First Published in The Guardian, 1990

The Australian Aborigines want the remains of their ancestors held in British collections sent back home, reports David Langsam

The remains of thousands of Australian Aborigines are scattered throughout Britain's public and private museums. Despite little evidence of scientific use, their keepers not only refuse to return the human remains to their families but in some case refuse to disclose any information about their holdings to fellow academics.

The figure attributed with initiating the flow of Aboriginal remains to Britain, Joseph Banks, made his name as a botanist accompanying Captain James Cook on the perilous 1768-1770 journey to Australia and collecting 30,000 botanical specimens of which more than 1,000 were unknown to Europe. Banks also became the first person to shoot a wallaby, which was taken to England to be stuffed and examined.

In 1803, beknighted and famous for his work, Banks received a gift from New South Wales Governor, Philip Gidley King... the preserved head of the Aboriginal warrior Pemulwoy.

It caused quite a stir from the moment it arrived on English shores as Banks wrote when he thanked King for the gift. Pemulwoy's head is still causing a stir and Aborigines are demanding the return of their ancestors, brought in death to England for the curiosity of aristocratic scientists.

Tasmanian lawyer Michael Mansell has submitted a petition to 10 Downing Street and picketted Edinburgh University, the Natural History Museum and the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin, where the head of his great grandfather, Shiney, was held until yesterday following Mr Mansell's visit to Dublin. A surprise announcement that the head had been handed over to the Australian embassy in the city was made yesterday in the wake of an emergency meetingof Royal College officials.

Mr Mansell claims the removal of the bodies has caused great distress to Aboriginal people. He says people were murdered and graves robbed so that bodies could be sold or given to English scientists, who have done nothing with them.

"The damage to the Aboriginal community of having remains here is astronomical. The spirits of our dead are disturbed by being separated from their bodies. The remains are as important to us as land rights. It's a much more volatile issue, closer to the heart than even getting our land back."

Inquiries to public, scientific and private museums have only revealed a glimpse of the incredible quantity of Aboriginal remains scattered throughout Britain.

The largest collection is believed to be held by Professor Matt Kaufman at the Anatomy Museum of Edinburgh University. Prof Kaufman says absolute secrecy is required because of the sensitive nature of his research. Prof Kaufman did say that he has "Tasmanian bones and certain items of material" and that at least one set of remains has a name.

Estimates of the extent of his collection - shipped to Edinburgh at the end of last century - vary from a conservative "five or ten complete skeletons" to several hundred.

Prof Kaufman denies that he won't show academics his collection. "I have never refused permission if there's a genuine reason. People with the best possible qualifications have stolen Aboriginal materials."

The largest confirmed collection is with the Natural History Museum, which has one dried head, 124 skulls and about 20 skeletons from Australia and Tasmania, five of which have names and addresses.

Registration cards identify five sets of remains that the NHM did not receive. Charred specimens and an extensive card catalogue came from the Royal College of Surgeons "in lorry loads" in 1948 and 1955. One of the missing items is Coodnatta, whose body was preserved in spirit. Coodnatta's head was last seen in the Royal College in 1936.

Initially, the College maintained that it had no Aboriginal remains, but a 1986 survey of ethnographic material reported that the College's Hunterian museum had "20 skulls showing racial type" possibly Tasmanian. Eventually the College said it had 55 Aboriginal skulls. The College's President, Terence English, agreeing to co-operate with this survey, said he was surprised at the number of skulls held by the College.

In May 1941 a series of incendiary bombs destroyed 60,000 specimens stored at the College. The Museum's report says the "African, Veddah, Tasmanian and Australian material was destroyed." While it is certain that great damage was done to the collection, the Hunterian would not say what it had before the bombing and what survived.

Other collections, like the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford readily confirmed 16 items of Aboriginal remains including "the nearly complete skeleton of a woman from Mt Windsor, Queensland, donated by Guy L'Strange in 1921."

The National Museum of Scotland, the Horniman Museum in South London and the Museum of Mankind all have Aboriginal remains. Other places simply don't know what they have. Cambridge University has 18,000 specimens of which about 100 items are of Australian Aboriginal remains.

University College London had material which disappeared after the second world war. Retired anatomy professor, Dr Jack Aitken, said that - like the Royal College of Surgeons - his department was bombed during the war. "Anything that was lost, we blamed on the bomb," says Prof Aitken, "It was very convenient."

"There was so much stuff that got dispersed. There was a series of type skulls in their various categories. The last time I saw them they were in a corridor in Anthropology in a glass fronted case.

"Things were thrown into the basement of Anatomy, hoping they would disintegrate, because interest in physical anthropology post war wasn't very arduously looked after in the UK.

"There was supposed to be a whole Aborigine in pickle in one of the Royal Colleges, but being contraband, they won't admit to it." This appears to be Coodnatta.

In May 1988, the London auctioneer, Bonhams, was to sell a preserved Maori head, valued at £10,000. Following a public outcry, the "owner", Mrs Nancy Weller-Poley, agreed to give the head - brought to England by her grandfather 150 years earlier - back to New Zealand.

It is impossible to guess the extent to which Aboriginal remains are held in private collections or stored in attics or in the plethora of regional and small private museums. Depending on the extent of the Edinburgh University collection, this brief study accounts for between 300 and 600 individual remains. One estimate claims that 3000 items are held in Britain.

Given that two major collections, the Hunterian and University College, were substantially damaged in World War II, it can only be guessed that several thousand and probably more than 10,000 Aboriginal corpses and parts of corpses were brought to England since Banks shot his wallaby.

At least 3000 Tasmanians were slaughtered by the white invaders. As for Pemulwoy, a staff member of the National History Museum, tracked him down to the Hunterian Museum at London's Royal College of Surgeons, which says it has no record of his arrival. Papers written by William Clift, the first conservator of the Royal College, apparently survived the bombing and refer to Pemulwoy.

Three issues surround the remains held in this country: the need for secrecy about the collections, the need for and use of the collections and the ethics of returning the remains.

It is difficult to comprehend the need for secrecy claimed by Prof Kaufman and some of the others. While they have made it clear that they have no intention of returning remains to Australia, there can be little danger in documenting the contents. The Royal College of Surgeons' claim that their records were lost in 1941, shows that complete documentation of what exists and has existed should be maintained as an historical record, if not as a mechanism for return.

Labour Shadow Minister for the Arts, Mark Fisher has tabled questions in the House of Commons which call for a complete inventory of British museum and university holdings of Aboriginal human remains. Mr Fisher says any skeletal remains that belong to other cultures and are requested back should be returned. There should be proper diginity for their remains," he said.

As far as the London Royal College of Surgeons is concerned it either deliberately hid this valuable information for its own reasons or honestly had no idea of its own holdings.

If it is the former then why does a place of learning have a policy of not disseminating information. If it is the latter then they don't know what they have because they obviously don't use it, therefore abrogating any scientific "right" to the material. That so many senior personnel were unaware of 55 skulls speaks volumes. In any case Aboriginal people say no permission was ever given to take the remains. Several institutions cited their right to keep any "legally obtained" material. Mr Mansell says none of the material was lawfully obtained.

As for the need to maintain or use the collections, the Director of the Natural History Museum, Dr Neil Chalmers, said the remains were part of an extensive collection "across the whole living world". The museum has 67 million specimens of animals plants, minerals.

But does each academic fiefdom need a collection? Could not Edinburgh, Cambridge, Oxford and London reduce their holdings to one collection?

There is little evidence that the collections are being used for any serious research. Little if anything has been published over the past 50 years.

Mr Mansell argues that the remains have been studied for more than 100 years and all should be returned to Australia for proper burial.

It is difficult to understand why a compromise (which Mr Mansell strongly opposes) of measuring, model-making, computer imaging and the extraction of sample cores of unnamed specimens could not resolve the scientific/moral debate.

Most museums claim that under the British Museums Act (1963) they were legally bound not to return any material. The Arts Minister, Richard Luce, is preparing a Bill for the next session of Parliament that will give museums greater power to dispose of material they no longer require. But it won't force the issue. The decision will remain with the museum.

A spokesperson for Mr Luce refused to answer the moral issue of forcing museums to return culturally sensitive material, reiterating that the proposed Bill would include "de-acquisitioning of no longer relevant material", but said that if pressure was brought to bear upon the British government, that could be passed on to the museums.

But the remains can be returned. In Disclosing the Past, Mary Leakey confirmed that Proconsul africanus the skull of a fossil ape, was registered by the Natural History Museum and was returned to Kenya in 1984 after 'deaccession' was approved by a meeting of trustees.

Other concerns expressed include a fear that with no compulsion for disclosure, records can be destroyed to prevent groups claiming the remains of their ancestors. The US model requires proof of relationship, but presumes a Freedom of Information Act. Britain approves of bureaucratic secrecy.

Ultimately the message is clear that Aboriginal people want their ancestors back. Some of the remains are the grandparents and possibly even parents of living Aborigines in Australia. It is also true that British museums and collectors are in no hurry to return the material and that great pressure is required to speed up the process.

What is also abundantly clear is that there would be no debate at all if the remains were the immediate ancestors of living white Australians.