Every time Palawa woman Nala Mansell walks past the statue of former Tasmanian premier William Crowther, she says, it is “a reminder of the atrocities committed to William Lanne.”
- William Crowther, a 19th-century naturalist, surgeon and politician, cut off and stole the skull of Aboriginal man William Lanne after he died
- Earlier this month, a council committee unanimously agreed that Crowther should no longer be commemorated.
- The full council will vote tonight on whether the bronze statue will be removed or partially removed, with a report identifying the potential for an alternative
However, Ms Mansell might not be walking past it for much longer, as Hobart City Council tonight considers a motion to remove the controversial statue from where it stands in Franklin Square.
WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are warned that this story contains references and images of deceased persons and content which may cause distress.
Crowther — a 19th-century naturalist, surgeon and politician — cut off and stole the skull of Aboriginal man William Lanne after he died in 1869.
Then Crowther replaced the skull with that of another man in an attempt to conceal the act.
As campaign coordinator for the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre, Ms Mansell said it was upsetting that the statue of Crowther was still standing.
“It’s so hard to comprehend how people cannot understand the offensiveness of glorifying a man who is responsible for mutilating a human being simply because of their race,” she said.
“To Aboriginal people, William Lanne represents our struggles, our treatment, our dispossession and everything we fought for over 220 years.”
University of Melbourne Australian Center director Sarah Maddison said the conversation in Australia around controversial monuments is a growing one.
“There’s certainly been ongoing pressure and campaigning to either remove or dismantle statues celebrating Australia’s most famous colonisers, [such as] Governor Macquarie in New South Wales.”
A growing movement
Campaigning has been boosted in recent years in countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom, in line with a resurgence in the Black Lives Matter movement.
It saw a series of Confederate statues taken down and, in England, the statue of a Bristol slaver was thrown into the bay.
Dr Maddison said she believed the removal of the Crowther statue could be the first of its kind in Australia.
While a statue of Captain Cook was removed in Cairns, it was his pose that was deemed offensive.
Now, it’s a focus on the man himself, and Dr Maddison said it could set a precedent for conversations around other controversial monuments.
“History is never just one-sided. Statues make it seem as though it is, and we need to engage far more critically with the way we commemorate aspects of Australia’s past,” Dr Maddison said.
“Public statues commemorating men who have committed crimes against First Nations people is a continued source of pain.
“It’s hard to imagine what it would be like walking past the statue of a man who had removed the skull of one of your ancestors.”
Statue should serve as ‘conversation starter’
Earlier this month, a council committee unanimously agreed Crowther should no longer be commemorated.
The full council will vote tonight on whether the bronze statue will be removed or partially removed, with a report identifying the potential for an alternative sculpture in its place.
“Now is a great opportunity for the Hobart City Council to acknowledge the wrongs of the past, and the hurt and trauma that it has caused,” Ms Mansell said.
“If the Hobart City Council are not ready to acknowledge those things, it will be a sign to the state, the nation and the rest of the world that racist attitudes still exist to this day.”
Alderman Simon Behrakis said he would like the statue to serve as a conversation starter about Tasmania’s history.
“If the full story hasn’t been told with William Crowther, then we tell the full story, but I don’t think removing his statue and removing mention of him is the way to do that,” he said.
“Our history isn’t just the parts of our story we have good fond memories of. It needs to be the darker parts of our history because they’re the ones that we learn from.
“Put a plaque up there, put something up there that tells the story, but I think removing the statue is the same as burning books.”
A dark chapter of history
Historian Paul Turnbull said the statue was an affront to many and what happened was a dark chapter in Australia’s colonial history.
“If you look at the case of the mutilation of the body of William Lanne, even at the time it was said there was nothing more loathsome than what actually happened,” he said.
“There was a ‘rather obscene’ competition between Crowther and the Royal Society of Tasmania (RST) for the remains. Crowther wanted to send them to London’s Royal College of Surgeons, RST wanted them for the Hobart museum.”
When Crowther was denied access to Lanne’s body, he and his son broke into the hospital where Lanne was being kept. Crowther then cut and peeled back Lanne’s skin and stole his skull from him, replacing it with one from a nearby corpse.
It is then believed that another surgeon cut off Lanne’s hands and feet to prevent Crowther from returning and stealing the full skeleton.
“This caused a range of responses, but generally many people in Hobart were horrified by what happened,” Mr Turnbull said.
“I can’t think of any other statues where we are talking about people who were actively involved in plundering of Aboriginal graves or theft of Aboriginal heritage.”
Lanne’s grave was later robbed, and parts of his remains have not been located.
It is believed Lanne’s skull was taken to the Royal College of Science when Crowther’s son moved to London to study.
Crowther’s collection of Aboriginal remains was donated to the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery when he died, many from unknown sources. TMAG returned all remains to the Tasmanian Aboriginal community in the 1970s.
RST council president Jocelyn McPhee told Hobart City Council that the organization acknowledged past involvement in trading remains of Aboriginal people and supported the statue’s removal.
“There was interest from a scientific point of view, and most of our members would have regarded the Aboriginal community as primitive,” she said.
“The society failed to challenge prevailing attitudes [about] Aboriginal people that were destructive.
“The position we have now is a new one.”
Statue’s presence ‘untenable’
Last year, the Hobart City Council launched a Crowther Reinterpreted art project, in which four local Aboriginal artists transformed the statue in various ways to reflect an alternative message.
Renowned Aboriginal artist Julie Gough, who participated in the project, said its continued presence “in the main public square in Nipaluna/Hobart is untenable.”
“WL Crowther was premier for only 313 days in 1878-79. His good work was not remarkable nor worthy of a permanent statue,” she said.
“The suffering of Aboriginal people, who have not forgotten, needs to be addressed by the removal of this monument to a disgraced man.”
Some members of council are not convinced removing the statue is the best way forward.
Dr Maddison said there were ways to continue the conversation while removing the statue.
“Taking down those statues, or relocating them to museums where that type of behavior can become part of proper education and debate about the truth of Australia’s colonial history, I think would be a really good step to improving Indigenous-settler relations,” she said .
“Removing the statues is a step, but it can’t be the last of the conversation.
“It needs to be the basis for opening up the conversations about reparations, about compensations and about treaty and agreements.”