Inside Story

Hobart’s gentleman body-snatchers

A chance find opened up a hidden world to historian Cassandra Pybus

Ian McShane Books 25 June 2024 2251 words

Traders’ targets: from left, William Lanne (also known as King Billy), Bessie (also spelled Bessy) Clark, Mary-Ann and Truganini, from a series by Henry Frith commissioned by the colonial government in 1864. It has been suggested that Frith’s sister, artist and photographer Letitia Davidson, colourised the photograph. National Library of Australia

As Cassandra Pybus was nearing completion of her much-praised biography Truganini: Journey through the Apocalypse, she made a surprise discovery. In the personal papers of a prominent Tasmanian historian was a transcribed letter from the early 1860s in which a colonial lawyer and member of the newly formed Royal Society of Tasmania claimed to possess a complete skeleton of one of Truganini’s companions. “Once I had recovered from the shock,” she writes, “I made a hasty addition to my book. Then I went looking for more.”

That quest resulted in A Very Secret Trade: The Dark Story of Gentlemen Collectors in Tasmania, a meticulously researched, beautifully written and deeply moving account of the shadow market in the skeletal remains of Tasmania’s first people.

“Looking for more” involved an international search of public and institutional archives and private papers. Pybus’s critical reading of these extensive sources revealed shadow accounts, code words and deliberate omissions in correspondence to museums, universities and private collectors, as well as the removal of written records from institutional archives. These techniques of subterfuge and concealment, she writes, were key to this “secret whitefella business.” But the surviving clues and archival traces helped her identify the roles key figures played in the mutilation of corpses, the plundering of graves and the trade in skeletal material.

Who were the members of this “worshipful society of body-snatchers,” as a newspaper of the time called it? Pybus details an extraordinary cross-section of Vandemonian society, from the highest social echelon of politicians, public officials, civil servants, land holders, academics, teachers, merchants and private collectors through to the “resurrection men” engaged in the dirty business of exhumation. The most conflicted of these characters — “the foxes in charge of the hen house” in Pybus’s words — were the officials appointed as the “protectors” or administrators of the settlements to which Indigenous Tasmanians were confined following the notorious “Black War” of 1830.

German colonisers of southwest Africa pursuing a similar policy of Indigenous removal labelled their settlements “concentration camps”: a more accurate description, says Pybus, but not attuned to English pretensions of rescue and redemption. No more satisfactory was “Aboriginal Establishment,” the official title of the settlements at Wybalenna on Flinders Island and, following its failure, at Oyster Cove in southeast Tasmania. But a greater contrast between the banality of that name and the treatment of the residents in life and death could not be imagined.

The best known of the Pybus’s cast of characters is the London-born builder and evangelical George Augustus Robinson, a friend of the author’s ancestor Richard Pybus (himself an English settler granted a huge tract of Bruny Island on his arrival in Van Diemen’s Land in 1829). Robinson was a determined social climber and place-seeker, his professed humanitarian concern for the first people impossible to disentangle from his desire for reputational and financial rewards. Pybus documents his “friendly mission” through Van Diemen’s Land, culminating in the confinement of the remaining first peoples at Wybalenna under his protectorate, in her biography of Truganini, who was one of Robinson’s companions on that sojourn.

Here, Pybus focuses on Robinson’s trading activities. Although he was never accorded the social status he desired, he managed to acquire through land speculation the substantial wealth that underwrote his extended travel in Europe after he retired and his villa near Bath, where he housed a collection of skulls taken from the Wybalenna burial ground. Following his death in 1866, his widow sold seven remaining skulls to the German anthropologist and museum director Felix von Luschan. So prized were these items that on his deathbed in 1923, writes Pybus, von Luschan was negotiating their sale to the American Museum of Natural History for a present-day sum of around US$730,000.

At the opposite end on the Vandemonian social scale, reputation-building in scientific circles was the central concern. Two standout characters in the book — both of them widely recognised names in present-day Tasmania — are the medico William Lodewyck Crowther and the man who probably wrote the letter that set Pybus on her quest, lawyer Morton Allport.

Both men were amateur naturalists, a pursuit that made no distinction between non-human and human specimens (an attitude legitimised by anthropology’s inclusion within the natural sciences at that time). Some of their interests are represented in the important Tasmaniana collections held in the Crowther and Allport libraries of the State Library of Tasmania.

William Crowther was a medical practitioner and consultant at Hobart’s general hospital, a businessman and a landholder, an amateur zoologist and, briefly, the colony’s premier. But he was nonetheless dogged by reputational problems, the legacy, Pybus says, of a father and several uncles “who might well have stepped from the pages of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair.”

Crowther’s father, also a medico, had fled his creditors in Britain by accepting a position as surgeon on a ship bound for Hobart Town, the journey briefly interrupted when he was put ashore with his family in Rio di Janeiro for drunkenly horsewhipping a fellow passenger who happened to be the colony’s new solicitor-general, Alfred Stephen.

Following a Hobart schooling, Crowther Jr. studied medicine in London. But he was unable to secure a suitable position there after graduating and returned home. Pybus’s assessment of him as an Anglophile and a sycophant but also an outsider who saw himself stymied by officialdom provides context to his relentless pursuit of the skulls and skeletons of Indigenous Tasmanians. Their destination was the Hunterian Museum, established by celebrated Scottish surgeon and anatomist John Hunter and acquired by the London-based Royal College of Surgeons in 1799.

By the mid-nineteenth century, emerging interest in physical anthropology and comparative anatomy had created a thriving market for skeletons. Craniometry, a foundational technique for German anatomist Johan Blumenbach’s widely embraced theory dividing humans into five racial categories, was reliant on a ready supply of skulls, with those from first peoples in remote locations such as Van Diemen’s Land especially favoured. The dwindling population of Indigenous Tasmanians, ravaged by introduced disease and appalling treatment as prisoners of the state, added notes of urgency and, ultimately, scarcity to the business.

The fate of two Indigenous Tasmanians — “King” Billy Lanne and Truganini — is foregrounded in the tapestry woven so skilfully by Pybus. Billy, considered Truganini’s husband at Oyster Cove although he was thirty years her junior, crewed on whalers working in the Southern Ocean towards the end of his short life, periodically returning to port to be feted in Hobart’s streets as the last of his race and to find whatever comfort he might at the bottom of a pint pot.

Crowther was only one of the Hobart collectors with designs on Billy’s skeleton, which he had promised the College of Surgeons. How he came to be present in Billy’s favourite pub, the Dog and Partridge, at the moment Billy died in a room upstairs is unexplained, but Pybus suggests it typifies the scheming and malevolence associated with the trade.

The tug-of-war over Billy’s corpse between Crowther and members of the Royal Society of Tasmania, among them Morton Allport, resulted in Crowther removing Billy’s skull and members of the Royal Society removing his feet and hands while his corpse was supposedly under guard in the general hospital morgue. Billy was buried in St David’s Park shortly after, with a procession of Hobart worthies following the coffin through Hobart streets to honour the “last of his race.” But the grave was secretly dug up the following night and the body — minus the skull Crowther had borrowed from another corpse, which was left rolling around nearby graves — was returned to the morgue awaiting retrieval by the Royal Society.

Morton Allport, also a passionate naturalist, was Crowther’s determined opponent: an “insider” who was vice-president of the Royal Society of Tasmania, the body that established the Tasmanian Museum and Gallery. Allport sought to augment the museum’s collection of first people’s skeletons and win recognition from major museums and learned societies internationally through his trading.

By the mid-nineteenth century, although a partner in the flourishing Hobart law firm established by his father, Allport was not above turning a profit from the resurrection business. Pybus notes that in 1871, while eyeing membership of learned societies in Europe, he paid around $2000 in present value for three complete skeletons from Flinders Island, selling one to the Musée Royal d’Histoire Naturelle de Belgique for $5000.

William Crowther retained Billy’s skull until his death, but did not pursue the trade any further, perhaps sensing its threat to his political ambitions. But William Crowther’s son Edward purchased the Oyster Cove site, and he and his son, William Edward Crowther, exhumed a substantial number of bodies from the burial ground there. A long-time trustee of the Tasmanian Museum, William Edward Crowther donated the collection to the museum in 1963. Both the museum and the State Library, it must be noted, acknowledge the troubled associations of the collections.

If Billy Lanne showed little outward concern for his fate after death, Truganini was terrified of what might happen to her. Pybus recounts how she entreated Reverend Henry Atkinson, parish minister at Oyster Cove and one of her trusted friends, to row her from Oyster Cove towards Bruny Island, her country. Pybus quotes from Atkinson’s recollections, published some years later:

[T]o his surprise, she made him stop rowing in the middle of the channel. In a flood of tears, she told him all her people were dead and men in Hobart had taken their skulls. Now they would want her skull. Kneeling before him she clasped her arms around his legs and pleaded, “Bury me here, it is the deepest place. Promise me. Promise me.”

That was not to be, at least not initially. Following closure of the Oyster Cove establishment in 1874, Truganini’s final two years were spent in the Hobart house where Allport had installed Oyster Cove’s last superintendent, John Dandridge. After Dandridge’s sudden death, his wife Matilda, whose father, the artist John Skinner Prout, had given painting lessons to young Allport with limited success, had sole charge of Truganini. Allport hovered. “The last of the Mohicans still lives, but very dicky,” he wrote to a friend.

When Truganini died at the house in 1876, her body was taken to the general hospital. This time, though, mindful of the public outcry over Billy Lanne’s remains, the Tasmanian government refused the Royal Society’s request for immediate access to the body. Truganini was instead interred in the convict women’s gaol in South Hobart, in the shadow of Mount Wellington.

The Royal Society waited, and after two years gained approval from the Legislative Council to exhume her remains. Truganini’s skeleton was sent to the National Museum of Victoria to be articulated for display, returning to Hobart as a featured exhibit near the entrance of the museum’s new Tasmanian Room.

It wasn’t until 1945 that Henry Atkinson’s son, also a religious minister, wrote to Hobart’s Mercury newspaper to recall Truganini’s plea to be buried in D’Entrecasteaux Channel. Pressure built to remove her skeleton from public display, but the museum resisted calls for her wish to be fulfilled. Sydney University’s A.P. Elkin and other academic heavyweights high-handedly claimed that the prospective loss to science far outweighed the “wave of sentimentality” motivating the burial request — despite the fact, as Pybus notes, that almost no scientific research was undertaken on the remains.

The museum continued its fight to retain the skeleton, even as the Tasmanian parliament passed legislation in 1974 transferring “rights” to the remains to the state government. In 1976, following a long campaign by the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre, Truganini’s remains were returned to the Aboriginal community. This act, in Pybus’s incisive words, was an assertion of that community’s Aboriginality and its resistance to the dominant narrative of possession and extinction. Truganini’s remains were cremated and her ashes scattered over the channel waters.

After his death in 1885 William Crowther achieved a significant measure of social recognition. His bronze statue in Hobart’s premier public space, Franklin Square, its classical contrapposto stance representing movement and vigour, is the final image in Pybus’s book. Just last month the statue was toppled and messages scrawled on its plinth: “What goes around” and “Decolonise.”

The wide national press coverage of the toppling contrasted with minimal publicity given to an event the previous week: the arrival of a police officer at the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre with four brown-paper evidence bags from the state coroner’s office. Inside were ancestral remains from two locations in the state. This was not the first time something similar had occurred, commented the centre’s campaign manager, Nala Mansell. “We’re at a loss as to how, after 220 years, the remains of Aboriginal people in this state continue to be treated with the utmost disrespect in a manner that we understand would not be OK if it was a non-Aboriginal person,” she was quoted as saying.

That episode underscores a summary observation in Pybus’s book. Why does Crowther claim all the outrage and not others? “The desecration of graves and mutilation of bodies,” she writes, “was not the work of one or two morally deficient individuals, but a systematic process baked into the colonial project from the beginning.” •

A Very Secret Trade: The Dark Story of Gentlemen Collectors in Tasmania
By Cassandra Pybus | Allen and Unwin | $34.99 | 336 pages