Restless Indigenous Remains

Paul Daley explores Mitchell’s storage sheds of Australia’s dark history

Paul Daley explores Mitchell’s storage sheds of Australia’s dark history
Mitchell sprawls untidily across Canberra’s grassy northern plain. You’d never go there incidentally. There’s always a reason. Most of us who’ve lived in Canberra for any real time have stood out there amid whipping winds or under a baking sun at the capital’s biggest cemetery. There, thousands of precisely trimmed rose and rosemary bushes, memorial plaques and headstones are set in an ocean of lawn surrounding a constantly exhaling redbrick crematorium.
Norwood Park defines the emotional tone of Mitchell for most of us, even though this discombobulated island of semi-industrial eclecticism also houses panel beaters and mechanics, kitchen, bathroom and roofing warehouses, porn supermarkets, brothels, hardware and plumbing suppliers.
Namesake, colonial explorer and surveyor Thomas Mitchell had quite some bother with the Aborigines during his tours into the heart of New South Wales in the mid 1830s. He lost his botanist, Richard Cunningham, to the blacks in 1835 and by 1836 he was rather too eager to shoot on sight than appease the tribesmen, killing seven and drawing mild admonishment from the Executive Council for not having ‘made sufficient efforts to conciliate the natives’.1 Still, Mitchell won a knighthood. Later a cockatoo—the Major Mitchell—was named after him. And a highway, and both a river and a town in Queensland … And Mitchell, this oddity isolated from the burbs by freeways and paddocks but which services our needs, prosaic and unseemly, in life and death. Mitchell is like Canberra’s ramshackle back shed. So, it harbours surprises, not least because it is the unlikely repository for some of our national cultural treasure.
The National Museum of Australia stands with the sculptural distinction of a monolithic Lego construction on the northern bank of Lake Burley Griffin at Acton on what is still a sacred corroboree site. The museum has some 200,000 items in its collection. Only a fraction are ever displayed. The rest are stored in two vast aircraft hangar–like warehouses at Mitchell, waiting their turn at Acton.
In early 2012 I had arranged to have a look around there while researching the book I was writing, Canberra. My guides, including museum senior curator and anthropologist Michael Pickering, opened and slid out for me countless humidity-controlled cupboards and deep draws containing precious items in tissue paper—Joseph Banks’ original Florilegium, convict love pennies, breastplates given by white settlers to ‘tamed’ black fellows (‘King Billy’!), convict leg irons, even a chunk of lens from the Mount Stromlo telescope, destroyed in the 2003 Canberra bushfires.
To illustrate further how this stuff might help Australians understand their social history, they pointed out bigger objects for me: Billy Hughes’ office furniture; the Play School flower clock and windows; Sir Robert Menzies’ Bentley; a receiver from Honeysuckle Creek tracking station (remember The Dish?); the wheel of the Hong Hai, the first vessel to dock ‘boat people’ in Australia back in 1978. The museum even owns Humphrey B. Bear’s honey pot and the little pink outfit worn by baby Azaria on holiday to Uluru in 1980.
I’m drawn to a few jars containing some of the museum’s ‘wet specimens’. They include animal embryos—platypus and wallaby—and specific body parts of other mammals, such as the arm of a koala that, denuded of fur, looks remarkably like a person’s.
There is the odd human organ, too. I want to know more, ask Pickering to explain. ‘It is not just about safekeeping treasures here,’ he begins. ‘We are also the custodians of some great responsibilities.’
Many months of discussions and email exchanges with Pickering and other senior museum staff later, I am standing inside a large secured demountable office deep inside one of the warehouses. This is ‘Repatriation’. The expansive workbenches are clutter-free, save for a few parcels of Aboriginal artefacts. On the walls are anatomical charts showing which bone connects to which, what tooth goes where. The office is functional, exuding efficient workmanship. But knowing what I do, I quickly infer a sombre, if not quite funereal, purpose to the place.
Consistent with one of the many security measures relating to this innocuous-looking office, I sign in. Some whose names are in the visitors’ book have come here to visit and claim dead ancestors. But none of the dead come from my family. I am here to explore the stories of some.
David Kaus, a softly spoken senior museum curator who manages the repatriation unit, punches the code, opens a door into a dark room. He nods—please follow—while lights flicker on inside. The room surprises; it is so evidently more archival than medical or scientific. There are a couple of tables and rows of Brownbuilt storage shelves standing just shy of the ceiling, and several closed cabinets with sliding trays. The open shelves are stacked neatly with ‘museum quality’ (non-acidic and chemically free) cardboard boxes of varying dimensions. Some are like shoeboxes, others resemble boxes in which a hundred long-stemmed roses might arrive. Some are short and deep like hatboxes. I stop before one. It sits on the open shelf at eye level. A small printed label on the front reads:
Ancestral Remains to be repatriated to
Provenance (NSW) Tharawal
Remains CRANIUM skull
Age Adult
Sex Male
The skull belongs to Kanabygal, an Aboriginal warrior who died when troops shot and beheaded him in New South Wales in 1816.
As of October 2013, Kanabygal’s skull—which is pieced together with wire and screws—is among the remains of 725 Aboriginal people held by the museum at Mitchell. Many, like Kanabygal, were demonstrably victims of frontier violence between tribesmen on the one hand—defending traditional lands on the pastoral frontier—and colonial troops, paramilitary police forces, settler militia and raiding parties on the other. Their bodies were cut up for parts that became sought-after antiquities in colonial homesteads across Australia and in the esteemed cultural, medical and educational institutions of the United States, Britain and continental Europe, where many remain today. Others died in colonial institutions—jails, hospitals and asylums—and, scarcely cold, were ‘anatomised’ (a benign euphemism for the literal butchery they were subjected to). Thousands more, who might have died naturally and remained buried, peacefully undisturbed among their own, were exhumed en masse by men such as Charles Murray Black who, driven more by some bizarre passion for his macabre industry than financial reward, wandered through Aboriginal sacred sites and pillaged skeletons by the truckload.
The collection of bodies at Mitchell is central to a shameful, bleak, little-known narrative about Australia that begins at colonisation and reverberates through our unsettled national sovereignty. It extends discomfortingly into the twentieth century and resonates shamefully today as an element of ongoing trauma in Aboriginal communities over frontier violence and desecration.
It is also a story about those who created such an extensive body-parts market here and in leading overseas institutions. Indeed, until the mid-twentieth century Australia’s Aborigines were seen as something of a missing link to the prehistoric; Arnhem Land people were likened to Neanderthals as late as 1945, their bodies studied just like other fauna that officialdom considered them to be. Such language as that used by the renowned amateur ethnologist and anthropologist Charles Mountford—‘Australia’s Stone Age Men’2—to promote a 1945 lecture tour and film about Aborigines in Arnhem Land typified the racial stereotyping that had defined the work of many Darwinists and phrenologists for 150 years.
But Mountford, who led the 1948 American–Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land (an expedition that collected a vast array of anthropological specimens including, controversially, many sets of human remains),3 was hardly isolated in his approach—although such attitudes were, by then, under question. Many ethnologists and anthropologists were, until the mid-twentieth century, sympathetic to Darwin’s thesis that each race symbolised a distinct evolutionary human phase and that, as he put it, differences ‘between the highest men of the highest races and the lowest savages are connected by the finest gradations. Therefore it is possible that they might pass and be developed into each other.’4
Phrenology, meanwhile, best described as a pseudo or even voodoo science ‘of the mind’, had created its own prolific market for the body parts—especially heads—of Australian and other indigenes since the late eighteenth century. Phrenologists believed that the shape and size of the brain could be determined by that of the head and that it was possible to discern through them a subject’s intellectual, emotional—even moral—capacities.
As Cressida Fforde—a global expert on the acquisition by European institutions of Aboriginal remains—has explained: ‘Phrenologists concurred with the widely held assumption that a positive correlation existed between brain size and intellect, and used cranial capacity as one method of determining racial character.’5
Long after phrenology was widely discredited, Aboriginal skulls were still sought, taken and displayed with the same benign sentiment that one might attach to animal remains. Mountford’s expedition was an exemplar of this: hundreds of Aboriginal skeletons were removed from sacred sites in Arnhem Land. Many made their way to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington and were only returned, after considerable initial resistance, in 2010.6
A few years ago I helped to recover the body of an Australian First World War soldier from the mud of Mouquet Farm at Pozières, France. Over three weeks in July 1916, 6800 Australian soldiers died there. Some were cut to pieces by the hundreds of shells that whistled in from the horizon daily. Others died tangled in the barbed wire, eviscerated by the German machine gunners in the defences around the farm. Others drowned in thick mud in the dugouts and shell craters where they sheltered.
Our guide, a Frenchman who sought out the First World War ordnance (the ‘iron harvest’) that litters the old battlefields—bullets, unexploded grenades, shells—found the Australian in a recently excavated drainage ditch. We helped him remove the bones before the bulldozer moved back in to refill the hole, carefully carrying them out of the trench and placing them into a hessian sack until representatives of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission could take them.
Unearthing this man—one of about 18,000 Australian troops who could not be found or identified at death on the European Western Front—before the bulldozer moved back in, seemed the right thing to do. Who knew—he might have his identity returned and thus close a century-old uncertainty for his descendants. At the very least he’d be reburied under a headstone marked ‘Known Unto God’. So I was shocked by the vitriol of those who said I should have left this ‘digger’ who had made the ultimate ‘sacrifice’ to ‘rest’ where he had ‘fallen’, that I should be ashamed of ‘disturbing his eternal slumber’ and for imposing on him the indignity of placing his bones in a hessian bag. I had never before been struck with how thoroughly a religious tone had crept into the rhetoric around Anzac.
I was at the Somme to research my book Collingwood—a Love Story, part of which charts the terrible war experiences of two star Collingwood players. It was while researching that book that I experienced an awakening about frontier violence against Aborigines.
As a university student in the early 1980s and as a political journalist for most of the 1990s and well beyond, the issues surrounding Britain’s continental occupation, of terra nullius and native title, were certainly in my consciousness. Dispossession, to my mind—thanks to what I’d learned in HSC Australian History—certainly happened when the white men came and forced the Aborigines off their land. The Aborigines’ dismal plight was compounded, of course, by European disease and grog. I had some minor consciousness of widespread violence against Tasmania’s Aborigines and I was compelled and moved by the shameful stories of the forced removal of Aboriginal children. But thanks—either to the shortcomings of my formal education or to a profound absence of curiosity on my part—organised colonial violence against Indigenous Australians was largely confined to the island state.
I even understood—or thought I did—the anger underscoring Aboriginal activism regarding European invasion and land rights. But I had long regarded dispossession as something of a benign transition of occupation that happened when the Aborigines died, somehow moved on or integrated. And then I read about the near extinction of the Wurundjeri in the 1830s. They had lived around the Yarra—taking the eel, herring and freshwater mussel, spearing the kangaroos and possums along the banks—since the Dreaming. When the whites came the Aborigines were observed kicking a possum-skin ball around, I learned. Then I read and heard more stories about how the settlers had killed them to take their land, including what became Dight’s Paddock, the eventual home of Britannia, the team that—improbably, given its empirical name—became the Collingwood Football Club, the club of my family for generations.
So I awoke to the violent malignancy of dispossession. Then my research about early Canberra led me to stories—in oral histories and in the archives—of violence against the Aborigines of the Limestone Plains. The Aborigines speared the stock. The shepherds, convict workers and the settler masters, meanwhile, ‘took’ and raped the Aboriginal women, leading to reprisal and usually disproportionate counter-reprisal.
OnYong, the last full-blood man of the Ngambri people of the Limestone Plains, died at the end of a rival’s spear in about 1850. Settlers dug him up then fashioned a sugar basin from his skull. OnYong’s descendants believe the sugar basin remains in a private Canberra collection.
The purported collector has never returned my calls. Regardless, for some time now, in this city’s names and landmarks and symbols, I have found constant reminders of violence against Australian Aborigines. Daily I drive along a street called Endeavour, named after the vessel on which Lieutenant James Cook commanded his voyage in search of a great southern continent. And there in the Treasures Gallery at the National Library of Australia, which I visit several times a week, is Cook’s Endeavour Journal, replete with his secret instructions from the admiralty:
‘to observe the Genius, Temper, Disposition and Number of the Natives, if there be any and endeavour by all proper means to cultivate a Friendship and Alliance with them … and Shewing them every kind of Civility and Regard … You are also with the Consent of the Natives to take Possession of Convenient Situations in the Country in the Name of the King of Great Britain: Or: if you find the Country uninhabited take Possession for his Majesty by setting up Proper Marks and Inscriptions, as first discoverers and possessors.’7
This seems like an acknowledgement, pre-European discovery, of Indigenous sovereignty.
And there, just a few hundred metres from the library and in front of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, it is spelt out—the sign saying ORIGINAL SOVEREIGNTY. Beside it flies the Aboriginal flag. Most days a fire smoulders directly in front. This confronts visitors to this city of national monuments as they stand on the steps of the old ‘wedding cake’ Parliament House to take in the vista of clipped lawn and silvery lake, across Walter Griffin’s land axis along Anzac Parade to the Australian War Memorial, Australia’s foremost secular shrine, inevitably provoking kids to ask parents: What? Why?
Best the grown-ups answer those questions right there. Because the children will find no answers during their likely visit to the war memorial (for decades, the most popular public institution in Canberra), whose mandate is ‘to assist Australians to remember, interpret and understand the Australian experience of war and its enduring impact on Australian society’.8
By the most conservative estimates some 20,000 Australian Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders and at least 2000 settlers died in fighting across the Australian frontier from 1788 until the last established massacre of Aborigines at Coniston, Northern Territory, in 1928.9 The conflicts involved colonial police and soldiers, settler militias and raiding parties. But the memorial refuses to tell the story of Australia’s first colonial conflict—one that extended well past Federation in 1901.
Consecutive memorial directors have referred to the institution’s 1980 Act (or rather, their interpretations of it), stipulating that they must tell the story of ‘wars and warlike operations in which Australians have been on active service, including the events leading up to, and the aftermath of, such wars and warlike operations; and … the Defence Force’. The act defines the defence force as ‘any naval or military force of the Crown raised in Australia before the establishment of the Commonwealth’.10 Only the resistance of directors and their governing councils prevents the memorial from acknowledging frontier conflict—or war.
The AWM’s intransigence has been a source of bitter division among directors, historians and archivists for decades. At times it has hinged on little more than semantic argument over whether the conflict was actually ‘war’ (were the Aboriginal fighters guerrilla warriors?) and whether the locally raised militias, police and British military units qualify as part of a ‘Defence Force’ that was ‘raised in Australia’. Plenty of Australian historians—among them Michael McKernan and Peter Stanley, both of whom worked at the memorial for decades—think so. McKernan says:
‘It should be remembered that the memorial’s response from the 1980s onwards has been that the coverage of Aboriginal Australia and, specifically, the impact of white European settlement on Australian Aborigines—including violence on the colonial frontier—is the responsibility of the National Museum of Australia. It seems to me that is like saying that you’ve been put in charge of telling the story of Australia at war but that that particular part of the story is too confronting or too uncomfortable—too hard, for whatever reason.’11
Certainly the colonial troops and their commanders called it war. Take, for example, Governor Lachlan Macquarie’s orders to his troops for a punitive military expedition south of Sydney in 1816:
‘On any occasion of falling in with the Natives, either in Bodies or Singly, they are to be called on, by your friendly Native Guides, to surrender themselves to you as Prisoners of War … Such Natives as happen to be killed on such occasions, if grown up men, are to be hanged up on Trees in Conspicuous Situations, to Strike the Survivors with the greater terror.’12
Captain James Wallis, having led his detachment of the 46th Regiment against the Aborigines near Cow Pastures, later reported:
‘… I had ordered my men to take as many prisoners as possible, and to be careful in sparing and saving the women and children … I regret to say some had been shot and others met their fate by rushing in despair over the precipice. I was however partly successful—I led up two women and three children. They were all that remained to whom death would not be a blessing … ’Twas a melancholy but necessary duty I was employed upon. Fourteen dead bodies were counted in different directions. The bodies of Durell and Kumnabygal [Kanabygal] I had considerable difficulty in getting up the precipice … I detached Lieut. Parker with the bodies of Durelle and Kumnabaygal to be hanged on a conspicuous part of a range of hills …’13
This was the last mention of Kanabygal and his fellow warrior Durelle in official colonial military records.
For Indigenous Australians the obligation of people to country manifests—culturally and spiritually—in returning the dead to their birthplaces. The spirit can’t rest until the body is home. Kanabygal and Durelle, dead almost 200 years, their heads now in cardboard boxes, are—along with the hundreds of other Indigenous bodies in the care of Pickering and Kaus—frozen in a spiritual limbo.
Why does virtually nobody extend to these lost Australians the sort of anger misdirected at me for unearthing the body of that soldier?
The identities of pitifully few of those held at Mitchell can be determined. The provenance (the geographic areas and peoples from which they were stolen) of 434 can’t be established. The remaining 291 are either being held indefinitely at the museum at the request of communities or can’t be returned for other practical reasons. The stories of most are lost. Kanabygal and Durelle are, along with a few others, an exception.
Pickering and Kaus painstakingly trawl through records that may accompany bones (or writing in ink on the actual remains) that are repatriated from overseas institutions or found in Australia, for clues to provenance and identity. Kaus explains:
‘For example there were two skulls from the Northern Territory that were acquired from a bloke called MAH Cullack and it (the documentation) just said ‘Tanami’. Now that we’ve got Trove I did a search and found out that they were collected 100 miles north of Tanami, so that is more specific provenance and may be sufficient for a community to take them. There’s a place called Tanami and a desert called Tanami.’14
Sometimes, because they know the methodology of some collectors and precisely where they operated, they can at least piece together the jigsaw of provenance if not identity.
Sometimes they find references to body parts in old books such as Illustrations of Phrenology, published in Edinburgh in 1820 by the noted phrenologist Sir George Mackenzie. In this book, Mackenzie gives a phrenological description of Kanabygal’s skull. Pickering found the book, then pieced together what happened after Kanabygal’s death. The Lieutenant Parker referred to by Captain Wallis gave the head to a Naval surgeon, Mr Hill, who passed it to Edinburgh University’s Anatomy Department, where it remained until returned to Australia in 1991. Edinburgh University recorded Kanabygal’s skull as ‘G10’ and returned it to Australia with two others—that of a woman, labelled ‘G11’, and another identified as ‘Skull of a Chief’ and ‘G9’, which, because Mackenzie received it from Hill and later donated it to the university, is reasonably assumed to be that of Durelle.15
Rarely is that much detail available about the Mitchell bodies. There is, however, plenty of evidence that other dead were victims of frontier violence. Such as one particular man, whose head was sent to Edinburgh University in the early 1900s by Dr William Ramsay Smith, a Scottish-born doctor who settled in South Australia, became the state coroner and a renowned harvester of dead Aborigines. The museum’s file note reads in part:
‘The skull is clearly that of a murder victim, with a bullet entry wound in the back of the skull and an exit wound in the front. The path of the bullet suggests deliberate execution rather than defence. Ramsay Smith was the SA State Coroner and it is possible he obtained the skull through local police in the course of a coronial investigation … he was a man of suspect ethics who collected remains widely … and the details of the death, and of their transfer into his possession, may not have been documented … gunshot may have occurred at very close range.’
‘So’, Pickering says, ‘we have people here who were frontier violence victims, we have people whose bodies were taken from graves en masse in various parts of Australia and we have people who died in state institutions whose bodies were then taken by the likes of Ramsay Smith.’
Wunamachoo, a Yawarrawarrka man who was found unfit to plead (he spoke no English) after an alleged tribal killing, died in Adelaide Asylum in 1903. Ramsay Smith immediately defleshed his skeleton and later sent the bones to Edinburgh where they remained until the 1990s. Poltpalingada or Tommy Walker, a Ngarrindjeri man, was well known around Adelaide where he lived on the streets and in the parks in the late nineteenth century. When he died in 1901 the city’s stock exchange paid for his funeral. But very little of Poltpalingada was buried; Ramsay Smith quickly dissected him and only a portion of soft tissue went into the coffin. Ramsay Smith sent Poltpalingada’s skeleton to Edinburgh.
In 1903 revelations about Poltpalingada’s fate sparked a public inquiry that revealed sordid details about the illicit trade in body parts (skeletons £10 apiece) that flourished in Ramsay Smith’s morgue. Aboriginal bodies were in particular demand. Parcels of human tissue were delivered to collectors. A morgue assistant recounted stories of heads in kerosene tins. According to other witnesses Ramsay Smith was also known to shoot corpses with a rifle at the morgue, then study the wounds.16
The case predictably shocked polite Adelaide. And then Ramsay Smith, exonerated by the public inquiry, resumed his duties. At Ramsay Smith’s death in 1937, well over a hundred human skulls were found in his Adelaide home. Michael Pickering says the big unanswered question about Ramsay Smith was whether he was ‘body shopping’. ‘Were individuals selected and isolated until such time as they died from natural causes, and their remains became available? Was he doing this to keep favour with his old medical school?’
The case of Bokalie, Wunamachoo’s tribesman, prompts such questions. Bokalie’s body disappeared upon his death on 13 June 1905. But here—according to an article by D.J. Cunningham, Professor of Anatomy at Murray Smith’s alma mater Edinburgh University—is what happened:
‘A few months ago I received from Dr W Ramsay Smith, of Adelaide, to whom the University of Edinburgh owes so much for numerous valuable contributions he has made to the ethnological collection in the Anatomical Museum, the head of a male Australian aboriginal. The label attached stated that the native in question was named Pokallie, alias Boco, that he came from Haddon Downs, and that he was forty-seven years of age. The hair had been removed from the scalp and face and the specimen had been most skillfully and successfully preserved by formalin injection. The features and general contour of the head had therefore suffered little or no change, and could be studied with a thoroughness which is very seldom possible …’
Cunningham wrote ‘certain of the features of this head were so remarkable’ that he asked Ramsay Smith for more details. Ramsay Smith wrote back:
‘Pokallie … was sent to the lunatic asylum on May 23rd, 1894, and died of organic disease of the brain on June 13th, 1905. On admission he was well-nourished and appeared in good health … He was in a state of melancholic stupor the whole of the eleven years he was in the asylum … Whether the peculiar formation of the head has any connection with the insanity, I would not pretend to say …’17
Precisely what purpose, then, did the acquisition of Bokalie’s head—several photographs of which appear with Cunningham’s article—serve?
Just as the massacres of Aboriginal people continued into the twentieth century—most notably with mass killings at Forrest River in 1926 and Coniston in 1928—so, too, did the trade in Aboriginal body parts.
While the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century trade hinged largely on an export market (as well as on private collectors across the colonies and later the states; stories abound of Aboriginal skulls adorning drawing room mantles in pastoral homesteads), in the 1900s Australian institutions were amassing big collections too. None more so than the Australian Institute of Anatomy, which began with a vast private collection of native fauna and Aboriginal artefacts belonging to a wealthy Melbourne orthopaedic surgeon, Dr Colin MacKenzie. MacKenzie valued marsupials and monotremes equally for their endangered status and their capacity to help him treat human illness and injury. For example, by studying koalas’ arms he developed a splint for infantile paralysis victims and later, while a surgeon in Britain during the First World War, for soldiers with upper-limb wounds. In 1919 MacKenzie opened the Australian Institute of Anatomical Research in Melbourne and a field station at Healesville—later known as the Healesville Sanctuary.
MacKenzie donated his collection to the Australian government, which in 1929 opened the Museum of Australian Zoology with him as director. In 1931 the museum became the Australian Institute of Anatomy when it moved into its Canberra headquarters at Acton. The Stripped Classical building—with its imposing facade of dramatic columns and yawning portico, which today houses the National Film and Sound Archive—is my favourite example of early Canberra architecture.18
The collection evolved eclectically, curiously, to incorporate items such as Phar Lap’s heart, while in 1935 the Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons in London donated its ‘war wounds’ (body parts—including limbs and torsos—of wounded First World War personnel) to MacKenzie. Several private collectors, meanwhile, donated vast acquisitions of Aboriginal ethnographic material—secret and sacred objects, bark art, hunting weapons and Indigenous bones and body parts. Around this time Charles Murray Black began ransacking sacred Aboriginal sites across southern Australia on behalf of MacKenzie, who was ever eager to expand his National Ethnographic Collection. The National Museum of Australia, which later inherited the institute collection, addresses matter-of-factly the onerous truth at the heart of its collection:
‘For MacKenzie … there was a close link between the fate of Australian fauna and Aboriginal people. MacKenzie saw a parallel between the impact of settlement on wildlife and declining numbers of indigenous people. As he described it, ‘Thanks to poison and the gun they are rapidly following the fate of the Tasmanian nation which was completely destroyed in a period of about 40 years, constituting the most colossal crime our earth has known.’ … While perhaps distasteful to modern sensibilities, MacKenzie’s conflation of Aboriginal people with Australian fauna was a major motivating factor in his desire to collect indigenous material.’19
By the early 1930s MacKenzie’s institute had acquired the bones and other body parts of thousands of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. The vast collection is obvious in the images of William James Mildenhall, the photographer whose pictures record Canberra’s early years.
The ‘conflation’ of human and fauna is dramatically illustrated in Mildenhall’s confronting picture of one institute gallery in 1933. It depicts glass cases of hundreds of skulls, leg and arm bones. Others hold full skeletons—adult and child. Dispersed among human remains are those of animals, including marsupials, mammals and birds.20
The correspondence between Black, successive institute directors, government officials and ministers further illustrates how effectively the bone collectors at every level managed to dissociate the body parts from humanity. Black collected for MacKenzie and, after MacKenzie’s death in 1938, his successor Dr Frederick William Clements until about 1943.
He systematically ransacked Aboriginal burial grounds in Tocumwal, Deniliquin, Barnham, Lake Victoria, Menindie, the Lachlan River banks, Chowilla, Swan Hill, Renmark, Euston, Narcurrie, Wakool and beyond. Between 1943 and 1950 alone he collected the bones of 804 individuals, including 500 skulls, for the Anatomy Department of the University of Melbourne, which by the late 1950s possessed ‘a collection of aboriginal skeletal material which ranks amongst the best in the world’.21
Black, a Gippsland pastoralist and Melbourne University graduate engineer, collected as many bones as he had crates to hold them. The anatomy institute would send a truck to transport them to Canberra (in 1949 the institute had three cubic tons of Aboriginal bones in cases, representing perhaps thousands of individuals, most collected by Black). Of this ‘prospecting’, Black mused as if he were indeed mining and cataloguing minerals of varied quality. In 1940 he wrote to Clements:
‘I regret to say that through lack of cases I was unable to pack most of the specimens or to arrange for shipment to Mildura … [I] packed 13 cases of skeletons and long bones leaving unpacked enough skeletons and long bones for about 12 cases … I dumped all the incomplete skeletons except long bones into the creek—back bones, feet, hands, ribs, hips etc as you appear to only require complete skeletons.’22
Black’s motives are opaque. They exclude money; the institute did not pay him. He explained: ‘… my donation of material to the Institute of Anatomy was made with the idea of it being of use to the scientists at the present time, as this material is fast being destroyed by erosion, rabbits and by measures taken to destroy the rabbit …’23 How ironic that Black should insist he was saving the remains of the oldest, most enduring people on Earth from the white man’s destruction. There’s no humanity in his reasoning, viewing, as he did, the dead Aborigines purely as ‘material’.
His was not an isolated view—especially in Canberra, which, by 1941, had just opened the war memorial to commemorate the 60,000 men of the 1st Australian Imperial Force, including half-caste Aborigines (‘full bloods’ were not permitted to volunteer) who were buried beside foreign battlefields. In the memorial’s commemorative courtyard the stonemasons carved out the heads of Australian animals—koalas and kangaroos, lizards and emus—in celebration of Australia’s fauna. There are two other faces among those of the animals: an Aboriginal man and a woman.
It’s one of the few references to Aboriginal Australians in the war memorial, which ignores the warriors Kanabygal and Wyndradine, Durelle, Jandamarra and countless others, and their battles on the frontier. It is a salient reminder of precisely how Australia viewed its blacks: as animals.
The past is not another country. I know that when I look around this room in Mitchell, at the cardboard boxes with labels that read:
Child’s mandible 18 mnths
Juvenile vertebra
Ribs from diff inds
Cranial vault fragment
Left and right fibulae
Adult left ulna
Proximal left fibula
Vic Murray River
Bones of a hand
This is reinforced when Mike Pickering shows me the containers—a Farina tin, a battered cigarette box, a McFarlane Lang & Co biscuit tin—in which Aboriginal body parts that have lain around in private collections in Australian homes for generations are being sent to the museum. And I know the past is intrinsically linked to the present when I go into the State Library of Queensland to read the reminiscences of Korah Halcomb Wills. Written towards the end of his life in England, where he was born, there is no hint of the monster in the curlicues of a neat cursive hand.
Clearly, though, from the stops, starts, thematic digressions and faulty punctuation, he is an old man. The diary exudes confession under compulsion—of imminent death, the fear of retribution in the afterlife, perhaps. But there is nothing of genuine atonement in it. Wills migrated to Adelaide then moved to gold rush Victoria in the 1850s, where he worked as a butcher, before moving to Queensland in the 1860s. A successful hotelier in Townsville and Bowen, as well as Bowen mayor, Wills recounts how the Superintendent of the Black Police would seek men of ‘pluck and a quiet tongue’ to help disperse the Aborigines who threatened and attacked settlers:
‘… you may bet we weren’t backward in doing what we were ordered to do and what our forefathers have done to keep possession of the soil that was laying to waste and no good being done with it, when …our own white people were crying out for room to stretch our legs on, and turn to some account for the benefit of millions, and what many others have done since.’
There was ‘little of the dispersing going on now in the colonies, only just on the very outsides of civilisation and what there is must be done very much on the quick or you may get into trouble, but in my time they were dispersed by hundreds if not by thousands’. He recounts joining a reprisal party in the mid 1860s, while mayor, for the killers of a shepherd:
‘They got on top of a big mound & defied us & smacked their buttocks at us & hurled large stones down on us, & hid themselves behind large trees and huge rocks but some of them paid dearly for their bravado. They had no idea that we could reach them to a dead certainty at the distance of a mile by our little patent breach loading ‘Terry’s’ when they were brought to bear upon them some of them jumped I am sure six feet into the air with astonishment … and out of one of these mobs of Blacks I selected a little girl with the intention of civilising, and one of my friends thought he would select a boy for the same purpose.’
Holding the child captive, Wills writes:
‘I took it on my head to get a few specimens of certain Limbs, and head of a Black fellow, which was not a very delicate occupation I can tell you. I shall never forget the time when I first found the subject that I intended to anatomise, when my friends were looking on, and I commenced operations dissecting. I went to work business like to take off the head first and then the arms, and then the legs, and I gathered them together and put them into my pack saddle and one of my friends who I am sure had dispersed more than any other in the colony made the remark that if he was offered a fortune he could not do what I had done … I took my trophies home to the Station that morning, and in the afternoon my friends were all going down to the Lagoons to fish and to Bathe and I took some of my limbs to the Lagoon also to divest of its flesh as much as I could, and I got on pretty well with it until it became dark and I had to give up the unholy job, and we went back to the station for supper and yarns and pipes and nightcaps of whiskey, before turning in, and I had not been turned in long before I had such fearful pains in my stomach that I thought I should have died … but I managed to get over it in the course of a day or two but was left very weak indeed. I believe it was a perfect shock to my system by doing such a horrible repulsive thing as I had been doing, but I was not going to be done out of any pet specimens of humanity, and I packed them home to Bowen as well as my little protégée of a girl let me who rode on the front of my saddle for over 80 mile and crying nearly all the way. And as I neared the town of Bowen I met different people who hailed me with how do, and so on and where did you get that intelligent little nigger from. My answer was that I had picked her up in the bush lost to her own tribe and crying her heart out … I took compassion on her and decided to take her home and bring her up with my own children which I did, and even sent her to school with my own …’24
He expresses regret at the child’s death, though dwells on it less than he does on the death of a favourite horse.
I was wearing white cotton gloves while leafing through Wills’ manuscript—standard practice when handling such old archival paper. Intermittently I was compelled to peel the gloves off and head for the bathroom to wash my hands.
Wills distinguished himself by retrospectively detailing some of his acts. Few other perpetrators of frontier violence went to such detail although many were unrepentant, even boastful, about their acts. Constable William Willshire, posted to Alice Springs in 1882—where he oversaw, with the Native Police, twenty years of disproportionate outback reprisal against the local Aborigines—detailed some exploits. His several books, not least The Land of the Dawning, point to the psychopathy that led him to be charged with murder and inevitably pardoned (the settlers all but mutinied in his defence) though not dismissed. He resigned in 1908.
It is extraordinary to think that he could write The Land of the Dawning in 1896, while still in the force and continuing to mete out extreme violence. He writes of encountering a big group of Aborigines at Victoria River
‘… camped amongst rocks of enormous magnitude and long dry grass … They scattered in all directions, setting fire to the grass on each side of us, throwing occasional spears, and yelling at us. It’s no use mincing matters—the Martini Henry carbines at this critical moment were talking English in the silent majesty of those great eternal rocks.’
Of the Indigenous women, Willshire wrote:
‘Men would not remain so many years in a country like this if there were no women, and perhaps the Almighty meant them for use as He has placed them wherever the pioneers go … what I am speaking about is only natural, especially for men who are isolated away in the bush at out-stations where women of all ages and sizes are running at large.’25
While still in opposition the federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne foreshadowed a review of the national curriculum that would restore the importance of the Anzac story and rethink the ‘black armband view’ that he insists has permeated the syllabus. ‘We think that of course we should recognize the mistakes that have been made in the past. But we don’t want to beat ourselves up every day,’ he said.26
Here Pyne presents an either/or version of Australian history: Anzac or the stories about violence against Indigenous Australians. (‘Black armband’ is a term used by those who believe Australia’s flimsy cultural and historical acknowledgement of frontier violence inspires undue guilt among the living.) Here is a story that shows they are not mutually exclusive.
George Murray landed on Gallipoli with the 4th Australian Light Horse Regiment. He was there until the December 1915 retreat and redeployed to Egypt. Then he fought on the European Western Front from 1916 until the armistice in late 1918. He was wounded four times. In 1919 he joined the Northern Territory Police Force. He received no formal police training, but his military experience proved invaluable.
(The diaries and letters of Australian servicemen in the Middle East during the First World War are littered with pejorative references to Aborigines, whom they considered only marginally better than the Bedouin and town Arabs. Instructively, Australian Light Horsemen massacred the adult male inhabitants of an Arab village and a nearby camp in Palestine in late 1918—reprisal for the killing of a New Zealand trooper. At least one other major Aboriginal massacre—at Forrest River in 1926—in twentieth-century Australia involved returned Anzacs.)
Over five days in October 1928 near Coniston in the Northern Territory Murray led a reprisal massacre for the death of Frederick Brooks, a dingo trapper. At least thirty-one Aborigines were killed after Murray and his men tracked down and shot the suspected perpetrators and many others. On day three Murray and his mounted men ‘formed an extended line—in the tradition of the Light Horse—with Murray in the centre’.27 The Aborigines refused to disarm so the police fired. Four Walpiri, including one woman, were immediately killed. Another woman died within the hour.
A special board of inquiry was established. ‘But you didn’t shoot to kill, Mr Murray?’ Murray was asked. ‘Every time,’ he replied. The inquiry cleared Murray. A 1933 newspaper profile described Murray’s outback reputation. ‘To whisper the name of “Murri” to the blacks of the Lower Territory to-day is enough to turn the stock-boys pale with fright and send the myalls in a wild scatter for the bushland,’ wrote Ernestine Hill. Murray was, according to Hill:
‘leader of the last of the great punitive police raids that alone have made for the safety of the white man in a black man’s country … Occasional murders by the blacks in 60 years of history have inevitably been followed by drives of vengeance on the part of police and settlers. At Blackfellows’ Bones Range, at Attack Creek, and at other places, skulls and skeletons in their hundreds have commemorated many a wholesale massacre.’28
Commemorated? How disparately Australia has chosen to apply its means of commemorating, in the past and the present, its war dead. Some of the remains that Hill referred to may have ended up in private or major institutional collections. Some may even be in the vast collection at Mitchell, awaiting return to country or, at least, a more permanent keeping place. The Australian government–appointed Advisory Committee for Indigenous Repatriation has recommended that a ‘national keeping place’ be built in Canberra for Indigenous remains that cannot be returned to country. Yawuru elder and National Museum council member Peter Yu says:
‘A national keeping place is something that has been thought about for many years—by Aboriginal people, by academics and others … the obvious place to have it is in Canberra. It would allow for research to determine where the remains come from. It would also be a centre for learning and for me it would become like a beacon of conscience in the national capital where it reminds us of the importance of history and what we can do to each other, but where we can learn from what we’ve done to each other.
One of the problems with Australia is that we don’t really recognise the true history of the country. It was a brutal history. And I think that contemporarily most Australians are divorced from understanding the trauma in that history.’
The same week the committee recommended a keeping place to government, Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced his desire for an Arlington-style cemetery for war dead and dignitaries. Meanwhile the remains of 725 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders remain in limbo in cardboard boxes out at Mitchell.
How did it come to this? I wonder, as I drive back past the tent embassy from the National Library, after reading that journal article about Bokalie’s head. I drive up Captain Cook Crescent, its median strip dotted with majestic gums. Eventually I turn into Endeavour and then down Beagle—named after HMS Beagle, one of history’s most important ships. The passengers for its voyages of discovery for new world flora and fauna included the young naturalist Charles Darwin, of whom so many of the bone collectors were devotees. The reminders of what happened are everywhere.

© Paul Daley


  1. See
  2. Publicity poster for the 1945 film and lecture tour of Australia’s Stone Age Men by Charles P. Mountford, reproduced in Martin Thomas and Margo Neale (eds), Barks, Birds & Billabongs: Exploring the Legacy of the 1948 Arnhem Land Expedition, National Museum of Australia, Canberra, 2009.
  3. See
  4. Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, John Murray, London, 1871, p. 66.
  5. Cressida Fforde,Collecting the Dead—Archaeology and the Reburial Issue, Duckworth, London, 2004, p. 23.
  6. Martin Thomas and Margo Neale (eds),Exploring the Legacy of the 1948 Arnhem Land Expedition, ANU E Press, Australian National University, Canberra, 2011, pp. 21–2.
  7. See
  8. See
  9. Henry Reynolds,Forgotten War, NewSouth, Sydney, 2013; John Connor,Australian Frontier Wars, University of New South Wales Press, Sydney, 2002.
  10. See
  11. See
  12. National Library of Australia, microfilm Reel 6045 AONSW CSO 4/1734.
  13. Report by Captain James Wallis, May 1816. In Report of expedition of detachment of 46th Regiment against hostile natives in the Cow Pastures district. Reports from Lieutenant Dawe, Captain Schaw, Captain James Wallis and Lieutenant A.G. Parker. State Archives of New South Wales, Microfilm Reel 6045 AONSW CSO 4/1735, as cited in Michael Pickering, ‘Where are the stories?’, Public Historian, vol. 32, no. 1 (February 2010), pp 85–6.
  14. Author interview with David Kaus, May 2013.
  15. Pickering, ‘Where are the stories?’, pp. 85–6.
  16. See, for example, ‘Ramsay Smith board. The enquiry’, Adelaide Advertiser, 9 September 1903, p. 10.
  17. D.J. Cunningham, ‘The Head of an Australian Aboriginal’, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, vol. 37 (1907), pp. 47–58.
  18. Captivating and Curious—Celebrating the Collection of the National Museum of Australia (exhibition catalogue), National Museum of Australia Press, Canberra, 2005, pp. 9–13.
  19. Captivating and Curious, pp. 13–16
  20. National Archives of Australia—CRS A3560, Item 7440.
  21. S. Sunderland and L.J. Ray, ‘A note on the Murray Black Collection of Australian Aboriginal Skeletons’, Royal Society of Victoria Proceedings, vol. 7, February 1959 (from National Museum of Australia (NMA) File Number 02/637).
  22. Black to Clements, 10 October 1940. NMA File Number 02/637.
  23. Black to E.P. Hipsley, 11 November 1949. NMA File Number 02/637.
  24. Korah Wills, ‘Reminiscence’, Brandon Papers, Oxley Memorial Library, OM 75/75/3.
  25. W. Willshire, The Land of the Dawning, Adelaide, 1896.
  26. ‘Kids should learn about Anzac Day: Pyne’, 22 April 2013, <>.
  27. Bill Wilson and Justin O’Brien, ‘“To Infuse an Universal Terror”: A Reprisal of the Coniston Killings’,Aboriginal History, vol. 27 (2003).
  28. Ernestine Hill, ‘Man whose gun keeps white men safe in wilds’, Sunday Sun and Guardian, 5 February 1933.