Darwin and the last of the Aboriginal Tasmanians

One of horrors of colonialism was the treatment of aboriginal Tasmanians as within a century their culture was destroyed. It was a moral blot on the British empire. No one should feel comfortable reading about this. (or smug  that they are totally anti-racist now.)

I confess that I have not delved into this as much as is needed as it raises so many moral issues both how we consider our past (Brits on empire, Americans on slavery) and where we are today when we often wish to claim the moral high ground.


Last of the Tasmanians Woodcut 6 - Wooreddy.jpg

Even Sir John Franklin, later to die in the Arctic, found himself in an impossible position when he went to be Governor of Van Diemens Land in 1837 a year after Darwin paid a flying visit.



On his Arctic travails see;


A few decades later all aboriginal Tasmanians of solely aboriginal descent had gone photo in 1860s. Today thousands from Tasmania claim some descent from aborigines. (Thanks to John Clarke for pointing out my error.)

Thus the demise of aboriginal Tasmanians is an excellent of finding a rod to beat Charles Darwin with , who visited Hobart from 5th to 17th February 1836 while on the Beagle. The rod is, of course, to accuse Darwin of racism and what better example than this.

Charles DarwinImage result for beagle voyage tasmania

Here is what he wrote in his Voyage. He cites the many problems  and how things had turned vicious both by settlers and natives. I am sure some looking for racism will find it here.

All the aborigines have been removed to an island in Bass’s Straits, so that Van Diemen’s Land enjoys the great advantage of being free from a native population. This most cruel step seems to have been quite unavoidable, as the only means of stopping a fearful succession of robberies, burnings, and murders, committed by the blacks; and which sooner or later would have ended in their utter destruction. I fear there is no doubt, that this train of evil and its consequences, originated in the infamous conduct of some of our countrymen. Thirty years is a short period, in which to have banished the last aboriginal from his native island,—and that island nearly as large as Ireland. The correspondence on this subject, which took place between the government at home and that of Van Diemen’s Land, is very interesting. Although numbers of natives were shot and taken prisoners in the skirmishing, which was going on at intervals for several years; nothing seems fully to have impressed them with the idea of our overwhelming power, until the whole island, in 1830, was put under martial law, and by proclamation the whole population commanded to assist in one great attempt to secure the entire race. The plan adopted was nearly similar to that of the great hunting-matches in India: a line was formed reaching across the island, with the intention of driving the natives into a cul-de-sac on Tasman’s peninsula. The attempt failed; the natives, having tied up their dogs, stole during one night through the lines. This is far from surprising, when their practised senses, and usual manner of crawling after wild animals is considered. I have been assured that they can conceal themselves on almost bare ground, in a manner which until witnessed is scarcely credible; their dusky bodies being easily mistaken for the blackened stumps which are scattered all over the country. I was told of a trial between a party of Englishmen and a native, who was to stand in full view on the side of a bare hill; if the Englishmen closed their eyes for less than a minute, he would squat down, and then they were never able to distinguish him from the surrounding stumps. But to return to the hunting-match; the natives understanding this kind of warfare, were terribly alarmed, for they at once perceived the power and numbers of the whites. Shortly afterwards a party of thirteen belonging to two tribes came in; and, conscious of their unprotected condition, delivered themselves up in despair. Subsequently by the intrepid exertions of Mr. Robinson, an active and benevolent man, who fearlessly visited by himself the most hostile of the natives, the whole were induced to act in a similar manner. They were then removed to an island, where food and clothes were provided them. Count Strzelecki states, 196 that “at the epoch of their deportation in 1835, the number of natives amounted to 210. In 1842, that is, after the interval of seven years, they mustered only fifty-four individuals; and, while each family of the interior of New South Wales, uncontaminated by contact with the whites, swarms with children, those of Flinders’ Island had during eight years an accession of only fourteen in number!”

It seems racist but Darwin was commenting on a hellish situation. However it is easy to make a Victorian a racists by our standards of 2020, especially if we are woke.

Yet Darwin, along with ALL his family and the Wedgewoods had a long tradition of being anti-slavery going back to his grandparents. Charles Darwin fulminated against slavery and when he was revising the Voyage for a second edition, he had an argument with Lyell over slavery. Lyell had just returned from the USA and defended slavery. Charlie was irate!! Thus, possibly in a state of moral indignation, add this to the account of his departure from Brazil.


Darwin may not pass the woke test on racism, but this and his other actions and comments on slavery shows him to be non-racist, and a person of very high moral principles.

On the 19th of August we finally left the shores of Brazil. I thank God, I shall never again visit a slave-country. To this day, if I hear a distant scream, it recalls with painful vividness my feelings, when passing a house near Pernambuco, I heard the most pitiable moans, and could not but suspect that some poor slave was being tortured, yet knew that I was as powerless as a child even to remonstrate. I suspected that these moans were from a tortured slave, for I was told that this was the case in another instance. Near Rio de Janeiro I lived opposite to an old lady, who kept screws to crush the fingers of her female slaves. I have stayed in a house where a young household mulatto, daily and hourly, was reviled, beaten, and persecuted enough to break the spirit of the lowest animal. I have seen a little boy, six or seven years old, struck thrice with a horse-whip (before I could interfere) on his naked head, for having handed me a glass of water not quite clean; I saw his father tremble at a mere glance from his master’s eye. These latter cruelties were witnessed by me in a Spanish colony, in which it has always been said, that slaves are better treated than by the Portuguese, English, or other European nations. I have seen at Rio de Janeiro a powerful negro afraid to ward off a blow directed, as he thought, at his face. I was present when a kind-hearted man was on the point of separating forever the men, women, and little children of a large number of families who had long lived together. I will not even allude to the many heart-sickening atrocities which I authentically heard of;—nor would I have mentioned the above revolting details, had I not met with several people, so blinded by the constitutional gaiety of the negro as to speak of slavery as a tolerable evil. Such people have generally visited at the houses of the upper classes, where the domestic slaves are usually well treated, and they have not, like myself, lived amongst the lower classes. Such inquirers will ask slaves about their condition; they forget that the slave must indeed be dull, who does not calculate on the chance of his answer reaching his master’s ears.

Yet some comments made by Darwin on “other races” have long been used by Young Earth Creationists to show how wicked Darwin was and thus the theory of evilution is evil and racist.

Darwin’s Body-Snatchers?
Recently John van Wyhe, a Darwin AND Wallace scholar at the National University of Singapore wrote an article in   Endeavour Vol. 41 No. 1 p29-31 entitled “Darwin’s Body Snatchers” He began his paper with;

For decades creationists have claimed that Charles
Darwin sought the skulls of full-blooded Aboriginal
Tasmanian people when only four were left alive. It is
said that Darwin letters survive which reveal this startling and distasteful truth

Following up his references was difficult as they seem to have undergone some mutations!

The main one in the Australian-based Creation Ministries International (CMI) is by Carl Wieland


Which says

Darwin [allegedly] wrote asking for Tasmanian skulls when only four full-blooded Tasmanian Aborigines were left alive, provided his request would not ‘upset’ their feelings.

I am afraid the original CMI article from 1990-2 seems have gone extinct and I can only find edited versions. In the nearest article I could find it claims that the article is based on ;

Monaghan, D., ‘The body-snatchers’, The Bulletin, November 12. 1991, pp. 30–38. (The article states that journalist Monaghan spent 18 months researching this subject in London, culminating in a television documentary called Darwin’s Body-Snatchers, which was aired in Britain on October 8, 1990.)

which ends with a later P. S.

Note added by author Feb. 2017: I was just made aware of a short (Dec. 2016) article by a Discover blogger, in which it was reported that when the (non-creationist) author Monaghan, whose work this article reports on, was asked to justify the existence of this alleged letter by Darwin, he was unable to and in fact seemed to back away from it. So in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, the account must be regarded as apocryphal. Note that the blogger attempts to distract from the horrors for Australian Aboriginal people reported (and fairly widely acknowledged overall) that were unleashed by the ideas of Darwin (who, as indicated in my book One Human Family, was personally the antithesis of the image of a racial supremacist), by mockingly suggesting that this article implied that Darwin was personally responsible for the Tasmanians’ extinction. But even this incorrectly reported item about ‘Darwin’s letter’ made it clear that when he made his alleged request, their extinction was well under way, with only four left alive. The blog item was also wrong in its claim that the word ‘upset’ in this article was a direct quote when it was clearly in single quote marks, which as examples in the first few lines of my article already show were used not for direct quotations, but as indicating either ‘scare quote’ or ‘definitional’ usage. The blogger also gives a link to this article (prior to this addition), but not on the CMI website; rather, a republication of it as a pdf (without permission)—perhaps to minimize any risk that readers would be influenced by all the other information and evidence on creation.com. Nonetheless, I appreciate the opportunity to correct misinformation—CW.

So much for the
extraordinary claims about Darwin, or followers at his
behest, snatching the corpses of the tragically dwindling
Tasmanians. So rather than body snatchers, what we have
here is a case of snatching at straws.

Not so much clutching at straws but the partaking of an infinite number of pork-pies

Anyway, better than reading my comments based on a cursory look read van Wyhe’s excellent brief paper. It sums up the usual problem of those who approach Darwin with an agenda, as, in the process of their research, facts with mutate  or go extinct


Darwin’s Body-Snatchers?
John van Wyhe

 For decades creationists have claimed that CharlesDarwin sought the skulls of full-blooded Aboriginal
Tasmanian people when only four were left alive. It is
said that Darwin letters survive which reveal this startling and distasteful truth. Tracing these claims back to
their origins, however, reveals a different, if not unfamiliar story.
As a Darwin scholar, I thought I had heard all the myths
concerning Charles Darwin but one of my students surprised me with one that was new to me. She had been
debating evolution with a Christian creationist friend who
told her that Darwin was partly responsible for the extermination of the Aboriginal Tasmanian people! This startling claim had the apparent sheen of credibility because it
was accompanied by a purported quotation from a letter by
Darwin. Could this be true? As the Director of Darwin
Online it is my responsibility to track down any unrecorded
appearance of unique Darwin words in print, especially
those made during his lifetime. I had no record of this one.
Here is the quotation I was sent: ‘Darwin wrote asking
for Tasmanian skulls when only four full-blooded Tasmanian Aborigines were left alive, provided his request would
not ‘upset’ their feelings.’ This quotation turned out to
come from a creationist newsletter from 1992.1 Although
it attributes only one word to Darwin himself, it suggests
the existence of a real Darwin letter to this effect and only
the word ‘upset’ was quoted from it. If this were true, then
the letter must have been written around the 1860s when
there were only four known full-blooded Tasmanians left
alive, including the well-known individual named Truganini (c. 1812–1876), who was supposedly the last survivor.
As I dug a little deeper, the scale of this creationist claim
became apparent. Indeed the full quotation above is given
in many creationist books, articles and websites.2 T

Carry on reading here;




3 thoughts on “Darwin and the last of the Aboriginal Tasmanians

  1. Paul Braterman

    I haven’t come across this far-fetched creationist argument before. Though to be fair, it would be easy enough to find passages in Darwin to show that he believed in the superiority of the white races, and indeed as a man of his time and place it would have been quite extraordinary if he had thought differently.


    1. michaelroberts4004 Post author

      I think today both you and I would be condemned for our views on race 50 years ago. Despite the fact that I was called a ******lover (see to kill a mocking bird) on the mine in Uganda and the Afrikaans equivalent on south Africa I’d not pass muster with anti-racists today . Now would my father in the 30s in India who took the local district Commssioner to the Tea Planters Club as both had been at Oxford together. I think the DC was Mr Chatterjee. During the war he gave help to some Austrian Jews who talked their way out of internment (with Harrer) and worked at the same munitions factory as chemist. The wife was christian and was chosen as my bother’s godmother. After the war they returned to austria and found all thier family were dead and the moved to england and became my Uncle Hans.In the 50s we had my dad’s successor as chemist in the Tea Research Station in India staying in our house for a month. My trouble is that I’m not a woke anti-racist!!


      1. Paul Braterman

        There are few spectacles less edifying than that of the ideologically virtuous parading their superiority to lesser mortals, quite unaware of the fact that they are displaying the very us-and-themism that they are condemning. Thus I cringe at self-congratulating anti-racists, self-congratulating anti-creationists, and self-congratulating anti-religionists (a few names will spring to mind). I’m quite sure that you also cringe at self-congratulating believers, though for obvious reasons I myself don’t come across them very often.


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