Hobart divided over statue of man who stole Indigenous skull, as council votes on removal

·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Anthony Corke/AAP</span>
Photograph: Anthony Corke/AAP

Hobart city councillors will decide on Monday whether to remove the city’s controversial statue of William Lodewyk Crowther, who in 1869 mutilated the body of the Aboriginal man William Lanne.

On 4 August, the council’s community, culture and events committee voted unanimously to recommend the removal of the statue from Franklin Square in central Hobart. The vote followed years of requests from the Tasmanian Aboriginal community and an art project designed to foster public discussion about the statue’s future.

In 1869 Crowther, a surgeon and politician in the Hobart Town colony, broke into the morgue at night, decapitated Lanne’s corpse, peeled back his skin to remove the skull and replaced it with that of another corpse.

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Lanne was a well-known whaler who had been exiled as a child to Wybalenna settlement on Flinders Island. He was the only member of his family to survive the exile and became an advocate for his displaced Tasmanian Aboriginal community.

Lanne and his wife Truganini were regarded by the colonists as the last “full-blooded” Aboriginal Tasmanians, and so were of great interest to colonial scientists and institutions such as the Royal College of Surgeons in London, on whose behalf Crowther was acting. Lanne’s remains were never reunited, though some body parts have been laid to rest by the Aboriginal community.

Crowther was suspended from his role as honorary medical officer at the Hobart general hospital as a result of his actions, but within weeks he held the Hobart seat in the legislative council, and nine years later he became premier of Tasmania.

Four years after Crowther’s death in 1885, a bronze statue celebrating his contributions to the colony was erected in a prominent corner of Hobart’s civic park.

Last year, the city council’s Crowther Reinterpreted project commissioned a series of temporary public works by Aboriginal artists to respond to the statue and prompt public opinion on what to do next.

An online survey asked respondents whether the statue should be wholly removed, partially removed, added to in some way, or left as is. The resulting report proposed the removal of the statue but recommended leaving its sandstone plinth, currently inscribed with praise for Crowther, in situ for heritage reasons.

The committee voted unanimously in favour of the proposal, which also includes an interpretive response to the statue site with the broader story of Crowther and Lanne. The statue would most likely be temporarily housed at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery.

Nala Mansell, a palawa woman who is the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre’s campaign coordinator, said her community wanted the statue gone immediately.

“History is written in many books, statues are a symbol of glorification of someone, in this case Crowther, so we’d hope it would all be removed … I would like to see it decapitated in the exact same way that William Lanne was, and thrown into the tip.”

Mansell said attitudes towards Tasmania’s past were changing.

“The premier [Jeremy Rockliff] has supported truth telling, which symbolises that attitudes in Tasmania have shifted and that we’re ready to stand up and acknowledge the truth of the Aboriginal history in Tasmania, as uncomfortable as it might be … Tasmania was the first state to compensate the stolen generation, we’ve had some land returned to us, so now is the perfect time for Hobart’s elected leaders to let Tasmania lead the way in being a progressive state.”

Most of the 186 respondents to the project’s online survey supported the removal of the statue, including 18 of the 19 Aboriginal organisations or individuals.

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Among the many comments, one person wrote in support of removal: “Before, I thought it was just another statue. It looked good. I should have known better. Now, I’m disgusted.”

Of the seven historical or heritage organisations that responded, only the Hobart Town (1804) First Settlers Association wanted the statue to remain. The association’s submission said that “to remove this statue and destroy it will deny future citizens the opportunity to see and reflect on the moral change in Tasmania and the changed perceptions of the traditional inhabitants”.

Only 34 of the public comments agreed. “The sanitisation of the past to suit the objections of a few limits what future generations will understand about their history,” one said. “There are far more important things to put time, energy and money into – this is simply nonsense.”

Most councillors have so far declined to make their views public, but in the project’s early days the alderman Simon Behrakis called it a “feel-good woke project” and said: “We have limited resources on this council and limited time and we should be directing it to areas where we can actually improve society.”

Mansell said she was “hopeful and confident” the vote would be to remove the statue.

The council will vote on the recommendations at its general meeting on Monday from 5pm. The meeting is open to the public and will be broadcast live on YouTube.