The University of Cambridge's collection of thylacines, or Tasmanian tigers, was sent to the museum by Morton Allport in 1869 and 1871. The collection represents the largest of this species in the UK to come from a single supplier. (Credit: Natalie Jones/University of Cambridge)
Warning: This article contains disturbing descriptions of the practices of Tasmanian colonial settlers and violence against Tasmanian Aborigines.
(CNN) -- Victorian-era settlers were often complicit in atrocities committed against native populations, and new research is revealing how those stories are intertwined with the lineage of museum specimens still on display today.
An article by Jack Ashby, deputy director of the Museum of Zoology at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, offers new details about the brutalities of a prolific collector of human and animal remains. The study, published Tuesday in the journal Archives of Natural History, sheds light on past injustices and raises questions about the legitimacy of some academic honors bestowed on scientists at the time.
A review of letters and other documents about the British colonist Morton Allport, who lived on the Australian island of Tasmania in the 19th century, showed that he explicitly asked for scientific praise in exchange for providing skins or bones of Tasmanian tigers and Tasmanian Aborigines—which he obtained by horrific means—to European museums.
"In total, Allport shipped five skeletons of Tasmanian Aborigines to Europe, proudly identifying himself as Tasmania's most prolific dealer of body remains," according to the study.
Most of the human remains were already repatriated or destroyed during the war, according to the study, although one skeleton remains in a Belgian museum. But as many as 12 skeletons and skins of carnivorous marsupials called Tasmanian tigers, or thylacines, obtained by Allport remain in the University of Cambridge's Museum of Zoology, where Ashby works, serving as a dark reminder of how modern science intersects with genocide and brutality in the colonies.
Speaking to CNN, Ashby forever changed the way he looked at specimens in his museum's collection.
"To think about what happened to Tasmanians, what happened to thylacines and other Tasmanian species... it's intertwined with the human and environmental cost of colonial projects," Ashby says.
Portrait of Mortan Allport from 1854. (Credit: Allport Library and Museum of Fine Art/Tasman State Library)
An Undercurrent of Brutality
Allport, born in 1830, moved from Britain to Tasmania with his family as a baby, as violence and the displacement of the colony's indigenous peoples reached its peak.
The colonial government allowed settlers to murder, without punishment, Tasmanian Aborigines and, in 1830, even set a bounty for the capture of indigenous people and Tasmanian tigers or thylacines. The result was the killing or displacement of most of the indigenous population, which grew from about 6,000 Aboriginal people in 1804 to fewer than 300 when Allport arrived on the island, according to the study.
The work drew 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 natives dwindled, the shortage drove demand for proof of their existence in the form of skeletal remains, a market Allport was eager to supply, according to the study.
This encouraged Allport to buy and resell or donate the remains of the thylacines, which are now believed to be extinct, largely due to colonial actions.
And he incited him to commit brutal acts of desecration of graves and mutilation of corpses.
The document details the grisly story of the remains of an Indigenous man, William Lanne, considered the last Tasmanian Aborigine alive before his death in 1869.
Lanne's body was taken to a local hospital with plans to be buried. But a man under Allport's direction and another settler collector, William Crowther, broke into the hospital on several 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 burial to recover what was left of his skeleton, the study states.
These actions provoked public backlash, causing Crowther to lose his respected position at the local hospital.
However, both held high-ranking positions in the colony, and Allport's role in the desecration of Lanne's remains has barely been made known, according to the study.
Crowther was elected Prime Minister of Tasmania and a statue was later erected in his honour in the state capital. (In 2022, after a broad campaign by Aboriginal groups, the local council voted to remove it.)
And, from 1870 to 1878, Allport enjoyed a position as vice-president of the Royal Society of Tasmania, an organization dedicated to science and culture modeled after the Royal Society of London. It was while he held that position that the Royal Society of Tasmania exhumed the hidden remains of the last known Tasmanian Aborigine, Truganini, who died in 1876, according to the study.
Truganini had explicitly asked to be cremated to prevent her remains from becoming a museum exhibit. The Royal Society defied those wishes and exhibited his skeleton until 1947, Ashby writes.
Some Aboriginal Tasmanians survived colonial persecution, Ashby adds, albeit at a brutal price.
"Many Aboriginal women had been abducted by whalers, sealers and other settlers and taken to the islands of Bass Strait and Kangaroo Island," where they were often tortured, enslaved and raped, according to the study. According to Ashby, his descendants form the present-day Tasmanian Aboriginal community.
Although Allport was not directly involved in the murder of any Aboriginal Tasmanians, the collector's writings make it clear that he recognized and even "tasted" the effects of colonization.
The extinction of Tasmanian tigers
The study also recounts how Allport searched for the carcasses of Tasmanian tigers, which were already heavily persecuted due to the belief that these animals were a threat to colonial livestock. (According to the study, dogs trained by settlers to hunt kangaroos were the most likely culprits in livestock killings.) According to historical records, thylacines killed very few sheep, while dogs killed hundreds.)
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To obtain the specimens, Allport relied on a network of "friends," who likely recovered the remains of trappers and farmers, according to the study.
Allport then took credit for collecting the thylacines and sending them to European museums such as the Musée Royal d'Histoire Naturelle in Brussels, Belgium, the British Museum in London, and the University Museum of Zoology in Cambridge.
According to his letters, Allport explicitly asked for "quid pro quo" (something in exchange for something) for handing over the remains. And it was showered with titles, receiving "praise from elite international scientific institutions," the study states. Two species of fish were also named in Allport's honor.
It's unclear why Allport sought recognition over profit. It could be that Allport's other businesses, which included mining, were successful enough that Allport wasn't financially motivated, but instead sought to bolster its own status and that of the Tasmanian colony, Ashby says.
But the recognition came even though Allport did very little to advance scientific knowledge, Ashby said. And it raises the question of how many other acclaimed "scientists" of the time engaged in similar practices.
Shown here are the five thylacine skins that Morton Allport sent to the University of Cambridge's Museum of Zoology in 1869 and 1871. (Credit: University of Cambridge)
Confronting a Violent Legacy
Ashby says the thylacine specimens from the Cambridge museum are valuable to modern science, offering information about parasites and population genetics. But Ashby believes there is a duty to share the violent history of the specimens as well.
Ashby added that it's been about the last five years that natural history museums have "woken up to the idea that our collections have colonial legacies, which seems crazy."
"We're not being honest as institutions by not telling these stories," Ashby said. "We are supposed to be scientific and apolitical institutions, but the way museums present nature is influenced by an enormous number of decisions."
Professor Rebecca Kilner, head of the university's Department of Zoology, said in a statement that the organisation has long appreciated that "natural history can help us better understand the natural world and how to conserve it".
"Now (we realize) that the social story behind our collections is just as important," Kilner said.