Hobart man traded Aboriginal human remains for acclaim

Eelemarni Close-Brown |

Morton Allport traded Aboriginal body parts to European collectors, a study has found.
Morton Allport traded Aboriginal body parts to European collectors, a study has found.

New research has revealed a Hobart lawyer traded Aboriginal body parts and Tasmanian Tiger skeletons to European collectors in exchange for scientific acclaim.

Among the human remains were those of William Lanne, the last Tasmanian Aboriginal man.

Morton Allport, who would eventually become vice-president of the Royal Society of Tasmania, built his reputation by robbing graves for body parts of Indigenous people and exchanging them for scientific honours.

Thylacine skins
Morton Allport also sent Tasmanian Tiger skeletons and skins to collectors. (HANDOUT/UNIVERSITY OF CAMBRIDGE)

He also sent Tasmanian Tiger skeletons and skins to European collectors and museums in a quid pro quo arrangement for recognition.

At the time, a genocide was being waged against First Nations people in Tasmania and the thylacine was being hunted into extinction.

Allport’s activities came to light in research by Jack Ashby, the assistant director of the University Museum of Zoology at Cambridge, who studied a series of letters kept at the State Library of Tasmania.

His research explores the human and environmental costs of colonisation and its links to documenting natural history.

Allport sent five Tasmanian Aboriginal skeletons to Europe, proudly admitting in letters he directed the grave-robbing himself.

“Early British settlers considered both thylacines and Tasmanian Aboriginal people to be a hindrance to colonial development – and the response was institutionalised violence with the intended goal of eradicating both,” Mr Ashby said.

One of Allport’s victims was William Lanne, who was known as King Billy and considered a “prize specimen” because he was believed to be the last original Tasmanian man.

William Lanne was the partner of Truganini and a well-respected Aboriginal activist who died from cholera and dysentery at the age of 34 in 1869.

Allport instructed that Lanne’s body be mutilated before and after his exhumation.

Jack Ashby
Allport’s activities came to light in research by Cambridge researcher Jack Ashby. (HANDOUT/UNIVERSITY OF CAMBRIDGE)

In 1830, British settlers in Tasmania established the first bounties encouraging violence against Tasmania’s first peoples and the thylacines.

“Although Allport did not send any human remains to Cambridge, I can no longer look at these thylacine skins without thinking of the human story they relate to,” Mr Ashby said.

The Tasmanian Tiger remains sent to the University of Cambridge by Allport were the UK’s biggest collection of the species from a single person.

Rebecca Kilner is head of Cambridge’s zoology department.

“We have long appreciated that their natural history can help us understand more about the natural world and how to conserve it,” Professor Kilner said.

“We now realise that the social history behind our collections is just as important.”

Morton Allport letter
Morton Allport proudly admitted in letters to having directed the grave-robbing himself. (HANDOUT/STATE LIBRARY OF TASMANIA)

The human remains sent by Allport to the United Kingdom are no longer held in British collections – they were either destroyed by bombing during the Second World War or have since been returned to Tasmania.

“Understanding why and how animals were collected, including the underlying political and social motivations, is key to understanding and addressing some of the social inequalities that exist today,” Prof Kilner said.

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