Colonial ‘scientist’ got cred for trading human, thylacine remains
November 30, 2023, Matthew Ward Agius, Matthew Agius is a science writer for Cosmos Magazine.
A Cambridge University academic has shed light on a lawyer’s strange and abhorrent pathway to become one of Tasmania’s most acclaimed colonial scientists.
It comes amid a growing movement of self-examination by Western scientific institutions into unethical practices during the establishment of colonies, slavery and the exploitation of indigenous people across the world.
After migrating to Hobart at the age of 5, Morton Allport built a career as a solicitor and “gentleman scientist.” Among his exploits, Allport was one of those responsible for introducing European salmon to the state and established a reputation as a leading naturalist with fellowships from several UK and European scientific societies and institutions.
But that legacy has been questioned in recent years for his involvement in an unethical trade practice. Jack Ashby, assistant director of Cambridge University’s Museum of Zoology, says Allport’s reputation was largely built by sending specimens to overseas institutions in exchange for scientific honours.
Some of these specimens, which include 40 mammals and 11 birds, are housed at the museum.
In his article published today in the Archives of Natural History, Ashby notes the persecution and export of animals like the now-extinct thylacine, took place at a time when Tasmania’s Aboriginal population was also subject to state-sanctioned violence and genocidal policies.
He notes that as populations of thylacines and Aboriginal peoples worsened, demand for their remains from private European collectors and museums increased, leading to a market for human and animal remains throughout the 19th century, which Allport and other colonial elites were able to supply.
Supplying precious remains in exchange for scientific honour
Ashby found Allport had invested heavily in building his reputation as Tasmania’s leading scientist.
His study of Allport’s letters reveals a man who deliberately offered specimens in exchange for fellowships, aided by his creation of a ‘Thylacine network’ that effectively acquired and exported remains to institutions around the world.
His work importing salmon to the colonies saw him recognised by ‘acclimatisation’ societies in Victoria and New Zealand (acclimatisation being a reference to the anglicising of local ecosystems by introducing non-native organisms).
But despite writing few papers on native animals, Allport was granted several honours by some of the world’s premier science bodies.
His letters revealed the disconnect between Allport’s prestige and relatively poor academic contributions.
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Ashby says this may be the first time evidence of such brazen solicitation has been uncovered, although it’s unclear whether this was a common practice during the 19th century.
“I’ve seen a lot of correspondence about museum specimens being sent from Australia particularly, but also other places, and that isn’t typically framed in that way,” Ashby tells Cosmos.
“So I think it’s unusual, but it wouldn’t surprise me if there were others.”
Ashby also sheds light on Allport’s involvement in the desecration of Aboriginal remains, including the high-profile and tragic case of William Lanne, considered at the time to be the ‘last Tasmanian Aboriginal man’ when he died in 1869 (Tasmanian Aboriginal people have, however, survived and thrive in contemporary society).
Lanne’s remains were separated despite orders from the Colonial Secretary. Eventual Tasmanian premier William Crowther was chief among the perpetrators, having removed and stolen Lanne’s skull. Allport, acting with the Royal Society of Tasmania’s secretary, later removed Lanne’s hands and feet.
Reckoning with the legacy of science
In total, Allport was involved in sending five Tasmanian Aboriginal skeletons to Europe, identifying himself as the leading trader of bodily remains from the colony.
Cambridge University notes that while it did not receive any remains of Tasmanian Aboriginal people, all specimens sent to the UK have either been repatriated or were destroyed during World War II bombings.
Ashby concludes his report by acknowledging the role colonial elites played in elevating their territories on the global stage, attracting economic investment and broad interest, while also actively building a reputation through the trade of human and animal remains.
“He is a central figure in Europe’s relationship with thylacines and Tasmanian Aboriginal people, and so he’s a good focus to understand these entwined human and environmental costs of the colonial project,” Ashby says.
Ashby pored over hundreds of letters as part of his research. In doing so, he had to come to terms with a person engaged in unethical practices, as well as a leading figure of the emergent Tasmanian colony.
“He is clearly working to improve the reputation of Tasmania, and the science industry, the extractive industries – rightly or wrongly,” Ashby says, noting Allport “didn’t appear to have any qualms about how he was treating Tasmanian Aboriginal remains. Clearly, as a kind of enthusiastic naturalist, he was also aware that thylacines were heading towards extinction but didn’t display any kind of concerns about trading in them.”
The intertwined history of colonists exploiting Australia’s first peoples, as well as the continent’s endemic mammal populations, is the focus of a new examination by the Cambridge University Museum.
With little teaching of Britain’s colonial history and its impact on people and the natural world inside UK classrooms, Ashby hopes this work will begin to connect the public with the human story of these collections and the specimens on display.
“It’s building on this recognition that natural history is a part of social history and there is value, there’s power in adding these stories,” he says.
“Thylacines are already incredibly powerful objects just because of their iconic status [as a] 20th-century extinction and how that extinction came about, but now I’d say there’s also this social history connected to this story.
“We could do this for many, many collections across the West, and make these objects even richer and more relevant to know that they don’t just relate to environmental catastrophe, but they also relate to social injustice, which is obviously a huge part of life today, to grapple with.”
Cosmos has invited the Aboriginal Land Council of Tasmania, Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre, Reconciliation Tasmania and the Royal Society of Tasmania to comment.