British Anatomists, Phrenologists and the Construction of the Aboriginal Race, c.1790–1830




This article considers how Aboriginal Australian bodily remains were procured and understood in British anatomical and phrenological circles from the beginning of Australian colonization in 1788 to the early 1830s. These years saw an important shift in European thinking about race. The idea that racial differences were the result of humanity's diversification from one ancestral type through environmental modification came to be challenged by “transmutationist” theories that conceptualized racial characteristics as markers of biological peculiarities between different human-like beings, quite possibly of primordial origin. The article shows how comparative anatomical analysis of Aboriginal Australian remains – often procured in violent circumstances – served to reinforce received environmentalist explanations of the nature and origins of human variation. However, the article also shows how in what they made of Aboriginal remains, subscribers to the concept of environmental degradation could be as fatalistic in their prognosis of the natural capacity of Aboriginal Australians to be progressively brought to embrace civilization as the transmutationist critics they began to encounter in earnest from the mid-1830s. In the hands of metropolitan British anatomists and phrenologists, Aboriginal bones were used so as to generate knowledge that had a pernicious impact on Australia's Indigenous inhabitants.

History Compass’ second PODCAST is now available

The podcast is a discussion between Professor Stuart Ward, History Compass’ Australasian/Pacific editor, and Professor Paul Turnbull, a published History Compass author and editor. They examine Professor Turnbull’s published essay, entitled ‘British Anatomists, Phrenologists and the Construction of the Aboriginal Race, c.1790–1830’, and discuss the cognitive evolution of racial science in Europe, the theft of Indigenous cultural property from the colonial Pacific, and the repatriation of skeletal remains in Australian and European museums. Click here to launch the podcast: (mp3 file, 13.8MB, 28 minutes 44 seconds).