When Australian naturalist and solicitor Morton Allport died in 1878, an obituary hailed the man as “the colony’s foremost scientist,” as indicated by his position as vice president of the Royal Society of Tasmania (RST) in time of his death. , among many other international awards. But according to a new paper published in the journal Archives of Natural History, Allport’s good reputation was based less on his scholarly merit than on his habit of sending valuable specimens of Tasmanian tigers (thylacines) and aboriginal remains to to European collectors in exchange for scientific appreciation. . Allport claimed as many of his own letters, which are stored in the State Library of Tasmania, as well as directing robbery efforts to retrieve human remains.
“Early British settlers considered thylacines and Tasmanian Aboriginal people an obstacle to colonial progress, and the response was institutionalized violence with the intended goal of exterminating both,” the author said. in the paper, Jack Ashby, assistant director of the University Museum of Zoology in Cambridge in England. “Allport’s letters show that he invested heavily in developing his scientific reputation—particularly in gaining recognition from scientific societies—by providing human and animal remains from Tasmania to a something for something arrangement, rather than through his own scientific efforts.”
Thylacines have been extinct since 1936, but they were once the largest marsupial carnivore of modern times. Europeans first settled in Tasmania in 1803 and viewed tigers as a threat, blaming the animals for killing their sheep. The settlers did not view the Aboriginal population more favorably, and there were inevitable conflicts from settlers displacing the aborigines and from increased competition for food. In 1830, a farming corporation placed the first bounties on thylacines, with the government establishing its own bounties in 1888. (Ashby wrote that the real sheep killers were dogs bred by settlers to hunt kangaroos.).
Meanwhile, the so-called “Black War” between settlers and natives led to a state of martial law that “enabled settlers to kill Aboriginal people with impunity,” according to Ashby. “After 1830, they were rewarded for doing so.” A Christian missionary named George Augustus Robinson began a less violent effort (the so-called “Friendly Mission”) to relocate the aboriginal population of Gun Carriage Island in Bass Strait. But the island had insufficient resources to support the traditional lifestyle and most of the settlers suffered from disease and death. Robinson was however well rewarded for his efforts with grants of government land and money.
This is the environment where young Allport grew up. Born in England, Allport was still young when his parents moved to Tasmania, where his father had established himself as one of the colony’s most prominent lawyers. Young Morton followed in his father’s footsteps and became a partner in the same law firm, but he was also drawn to natural history. He is particularly interested in fish breeding and the practice of introducing non-native species to “improve” local ecosystems (acclimatization). Allport himself introduced English species such as tench, perch, and water lilies to Tasmania, and published 15 papers with RST. Otherwise, however, his publications amounted to three short articles and a short note on local fossils between 1866 and 1968.
“It is wonderful, that he has received many accolades from elite scientific institutions,” Ashby wrote in his paper. She turns to the man’s letters for an understanding of how he built his scientific reputation from a relatively meager publication record. According to Ashby, in at least one letter to a former teacher, Allport clearly expressed his expectation of a something for something for supplying specimens, particularly thylacine and Aboriginal human remains, which are in increasing demand as their numbers dwindle.
Allport wrote how he had helped put together a complete set of Tasmanian mammal skeletons for the RST museum, “and I would gladly do the same for any of the English Societies if I could be elected a Fellow in return . Is it possible? ” Clearly it is very possible. Allport is a Fellow of the Royal Linnæan Society of London, Zoological Society of London, Royal Botanical Society. He is a corresponding member of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain (elected after presenting an aboriginal human skull), a life member of the Entomological and Malacological Societies, and a foreign member of several Continental scientific societies. , and other awards.
In addition to contributing more thylacine specimens to museums in the UK and mainland Europe than any other known donor, Allport claims to be the “leading exporter” of remains of Aboriginal peoples in Europe. European naturalists especially coveted these human specimens so grave robbing was common. Allport was involved in those efforts, as evidenced in his 1872 letter to craniologist Joseph Barnard Davis. “I can assure you that I find it difficult to see that the bones were cut from only one sp.[ot?] where none but Aborigines are buried,” he wrote. German nationalist Amalie Dietrich had no qualms about asking Queenslanders to shoot an Aboriginal man for his private collection.
(Warning: Some disturbing details about dismembered human bodies are below.)
Unlike the thylacine, the Tasmanian aborigine did not become extinct, but an Aboriginal man named William Lanne was believed at the time to be the last male Tasmanian. Therefore, when he died in 1869, his body was considered a prize specimen. Lanne’s body was taken to a hospital “dead house” and Allport (who wanted the body for the RST) and another naturalist collector named William Crowther (who wanted to take the remains to London) -gain of lips. When the Colonial Secretary decided in Allport’s favor, Crowther and his son entered the dead house, removed Lanne’s skull, and replaced it with a white human skull they had taken from another body.
Allport responded by asking a colleague to remove Lanne’s feet and hands, arguing that it was not considered desecration because the remains had already been damaged. Lanne’s body was buried, but the grave was not guarded. Naturally, Crowther tried to steal the body, but he found only one corpse in the coffin other than the white man’s skull. The same Allport associate disinterred Lanne’s body, took it to the hospital and “removed his bones,” according to Ashby.
Allport tried to recover Lanne’s skull, writing a letter to a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of England (RCSE), who was rumored to own Lanne’s skull and two vertebrae. Allport admitted that the RST owned Lanne’s skull in that letter, wrote that “the best of the bones are in the Tas. Roy. Soc. Museum” – and offered to give the bones to the RCSE so that the skeleton will be complete. The College has no skeleton. It may have ended up in the collection of the RCSE or the University of Edinburgh, but it has not been formally identified anywhere.
Lanne’s female counterpart is an Aboriginal woman named Truganini. He died in 1876, having requested that his body be cremated so that it would not end up in a museum collection. That request was not honored. She was buried in a female convict factory, and for two years, RST—of which Allport now serves as vice president—secretly exhumed the body and turned her skull into a traveling exhibit, before putting it on display. in the Tasmanian Museum between 1904 and 1947. .
The collection of the University Museum of Zoology in Cambridge, where Ashby worked, contains 40 Australian mammals and eleven birds donated by Allport, including nine thylacine skins sent in 1869 and 1871. thylacine skin without thinking about the human story they relate to,” Ashby said. “This shows how natural history specimens are not just scientific data—they also reflect important moments in human history, which most of it is horrifically violent. .”
DOI: Archives of Natural History, 2023. 10.3366/anh.2023.0859 (Part of DOIs).