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Gruesome 'curiosities' - 1862


As we saw in last week’s blog post, by the 1860s most Europeans believed that there were no ‘authentic’ coastal Sydney people left. It was a way of dismissing the Aboriginal people who remained as having lost their cultural roots simply because they happened to have a European parent or wear European clothes or speak English. It also led to a growing interest in the physical remains of past Aboriginal people as a way of studying ‘authentic’ Aboriginal people – and this was undertaken without any thought as to the wishes of their descendants or other Aboriginal people. In death, Aboriginal people were considered to be ‘natural specimens’ and it was not uncommon to see the skulls or artefacts of Aboriginal people alongside stuffed birds and animals in the shopfronts of natural traders.

If this was not gruesome enough, in February 1862 Sydneysiders could enter the Prince of Wales Auction Rooms on King Street to see ‘The Petrified Aborigine’. This was the mummified (dried out or ‘dessicated’ in the arid heat) remains of an Aboriginal man that had been stolen from a cave in South Australia by a showman named Thomas Craig. Craig presented the remains as ancient, but on close inspection a bullet could be seen in the man’s arm, and it is likely that he was actually a victim of frontier violence in the very recent past in that area.

Aboriginal people were walking the streets of Sydney at this time, and we can only guess at how they reacted to these grisly displays, though we have some clues. At the very same time Billy, a senior Aboriginal man from south-western Sydney, pushed back against the desecration of Aboriginal burials. He discovered that a local doctor had dug up the remains of his cousin, who had been buried just four years previously in good faith on the property of a local farmer. Billy contacted the local police in Camden, who wrote to the colonial authorities to have the doctor prosecuted. The authorities considered the case to be a clear criminal act and said that the ‘police should be directed to enforce the law’. Unfortunately there is no further correspondence to tell us what happened, but whatever transpired it did not stop the widespread practice of digging up Aboriginal burials as curiosities or objects of ‘science’, which continued for the next century without thought to the distress it caused Aboriginal people. It is a terrible and traumatic legacy of colonial history that is only starting to be addressed through the reburial of some of the surviving remains in the areas from which they were taken.

The source for Billy’s actions is a letter in the NSW State Archives which is not available online. You can read more about the ‘petrified Aborigine’ here.

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