Book spotlights Melbourne’s uncomfortable Indigenous history

Academic exploration of leading university’s traditions uncovers dispossession, eugenics and grave robbing

May 29, 2024
Source: James Henry
Book editors James Waghorne, Ross Jones and Marcia Langton

In 1940, a University of Melbourne engineering graduate and amateur anthropologist called George Murray Black fell into dispute with the Australian Institute of Anatomy, which he had been supplying with Aboriginal remains exhumed from the Murray River valley – ostensibly so that visiting scientists could study skull shape and bone malformations.

The institute’s new director, Fred Clements, criticised Mr Black’s failure to take field notes or to document his excavations. Dr Clements wanted comprehensive information about traditional customs, not random bones.

“The only scientific excuse” for disturbing the remains was to obtain information about “a people fast vanishing”, Dr Clements argued. He stressed his preference for “a few samples…that can be used scientifically rather than the accumulation of a lot of material…of doubtful scientific value”.

Instead, Mr Black formed relationships with Melbourne anatomists Sir Sydney Sutherland and Leslie Ray, who would later become dean and deputy dean of the university’s medical faculty. Over almost 25 years, the university “uncritically” accepted the remains of more than 800 Aboriginal people excavated by Mr Black during camping trips, sometimes accompanied by Sir Sydney and Professor Ray.

Mr Black belonged to a subculture of antiquarians who combed their “hunting” sites in hope of “a good haul”. In a 1944 letter, Sir Sydney – who was knighted in 1971 – emphasised the need to conceal such activities, particularly from the “blacks”.

Just what motivated distinguished academics to consciously engage in wholesale grave robbery – and many other shameful activities – is examined in a soul-searching book published by Melbourne University Publishing.

Dhoombak Goobgoowana: A history of indigenous Australia and the University of Melbourne explores the 1853 appropriation of land that had already been expunged of the markers of Aboriginal occupation, and the prominent early donors who had made their fortunes through the dispossession of Indigenous people – and possibly participated in their slaughter.

The book examines the university’s role as Australia’s epicentre of eugenics – a prime interest of prominent university figures including biology chair Sir Baldwin Spencer, anatomy professor Richard Berry, future prime minister Alfred Deakin and future Nobel laureate Sir Macfarlane Burnet.

It also details the unacknowledged use of Indigenous knowledge about subjects such as tribal customs, which earned Sir Baldwin an international reputation, and snake venom, which spawned commercial antivenoms.

“Only a few individuals up until the 1950s rejected the dominant racial paradigm that justified the superiority of whiteness and spoke out about the appalling treatment of indigenous people,” the book notes.

Eminent Melbourne academics were promoting eugenics up until the 1980s. Another significant assemblage of Indigenous remains was “discovered” in the anatomy department in 2002, almost two decades after the Black collection had been repatriated. “They’ve found [more] Indigenous remains quite recently,” said historian and book co-editor Ross Jones. “It is an ongoing story.”

Campus resource: Decolonisation to Indigenisation: how can institutions centre Indigenous knowledge?

This has coincided with Melbourne’s release of an Indigenous reconciliation strategy and its funding of valuable Indigenous scholarships, among other initiatives. Such developments alone cannot “remove the stain of the university’s role in furthering the usurpation of the land from its owners, in eugenic experiments and the creation of collections of Aboriginal corpses and body parts”, noted co-editor Marcia Langton, the university’s foundation chair of Indigenous studies.

Melbourne’s intellectual leaders failed not only “in empathy and listening but also against their own standards and knowledge systems”, the book’s foreword says.

Excusing the fervour for eugenics as a reflection of prevailing views “doesn’t wash”, Dr Jones said. “There were people…all along [saying] what we’re doing is wrong. And the reason people believed that sort of stuff was because universities were teaching it.”

The book’s publication follows Harvard University’s pledge to spend $100 million (£79 million) to amend for its ties with slavery. Harvard and the University of California, Berkeley have apologised after audits found that each still held the remains of thousands of Native Americans, decades after the US government ordered an end to such practices. The universities of Glasgow and Cambridge have also committed to reparations after internal reports found that they had benefited from the Atlantic slave trade.

Co-editor James Waghorne said the Melbourne book was different. “Those reports were conducted by committees that had terms of reference [and] involved consultation and public forums. This is an academic task.”

Dr Jones said post-war biographies of star Melbourne academics had ignored their involvement in eugenics. “This is an exercise in uncovering material that was either hidden or not known. We’re not revisionists. We’re reversing revisionist history.”

Professor Langton said a second volume, to be released in about six months, would offer “a rigorous assessment of the burden of this history on the university…and the adequacy of the responses to it”.

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