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The Return of the Bones

Claire Scobie

When Tom Trevorrow was growing up on the banks of the Murray River, local farmers drove around in big Chevies proudly displaying an Aboriginal skull on the dashboard. ‘It’s like they got a kick out of it, a thrill. It was a showpiece: “Look at me, I’ve got a real Aboriginal skull,” ’ he recalls. This was the 1960s, when Aboriginal skeletons gathered grime in cabinets in museums throughout Britain and Australia. ‘A lot of scientists say they’re skeletal remains. To us, they’re family,’ says Trevorrow, who, for the past twenty years as chairman of the Ngarrindjeri heritage committee, has worked tirelessly to ‘bring his old people home’.

In May 2009 a delegation from the Ngarrindjeri tribe collected three skulls from Oxford University, acquired in the 1860s. When Ngarrindjeri elder Major Sumner, his body painted in ochres, conducted the formal handover ceremony on the university lawns, he felt a sense of satisfaction. ‘It’s a big accomplishment, not only for us, but for Oxford University as it’s the first time they’ve agreed to repatriate,’ says Sumner. ‘It sends a clear message to other British institutions. Why do they need to hold on to our old people?’

The three skulls, from Goolwa, in the heart of Ngarrindjeri traditional country, which stretches from the mouth of the Murray north to the Adelaide Hills, joined hundreds of other sets of remains awaiting burial at Camp Coorong, a tiny Aboriginal community 180 kilometres south-east of Adelaide. The wetlands and sand dunes surrounding the tidal inlet of the Coorong lagoon have been home for millennia to the Ngarrindjeri—the ‘fresh-and-saltwater people’. Today they number around 3500.

In mid 2008, Edinburgh University returned the last of its collection—a solitary ear bone—to the Ngarrindjeri. To mark its homecoming, and that of two skulls from an Exeter museum, a ‘smoking ceremony’—to bless the bones and cleanse them of any negativity—was held at Camp Coorong. Gales are forecast when I arrive at the camp, founded by Tom Trevorrow and his wife Ellen in 1986 to promote reconciliation. At its entrance, a flag in blues, reds and yellow, representing the eighteen clans of the Ngarrindjeri nation, billows in briny air.

After Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s national apology in 2008, when he promised a new chapter in the nation’s history, Trevorrow hoped that the South Australian Government would follow suit and apologise for his tribe’s own ‘stolen generations’—hundreds of his ancestors whose remains were sent to Australian and British museums between the mid nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as anatomical specimens. ‘We’re not asking for something that we don’t rightfully deserve,’ says Trevorrow. ‘It’s a fact that it happened. It was government and they know that it was culturally wrong. The longer they hang on, the longer the suffering.’

During this era of prolific collecting, bones and soft tissue were studied according to Charles Darwin’s theory that the ‘civilised races’ would almost certainly exterminate the ‘savage races’. Skulls in particular were believed to indicate racial characteristics. While the federal government has shown its commitment to repatriation, with the appointment of a new International Repatriation Advisory Committee in September 2009, the Ngarrindjeri are struggling to deal largely with the painful legacy of one man: Scottish-born William Ramsay Smith, one of the most prolific colonial collectors. A medical student at Edinburgh University, Smith was responsible for the bulk of its collection, some 500 to 600 individuals.

‘The Coorong is a particularly tragic case. In fact, it’s more than tragic,’ says Dr Mike Pickering, Repatriation Program Director at Canberra’s National Museum. ‘I don’t think anyone foresaw that one [Aboriginal] group would receive so many remains. And there are still remains left in the South Australian Museum, so there are more to come back.’

It was back in 1896 when William Ramsey Smith left Scotland to take up a controversial role as physician at the Adelaide Hospital. Following a dispute with the local government and the resignation of honorary staff, the British Medical Association (BMA) had urged doctors not to seek employment there. For ignoring the BMA, Smith was described as ‘highly dishonourable and unprofessional’ and banned from the association for life. Nonetheless within three years Smith had risen to be Adelaide’s coroner, inspector of anatomy and chairman of the Central Board of Health. But his main interest lay in post mortem research for ‘medical purposes’, and Smith used his positions to illicitly dissect and remove human remains.

Witnesses described how Smith would practise with a .303 rifle on corpses at the mortuary of Adelaide hospital. Outside, it was not unusual to see the head of an Aboriginal in a kerosene tin, waiting to be sent to D. J. Cunningham, professor of anatomy at Edinburgh, where Smith donated the majority of remains—including organs, skin, tongues and male genitalia—over at least a fifteen-year period. At Smith’s death in 1937, 182 skulls alone were found at his Adelaide home. ‘There is a suggestion that Ramsay Smith was body shopping—collecting individuals of unusual pathologies or disease,’ says Pickering. ‘He was trying to buy favour and kudus with his alma mater.’

While Smith did not receive money from Cunningham, he did receive benefits. With Cunningham’s support, Smith became a member of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and a Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute. The professor did not seem interested in knowing how Smith procured the remains, making one request for soft tissue in 1906. ‘As for the soft parts, I shall do my best,’ Smith replies. ‘I shall make a strong effort to get a whole young subject if I can. Much material is allowed to waste for lack of somebody on the spot to secure it.’

Aside from sourcing ‘fresh’ corpses, Smith also robbed graves. Burial grounds littered the sand dunes of the Coorong, as the Ngarrindjeri traditionally bury their dead facing towards the ocean. Smith writes how, in an ‘old time burying ground, we prospect as carefully as the man in search of gold’. To obtain ‘good specimens’, Smith is thought to have destroyed five gravesides for one body. ‘He was very clinical and systematic,’ says Ngarrindjeri academic Chris Wilson from Flinders University. ‘Every time Smith removed someone from a burial ground, he marked it on a map with a cross. Sometimes wind had blown away the sand so the remains were there. Other times, there would be actual stealing.’

Despite common law recognising the rights of the dead, ‘desecration of graves under the impetus of scientific curiosity began within months of [British] settlement in 1788,’ says Paul Turnbull at Queensland’s Griffith University. It was widely accepted, he continues, that ‘Aboriginal care for the dead involved the reincorporation of the body within ancestral country [and] indigenous burial places were sites of great spiritual significance requiring respect, protection and ongoing ceremonial obligations.’ Nonetheless, colonial collectors like Ramsey Smith had informal networks across the state, and as far as the Northern Territory, to obtain remains. Government surveying staff and police would find Aboriginal bones and send or sell them. A skull fetched around £10.

‘In most instances, Aboriginals were not shot for remains,’ says Turnbull. ‘Why would you need to? There were so many actions of [white] Native police who could collect for museums. They would get them from massacre sites.’

The tale of a ‘medicine man’, known as Wanamachoo, from near Innamincka, a blistering red desert outpost in remote South Australia, encapsulates the colonial realities of the day. Arrested in 1892 after an alleged tribal killing, Wanamachoo was shackled, photographed and taken to Adelaide. After he was found unfit to plead because he could not understand English, the authorities deemed him insane and he was committed to Adelaide’s Parkside lunatic asylum, where he died nine years later. He would not have spoken to anyone in his own tongue during his entire incarceration.

On his death in 1903, Smith dissected him, sending the skeleton to Cunningham, with a note describing Wanamachoo as ‘the very lowest black-fellow [he’d] ever seen’. In Edinburgh his skeleton was ‘mounted and judging by its blackened, soot-covered condition spent many years exposed to view,’ says Pickering, who cleaned it on its return to the National Museum in Canberra in 2000. For his indigenous descendants, being associated with Wanamachoo’s remains was potentially dangerous. Pickering explains: ‘If a person has died without undergoing ceremony then their spirit is still considered to be associated with the remains. It was felt that his spirit was distressed.’ Wanamachoo was finally laid to rest in his tribal country in 2007.


When I arrive at Camp Coorong, the first person I meet is Marshall Freeland Carter, a bespectacled 63-year-old, who tells me how terrible he feels that his ancestors are returning in ‘bits and pieces. Just coolis—heads—this time.’ Carter is an ex-alcoholic who has suffered depression for many years. For the past two decades he has worked helping other indigenous families deal with addictions. ‘It’s what they done to ’em, used as guinea pigs. No respect.’ His anguish is palpable. ‘The white society would go up in arms about this. They stole our old people, they never told our families nothing.’

In 2003 Carter received the ‘shock of his life’ when he discovered that the remains of his great uncle, Langan Carter, were among those returned from Edinburgh. Carter pulls out a book, A World that Was, and turns to a well-thumbed page showing a photo of a group of Aborigines—men with hoary beards, women in white pinafores. ‘That is Langan Carter,’ he points to a young black man with a floppy hat. ‘He lived at Point McLeay Mission. He’d only have been in his late twenties when he died in the Adelaide hospital in the early 1900s.’

Edinburgh University was the first British institution to begin sending thousands of Aboriginal bones back to Australia in the early 1990s. After the first batch was returned, mainly skulls, a second room of remains was discovered and catalogued by archaeologist Dr Cressida Fforde. By 2000, hundreds of remains had been sent to Canberra’s Repatriation department, where Mike Pickering reconstructed many of the ‘dislocated’ individuals. Langan Carter’s remains were among those returned without a head. ‘We can’t bury him till we find it.’ Marshall Carter shudders. ‘It feels no good speaking about it.’

When the young Langan Carter went into the Adelaide hospital, he may well have feared what would happen to his body. In 1903, there was a huge outcry when William Ramsay Smith was charged with eighteen breaches under the Anatomy Act for illegally interfering and mutilating bodies of indigenous and non-indigenous people at the hospital morgue. Smith was immediately suspended and a public inquiry opened. This centred on how Smith had handled the body of Tommy Walker, a popular Aboriginal figure who lived on the streets of Adelaide. On Walker’s death in July 1901, city businessmen were so moved they paid for a carved headstone and two obituaries ran in the local papers. But within hours of his death, Smith had intercepted, cut up and decapitated Walker’s body. The coffin, containing only his flesh, was weighted down with sand.

Smith’s actions only became known two years later, after news travelled back from Edinburgh that Walker’s remains now formed part of its Anatomy Museum. The revelations triggered public outrage and ‘caused anxiety amongst the natives at Point McLeay mission station [who] are manifestly disinclined to be sent to this Adelaide hospital in case of sickness’, reported the Adelaide Advertiser.

Despite widespread fears, Aborigines had no means of challenging the status quo. The inquiry exonerated William Ramsay Smith of all charges. In the name of science, he argued that dissections were a common and essential part of research. He was reinstated in his role and he continued his prolific collecting. Such was his medical detachment and his belief that his collection would serve as a monument to science, he could have Aboriginal friends whom he described as ‘polite’ and ‘scrupulously honest’, but deflesh them before they’d barely turned cold.

From his writings, it is clear that he was aware of indigenous funerary customs. ‘After death no reference is made to the deceased, nor is his name mentioned. Relations by the same name find a substitute.’ Smith writes in his leather-bound manuscript, Impressions and Pictures (Gatherings in Nature’s Bypaths) in Australia, the Far East and South Sea, ‘A mother would not give [me] a lock of her child’s hair because she has been taught that if the child dies, its spirit will find no rest if that lock of hair survives.’

In the Camp Coorong museum there is a series of arresting mug shots taken in 1947 of Aborigines living at Point McLeay Mission. Their unflinching gazes have the weary, vulnerable quality of a people stripped bare. It would be another two decades before Aborigines would achieve the same citizenship rights as other Australians in the 1967 referendum. Ever since they can remember, Tom and George Trevorrow have been fighting to redress the past.

The brothers’ reputation as battlers was sealed over the Hindmarsh Island bridge controversy in the early 1990s, when developers clashed with the Ngarrindjeri over land and spiritual beliefs, leading to court challenges, a royal commission and a divisive cultural debate. George, fifty-seven, the ‘rupelli’—chief—of the eighteen Ngarrindjeri clans, runs the nearby Coorong Wilderness Lodge; Tom manages the educational camp. In preparation for the ‘smoking ceremony’ to bless the bones returned from Britain, they stoke a smouldering fire of tea-tree and eucalyptus.

Around forty locals gather and Aboriginal elder Major Sumner, who conducts the cultural ceremonies, begins the ritual. Stripped to the waist, his body painted up, with a kangaroo bone through flared nostrils and a crown of emu feathers, Sumner rattles his boomerangs together, invoking the ancestors.

Next to him, Tom Trevorrow, dressed in scuffed jeans, cuts a hunched figure. His lived-in face belies a steely will. He thanks the Australian and British governments for their support. As he talks a light rain begin to fall. ‘This is part of the reconciliation process that must take place to heal the pain and suffering. Why have we got droughts? Problems with our land?’ He pauses. ‘As Ngarrindjeri people, we believe that land and water is a living body and we are part of its existence. Birds and animals are our totems, our closest friends. When one of our elders dies they’ve got to go back to the land. If they are disturbed [we’ll] be punished. We believe terrible things are happening today because their spirits aren’t at rest.’ (The Ngarrindjeri are witnessing the collapse of their environment as the Coorong silts up and the entire Murray River system is devastated by drought.)

Trevorrow motions to members of the Ngarrindjeri delegation to place three black boxes next to the fire. Inside are more boxes. The two skulls from Exeter sit in eggshell-blue boxes; the tiny piece of stirrup bone, which once belonged to an Aboriginal woman, is in a plastic container. They have been on a long journey—leaving on a steamship and returning on a Boeing 747.

As the boxes are prised open—to allow smoke to cleanse the contents—a sudden wind whistles through the she-oak trees. Smoke billows in crazy gusts. A murmur ripples through the crowd. The boxes are carried to a nearby room. This is not the clinically controlled storage area you might expect. Painted in bright colours, it would be an ideal space for Ellen Trevorrow to run her basket-weaving classes. But since 2003, it has been the repository for sixteen large cardboard boxes. They bear labels—‘Human skeletal remains. Dry Bones only. Age 100 years.’ Whorls of smoke from the fire drift in and, lit up by sunbeams, hang suspended between ceiling and floor.

For Tom Trevorrow, this part ‘tears him to pieces’. After getting his ‘old people’ home he doesn’t have the resources to rebury them. ‘Culturally and spiritually it’s wrong. But we’ve had to make a decision as a committee that they are better off in our possession rather than overseas.’

‘It’s as if they are sleeping,’ says Marshall Carter, who absent-mindedly lifts up paper covering one cardboard box. It’s a shock to see a partial skeleton with a caved-in skull and yellowing teeth. Next to it is a plastic bag bulging with red-dirt-encrusted bone fragments from a nearby farm, dated 6/11/07.

This is the corner for bones brought in by ordinary Australians. It’s improbable to think that when the Trevorrows were growing up, it was, says George, ‘a fad to have a skull of an Abo on the mantelpiece’. Since the Ngarrindjeri advertised in local papers asking people to return remains—with no strings attached—there has been a steady traffic. When Tom sees these people, ‘with tears in their eyes’, he knows that attitudes are finally changing.

Nonetheless, the decision to hold on to them at Camp Coorong concerns the community. ‘People feel scared,’ says Chris Wilson. ‘Some don’t come here because of it. Others argue for their immediate reburial.’ To date, only twenty-three have been reburied, costing around $50,000. The Ngarrindjeri heritage committee estimates it would cost $180,000 a year for ten years to complete the remaining 400-odd reburials.

The twenty-three reburials took five weeks of painstaking work. A physical anthropologist and two staff from the Australian National Museum checked each individual and a team of Flinders University archaeology students assisted in the reburials. The days leading up to the reburials were rainy and stormy. ‘A few things occurred, strange things.’ Wilson laughs nervously. ‘Things went missing and would turn up in weird places. But once we’d reburied, the weather broke and there was a calming sensation. The sun broke through the clouds.’

‘On the day itself, all the pelicans came,’ remembers George Trevorrow. ‘They were almost within touching distance. You could hear their wings. The pelicans are our family totem and as the first burial was on our land, we felt that they were the ancestors coming back. For the next reburial we took a boat across the Coorong. The pelicans followed us. It was really eerie.’

George Trevorrow is a commanding presence. With heavy-lidded bloodshot eyes, he sucks each cigarette as if it were his last. He is weary of the buck-passing between the local and the federal government on who is responsible for the reburials. ‘We know what the job is,’ he says. ‘We need the resources and specialist help to carry that job out.’

Negotiations are underway between the Ngarrindjeri and the state government’s Aboriginal Affairs and Reconciliation Division (AARD), which put up $20,000 in 2009 to facilitate an agreement between the two parties. These funds are not for actual reburials, but for an inventory on what cultural properties, including skeletal remains, AARD still holds. Among them is the considerable collection of Ngarrindjeri remains at the South Australian museum.

‘The South Australian Government have a strong obligation in relation to indigenous heritage and a fair degree of onus on them to resolve the problem,’ believes Paul Turnbull. ‘They also have a quasi-legal obligation. Someone like Ramsay Smith was breaking the law.’

Since indigenous groups from Australia, New Zealand and America first made requests for the return of ancestral remains thirty years ago, scientists have continually argued that remains are a vital source of information that can illuminate pathways of human evolution, migration and the impact of disease. At the core of this emotive debate between scientific rationality and cultural identity is the question of who owns the past. British writer Kenan Malik, author of Strange Fruit: Why Both Sides Are Wrong in the Race Debate, takes it further in his essay ‘Who Owns Knowledge’: ‘The battle over the bones is also a battle between those who believe in the possibility of universal knowledge and those who view truth as culturally constrained.’

Yet examples where research on contested remains has yielded medical breakthroughs are rare. Most of the collections are from people who have died in the past 150 years; only a few date back more than 500 years. ‘For any research to be legitimate, you need an extensive number to make sense of it,’ says Wilson.

The turning point in the repatriation debate came in 2003, at the landmark UK Parliamentary Working Group on Human Remains. This produced a code of practice for museums to follow. The report, says Mike Pickering from the National Museum, ‘came as far in three years as Australia had done in twenty years’. Crucially it articulated that remains had the right to be treated as people rather than specimens, shifting the focus of discussions away from science towards human rights.

Since 2004, when the UK Human Tissue Act allowed museums to repatriate human remains, a host of British institutions have done so, among them the Natural History Museum, which repatriated seventeen individuals to the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre in 2007. In a major breakthrough in two years later, the Ngarrindjeri delegation had their first meeting at Duckworth Laboratory at Cambridge University. ‘We had a very good reception from Ian Leslie, the pro-vice-chancellor at Cambridge,’ says George Trevorrow. ‘We had a little ceremony with the remains of our old people. It was a real wrench, knowing we had to leave them.’ To date, none of Duckworth’s collection has been repatriated, despite formal requests from several Australian indigenous groups.

So why do museums cling on? Wilson believes it is a question of control. ‘Museums are institutions which were established on the basis of collecting and power. They still do play that part in the contemporary world. But as far as human remains go, we’ve debated this for decades and it’s time now to allow indigenous people to take control.’

For indigenous people, there is a direct link between the removal of ancestors and current social problems—brokenness travels through generations, fracturing family, community and the land itself. ‘By institutions holding on to remains, the dispossession Aborigines feel is perpetuated. It’s continuing to play out colonialism by guarding and gate-keeping people’s ancestors,’ says Wilson. ‘So it is then restricting that whole identity for them as well.’

The Ngarrindjeri still have a long road ahead before all their ‘old people’ can be laid to rest. After the ceremony at Camp Coorong, like at any Aboriginal funeral, cake and sandwiches are laid out. Over a cup of tea I catch up with Sumner, who has wiped his tribal paint clean and is dressed in a tracksuit. Sumner doesn’t know how many Ngarrindjeri remains are still held in Britain. But, he says: ‘I said to the people in London that by the time I finished, our footprints are going to be all across this country. It’s not that we are coming in anger, but to take our people home.’

As he talks, the sky turns sepulchral and the predicted storms lash down. Tom Trevorrow comes in, looking shattered. ‘It takes a lot of work to get to where we are today,’ he says, slumping back in the chair. ‘But I believe the healing is beginning. In 2004 when we brought the old people home, the elders talked about the signs, like the wind that came up in the she-oak trees and the pelicans flying.’ His voice drops to a whisper. ‘Sometimes I go into the room and tell the old fellows: “I’ll have you back in your burial grounds. Give me a little bit more time. I’m dealing with some hard issues here. You gotta help me.” ’ He gives a half-smile. ‘I talk to them just like people go into a cemetery and talk to their loved ones. I think they are the ones giving me the strength to carry on doing what I am doing.’