The 1875 Chevert expedition, headed by Macleay Museum founder William John Macleay, was the first Australian scientific expedition into New Guinea. With the explicit aim of collecting and documenting the natural environment, the expedition members collected vast amounts of animal and plant material from the east coast of Australia, Torres Strait and coastal New Guinea. The material and data from the expedition, along with valuable Torres Strait cultural material are a substantial collection in the Macleay Museum’s holdings at the University of Sydney. During his time on Erub, in the eastern Torres Strait, Macleay also collected human remains.
For Torres Strait people 1875 is significant for more tragic reasons. From around mid-year, a measles epidemic had devastated the region and on Erub it was believed that almost half the population of an estimated 140 people had passed away. In his journal WJ Macleay records the purchase or collection of the human material but is silent on what must have been for Erubam, a time of deep sadness and mourning.
In this paper I consider how Macleay’s scientific collecting practices were entangled in the broader context of death and mourning on Erub in 1875 and why, almost 145 years later, the people of Erub still ask, “why did they take our people?”
Leah is a postdoctoral fellow in History at The University of Sydney and her research interests include Torres Strait cultural knowledge and histories, museum practice, gendered knowledge and labour history. Prior to taking up her current positions, she lectured in Indigenous Australian Studies at The University of Sydney (2001-12) and the University of New South Wales (2013-17). A Torres Strait mainlander, Leah has extensive family connections to Mer, Erub, Mabuiag and Badu islands.