of how modern science intersects with colonial genocide and brutality.
It’s forever changed how Ashby views the specimens in his museum’s collection, he told CNN.
“Thinking about what happened to the people in Tasmania, what happened to thylacines and other species in Tasmania … these are entwined with the human and the environmental cost of the colonial projects,” Ashby said.
A backdrop of brutality
Allport, born in 1830, moved from Great Britain to Tasmania with his family as an infant as the violence against and displacement of Indigenous peoples in the colony reached its height.
The colonial government allowed settlers to murder Tasmanian Aboriginal people without punishment and, in 1830, even established a bounty for the capture of Indigenous humans and Tasmanian tigers, or thylacines. The result was the murder or displacement of most of the Indigenous population, driving the number of Aboriginal people from around 6,000 in 1804 down to fewer than 300 by the time Allport arrived on the island, according to the study.
The study relied on historical documents to show that the colonists, employing racist ideas about evolution and “natural selection,” believed that both native humans and animal species were inferior and destined for extinction.
As the local population of native peoples dwindled, the scarcity drove a demand for tokens of their existence in the form of skeletal remains — a market that Allport was eager to supply, according to the study.
It incentivized Allport to purchase and resell or donate the remains of thylacines, which today are believed to be extinct, largely because of colonial actions.
And it spurred him to engage in the brutal acts of grave robbing and corpse mutilation.
The paper details the horrific story behind the remains of one Indigenous person, William Lanne, who was thought to be the last Tasmanian Aboriginal man alive before his death in 1869.
Lanne’s body was taken to a local hospital with plans for burial. But a man under Allport’s direction and another colonist collector, William Crowther, each broke into the hospital on separate occasions before the burial and stole various parts of Lanne’s corpse, according to the study.
Allport even ordered the exhumation of Lanne’s grave after the Aboriginal man’s burial to retrieve what was left of his skeleton, the study states.
The actions were met with public backlash, causing Crowther to lose a respected position at the local hospital.