‘Denying history is simply lying’: how the University of Melbourne honoured racists, thieves and body snatchers

<span>Dhoombak Goobgoowana co-editors James Waghorne, Ross Jones and Marcia Langton at the University of Melbourne.</span><span>Photograph: Tamati Smith/The Guardian</span>
Dhoombak Goobgoowana co-editors James Waghorne, Ross Jones and Marcia Langton at the University of Melbourne.Photograph: Tamati Smith/The Guardian

Nazi apologists, massacre perpetrators, grave robbers, racists and eugenicists were hugely influential across the entire history of the University of Melbourne, according to its own research.

The university has published a shocking account of the dark side of these erstwhile heroes of Australian academia in a book it hopes will tell a greater truth about the institution and its dealings with Aboriginal people.

Some of Australia’s most celebrated scientists, including a Nobel laureate and others of world renown – along with doctors, historians, anthropologists and other academic staff – advocated breeding out “lower” and “deficient” “races”, particularly Aboriginal people; others exhumed, collected and later concealed Aboriginal remains; while yet others supported nazism, even after the second world war.

In one account a university graduate, Daniel Murnane, whose name until March this year graced a veterinary science scholarship, was among a group of men who perpetrated a 1926 massacre of Aboriginal people at Forrest River in the Kimberley. A subsequent royal commission into the killings confirmed that at least 11 Aboriginal people had been killed and their remains burned in three purpose-built stone ovens.

But these words and deeds have, until now, been absent from their official biographies.

Dhoombak Goobgoowana – translated as “truth-telling” in the Woi Wurrung language of the owners of the land on which the university was built – is the first of two volumes. The second is due early next year. With more than 60 contributors from architecture to zoology, its editors say it is a book about “some of the worst failings of our intellectual leaders”.

“The university has supported injustices called progress, half-truths presented as facts, and prejudices pretending at objectivity,” they write, adding: “Although many things have changed, the stain of the past remains. The land has not been returned; racism persists in the institution.”

Related: The killing times: a massacre map of Australia’s frontier wars

Dhoombak Goobgoowana is the result of three and a half years of research and is the first work of its kind in Australia. It grew out of “the vision, commitment and activism of Indigenous leaders inside and beyond” the university, its vice-chancellor, Duncan Maskell, says, and it will shock those who have “too rosy a view” of the university’s origins.

“We can no longer look away from this difficult history and its legacy, we need to face up to the effect this history has had and continues to have on the Indigenous community,” Maskell says.

This is difficult but necessary, says the university’s official historian and one of Dhoombak Goobgoowana’s three editors, James Waghorne.

History has left stuff out. We’re putting it back in

Ross Jones

Truth-telling is “supposed to cause discomfort”, he says.

“University historians have tended to glide over and to tactfully avoid discussing certain elements of peoples’ past. I don’t think overlooking the most difficult parts of a person’s career and work is honouring them.

“One of the questions I have received about this book is: is this somehow diminishing people? This book doesn’t aim to take down or diminish these people from the past. Rather, it hopes to explain their work, their priorities, the activities they undertook, in a more complete way.”

His co-editor and fellow historian Ross Jones says no restrictions were placed on their research by the university leadership, though their findings have been troubling to some. The result, he says, is “good old-fashioned scholarship”.

“Historians get very nervous when you talk about truth-telling because what is truth in history?” Jones says. “What I think is a better line, and I keep saying this all the time, is: this is not revisionist history. We are repairing revisionist histories of the past.

“I see this as a restoration job, to a degree. History has left stuff out. We’re putting it back in.”

The book will shake the foundations of a revered sandstone institution, often voted the best in Australia, and ranked 27th in the world. But, the foundation chair of Australian Indigenous studies, associate provost and the third co-editor, Marcia Langton, says racism, dispossession and “racial scientism” have been at the core of the university since the first stone was laid in 1853, two years after the colony of Victoria was declared.

The university’s luminaries have included “racists, thieves and body snatchers”, the authors say. The book pulls no punches in naming these men and their deeds.

Racists, Nazi apologists and eugenicists

Eugenics – the now-discredited belief that the social ills of modern society stem from hereditary factors, and solutions involve breeding out the “defective” – took hold at the university from its early days, Jones says, and persisted until into the 1970s. At Melbourne, this “science” was deeply infused with racism.

“The university was very important in propagating this view that Indigenous Australians were the lowest of the low,” Jones says. “Some people thought they really weren’t even on the same evolutionary tree.

“[But] there were activists, right through history, who said this was wrong. We talk about them in the book. And I think it’s important to emphasise those people because that totally cuts away the ground from the argument that everyone thought like that, and we can’t blame anyone.”

The anthropologist Sir Walter Baldwin-Spencer, a eugenicist who in 1912 was appointed as the guardian of every Aboriginal child in the Northern Territory, believed that “half-caste” Aboriginal children were genetically superior by virtue of their white blood and could be saved by removal. Views like these, widely propagated on campus for almost a hundred years, underpinned almost a century of law and the policy of forced removals of children that unleashed generations of pain and anguish on Aboriginal families and resulted in the stolen generations.

In the early 1930s Augustin Lodewyckx, who taught Teutonic studies and languages at Melbourne, called himself a “proud Aryan”, said Hitler was a “German hero” and wrote about eugenics as the answer to the overbreeding of low-intelligence people.

Merely deleting their names from buildings, rooms, courtyards and roads, and not explaining why, compounds the injustices with further acts of denial

Dhoombak Goobgoowana

Lodewyckx wrote in the Argus newspaper in March 1933 that Germany “may yet be the educator and perhaps the saviour of the white world”, unless Hitler’s successes were “eaten away by the mass of small human vermin”.

The scholar and his family left Melbourne to spend eight months in Germany in 1933. His wife, Anna, told readers of the Argus in May that year: “It is worthwhile, and perhaps advisable, to give Adolf Hitler a chance of proving his worth.”

Eugenicists, says Jones, persisted at the university even after the Holocaust. The Eugenics Society of Victoria was “effectively an offspring of the university”.

“I found all these characters like Agar [Wilfred Agar, geneticist and dean of the science faculty],” he says. “They named the Agar lecture theatre in the 1990s. He was praising Nazi sterilisation laws after Churchill and Truman said that the ‘final solution’ was in progress. Agar was a Nazi sympathiser, and he was president of the Eugenics Society (from 1936 to 1945).”

Its membership reads like a who’s who of the academic, judicial, scientific and educational elite of Melbourne society.

In the society’s surviving subscription lists from the 1930s to 1947 are the names of such eminent individuals as the journalist and newspaper proprietor, Sir Keith Murdoch; the chief executive of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (the precursor to the CSIRO), Sir David Rivett; the university vice-chancellor Sir John Medley; the president of the Royal College of Physicians, Sir Sidney Sewell; the chief justice of the Victorian supreme court, Sir Edmund Herring; the university’s head of pathology, Sir Peter MacCallum; the supreme court justice, John Barry; and the founder of the Brotherhood of St Laurence, the Rev GK Tucker.

Other academics were not members of the society but held similar views, Jones says. The “racist” views of the Nobel prize-winning microbiologist Frank Macfarlane Burnet – a founding member of the Australian Academy of Science who was the first Australian of the year in 1960 – were “an open secret”, he says. “But nobody’s written about it, and his official biographies don’t mention it.”

Eugenicist views and scientific racism influenced other faculties, the editors say. Senior historians in the 1950s argued that there was no point teaching Indigenous history.

John La Nauze, appointed to a second chair of history in 1956, said Indigenous people were of interest as specimens of prehistory but had made no contribution to modern Australia: “Unlike the West or South American Indians, unlike the Africans, the Australian aborigines could not even be exploited and enslaved. They could only be exterminated or driven further into the interior, or given, in charity, rations, cotton dresses, and religion. From them the Europeans could take nothing but the land they lived in.”

These beliefs enabled the collection of Aboriginal remains to continue at the university unopposed for close to a century.

Body snatchers and bone collectors

Anatomists from the early days collected Aboriginal bodies and ancestral remains, proudly displaying their grisly discoveries – until they were required to hand them over for repatriation. As recently as 2002, it is alleged in the book, individuals at the university may have attempted to hide at least one collection to avoid a legal obligation to return remains to their descendant communities.

The most prominent collector, Richard Berry, was a eugenicist who believed that mental capacity depended on the size of the head. He collected skulls from a wide range of “races” and published his theories of racial hierarchy. In one study he classed Indigenous adults as “feeble-minded”, in a cluster with criminals and the “mentally defective”.

But the amassing of bones did not lead to any research outcomes, Jones says.

The second major collection was gathered by George Murray Black, a Victorian pastoralist and “amateur anthropologist”. His collection of more than 800 individuals was raised from ancestral gravesites and sold to the university right up to the 50s.

Even at the time, university anatomists urged collectors to be discreet. In 1944 the chair of anatomy, Sydney Sunderland (later knighted), warned Murray Black that “excavations must be carried out in isolated areas where there are no blacks present at the time”.

In the 1980s the Gunditjmara elder Uncle Jim Berg took on the university about ownership of those remains and won a legal victory.

Berg’s case led to an important change in Victorian legislation which made it illegal for the university to hold Aboriginal ancestral materials.

In 1984 it was forced to hand over the Murray Black collection to the Museum of Victoria for repatriation.

But it turns out the university still held hundreds of other remains which it failed to declare. As Jones writes in the book, more than 700 human skeletal remains collected by Berry were, by “either maladministration or passive resistance”, overlooked until 2002.

When the Berry collection was finally liberated, the university apologised for the “hurt and understandable indignation felt by Indigenous Australians” and paid $172,000 towards the cost of repatriation and reburial.

Massacre perpetrators and denialists

The most disturbing tale of all is the revelation that a university researcher working in the Kimberley was involved in perpetrating the brutal massacre of Aboriginal men, women and children at Forrest River in 1926.

A station owner, Frederick Hay, had been murdered by an Aboriginal man named Lumbia for the rape of his wife, Anguloo. In reprisal, police constables Graham St Jack and Denis Regan led a posse of 13 police and local white people to find Hay’s killer, taking along an arsenal of Winchester rifles, shotguns, 500 to 600 rounds of ammunition and 42 horses. They inflicted ruthless reprisal attacks on Aboriginal men, women and children.

A royal commission into the killings confirmed that at least 11 Aboriginal people had been killed and their remains burned in stone ovens.

One of the volunteers who rode out with the posse was Murnane, a veterinary scientist who had graduated from the University of Melbourne and was in the area researching buffalo fly for the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research. The university’s Ormond College offered a scholarship in his honour to support a rural or remote veterinary science student.

Related: ‘A very tragic history’: how the trauma of a 1926 massacre echoes through the years

Prof Kate Auty writes in Dhoombak Goobgoowana that Murnane was evasive during questioning at the royal commission, saying: “I don’t know”, “I have no knowledge”, “I have never heard” and “I cannot tell you”.

The commissioner concluded that Murnane, like all the whites in the police party, had lied about the mass killings.

Murnane found a staunch defender in a university professor, Alfred Ewart, who later joined Murnane in the Kimberley to research horse disease, according to Auty.

“Ewart wrote that the ‘larger question’ was not whether Murnane and the police patrol had perpetrated mass murder, but ‘whether the blacks are to be allowed to render large tracts of country useless for white settlement’.”

Aboriginal people’s actions made pastoralist retaliation inevitable, in Ewart’s view, as station owners must “either starve to death or leave the country”. The “solution” Ewart advocated was the removal of Aboriginal people to offshore reserves.

He wrote: “We make reserves for native animals and surely we might also do the same for the black [since ‘genetic inferiority’ meant they were] bound to go.”

Truth, reparation and amends: what’s next?

The editors say this is a work of scholarship. A second volume is on the way. The work of making amends – repatriation, reparation, renaming – is for the university and its Indigenous consultative bodies to determine but can no longer be avoided.

“The university’s continued commemoration of individuals discussed in this book prolongs trauma,” they write. “Correcting history by merely adding the long-suppressed details of the fatal impact of the colonial mission on tens of thousands of Aboriginal people is rightly regarded as an insufficient response.”

Finding an “honourable” solution – including renaming – must involve telling the whole truth about history.

“The perpetrators of injustice should be named, and their roles in historical events fully recounted,” they write. “However, merely deleting their names from buildings, rooms, courtyards and roads, and not explaining why, compounds the injustices with further acts of denial.

“This kind of truth-telling is necessary … if our community is to prevent the repetition of commemorative rituals that honour racists, thieves and body snatchers.”

Two months ago Ormond College quietly changed the name of the Daniel Murnane scholarship, which had been set up in his name by his daughter, college alumna and benefactor Merrilyn Murnane Griffiths.

“In line with Ormond College’s commitment to truth-telling and reconciliation, and following research undertaken by the University of Melbourne, the name of this scholarship was changed to Dr Merrilyn Murnane Veterinary Science scholarship,” a spokesperson said.

Langton says she hopes Dhoombak Goobgoowana will form the basis for ongoing anti-racism work at the university. She would like to see this history taught in schools as truth-telling is vital everywhere.

“Denying parts of our history is simply lying,” she says. “And this is why racism persists. So I do hope that as a result of this book, this kind of academic work, this research will inform our anti-racism strategies.

“It’s most important that people understand where racism comes from, and it’s because of all the lies in Australian history. The lying in Australian history – the lying about Australian history – is one of the major contributors to racism.”

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