The Terrible Tucandeira

The initiation ritual of tucandeira is typical of the Sateré-Mawé people stationed along the Amazon River on the border between the states of Amazonas and Pará of Brazil.
The ritual is named after a giant ant (the Paraponera clavata, also known as “bullet ant”) whose painful sting, 30 times more poisonous than that of a bee, causes swelling, redness, fever and violent chills.

This test of courage and endurance sanctions a tennager’s entry into adulthood: every young man who wants to become a true warrior must submit to it.

The tucandeira takes place during the Amazonian summer months (October to December).
First the ants must be captured and taken from their anthills, usually located at the base of hollow trees, and they are enclosed in an empty bamboo called tum-tum. A mixture of water and cajú leaves is then prepared, and the ants are immersed and left in this anesthetic “soup”.

Once they are asleep, the ants are inserted one by one within the knitting of a straw glove, their fearsome stingers stuck on the inside of the mitten. They are then left to awaken from their numbness: realizing that they are trapped, the ants begin to get more and more angry.

When the time for the actual ritual finally arrives, the whole village meets to observe and encourage the adolescents who undergo initiation. It is the much feared moment of the test. Will they resist pain?

He who leads the dance intones a song, adapting the words to the circumstance. The women sit in front of the group of men and accompany the melody. Some candidates paint their hands black with Genipa berries and then drink a very strong liquor called taruhà, based on fermented cassava, useful for reducing pain and giving the necessary strength to face the ritual. Those who undergo the tucandeira for the first five times must apply to certain diets. When the ants awaken, the actual ritual begins. The dance director slips the gloves on the candidates’ hands and blows tobacco smoke into the gloves to further irritate the ants. Then the musicians begin to play rudimentary wooden tubes while the boys dance.

(A. Moscè , I Sateré Mawé e il rito della tucandeira, in “Etnie”, 23/01/2014)

The angry ants begin to prick the hands of the young, who are made to dance to distract themselves from the pain. In a short time their hands and arms get paralyzed; in order to pass the test, the candidate must wear the gloves for at least ten minutes.


After this time, the gloves are removed and the pain begins to manifest itself again. It will take twenty-four hours for the effect of inoculated neurotoxins to subside; the young man will be the victim of excruciating pain and sometimes prey to uncontrollable tremors even in the following days.
And this is just the beginning for him: to be fully completed, the ritual will have to be repeated 19 more times.

Through this ritual, a Sateré Mawé recognizes his origins, laws and customs; and from adolescence on, he will have to repeat it at least twenty times to be able to draw its beneficial effects. The whole population participates in the ritual and observes how the candidates face it. It is an important time to get to know each other, gather, and contract future marriages.
The tucandeira is also a propitiatory rite, through which a boy can become a good fisherman and hunter, have luck in life and work, turn into a strong and courageous man. People come together very willingly for this ritual, which in addition to its festive and playful aspect is also an opportunity to recall the cosmogonic myths of the origin of the stars, the sun, the moon, water, air and all living things.

(A. Moscè, Ibid.)

In this National Geographic video on tucandeira, the chief summarizes in an admirable way the ultimate meaning of these practices:

“If you live your life without suffering anything, or without any kind of effort, it won’t be worth anything to you.”

(Thanks, Giulio!)

 

ILLUSTRATI GENESIS: Day 4

Seven little lessons to rediscover our everyday life.
Seven days for the Creation… of a new perspective.

DAY 4 – THE SUN, THE MOON AND THE STARS

The well-known detail: It’s dawn. Same as every morning, the alarm goes off at 7.30: while we were asleep, time continued to go by. Another day is gone and now we have to wake up and face the future that is waiting for us.

The background: When we think about the passing of time, in our mind we picture a kind of road or ribbon unravelling through a figurative landscape. The future is in front of us and the past behind us. Everything is in constant motion: we move forward on the time line (“we’re getting closer to the end of the year”), but the flow is actually continuous and so the landscape is inevitably sliding towards us as well (“The end of the year’s coming”).
Whether the observer moves through the landscape or the landscape moves towards them, in both cases we always use spatial metaphors when we talk about time. But we would be wrong to believe these metaphors are the only possible ones: anthropologists and linguists who study different cultures have come across temporal models which are radically different from ours.
For many African cultures, for example, time is related to events. Therefore, it only passes if something is happening:

Europeans make mistakes when they think that people in traditional African societies are “wasting time” when sitting idly under a tree without activities. When Africans are not doing anything, they produce no happenings, no markings of rhythm, no ‘time’. […] When the time concept is event-related, it means that no event is no time. There is nothing to ‘waste’ and nothing to ‘save’. […] One logical result is that the taxi-browse (“the bus operating in the bush”) will leave, not at a fixed moment of the day, but when it is full, when it has enough passengers to pay for the fee, so that it can make the trip. Similarly, a meeting will start “when people (most of them) have come,” not at a point fixed beforehand on an abstract clock. It is the event, “it is full” or “people have come,” that triggers action, not the moment according to a measurable time standard.(1)

Also the idea that the future is in front of us and the past behind us is not universal.
For the Malagasy it is exactly the opposite: the future is behind us, and the past is ahead of us. The observer doesn’t move and time reaches them from behind. Their most common New Year’s greeting is arahaba fa tratry ny taona (“congratulations on being caught up by the new year”).
In this model, the past is ahead because it is known, and therefore visible; the future, on the contrary, must necessarily be behind us, because nobody can see it.

We can find a similar concept in the Aymara language, spoken in the Andean Highlands (Bolivia, Peru and Chile). In this language, they use the word nayra, a term indicating what stands before, when talking about the past. Similarly the world for ‘back’, qhipa, also indicates the future. This concept partially derives

from the strong emphasis Aymara puts on visual perception as a source of knowledge. The Aymara language precisely distinguishes the source of knowledge of any reported information by grammatically imposing a distinction between personal and nonpersonal knowledge and by marking them with verbal inflection or syntactic structures. […] So, in Aymara, if a speaker says “Yesterday, my mother cooked potatoes,” he or she will have to indicate whether the source of knowledge is personal or nonpersonal. If the speaker meant “She cooked potatoes, but I did not see her do it”.

Therefore it should not come as a surprise that

Aymara speakers tend to speak more often and in more detail about the past than about the future. Indeed, often elderly Aymara speakers simply refused to talk about the future on the grounds that little or nothing sensible could be said about it.(2)

The Fourth Lesson: The idea of time derives from the alternation of the sun and the stars, the succession of light and darkness. Just like every idea, it is relative and it changes according to historical eras, latitudes and languages. So, let’s try a little experiment. After turning off the alarm, try and imagine that the new day is behind you. You cannot face it because it’s not facing you. You cannot know what it is going to bring, but you feel it lurking behind you. This idea might sound a bit scary, but it is also liberating: you just have to yield and let the future reach you.

The first three Days of ILLUSTRATI GENESIS are available here and here.

1) Ø. Dahl, “When The Future Comes From Behind: Malagasy and Other Time Concepts and Some Consequences For Communication”, in International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 19:2 (1995), pp. 197-209
2) R.E. Núñez ed E. Sweetser, “With the Future Behind Them: Convergent Evidence From Aymara Language and Gesture in the Crosslinguistic Comparison of Spatial Construals of Time”, in Cognitive Science, 30 (2006), pp. 401–450

The Mummies of Palermo: A Silent Dialogue

This article originally appeared on the first number (entitled “Apocrifo Siciliano”) of the book/magazine Cariddi – Rivista Vorace, published by Rossomalpelo Edizioni. The magazine explores the forgotten, occult, magical and fantastical side of Sicily, in a collective effort which saw the participation of journalists, writers, illustratoris, literature scholars and photographers confronting Sicily’s countless faces.
Cariddi is in Italian only, but you can order it on Amazon and other online stores, or you can order a copy by writing an email to the publishing house.

You never forget your first.
As soon as I entered the Capuchin Catacombs, I had the impression of finding myself in front of a gigantic exercitus mortuorum, a frightening army of revenants. Dead bodies all around, their skin parched and withered, hundreds of gaping mouths, jaws lowered by centuries of gravity, empty yet terribly expressive eye sockets. The feeling lasted a few seconds, because in reality down in the hypogeum so perfect a peace reigned that the initial bewilderment gave way to a different feeling: I felt I was an intruder.

A stranger, a living man in a sacred space inhabited by the dead; all those who come down here suddenly fall silent. The visitor is under scrutiny.
I was also alien to a culture, the Sicilian culture, showing such an inconceivable familiarity with the dead for someone born and raised in Northern Italy. Here death, I thought, was not hidden behind slabs of marble, on the contrary: it was turned into a spectacle. Presented theatrically, exhibited as mirabilis – worthy of admiration – here was on display the true repressed unconscious of our time: the Corpse.

The Corpse had been carefully worked by the friars, following a process refined over time. One of the technical terms anthropologists use to indicate the process of draining and mummifying bodies is “thanato-metamorphosis”, which gives a good idea of the actual, structural transformation to which the body is subjected.
Moreover, such conservation was considerably expensive, and only the wealthiest could afford it (even in death, there are first and second class citizens). But this is not surprising if we think of the countless monumental citadels of the dead, which the living are willing to raise at the cost of enormous efforts and fortunes. What struck me, as I strolled by the mummies, was that in this case the investment didn’t have the purpose of building a grand, sumptuous mausoleum, but rather of freezing, as much as possible, the features of these dead people over time.

Ah yes, time. Down there time flowed differently than on the city surface, or perhaps it didn’t flow at all. As if suspended by miracle, time had stopped devouring and transfiguring all matter.
As I dwelled on ancient faces, worn out clothes, and withered hands, the purpose of this practice became clear: it was meant to preserve not just the memory of the deceased, but their very identity.
Unlike the basic concept behind ossuaries, where the dead are all the same, the mummification process has the virtue of making each body different from the other, thus giving the remains a distinct personality – an effect further amplified if a mummy is dressed in the clothes he or she wore when alive.
Among all the barriers men have raised in the quixotic attempt to deny impermanence, this is perhaps the one that comes closest to success; it is a strange strategy, because instead of warding off death, it seems to embrace it until it becomes part of everyday life. So these individuals never really died: family members could come back and visit them, talk to them, take care of them. They were ancestors who had never quite crossed the threshold.

Little by little, I began sensing the benign and sympathetic nature of the mummies’ gaze – the kindness that shines through anyone who’s really aware of mortality. Their skeletal faces, which could be frightening at first, actually appeared serene if observed long enough; so much so that I was no longer sure I should pity their condition. Within me I began a sort of conversation with this silent crowd, the guardians of an inviolable secret. Perhaps, as their whispers reached out for me from the other side, all they were trying to do was reassure me; maybe they were talking the end of all trouble.

That unspoken, mysterious dialogue between us never stopped since that day.
A few years later I returned to the Catacombs together with photographer Carlo Vannini. We stayed about a week in the company of mummies, day and night. Who knows if they recognized me? For my part I learned to tell them apart, one by one, and to discern each of their voices – for they still called me without words.

My first book, published for Logos Edizioni, was The Eternal Vigil.
In 2017 the book was reissued with a preface by the scientific conservator of the catacombs, paleopathologist Dario Piombino-Mascali – who in turn, as I’m writing this, has just published what promises to be the definitive historical-scientific guide on the Catacombs, for Kalòs Edizioni.
From the analysis of mummies a paleopathologist is able to get clues about their life habits, and unravel their personal history: to an expert like him, these bodies really do speak. But I am sure that in this very moment they’re also whispering to the visitors who just descended the staircase and stepped into the underground corridors, enchanted by the extraordinary vision.
These mummies, to which I am bound by ties inscrutable and deep, murmur to anyone who really knows how to listen.

Bizzarro Bazar Web Series: Episode 3

In the 3rd episode of the Bizzarro Bazar Web Series we talk about some scientists who tried to hybridize monkeys with humans, about an incredible raincoat made of intestines, and about the Holy Foreskin of Jesus Christ.
[Be sure to turn on English subtitles.]

If you like this episode be sure to subscribe to the channel, and most of all spread the word. Enjoy!

Written & Hosted by Ivan Cenzi
Directed by Francesco Erba
Produced by Ivan Cenzi, Francesco Erba, Theatrum Mundi & Onda Videoproduzioni

Bizzarro Bazar Web Series: Episode 2

In the 2nd episode of the Bizzarro Bazar Web Series: pharmacy mummies and products of the human body used in medicine; a mysterious artist; a theater built from the carcass of a whale. [Remember to turn English subtitles on.]

If you like this episode be sure to subscribe to the channel, and most of all spread the word. Enjoy!

Written & Hosted by Ivan Cenzi
Directed by Francesco Erba
Produced by Ivan Cenzi, Francesco Erba, Theatrum Mundi & Onda Videoproduzioni

Bizzarro Bazar Web Series: Episode 1

Here we are!

Here is the first episode of the Bizzarro Bazar Web Series: animal trials, cannibal forks, and one strange extreme sport.
If you like this episode be sure to subscribe to the channel, and most of all spread the word. Enjoy!

Written & Hosted by Ivan Cenzi
Directed by Francesco Erba
Produced by Ivan Cenzi, Francesco Erba, Theatrum Mundi & Onda Videoproduzioni

Criminal Heads

Two dissected heads. Color plate by Gautier D’Agoty (1746).

Starting from the end of the Middle Ages, the bodies of those condemned to death were commonly used for anatomical dissections. It was a sort of additional penalty, because autopsy was still perceived as a sort of desecration; perhaps because this “cruelty” aroused a certain sense of guilt, it was common for the dissected bodies to be granted a burial in consecrated ground, something that would normally have been precluded to criminals.

But during the nineteenth century dissecting the bodies of criminals began to have a more specific reason, namely to understand how the anatomy of a criminal differed from the norm. A practice that continued until almost mid-twentieth century.
The following picture shows the head of Peter Kürten (1883-1931), the infamous Vampire of Düsseldorf whose deeds inspired Fritz Lang’s masterpiece M (1931). Today it is exhibited at Ripley’s Believe It Or Not by Winsconsin Dells.

Cesare Lombroso, who in spite of his controversial theories was one of the pioneers and founders of modern criminology, was convinced that the criminal carried in his anatomy the anomalous signs of a genetic atavism.

The Museum dedicated to him, in Turin, retraces his reasoning, his convictions influenced by theories in vogue at the time, and gives an account of the impressive collection of heads he studied and preserved. Lombroso himself wanted to become part of his museum, where today the criminologist’s entire skeleton is on display; his preserved, boneless head is not visible to the public.

Head of Cesare Lombroso.

Similar autopsies on the skull and brain of the murderers almost invariably led to the same conclusion: no appreciable anatomical difference compared to the common man.

A deterministic criminology — the idea, that is, that criminal behavior derives from some anatomical, biological, genetic anomaly — has a comforting appeal for those who believe they are normal.
This is the classic process of creation/labeling of the different, what Foucault called “the machinery that makes qualifications and disqualifications“: if the criminal is different, if his nature is deviant (etymologically, he strays from the right path on which we place ourselves), then we will sleep soundly.

Numerous research suggests that in reality anyone is susceptible to adopt socially deplorable behavior, given certain premises, and even betray their ethical principles as soon as some specific psychological mechanisms are activated (see P. Bocchiaro, Psicologia del male, 2009). Yet the idea that the “abnormal” individual contains in himself some kind of predestination to deviance continues to be popular even today: in the best case this is a cognitive bias, in the worst case it’s plain deceit. A striking example of mala fides is provided by those scientific studies financed by tobacco or gambling multinationals, aimed at showing that addiction is the product of biological predisposition in some individuals (thus relieving the funders of such reasearch from all responsibility).

But let’s go back to the obsession of nineteenth-century scientists for the heads of criminals.
What is interesting in our eyes is that often, in these anatomical specimens, what was preserved was not even the internal structure, but rather the criminal’s features.

In the picture below you can see the skin of the face of Martin Dumollard (1810-1862), who killed more than 6 women. Today it is kept at the Musée Testut-Latarjet in Lyon.
It was tanned while his skull was being studied in search of anomalies. It was the skull, not the skin, the focus of the research. Why then take the trouble to prepare also his face, detached from the skull?

Dumollard is certainly not the only example. Also at the Testut-Latarjet lies the facial skin of Jules-Joseph Seringer, guilty of killing his mother, stepfather and step-sister. The museum also exhibits a plaster cast of the murderer, which offers a more realistic account of the killer’s features, compared to this hideous mask.

For the purposes of physiognomic and phrenological studies of the time, this plaster bust would have been a much better support than a skinned face. Why not then stick to the cast?

The impression is that preserving the face or the head of a criminal was, beyond any scientific interest, a way to ensure that the memory of guilt could never vanish. A condemnation to perpetual memory, the symbolic equivalent of those good old heads on spikes, placed at the gates of the city — as a deterrent, certainly, but also and above all as a spectacle of the pervasiveness of order, a proof of the inevitability of punishment.

Head of Diogo Alves, beheaded in 1841.

Head of Narcisse Porthault, guillotined in 1846. Ph. Jack Burman.

 

Head of Henri Landru, guillotined in 1922.

 

Head of Fritz Haarmann, beheaded in 1925.

This sort of upside-down damnatio memoriæ, meant to immortalize the offending individual instead of erasing him from collective memory, can be found in etchings, in the practice of the death masks and, in more recent times, in the photographs of guillotined criminals.

Death masks of hanged Victorian criminals (source).

Guillotined: Juan Vidal (1910), Auguste DeGroote (1893), Joseph Vacher (1898), Canute Vromant (1909), Lénard, Oillic, Thépaut and Carbucci (1866), Jean-Baptiste Picard (1862), Abel Pollet (1909), Charles Swartewagher (1905), Louis Lefevre (1915), Edmond Claeys (1893), Albert Fournier (1920), Théophile Deroo (1909), Jean Van de Bogaert (1905), Auguste Pollet (1909).

All these heads chopped off by the executioner, whilst referring to an ideal of justice, actually celebrate the triumph of power.

But there are four peculiar heads, which impose themselves as a subversive and ironic contrappasso. Four more heads of criminals, which were used to mock the prison regime.


These are the effigies that, placed on the cushions to deceive the guards, allowed Frank Morris, together with John and Clarence Anglin, to famously escape from Alcatraz (the fourth accomplice, Allen West, remained behind). Sculpted with soap, toothpaste, toilet paper and cement powder, and decorated with hair collected at the prison’s barbershop, these fake heads are the only remaining memory of the three inmates who managed to escape from the maximum security prison — along with their mug shots.

Although unwittingly, Morris and his associates had made a real détournement of a narrative which had been established for thousands of years: an iconography that aimed to turn the head and face of the condemned man into a mere simulacrum, in order to dehumanize him.

The Perfect Tribe

This article originally appeared on #ILLUSTRATI n. 51 — Il Barone Rampante

© Markus Fleute

The Korowai people are the perfect tribe, because they are uncontaminated.
The first contact dates back to 1974, when about thirty natives where accosted by a team of anthropologists; it is assumed that until then the Korowai people were unaware of the existence of other populations beyond themselves. A few years later, the missionaries arrived to try and convert them.

The Korowai people are the perfect tribe, because they live in an exotic way.
Hidden in a forest’s corner in one of the most secluded countries—the isle of New Guinea—they build stilt houses on top of the trees. In this way they protect against insects, snakes, boars and enemies from other tribes. Over the years, their engineering skills have been shown in several documentaries: in 2011 an episode of Human Planet, produced by the BBC, detailed the construction of a house at the vertiginous height of 40 metres above the ground, and the move of a family to this new incredible dwelling.

The Korowai people are the perfect tribe, because they are cannibals.
They do not eat their enemies nor are into indiscriminate endocannibalism: they kill and devour only those who practice black magic.
When these people get an unknown disease, before dying they usually mention the name of the khakhua, the male witch who cast the curse on them. Then the relatives of the dead person capture the necromancer and chop him into pieces, distributing his meat among the village families.
In 2006 Paul Raffaele, an Australian adventure reporter and television personality, went among the Korowai people to save a little boy who was about to be cannibalized. The episode of 60 Minutes in which he recounted his expedition was watched by an extremely large audience. The intrepid reporter also wrote a report entitled “Sleeping With The Cannibals” for the prestigious Smithsonian Magazine; this article remains very popular to this day.

The Korowai people are the perfect tribe, because we still need the myth of the Savage.
We like to think that “out of time” tribes exist, crystallized in a prehistoric phase without experiencing any evolution or social transformation. This fable reassures us about our superiority, about our extraordinary capacity for progress. This is why we prefer the Savage to be naked, primitive, rude, or even animal-like, namely characterized by all those features we have abandoned.
Let us take the example of the tsantsa, the famous shrunken heads of the indios Shuar – Jibaros settled between Ecuador and Peru: before the arrival of white men, the natives sporadically produced very few of them. But Western explorers saw the tsantsa as the perfect macabre souvenir, and above all the emblem of the “primitive barbarity” of these tribes. It was only because of the growing demand for these artefacts that the Shuar and Achuar tribes started to organize raids among the neighbouring populations in order to stock up new heads, to shrunken and sell to white man in exchange for rifles.
When visiting museums of anthropology, only a few people realize that sometimes they are not at all looking at the artefacts from an ancient and faraway culture: they are admiring a fantasy, the idea of that culture created and built by Western people for themselves.

And what about the Korowai people, who live perched on trees like Tarzan?
In April this year, the BBC admitted that the house in the tree 40 metres above the ground, shown in the 2011 episode of Human Planet, was a fake.
Namely it was a sequence agreed upon with the natives, who were charged by the television crew of building a giant stilt house—which normally they wouldn’t have normally ever built. A member of the tribe declared that the house had been built “for the benefit of the producers of television shows overseas”: the traditional Korowai dwellings actually reached a maximum height of 5-10 metres above the ground.

© George Steinmetz

And the feasts with human meat?
Cannibalism as well hasn’t actually been practiced for countless decades. “Most of these groups have a ten-year experience in providing these stories [of cannibalism] to tourists” declared anthropologist Chris Ballard of the Australian National University.
Their life now depends on Western people driven to the jungle by their search for strong emotions. The Korowai people have learnt to give them what they want.
And if white people still need the Savage, here they are.

The Erotic Tombs of Madagascar

On the Western coast of Madagascar live the Sakalava people, a rather diverse ethnic group; their population is in fact composed of the descendants of numerous peoples that formed the Menabe Kingdom. This empire reached its peak in the Eighteenth Century, thanks to an intense slave trade with the Arabs and European colonists.

One of the most peculiar aspects of Sakalava culture is undoubtedly represented by the funerary sculptures which adorn burial sites. Placed at the four corners of a grave, these carved wooden posts are often composed by a male and a female figure.
But these effigies have fascinated the Westerners since the 1800s, and for a very specific reason: their uninhibited eroticism.

In the eyes of European colonists, the openly exhibited penises, and the female genitalia which are in some cases stretched open by the woman’s hands, must have already been an obscene sight; but the funerary statues of the Sakalava even graphically represent sexual intercourse.

These sculptures are quite unique even within the context of the notoriously heterogeneous funerary art of Madagascar. What was their meaning?

We could instinctively interpret them in the light of the promiscuity between Eros and Thanatos, thus falling into the trap of a wrongful cultural projection: as Giuseppe Ferrauto cautioned, the meaning of these works “rather than being a message of sinful «lust», is nothing more than a message of fertility” (in Arcana, vol. II, 1970).


A similar opinion is expressed by Jacques Lombard, who extensively ecplained the symbolic value of the Sakalava funerary eroticism:

We could say that two apparently opposite things are given a huge value, in much the same manner, among the Sakalava as well as among all Madagascar ethnic groups. The dead, the ancestors, on one side, and the offspring, the lineage on the other. […] A fully erect – or «open» – sexual organ, far from being vulgar, is on the contrary a form of prayer, the most evident display of religious fervor. In the same way the funerals, which once could go on for days and days, are the occasion for particularly explicit chants where once again love, birth and life are celebrated in the most graphic terms, through the most risqué expressions. In this occasion, women notably engage in verbal manifestations, but also gestural acts, evoking and mimicking sex right beside the grave.
[…] The extended family, the lineage, is the point of contact between the living and the dead but also with all those who will come, and the circle is closed thanks to the meeting with all the ancestors, up to the highest one, and therefore with God and all his children up to the farthest in time, at the heart of the distant future. To honor one’s ancestors, and to generate an offspring, is to claim one’s place in the eternity of the world.

Jacques Lombard, L’art et les ancêtres:
le dialogue avec les morts: l’art sakalava
,
in Madagascar: Arts De La Vie Et De La Survie
(Cahiers de l’ADEIAO n.8, 1989)

One last thing worth noting is the fact that the Sakalava exponentially increased the production of this kind of funerary artifacts at the beginning of the Twentieth Century.
Why?
For a simple reason: in order to satisfy the naughty curiosity of Western tourists.

You can find a comprehensive account of the Sakalava culture on this page.

The Colonized Corpse: Story of Tasmania’s Last Man

∼  King Billy 

William Lanne, considered Tasmania’s last “full-blood” Aboriginal, was born in Coal River around 1835. At the age of seven, he and his family were transferred to Flinders Island‘s Aboriginal settlement; when he was twelve, the surviving Aboriginal people (a group of about 40) were moved to Oyster Cove, 56 kilometers south of Hobart. Here, in 1847, William entered Queen’s Orphan Asylum. It is precisely at Oyster Cove that, apart from his journeys at sea, Lanne spent all of her life.

William Lanne with his wife Truganini (left).

The Aboriginals were often employed aboard whaling boats, assigned to the mast because of their excellent sight. William Lanne, on the account of a cheerful spirit, became popular among fellow sailors as “King Billy” and despite this royal nickname, he led an anonymous existence, divided between the hard days at sea and drinking at the pub with his friends.
In February 1869, after a long trip aboard the Runnymede, William returned unhealthy. He spent his last wages in beer and rum at the local tavern, a hangout for prostitutes and whalers, and after a week he fell ill with choleric diarrhea. On March 3rd he died while getting dressed for the hospital.

His body was brought to the General Hospital by order of Dr. Crowther. And here the trouble began, because to many people William Lanne’s body looked incredibly tempting.

  The Object of Desire

In the 19th century, comparative anatomy was among the hottest themes within the scientific community. The study of the shape of the skull, in particular, was of paramount importance not so much on a medical level as in the broader context of the theory of races.

Through craniometric and phrenological measurements, and by comparing various physical characteristics, racial classifications were compiled: for example, it was claimed that one race was equipped with a heavier brain than the other, an irrefutable proof of greater intelligence; the physiognomic peculiarities of a race proved its proximity to monkeys, thus ranking it further down the racial scale; a robust constitution was deemed to increase the chances of survival, and so on. No need to wonder who occupied the peak of evolution, in these charts created by white men.
If the Europeans were the most suitable for survival, then it was all too clear that the Aboriginal Tasmanians (who were often confined to the bottom ranks of these charts) would soon be extinct just like dodos and dinosaurs. Any violence or abuse was therefore justified by the inevitable, “natural” white supremacy.

To prove these theories, ethnologists, anatomists and archaeologists were constantly looking for prime examples of skulls. Aboriginal human remains, however, were very scarce and therefore among the most requested.
This was the reason why, as soon as the last “full-blood” Tasmanian was dead, a war broke out to decide who would win his skeleton: William Lanne received more attention after his death than he ever had while he was alive.

William Crowther (1817-1885)

Right from the start two opposing factions formed around the issue of his remains.
On one side was Dr. William Crowther, the doctor who had pronounced him dead. For a long time he had been desperately searching for an Aboriginal skeleton to send to the curator of London’s Hunterian Museum. He claimed that this gift would benefit relationships betweeen Tasmania and the British Empire, but in all evidence his true intent was to curry favour with the prestigious Royal College of Surgeons.
On the opposite front, the most powerful scientific society of Tasmania, the Royal Society, claimed that the precious remains were a national heritage and should remain in the Society’s own museum.

Disguised under an alleged scientific relevance, this was actually a political struggle.
The premier Richard Dry immediately realized this, being called to decide on the delicate matter: his move was initially favorable to the Royal Society, perhaps because it had strict ties to his government, or perhaps because Dry had had some pretty rough political divergences with Crowther in the past.
Anyways, it was established that the body would remain in Tasmania; but Dry, being a fervent Christian, decided that the last Aboriginal would need, first of all, to be granted a proper funeral. Well aware of Crowther’s impatience to get his hands on the skeleton, he ordered the new head of the hospital, Dr. George Stockell, to prevent anything happening to the body.

  The Desecration, Act One: Crowther

The following day Stockell and Crowther met on the street and they immediately went into a dispute; Crowther claimed to have a right on the body, and Stockell replied he had received clear orders to protect Lanne’s corpse.
When surprisingly Crowther invited him to dinner at 8pm, Stockell must have naively thought it was an attempt to reconcile. Upon showing up at Crowther’s at the agreed time, however, he discovered that the doctor was absent: he found his wife instead, who welcomed him into their home and who seemed particularly loquacious, and “kept him talking“…

Meanwhile Crowther had to act quickly with the favor of twilight.
Assisted by his son, he entered the hospital and headed for the morgue. There he focused on the body of an elderly white gentleman: he beheaded the old man, and swiftly peeled his head to get hold of his skull. He then moved to the adjoining room, where William Lanne’s body was laying.
Crowther made an incision down the side of Lanne’s face, behind his right ear; removing the skin off the face and forcing his hands underneath, he extracted the Aboriginal’s skull and replaced it with the one he had just taken from the other corpse.
He then stitched up Lanne’s face, hoping no one would notice the difference, and disappeared into the night with his precious loot.

Stockell remained with Crowther’s wife until 9pm, when he eventually sensed something was wrong and returned to the hospital. Despite Crowther’s precautions, it did not take Stockell very long before he figured out what had just happened.

  The Desecration, Act Two: Stockell and the Royal Society

Instead of alerting the authorities, Stockell immediately notified the secretary of the Royal Society regarding the mutilations carried out on the corpse. After a brief consultation with other society members, it was deemed imperative to secure the most important parts of the body before Crowther attempted to return for more.
Therefore Lanne’s feet and hands were cut off and hidden in the Royal Society museum.

The funeral took place on the scheduled day, Saturday 6 March. An unexpectedly large crowd gathered to salute King Billy, the last true Aboriginal: there were mainly sailors, including the Captain of the Runnymede who had payed for the funeral, and several Tasmanian natives.
However, rumors began to spread of a horrific mutilation suffered by Lanne’s corpse, and Dry was asked to exhume the body for verification. The premier, waiting to open the official investigation, ordered the grave be guarded by two police agents until Monday.
But early on Sunday it was discovered that the burial place had been devastated: the coffin lay exposed on loose earth. There was blood all around, and Lanne’s body was gone. The skull of the old man, the one that had been substituted inside the corpse, had been discarded by the graverobbers and thrown next to the grave.

Meanwhile, an increasingly furious Crowther was far from giving up, especially now that he’d seen the missing parts of “his” Aboriginal stolen that way.
On Monday afternoon he broke into the hospital with a group of supporters. When Stockell commanded him to leave, Crowther responded by hammering in a panel of one of the wards and forcing the morgue door.
Inside the scene was gruesome: on the dissecting table there were pieces of meat and bloody fat masses. Lanne had been deboned.
Not finding the coveted skeleton, Crowther and his mob left the hospital.

  When All Are Guilty, No One Is

The investigation led to an unfavorable result especially for Crowther, who was suspended from the medical profession, while his son saw his permission to study at the hospital revoked. As for the Royal Society, although Stockell admitted he had cut the hands and feet off the corpse, it was felt that there was not sufficient evidence for a conviction.

Even if nothing came out of the investigation, this terrible episode shook the public opinion for more than one reason.

On the one hand, events had uncovered the rotten reality of scientific and state institutions.
William Lanne’s body had been profaned – likewise, that of a white man had been desecrated.
The doctors had been proven to be abject and unscrupulous – and so had the cops, who were evidently bribed into leaving their post guarding the grave.
Hospital security measures had proved to be laughable – the same was true of St. David’s, the largest urban cemetery in the city.
The government’s actions had been far from impartial or decisive – but the behavior of the Royal Society had been equally obscure and reprehensible.
As a newspaper summed it up, the incident had shown that “the common people have a better appreciation of decency and propriety than such of the so-called upper classes and men of education“.

John Glover, Mount Wellington and Hobart Town from Kangaroo Point (1834)

But the second reason for indignation was that the last Aboriginal had been treated as meat in a slaughterhouse.
A horrendous act, but sadly in line with the decimation of Tasmanian natives in what has been called a full-on genocide: in little more than seventy years since the first settlers arrived, virtually the entire population of the island had been wiped out. Just like his land and his people before him, William Lanne had been avidly divided among whites – who were seeking to demonstrate his racial inferiority.
Even with all the racist rhetoric of the time, it was hard not to feel guilty. When someone proposed to erect a memorial for Lanne, shame prevailed and no memorial was built.

  Epilogue: Much Horror About Nothing

The one who eventually earned himself an impressive statue, however, was William Crowther.
The doctor entered politics shortly after the bloody events, and a successful career led him to be elected prime minister of Tasmania in 1878.
No wonder he had so many supporters, because nothing is ever just black or white: despite the murky episode, Crowther was well-liked because as a doctor he had always provided medical care for the poor and the natives. He remained in politics until his death in 1885; he declared he never lost a night’s sleep over “King Billy’s head”, as he always claimed the whole affair had been a set-up to discredit him.

Statue of William Crowther, Franklin Square, Hobart.

Stockell, for his part, was not reappointed house surgeon at the hospital at the end of his probationary period, and moved to Campbell Town where he died in 1878.
The Lanne scandal had at least one positive consequence: in the wake of the controversy, Tasmania promulgated its first Anatomy Bill in August 1869, regulating the practice of dissections.

What about the bones of William Lanne?
His skeleton was almost certainly hidden among the properties of the Royal Society museum. We ignore what happened to it.
The same goes for his skull, as no one ever heard of it anymore. Yet strangely, Crowther was appointed a gold medal from the Royal College of Surgeons in 1874 for his “valuable and numerous contributions” to the Hunterian museum. What exactly these contributions were, we do not know exactly; but it is natural to suspect that the honorary fellowship had something to do with the infamous Lanne skull, maybe shipped to London in secret.
However, there is not enough evidence to prove beyond doubt that the skull ever got to England, and the Royal College of Surgeons’ collection of human crania was destroyed during the Nazi bombings.

Royal College of Surgeons, early 20th century.

What is certain is that Crowther risked everything he had, his reputation and his profession, for that one skull. And here is the bitter irony: in 1881, the Hunterian curator himself publicly questioned the validity of craniology in determining the alleged races.
Today it is clear that this axious cataloguing and classifying was “a futile effort“, since “the concept of race in the human species has not obtained any consensus from the scientific point of view, and it is probably destined not to find it” (from The History and Geography of Human Genes, 2000).

Regardless of where they were kept hidden, neither the skull nor the skeleton of William Lanne were ever scientifically studied, and they did not appear in any research.
After all that was done to expropriate them, conquer them and annex them to one collection or another, and despite their supposedly fundamental relevance to the understanding of evolution, those human remains were forgotten in some crate or closet.
The important thing was to have them colonized.

 

The main source for this article is Stefan Petrow, The Last Man: The Mutilation of William Lanne in 1869 and Its Aftermath (1997), PDF available online.
Also interesting is the story of Truganini, William Lanne’s wife and the last “full-blood” Aboriginal woman, who suffered a less dramatic but somewhat similar post-mortem calvary.
The procedure used by Crowther to replace a skull without disfiguring the corpse has its own fascinating story, as told by Frances Larson in
Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found (2014) – a book I can never praise enough.