The Posthumous Lynching of William Crowther

Michael Mansell, chairman of Aboriginal Land Council of Tasmania, has launched an extraordinary attack on Louise Elliot, the Hobart City councillor who sought to hear “different views” before a final decision is made to remove the statue of former premier William Crowther. Judy Augustine in The Mercury reports Mansell as stating:

Louise Elliot is a denier of historical fact.

Presumably she would also deny the Holocaust, would deny the Aboriginal people were slaughtered around Tasmania because she personally hasn’t seen evidence of it.

In the face of proven facts, they want to put their heads in the sand and ask other people to believe historical facts never occurred.

If she’s so concerned about the statue there’s nothing wrong with the statue being put in her backyard and she can admire it every day and pay homage to this racist necrophiliac.

Ms. Elliot has never been one to “deny the Holocaust” and Crowther was no “racist necrophiliac”. Such defamatory statements should not go unchallenged, and the fact that The Mercury simply presented Mansell’s words without backgrounding andf qualification demonstrates just how systemic reverse racism has become. Mansell then goes on to hector councillor Elliot:

If she bothered to simply open up Google, she could come across respected articles, such as of Stefan Petrow in 1997, where he cites all of the newspaper articles, statements by respected members of the medical profession at the time, and cites all his sources.


Assessing the evidence

For those who haven’t been following the Hobart controversy, the rationale for disappearing this tribute to a good man is the accusation that Dr. Crowther illegally removed the head of indigenous man William’ King Billy’ Lanne and sent the skull to the Royal College of Surgeons in London. Crowther strenuously denied the charge and was acquitted. There is no evidence to substantiate the claim and much to establish that his modern detractors have the wrong man.

Michael Mansell’s sole academic reference—which can be accessed here—proves to be far less than he claims. For instance, Mansell’s statement that author Stefan Petrow — a retired University of Tasmania professor — “cites all of the newspaper articles” is somewhat misleading. I have researched this particular subject myself (see here and here). Significantly, Prof Petrow did not reference the extended explanation of events which Dr. Crowther himself published regarding the alleged affair.

Crowther wrote to the Tasmanian Times, a copy of which was reproduced by The Launceston Examiner, on Thursday the March 11, 1869, and can be accessed here. Dr. Crowther’s personal defence of what happened is compelling. Especially when one realises that the charges against Dr. Crowther were later dropped and that, as Prof Petrow rightly argues, Crowther was a political opponent of the Dry Government, which used Lanne’s mutilation as an excuse to discredit Crowther.

What’s more, as researcher Dr. Ian McFarlane has recently argued:

It is well documented that the Royal Society itself was guilty of every charge levelled against Crowther, with the exception of the removal of Lanne’s skull. However, no evidence emerged as to the fate of Lanne’s skull, although it became clear that neither Dr Crowther nor Dr Stokell were involved.  This lack of evidence has resulted in deep divisions within the parties involved in prosecuting the case against Crowther. The Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre (TAC) and Royal Society (Greg Lehman) claim that the skull went to Edinburgh University (it didn’t), the Hobart City Council Mayor, Anna Reynolds, claims (without evidence) that it went to the Royal College of Surgeons in London (they have denied this in writing), while the Royal Society Minutes claim it was still in Hobart in 1904, that fact alone goes some way towards clearing Crowther.

The Mayor also persists with the false claim that Crowther was suspended for mutilating Lanne’s body (with no evidence), this is not true. He was suspended for refusing to appear before the enquiry believing, with some justification, that it was biased against him. To repeat, he was not suspended for any mutilation, and it was such a grievous public stain that only a week after the enquiry he was elected to the Tasmanian Legislative Council as a representative of Hobart, a seat he held until his death and was then later elected as Premier. I need not mention that his funeral was one of the largest ever attended in Hobart and that the very Statue the HCC is intent on removing was paid for by a grateful public.           

In short it is a contrived and poorly researched campaign relying on emotion and the generation of public guilt to achieve its ends, without even the pretence of objectivity. I am not aware of one piece of evidence that actually links Crowther to any contact with Lanne’s body whatsoever.  

As a consequence, I fully support the Circular Head Aboriginal Corporation (CHAC) in their demand that an enquiry should be initiated, to reveal the fate of Lanne’s skeleton (held by the Royal Society in 1904), resolve the issue of the female Aboriginal skull interred by the TAC on the West Coast under the false identity of William Lanne, and perhaps the fate of Lanne’s skull, as the Royal Society Hon. Sec. Alex Morton has advised that he knew who had the skull and was hoping that it would be donated. On this latter point, perhaps the Royal Society should be also be called upon to explain to the public why they persisted in prosecuting the notion that Crowther had removed Lanne’s skull and sent it to Edinburgh, when the minutes of their own Society clearly refute this whole fabrication.


The Nuance of Historical Inquiry

To demonstrate just how nuanced the discipline of historical investigation is and can be, the article by Prof Petrow offers the following qualified conclusion:

It is difficult to prove beyond doubt that Lanne’s skull was sent to the Royal College of Surgeons by Crowther. The College’s collection was destroyed by German bombers in World War Two, and Plomley’s later study of contemporary correspondence and catalogues sheds no light on the skull’s fate.

As for Mr. Mansell’s vulgar accusation that Dr. Crowther was a “racist necrophiliac”, one can only assume that he is alluding to the unproven assertion of Allen Mansell that, “William Lanne’s scrotum was severed and used as a tobacco pouch” which was printed on a placard recently in front of Dr. Crowther’s statue in Franklin Square. However, as Prof Petrow states: 

According Ryan, Stokell [not Crowther] made ‘a tobacco pouch’ out of part of Lanne’s skin, his fellow Tasmanian scientists grabbed other body parts (the ears, the nose, and part of one arm), and his arms and feet were kept at the museum, but Ryan seems to have no compelling evidence to support these assertions.


Mansell’s Denial of Colonial History

Significantly, prominent indigenous groups in Tasmania have also come to Dr. Crowther’s defence. Paul Roberts, the general manager of the Circular Head Aboriginal Corporation (CHAC), has even written to the Premier Jeremy Rockcliff to demand an inquiry into “the Crowther and William Lanne skull farce”. As Roberts says, “the recent actions by Hobart City Council and the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre [are an] attempt to re-write history by proffering fake historical claims.”

All of which proves Councillor Louise Elliot’s point. The task of historical interpretation is complicated and there are often competing theories involving the same set of evidence. Before making the radical decision to remove the statue of a former premier, shouldn’t the Hobart City Council be prepared to weigh all the evidence, to hear both sides of the debate and not just the sole opinion of political activists like Michael Mansell.

Sadly, Dr. Crowther’s legacy is still being utilised as a political football by those with their own personal agendas. What’s more, Ms. Elliot is not guilty of denying historical fact—as Michael Mansell recklessly claims— but is simply calling for a broader debate so that Hobart City Council might make a more informed decision.

In response, though, what did the Hobart City Council decide to do? The Mercury is reporting that Ms. Elliot’s motion was voted down without debate. Such is the intellectual cowardice of Hobart’s elected officials.

7 thoughts on “The Posthumous Lynching of William Crowther

  • Paul W says:

    So much fuss about a literal dead body. Aborigines regularly mutilated and dismembered the remains of their enemies. Many colonial Australians did the same, sometimes for science and sometimes not. To an educated and historically-aware person, even if the claims were completely true, which they aren’t, they are laughably trivial. Far worse things have happened in human history and Australian history, and in fact happen right now in this country including to Aborigines that are actually alive.

    This appears to rely upon a combination of post-colonial guilt and shocking modern man’s sensitivities. The mere suggestion that a dead Aborigine was treated disrespectfully is apparently enough to cause controversy. Ironically the fact it was controversial in the past proves that colonial Australians weren’t as morally deficient as we have been told. After all, if the colonists committed genocide against Aborigines then why would anyone care about a dead man losing his head?

  • Lonsdale says:

    From the State Library of Tasmania website: “As a cultural institution, we recognise the lasting trauma experienced by Tasmanian Aboriginal people due to the actions of W L Crowther, Morton Allport and others via their association with the trading of body remains of Tasmanian Aboriginal people, including exporting these remains to Europe.”

  • Aussietom says:

    What has happened to scholarly standards in Hobart?

    So Crowther’s actions are factual because someone says they were, or has a bad feeling about a story which isn’t true?

    And the Council’s actions by removing the statue do what? Make everyone feel more united? It seems not.

    • mpowell says:

      Yeah Aussietom such is the current climate of public discourse that facts don’t matter. What is particularly troubling is that defamatory statements such as Crowther being a “racist necrophiliac” can be made with no consequence legally or politically at all.

  • 48header says:

    A timely and useful article. The dimension of the Uluru Statement and the Voice that calls for a Makarrata or truth telling commission will have rise above the anti-Crowther presumptions and be seriously committed to unexpected and contrarian possibility to arise. Rod Moran on the Forest River Massacre and on the Rev’d Ernest Gribble must, for instance, be read.

  • 48header says:

    The Wikipedia article on William Lanne takes it as fact that Crowther was the man responsible for the dismembering. By the way.

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