How a tribal chief got buried in Liverpool

June 13, 1997

A 19th-century Aboriginal leader's skull lies in Everton cemetery, but attempts to repatriate it have so far foundered. Chris Johnston reports

Cressida Fforde is calm, rational, if not a little passionate at times. Despite her best efforts, she fails to conceal fully the frustration that has been growing over the past four years. In 1993, as a Southampton University doctoral student, she was responsible for finding the skull of Yagan, a West Australian Aboriginal tribal leader. Fforde had hoped that the long-running campaign to repatriate Yagan's remains would end this year, but red tape has so far prevented this happening.

The villain of the piece is the Home Office, which has refused permission for the skull to be removed from its resting place in a Liverpool cemetery and returned to Yagan's Aboriginal descendants, who want to give it a full ceremonial burial in Australia.

"If it were still in a museum, it would fulfil all the criteria that are usually recognised for remains to be returned from this country," Fforde explains. "But because it was buried, there were a lot of problems."

Fforde joined the search for Yagan in 1990, after Peter Ucko, Southampton's then professor of archaeology, put her in touch with Ken Colbung, a descendant of Yagan who had searched for the skull since the 1950s. Ucko, a former principal of the Australian Institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies in Canberra, was asked by Colbung in the mid-1970s to undertake further research.

Over the next three years, Fforde searched archives in Australia and Britain and, finally, at Yale University in the United States, where letters were found that, in December 1993, led to the discovery of the skull's whereabouts.

Up till then, the trail had ended in 1834. Yagan had lived in the Swan River district, close to Perth, in the early 1800s. Clashes between the local Aboriginal population and British settlers escalated in the 1830s and in April 1833 Yagan's brother was killed. The following day, he and his father were branded outlaws by the lieutenant governor after being implicated in the deaths of two settlers. Yagan eluded capture until July 11, when he was shot by 18-year-old William Keates, who was himself killed in a subsequent fight. Yagan's head was cut off, smoked, and brought to England in September that year by Lieutenant Robert Dale. Dale, who had known Yagan personally, lent it to the surgeon and antiquarian Thomas Pettigrew, who exhibited the head in April 1834.

Fforde's discoveries at Yale achieved what several British and Australian researchers had previously failed to do - determine what had happened to the skull thereafter. It was established that in October 1835, Pettigrew had returned the head to Dale in Liverpool. Fforde believed that he might have donated the specimen to the city's scientific organisation and checked with the Liverpool Museum, where, in December 1993, a file revealed that the skull had been buried, along with an unidentified Aboriginal head and the body of an indigenous Peruvian, in a public grave in the city's Everton cemetery on April 10, 1964.

Her hunch had been right: Dale had donated the head to the Liverpool Royal Institution in 1835. In 1894 the collection was dispersed and some items were held in storage by the Liverpool Museum. In 1964, the keeper of ethnology recommended that the skull and the other artefacts be destroyed on the grounds that they were decomposing and made "disagreeable room-mates".

What now prevents anyone removing the skull from the cemetery is what is buried above it. In September, October and November 1968, the bodies of 20 stillborn children, and two who lived for less than 24 hours, were added to the grave. Colbung first applied to the Home Office in April 1994 for the necessary permission to exhume, but his request continues to be refused. After meeting with Colbung late last month, officials said that allowing the skull's removal would disturb other human remains and insisted that all the relatives had to consent to exhumation.

"The Home Office recognises the importance of this matter to the Aboriginal communities and is dealing with the case as sympathetically as possible. The Home Office has a duty to take into account the sensitive nature of these cases and appreciate the wishes of the applicant and the rights of the other families concerned," its statement read.

In Fforde's view, until Colbung's current London visit, the Home Office was not trying to solve the problem. Both Fforde and Colbung hope that the new Labour Government will help end the long-running saga and allow Yagan's skull to return home. Under Aboriginal religious law, spiritual peace is only achieved when the dead are returned to their birthplace and given their last rights.

As fellow campaigner Lyndon Ormond-Parker points out, the Yagan case begs a broader question: how do British museums and universities treat the Aboriginal remains they hold. A postgraduate at Brisbane's Griffith University, Ormond-Parker is in London for six months to document and catalogue, for the Queensland-based Foundation for Aboriginal and Islander Research Action, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander remains held by British and European institutions. In the 1800s, "Aboriginal remains were one of the most highly valued 'specimens' - they were believed to be the 'missing link', as well as belonging to a people who were dying out", he says. In 1991, Edinburgh University decided to return 300 Aboriginal remains - one of Europe's largest collections - after initially rejecting repatriation suggestions. Oxford, Cambridge and Bradford universities agreed to hand back their holdings in 1990.

Neither researcher believes European scientists have an adequate understanding of the value and importance of Aboriginal remains to their living descendants. According to Fforde: "You can agree that such ancestral remains may have scientific use, but the question is who has the right to decide whether they should be used in this way. For me it's very clear that it is the descendants who have that right."

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