Collecting human skulls for Sir Joseph Banks
I am sorry that I cannot send you a head, after the ravages made by the small pox, numbers were seen in every part, but the natives burn the bodies, some may be found hereafter.
—Governor Arthur Phillip, in a letter to Sir Joseph Banks, 26 March 1791
Several years ago I bought from a German rare-book dealer one of the most beautiful and haunting books I have ever seen, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach’s Decas Collectionis Suae Craniorum diversarum gentium illustrata (which translates roughly as ‘illustrations of ten skulls of diverse peoples’). Blumenbach was a lecturer at the University of Göttingen and is now considered one of the founders of modern anthropology, basing his work on his personal collection of human skulls. Over the course of his lifetime he acquired so many that his rooms in Göttingen were fondly called ‘Golgotha’: the graveyard, the charnel house or place of skulls. A medal struck in his honour in 1825 featured his head on one side and depictions of three skulls he had collected on the other.
Blumenbach’s book was published in six parts between 1790 and 1820, each part with the same basic title, and each consisting of a suite of ten engravings accompanied by brief notes written in forbiddingly technical Latin. Sixty skulls, 60 engravings, each neatly captioned and described: the head of an Egyptian mummy, an ‘Eskimo’, a woman from Georgia, a Tahitian. And scattered throughout, effusive notes of thanks addressed to some of the most influential men of science of the day: the skull of a man from the Caribbean island of St Vincent, for example, is described as having been sent to Europe by the ‘strong and courageous’ Captain William Bligh, before being posted to Blumenbach by none other than Sir Joseph Banks.
Blumenbach might well have simply taken his place in the long and sometimes macabre history of anatomy schools were it not for the odd twist of fate that his collecting mania coincided with an era of burgeoning trade and exploration. He didn’t want whatever bones could be clandestinely dug up from the local cemetery, but what he thought of as type-specimens for the different peoples of the world. Given that he started his project in earnest in the 1780s, and given the sort of contacts he had made, perhaps it’s not surprising that the twenty-seventh skull illustrated in his book is that of a Novo-Hollandi. This engraving of the skull of a man from New Holland is beautifully realised, the long curve of the back of the head, the strong cheekbones cross-hatching into shadow, and the row of front teeth missing, apparently from post-mortem exposure to the elements; although, the description notes, one upper incisor had clearly been removed while the man was alive, following the custom of the men of New South Wales.
The skull resembles, Blumenbach had been assured by eyewitnesses in London, the two young men from New Holland whom Governor Arthur Phillip had escorted to London in mid 1793—Bennelong, that is, and his young friend Yemmerrawanne.
Stories of lost and sometimes repatriated Aboriginal bones are now quite well known, such as the enduring mystery of the warrior Pemulwuy, ambushed and killed in 1802, whose head was given to the Royal College of Surgeons and which is thought to have been destroyed in an air raid by the Luftwaffe in 1941; and the western Australian man Yagan, killed in 1833 and whose head was taken to Britain in a bottle, his wasted features immortalised in a hand-coloured engraving published by Dickens’ artist George Cruikshank the following year. By mid century, harvesting bodies from Aboriginal burial sites was a grubby but extensive commercial trade, pursued by everyone from storied naval officers to out-and-out cranks, the scale of which is still hard to comprehend. As many contemporaries saw, this was usually little more than grave robbing, most infamously associated with the exhumation, dissection and public display of the bodies of William Lanne and Truganini in Tasmania. There is a tremendous amount of oral history that describes the horror and anxiety these practices created in Aboriginal societies.
Given such touchstones, and the current interest in cultural heritage and repatriation projects from around the world, it is surprising that the story of how the skull of an Aboriginal man was delivered to Germany a few short years after the first settlement at Sydney is so little known. This is not to suggest that the story of Blumenbach and his Australian skull is completely unknown—Keith Vincent Smith wrote about it in some detail a decade ago in his biography of Bennelong—while John Gascoigne, Cressida Fforde, Paul Turnbull and Paul Daley have done remarkable work on the repatriation of human remains. However, more can be said about what the exchange reveals about the direct influence Banks had over Governor Phillip, and no-one has yet explored just what can be discovered about the identity of the man whose skull is depicted in Blumenbach’s book.
The view from London
Blumenbach first wrote to Joseph Banks in 1783, introducing himself in rather courtly French as a fellow scientist with a particular interest in exotic curiosities and natural history specimens. The two men quickly developed a real affinity, and what is most remarkable about their early correspondence is that from the start Blumenbach asked about New Holland at a time when most of his contemporaries were more interested in arguing about Tahiti and the South Sea islands. This gambit clearly caught the attention of Banks, then the only living scientist to have collected on the east coast of mainland Australia (his great friend Daniel Solander had died in 1782) and who was, around this time, urging the British Government to establish a colony at Botany Bay.
Having established a friendly rapport, in June 1787 Blumenbach wrote with a new request, hoping that Banks would be able to procure specimens for his ‘collection de crânes des diverses variétés de l’espèce humaine’. It would be particularly gratifying, he wrote, to acquire one of the skulls of a South Sea islander that he had been told had been brought to England. Such a trade certainly existed—Banks had brought a Maori head with him on the return voyage of the Endeavour, amazed, as he noted in his journal, that it had been preserved in such a way that it did not ‘stink’—but he was at a loss to supply one immediately, lamenting in his reply that those who had skulls from the Pacific ‘set a high value upon them’. Blumenbach’s first explicit mention of the collection of skulls arrived just too late to ask anyone on the First Fleet for help, as it had sailed from Portsmouth in May.
Neither Blumenbach nor Banks could have expected it would take less than a couple of years to fulfil the request, but Banks was supremely confident of being able to help. His first thought was of Bligh, then his blue-eyed protégé and in mid 1787 about to be appointed to the Bounty. As the commander on such a voyage Bligh would, Banks wrote back blithely, be able to ‘collect Crania for me wherever he touches’, certainly in the South Seas and quite likely also in New Holland. While the correspondence between Banks and Bligh does not make any explicit mention of the subject of skulls, there are pretty strong hints that Banks was aware of the ethical niceties of what he was asking. For example, when another of Banks’s correspondents, Alexander Anderson of the Botanic Garden in St Vincent in the West Indies, sent him the skull of what he called a ‘Yellow Carib’ (that is, of someone indigenous to the island and not having any African heritage), Banks forwarded it to Blumenbach in July 1789 with the note that Anderson had told him that ‘burial places are not easily Found & an attempt to disturb them is look’d upon as the greatest of Crimes’.
Another opportunity for Banks to ask voyagers to the Pacific for help presented itself in early 1789. It was two years since the First Fleet had sailed, and the first relief vessel, the Guardian, commanded by gallant Captain Riou, was being loaded to the gunwales with supplies for New South Wales. Being asked to send skulls evidently made Riou uneasy (he wrote to Banks from the Cape of Good Hope worrying that he’d done the wrong thing in even mentioning the subject to his friend the Dutch explorer Robert Jacob Gordon), but in the event the Guardian collided with an iceberg in the Indian Ocean on Christmas Eve 1789, and only just made it back to Table Bay before foundering. The Bounty had its own problems. When the news reached Banks early the next year he sat down to write an exasperated letter to Blumenbach, forced to admit that his two main chances had come adrift and ‘depriv’d me of the Fruits of requests on that subject made to both their Commanders’.
The loss of both the Bounty and Guardian also meant that Governor Phillip could not have received any letter from Banks on the subject until June or July 1790, when the ships of the so-called Second Fleet straggled into Port Jackson. That one of these vessels must have carried a request from Banks is clear from the fact that Phillip sat down on 26 July 1790 to write a long reply, effusive in his thanks to his patron, and anxious to comply with a long list of requests. The relevant part of Phillip’s reply is terse but agreeable: ‘I shall send skulls by the Gorgon … & I shall always be happy in receiving your Commands.’ Over the ensuing year and a half Phillip’s confidence in meeting this particular request eroded.
The first two and a half years in Sydney was a perilous time, and it was by no means clear that the colony would survive. Events seemed to conspire against Phillip, not least the loss of the Guardian and the wreck of his flagship Sirius at Norfolk Island in March 1790. All but cut off from the wider world, Phillip devoted himself to establishing the settlement in the face of widespread disaffection from marines and convicts alike. At the same time, he was making a real attempt to conciliate the local Eora, who seemed, to Phillip’s mind, maddeningly indifferent to his repeated overtures, and who continued to make sporadic and frequently lethal attacks on straggling convicts.
Phillip was determined on being a peacemaker, noting in his first dispatch home to Lord Sydney (15 May 1788) that it had been his ‘determination from my first landing that nothing less than the most absolute necessity should ever make me fire upon them’, at the same time making the telling comment that ‘persevering in this resolution has at times been rather difficult’. His difficulties were obvious enough, and had been exacerbated by the fact that not only did the number of people living around Sydney greatly exceed what he had been told to expect, but they seemed to have a total lack of interest in coming to any accommodation with the new arrivals.
We know a surprising amount about the first years of the settlement because, as any bookseller could tell you, the First Fleet officers were a scribbling bunch, almost a dozen of whom made it into print, let alone the many more who left letters and journals. One thing that can be immediately grasped from looking over these various letters and books is that there was an unflinching curiosity about local burial practices, in no small part for what it was thought they might reveal about Aboriginal conceptions of religion. For example, the officer of the marines Watkin Tench described in detail the burial ‘tumuli’ for the ashes of the cremated, while Governor Phillip, surgeon Worgan and Captain Hunter each related how an exploring party had come across a ‘fresh grave’ while working on the survey of ‘a distant branch of Port Jackson’ sometime in early 1788, and immediately had it opened. Hunter reported that the remains had been reduced to white ash with only part of the jaw and a fragment of the skull identifiable. ‘We put the ashes together again,’ Hunter concluded, ‘and covered it up as before.’ In October 1788 Lieutenant William Bradley went even further, commenting in his journal that they had opened a ‘number of graves’.
In the written accounts these scattered references are dwarfed by the various accounts of the destruction wrought by the small pox outbreak of April and May 1789. For a brief ghastly period the settlers and officers continually stumbled across the bodies of the dead and the dying. Hunter, for example, sailed into Port Jackson in May and wrote that ‘it was truly shocking to go round the coves of this harbour, which were formerly so frequented by the natives; where, in the caves of the rocks, which used to shelter whole families in bad weather, were now to be seen men, women, and children, lying dead’. Tench was similarly affected by what he called this ‘extraordinary calamity’, but when he came to describe it in one of his books added that the great numbers of dead ‘caused the gentlemen of our hospital to procure some of them for the purpose of examination and anatomy’.
This sliver of evidence speaks to the possibility that even before the request from Banks to Phillip arrived there was some anatomical study being undertaken, although if Tench is correct in saying that the medical officers were making a study of bodies found during the 1789 epidemic, it would seem, as will become clear, that the bodies were not kept. Tench’s line might well be discounted if were not for an even more explicit note in the journal of the lieutenant of marines Ralph Clark, who described how in February 1790 he went ‘up the Harbour’ towards Lane Cove, where he found the ‘Skeleton of a man or Woman the Skin was Still entire on the back part of the Head and the Hair Still adhering to it which was in colour of light Brown’. This colouring led him to conjecture that the body may have been the remains of a midshipman from the Sirius who had wandered away from the settle-ment at Rose Hill. Clark commented that the ‘Surgeons wanted for me to give them the Skull but I would not.’ True to his word, a few days later he went back up the harbour and buried the man intact, even placing a blank stone at the head. He named the point, he concluded rather forlornly, ‘Skeleton Point’.
Such scattered reports, and the universal recognition that the small pox epidemic had devastated the local communities, provides the backdrop to the arrival of Governor Phillip’s instructions from Banks in mid 1790. The letter written by Banks may be lost, but Phillip’s reply gives the best possible overview of the almost endless requests and instructions he was fielding, ranging from an apology that so many of the seeds and animal specimens sent home had spoiled, through to a discussion of the quality of the local clay. Phillip was, he wrote home, confident that a human skull could be procured.
What Phillip could not have expected as he was writing his reply was the so-called ‘coming-in’ of the local Indigenous peoples led by Bennelong, which would take place over the last quarter of the year. Prior to this date only the three men Arabanoo, Colebe and Bennelong, all of whom had been forcibly abducted, and a young girl and boy, Boorong and Nanbaree, survivors of the small pox that had killed their immediate families, had spent any time in the British settlement. As has been frequently discussed, the turning point was the spearing of Governor Phillip at Manly in early September 1790, an apparently ritual event done with the connivance if not the explicit direction of Bennelong himself, possibly in direct retaliation for his own kidnapping.
After this dramatic moment, it is hard to comprehend the speed with which things changed: Bennelong and Phillip made formal rapprochement by the middle of September, and by November some of the officers were making joking comments about being all but overrun. It was around this time that Bennelong’s famous hut was built at the head of the point that now bears his name, a sort of embassy, and the first corroboree to which the British were invited took place on the grounds of Government House (we might as well say, on the grounds of Bennelong’s hut) the same month.
The coming-in was good news for Phillip, but did nothing to help in his specific search for a skull to send to England. In a letter to Banks written in March 1791 he commented that the search was hampered by the fact that the ‘natives burn the bodies’, and he basically reiterated that statement and that he remained empty-handed in November. Only in December 1791 did the tone of Phillip’s letters change. That month he again wrote to Banks, saying rather enigmatically, ‘you shall have heads when I can get any, but the Natives burn their dead: no European has yet seen the ceremony, but it is probable you may have a very particular account of it, nevertheless, for the number of authors have increased’.
This is hardly definitive, and the comment about a number of ‘authors’ is positively oblique, but apparently Phillip’s confidence was growing. In London, Banks clearly received Phillip’s repeated letters on the subject, and was just as obviously still empty-handed, because on 17 July 1792 he passed on the bad news to Blumenbach with the comment that the governor of New South Wales ‘writes me word of Burning their dead to ashes’. Five years had passed since Blumenbach had first written.
The letter Phillip wrote in December 1791 included the last recorded reference to his attempts to find a human skull. So far as I can discover, after this letter he never again refers to the subject: sometime after December 1791 and before he sailed home a year later, Phillip had fulfilled the task. The chronology of events suggests that when he left Sydney on the Atlantic in December 1792, somewhere on board, securely packed in one of the scores of cases full of Australian natural history and ethnographic specimens (but not mentioned on any ship’s manifest), were at least two Australian skulls from Sydney, and very likely more.
Phillip, with his two Aboriginal companions Bennelong and Yemmerawanne, was in London by late May 1793, and what is certain is that the skulls of Aboriginal men from Sydney arrived then or soon after, part of the great haul of curios and specimens being studied and distributed by Banks at this time. One went to the patient Blumenbach: on 16 August 1793 a clearly relieved Banks wrote to say that he had been ‘quite ashamed’ at his failure to acquire any skulls in recent years despite his many promises, but now he would be able to send the ‘Cranium of a male native of New Holland who died in our settlement of Sydney Cove’.
Blumenbach replied joyfully in Novem-ber to say it had arrived, writing that he was ‘quite charmed when I found on opening the box, the alveolus of one of the upper incisores quite closed, according to the custom of those Savages, even in the most distant coasts of New-Holland, to pull out this tooth in their youth.’ Around the same time Banks sent a second Australian skull to the Dutch scientist Sebald Justinus Brugmans. On 22 September 1793 Brugmans had written to Banks and reminded him of a promise to be given a few objects of comparative anatomy. As he frequently did, Banks scribbled a note on the letter for his own records, in this case confirming that he had provided Brugmans with the skull of a man from New Holland. Given his very recent failures to locate any, this must also have been newly arrived.
As Banks’s own letters confirm, there is proof that two Australian skulls were sent to the Continent, but what happened with English collections is much less clear. I can only speculate, but I would argue that the notion that Banks would send skulls to Germany and Holland and not reserve any for his London compatriots is absurd. For a start it would seem likely that Banks would have sent one or more to the great London-based anatomist John Hunter, who died in October 1793, before he would have had time to make any particular study of them. Hunter’s collection was later given to the Royal College of Surgeons, which went on to acquire scores of Australian skulls.
When a list of their anatomical studies was finally published as late as 1830, it included notice of 11 skulls from Australia, of which six were stated to derive from the original Hunterian collection, one of which is specifically noted as coming from ‘New South Wales’, the other five from ‘New Holland’. This is precious little to go on, but it is certainly possible that Phillip procured one or more of these six. What is indisputable is that the number of skulls gathered from New South Wales mounts. In November 1791 Phillip stated he had none; by the time he returned to England there were certainly two and very likely three or more: one for Blumenbach, another for Brugmans and at least one—and perhaps several—for Hunter.
In Sydney: The search for skulls
Apart from Blumenbach’s own book and some fleeting references in scientific journals, almost nothing was published at the time on this subject. I have not found even a passing reference in any of the dozen or more contemporary books published in England, nor any mention in contemporary newspapers or journals, despite the first flush of interest in ‘Botany Bay’. This reticence is particularly telling given that people in Europe were obsessed with the botany and zoology of Australia, whether this was in the form of bestselling quarto books full of hand-coloured engravings or crowds flocking to see kangaroos at Kew and the Royal Exchange. It is this almost complete silence that makes unravelling the story so difficult, just as it makes the appearance of Blumenbach’s book so startling.
In the absence of more documentary information coming to light it is hard to imagine much being discovered about the identity of the skull given to Brugmans, nor any of those that may have gone to the Hunterian Museum in London. That given to Blumenbach, however, does invite speculation, even if it is fair to say that the details in his Decas Collectionis Suae Craniorum are frustratingly indirect. The engraving is the star of the piece, and is so well rendered that the anatomist Denise Donlon has confirmed that it is almost certainly an Aboriginal man probably over the age of 16 (because of the eruption of all molars), but not an older adult because the teeth don’t appear particularly worn. Some of the missing teeth probably fell out post-mortem, suggesting that it was exposed for some time.
Blumenbach’s accompanying text is mostly taken up with a series of technical observations interspersed with effusive thanks for the help of Banks, but it does include the single most important clue to the identity of the man, safely couched in scholarly Latin: the man is said to be one of the first of those who, once the new English colony near Botany Bay by Sydney Cove had been established, ventured to live among the newcomers (‘qui nova Anglorum colonia prope stretum botanicum (Botany Bay) ad Sydneii sinum (Sydney-cove) constituta, huic se committere et cum nouis aduenis degere ausi sunt’).
Around the same time that the engraving of the skull of this man from New Holland was published, a small four-page notice was also printed in a contemporary review journal, the Göttingische Anzeigen von gelehrten Sachen (13 April 1795). The notice, almost certainly penned by Blumenbach himself, included a clear statement of the basic facts, confirming that the man was not only one of the first to live among the English, but also noting that the man had apparently died within the pale of settlement. Between Banks’s letters, Blumenbach’s book, the engraving and the review notice, quite a lot more is added to the picture: the skull is that of a young initiated man from the Sydney region, probably around 16 to 20 years old, who had not only lived in the English settlement but had died there as well.
This is a series of remarkable clues to the man’s identity, as the list of known deaths and burials that would meet these criteria, as described in letters and accounts, is small. In April 1789, Tench described ‘an Indian family’ that had been discovered suffering from small pox in one of the coves near Sydney: the bodies of a woman and a young female child were buried in the cove where they were found, and an older man and a boy of nine or ten were brought to a small house near the hospital, only for the man to die a few hours later and be buried in a simple ceremony. The survivor was the boy Nanbaree, who lived with surgeon White for some time.
Soon after a girl of about 14 and a young man said to be her brother were brought in, but only the girl, Boorong, survived. To the deaths of these two men, the first perhaps implied to be around 25 years old, the second presumably younger than 20, a third was soon to follow, that of Arabanoo himself, the first man abducted on Phillip’s command and for some time a resident at Government House. In May, Arabanoo succumbed to the epidemic: ‘the governor,’ noted Tench ‘who particularly regarded him, caused him to be buried in his own garden, and attended the funeral in person.’ Arabanoo was said to have been in his late twenties.
There are fleeting references to other burials as well. On 26 May 1792 the dissipated judge Richard Atkins recounted in his diary the story of an attack by a group of Aboriginal men on a fellow called ‘Yalloway’. After Yalloway was killed, Atkins noted, his body was ‘burnt’. Other notices are similarly vague, whether it is Ralph Clark’s lonely burial of the man at ‘Skeleton Point’ or a strange story in Tench’s second book about the body of a Gweagal man (that is, from Botany Bay) said to have been a celebrated warrior and discovered lying with his sword and shield ‘in state’, which had been ‘once discovered’.
In terms of the identity of the skull sent to Blumenbach, two particularly significant deaths are recorded from this period. The first was a man called Bangai, whom Hunter described as a ‘pretty constant’ visitor at Sydney and a ‘daring fellow’, who was shot and badly wounded in a scuffle with a group of soldiers led by Phillip. A few days later, on 3 January 1791, a report reached the settlement that Bangai was still alive, and surgeon White, accompanied by Nanbaree and Yemmerawanne, set out into the bush to find him, but arrived too late. A musket ball had hit him in the shoulder and severed the subclavian artery. Bangai had bled to death. The dramatic story of his death was described in the accounts of Hunter, Tench and David Collins, but even so Bangai comes and goes from the record so fleetingly that it is hard to grasp the significance of the event, especially the two central facts that the body was found uncremated, and that White clearly carried out some sort of post-mortem examination to determine the exact cause of death. These two facts might suggest that his head was sent to Germany in 1793, but it seems on balance unlikely.
The thinness of the evidence either way becomes apparent here, but it is true that while Bangai was known to the English he does not seem to have been a frequent visitor among them, and he neither died nor was buried in the settlement proper, which would contradict Blumenbach’s statements. Moreover, there is the problem of timing, because if Phillip had this skull in January 1791, it is not clear why he would spend the rest of the year denying to Banks that he had yet found any. Collins, for that matter, commented that the body was found ‘disposed of for burning’, which might be taken to imply that the dead man’s friends would not relinquish the body to White who, after all, was accompanied only by Nanbaree and Yemmerawanne at the time, and would hardly have been in a position to demand it. I have not seen any record of Bangai’s age when he was shot, which would of course be significant.
There is a more likely contender. The only other death described in any detail in the contemporary accounts is that of Boladeree (or ‘leather-jacket’, after the fish), an initiated Burramattagal man from along the Parramatta River, and said to be about 19 or 20 in late 1790. The story of Boladeree is not particularly well known, which is odd considering he was the boon companion of Bennelong and Colebe, one of the first to spend a great deal of time with the British officers, a close friend of Tench, and at one time talked of as likely to accompany Phillip to England. The artist known only as the ‘Port Jackson Painter’ made a remarkably beautiful portrait of him.
After the coming-in, Boladeree was soon all but resident at Government House and in mid 1791 he came up with the innovation of bartering fish for sugar and flour at Rose Hill, an act greatly appreciated by the English officers, who hoped it might prove to be the start of a fruitful trading relationship.
In June this burgeoning trade came to an abrupt halt. Some of the convicts, jealous of his enterprise, wantonly destroyed Boladeree’s canoe: his rage, wrote Collins, ‘was inconceivable; and he threatened to take his own revenge, and in his own way, upon all white people’. He painted himself in the martial colour of red and presented himself at the governor’s house in Parramatta, announcing that he intended to fight a duel with Phillip himself. In an attempt to placate him Phillip had all six of the convicts thought to have been guilty flogged while Boladeree looked on, but nonetheless when the young warrior came across a convict in the bush, ‘a poor wretch who had strayed from Parramatta as far as the Flats’, he speared him twice.
Boladeree was summarily banished, but did not take his exile lightly. In August he ventured to the very outskirts of Sydney with a group of armed companions, the first time a party of Aboriginal warriors had so conspicuously threatened the township. Phillip sent out soldiers to seize him, and a serious fight ensued, with muskets fired and at least one spear thrown. Now Boladeree was a confirmed outlaw, but he continued brazenly to taunt the soldiers sent out to capture him. His defiance looked set to become implacable when, on 14 December 1791, news was received that he was seriously ill. Surgeon White, whose skills were much admired by many of the Eora, visited him, and Boladeree asked to be allowed to go to the hospital at Sydney Cove. He sickened very quickly despite Bennelong’s laying on of hands and rituals, and as they tried to take him across the harbour by canoe, Boladeree died.
It is reported to have been Bennelong and Phillip who arranged for his body to be interred in the grounds of Government House, somewhere near the present day Museum of Sydney behind Circular Quay, in what Keith Vincent Smith has called ‘Australia’s first cross-cultural funeral’. Certainly Collins was present, because he gives a long description of the entire ceremony, and the Port Jackson Painter was also there, as he executed a number of portraits of some of the chief mourners. Boladeree’s body was arrayed in a cut-down canoe with his weapons before being carried to the grave while the Redcoats played two or three marches by drumbeat. As the body was lowered into the ground, the grave-cut was found to be short and the mourners were forced to unbind the ends, exposing the corpse ‘in a very putrid state’. Finally, wrote Collins, the body was positioned carefully on its right side, to face the sun.
Could Boladeree be Blumenbach’s ‘Novo-Hollandi’? He fulfils all of the necessary criteria, not least the fact that he is recorded as having been buried without cremation. He is known to have been a young initiated man, perhaps not even 20 years old when he died, to have spent many months living in the English settlement, and his death also took place at its very epicentre, his body being laid out in White’s hospital and buried in Phillip’s garden, presumably somewhere near his older compatriot Arabanoo. The death and burial took place, moreover, in the month Phillip had started a long letter to Banks that began by lamenting his continuing inability to find any skulls, but which finished with his belief that Banks could soon expect a ‘very particular account’ of the local burial practices from one of the ‘authors’. Doubtless Collins, fresh from witnessing the inhumation of the body of Boladeree, was one of the authors Phillip had in mind.
And there is one last shred of frankly not particularly reliable evidence. Blumenbach died in 1840, but the collection in Göttingen continued to grow, expanding rapidly in the 1870s when 17 more skulls from Australia were added, all recorded as having been collected in either Victoria or the Clarence River area in northern New South Wales. In 1877 a scholar named Spengel wrote a monograph on the collection, in which he noted that Blumenbach’s first Aboriginal skull was that of a young man who was not only one of those who lived with the new settlers at Botany Bay, but that he was also among those who ‘dared to attack them’ (‘welche die neuen Ansiedelungen der Engländer bei Sidney an der Botany Bay anzugreifen wagten’). Spengel’s source for this statement is unclear: Norbert Klatt and the late Frank Dougherty, who between them have spent decades researching Blumenbach’s archive, have not found anything that corroborates Spengel’s note. But if there is anything to it, the identikit picture of this man from Sydney becomes even sharper: it is the skull of a young initiated man reported to have attacked the English settlement directly.
Is the skull that of Boladeree? Discount-ing Spengel’s confused note from the 1870s and accepting the circumstantial nature of much of the evidence, means that it is not possible to be definite, but I suspect it is likely. Boladeree was the right age, died at the right moment, and was definitely buried not cremated. Certainly his burial seems to have been the turning point in Phillip’s search. If he is the right man, it seems incredible that Phillip could have been cold-blooded enough to order his friend’s head dug up and sent to London in a crate, but I don’t for a moment think that he would have seriously considered refusing Banks, and the later Pemulwuy and Yagan episodes should remind us not to think the early settlers squeamish. After all, Banks had his skulls.
The history of the bone collectors and the fates of the bones are only now beginning to be unpicked. The astonishing scale of what took place is suggested by the fact that by the 1870s, to choose an arbitrary date, the anatomical collection at Göttingen, the heirs to Golgotha, included well over 400 skulls, skeletons and heads preserved in spirits from all over the world. Other collections were even more extensive. As early as 1879 the Royal College of Surgeons listed more than 1300 individual anatomical specimens, of which 68 were mainland Australian and 18 Tasmanian, all either purchased outright or presented by a veritable litany of famous names: Phillip Parker King, Sir George Grey, Lady Jane Franklin, T.H. Huxley, to name a few.
We are obsessed with our bones. Story after story has been written about the discovery and reburial of the missing First World War soldiers killed on the low-lying ground before Fromelles, and a veritable team of researchers spent years trying to work out the final resting place of the head of Ned Kelly. In a particularly ironic twist, a few years ago lawyer and writer Geoffrey Robertson tried to locate the remains of Arthur Phillip in the small Bath church in which the former governor had been buried in 1814. Robertson had an idea that the remains should be brought in state to Sydney, but was horrified to learn that the body had been misplaced and the burial plot was empty, upbraiding the young vicar of Bathampton for his carelessness. At the same time Robertson confirmed that the remains of Bennelong’s friend Yemmerawanne, who died in the suburbs of London in 1794 before he could return to Sydney, were also missing from the small parish church of Eltham in which he had been buried. Despite this, it often seems as if repatriation is being portrayed as some strange Aboriginal preoccupation.
What seems undeniable is the heart of this particular story: Banks may have been sanguine, Blumenbach positively giddy with excitement, but for the officers in Port Jackson it was a story of compromise and anxiety, and most of all one to be passed over in silence. That silence still largely envelops the fate of the skulls Phillip procured. Those I speculate were given to John Hunter in London are thought to have been lost in the bombing raid of 1941. That given to Brugmans is almost certainly one of a group of five skulls repatriated from Leiden in 2010. Two were returned to northern New South Wales with proper ceremony, to Bundjalung elders Gwen Hickling and John Morrissey, but the other three, which lack proven paperwork or context, are held in Canberra under the temporary custodianship of the National Museum of Australia. And the skull given to Blumenbach remains at the Georg-August-Universität in Göttingen. One thing is clear: the old story, still sometimes told, that the collection was destroyed by Allied bombing in the Second World War is demonstrably false. As long ago as 1966 László Károlyi noted that the collection was untouched, and the university website confirms that it survived the war unscathed, temporarily kept in wooden cases and stored in a nearby guest house. More recently, Norbert Klatt has confirmed that the skull of the man from Sydney is still in the Institute of Anatomy, catalogued as no. 781.
For Sarah & Sylvie Rose. My thanks to Paul Brunton, Denise Donlon, Elizabeth Ellis, Jörn Harbeck, Michelle Hetherington, Norbert Klatt, Jane Macadam, Anne McCormick, Derek McDonnell, Sarah Mury, Michael Pickering, Nicholas Poole-Wilson, Mark Tewfik and Paul Turnbull.
Fundamental to this essay was the correspondence of Banks and Blumenbach, especially in the edition prepared by Norbert Klatt and Frank Dougherty, The Correspondence of Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (Klatt Verlag, Göttingen, 2006–2013). I also consulted the Historical Records of New South Wales (1892–1903); the Historical Records of Australia, Series 1 (1914–1925); the online facsimiles and transcripts of the First Fleet Journals in the State Library of New South Wales, especially those of William Bradley, John Easty, John Hunter and George Worgan; and the online catalogue of the Wellcome Library.
J.C. Beaglehole (ed.), The Endeavour Journal of Joseph Banks, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1962.
Thomas Bendyshe (ed.), The Anthropological Treatises of Johann Friedrich Blumenbach … (including the life of Blumenbach by K.F.H. Marx), Longman, London, 1865.
Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, Decas Collectionis Suae Craniorum diversarum gentium illustrata, Dieterich, Göttingen, 1790–1820.
Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, De generis humani varietate native… Editio Tertia, Vandenhoek & Ruprecht, Göttingen, 1795.
Neil Chambers (ed.), The Indian and Pacific Correspondence of Sir Joseph Banks, Pickering & Chatto, London, 2008–14.
Simon Chaplin, ‘John Hunter and the ‘Museum Oeconomy’, 1750–1800, PhD thesis, University of London, 2009, online.
Inga Clendinnen, Dancing with Strangers, Canongate, Edinburgh, 2005.
David Collins, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales (ed. Brian H. Fletcher),
A.H. & A.W. Reed, Sydney, 1975.
R. Dale, Lt, Descriptive Account of the Panoramic View, &c. of King George’s Sound, and the Adjacent Country, J. Cross, London, 1834.
Paul Daley, ‘Restless Indigenous Remains’, Meanjin, no. 1, 2014.
W.R. Dawson, The Banks Letters: A Calendar of the Manuscript Correspondence of Sir Joseph Banks, British Museum, London, 1958.
Frank Dougherty (ed.), ‘Bibliographie der Werke und Schriften von Johann Friedrich Blumenbach nebst ihren Übersetzungen und Digitalisierungen’, in Kleine Beiträge zur Blumenbach-Forschung, vol. 2, Klatt Verlag, Göttingen, 2009.
Cressida Fforde, Jane Hubert and Paul Turnbull (eds), The Dead and Their Possessions: Repatriation in Principle, Policy and Practice, Routledge, New York and London, 2002.
John Gascoigne, Joseph Banks and the English Enlightenment, Cambridge University Press, 2003.
John Hunter, An Historical Journal of Events at Sydney and at Sea (ed. John Bach), Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1968.
László Károlyi, ‘Die Blumenbach-Sammlung in Göttingen’, in Zeitschrift für Morphologie und Anthropologie, vol. 57, no. 2 (May 1966).
Grace Karskens, The Colony, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2009.
Norbert Klatt, ‘Blumenbachs Aufenthalt in England: Versuch einer Re-konstruktion’, in Kleine Beiträge zur Blumenbach-Forschung, vol. 4, Klatt Verlag, Göttingen, 2012.
Tim McCormick et al., First Views of Australia, 1788–1825, Longueville, Sydney, 1987.
Michael Pembroke, Arthur Phillip: Sailor, Mercenary, Governor, Spy, Hardie Grant, Melbourne, 2013.
Arthur Phillip, The Voyage of Governor Phillip to New South Wales (ed. James J. Auchmuty), Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1970.
Thomas Pole, The Anatomical Instructor … by Thomas Pole, Member of the Corporation of Surgeons in London, Couchman & Fry, London, 1790.
[Royal College of Surgeons], Catalogue of the Contents of the Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons in London. Part III. The Human and Comparative Osteology, Francis Warr, London, 1831.
Bernard Smith and Alwyne Wheeler. The Art of the First Fleet and Other Early Australian Drawings, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1988.
Keith Vincent Smith, Bennelong: The Coming in of the Eora, Sydney Cove 1788–1792, Kangaroo Press, Sydney, 2001.
Johann Wilhelm Spengel, Die von Blumenbach gegründete anthropologische Sammlung der Universität Göttingen: Aufgenommen im Jahre 1874, Braunschweig, 1880.
Watkin Tench, Sydney’s First Four Years (ed. L.F. Fitzhardinge), Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1961.
Paul Turnbull, ‘British Anatomists, Phrenologists and the Construction of the Aboriginal Race’, History Compass, vol. 5, no. 1 (2007).
John White, Journal of a Voyage to New South Wales (ed. Alec H. Chisholm), Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1962.