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Melbourne 1865: Gorillas at the Museum

Joan M. Dixon

Gorrillas at the Museum mm007841
'Mr Gorilla at the Museum'. Most of the front page of The Illustrated Melbourne Post of 25 July 1865 was taken up with an engraving by Samuel Calvert of the new gorilla display at the National Museum. A lengthy article appeared inside.
Source: State Library of Victoria, La Trobe Picture Collection. Artist: Samuel Calvert.

Gorillas are currently classified in the same Tribe of Primates as people, the 'Hominini'. [M. C. McKenna & S. K. Bell, Classification of Mammals Above the Species Level (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997)]

It was 1865 and Professor McCoy, Director of the National Museum, was exhilarated. At long last he had acquired three mounted gorillas from Central Africa for his museum. He knew that they would be a great attraction and discussion point for Melbourne's public and academics alike. Their arrival was timely. Charles Darwin's Origin of Species was topical. Debates between creationists and evolutionists were at a peak.

McCoy purchased a vast number of museum specimens from England, mainly from the respected dealer Edward Gerrard Jr of Camden Place, London. The source of the gorilla specimens was Paul du Chaillu. Born in Paris around 1831, he emigrated to America and became an American citizen. Reading the accounts of the discovery of the gorilla by the missionary Dr Savage, his trading activities in West Africa converted him to a fervent hunter-naturalist. He made his famous visit to the Gabon in 1856 and collected a large number of gorillas, which he sold to individuals and museums of natural history in London. In 1861 he published a sensational book on his travels and discoveries and embarked on a lecture tour featuring the first specimens of gorillas seen in Europe. [P. B. du Chaillu, Exploration and Adventures in Equatorial Africa with accounts of the manners and customs of the people and of the chase of the gorilla, crocodile, leopard, elephant, hippopotamus and other animals, with map and illustrations. (1861; reprint London: T. Werner Laurie Ltd, 1945)]

As early as 24 August 1861 McCoy was in correspondence with Edward Gerrard Jr about the possibility of purchasing some of the gorillas collected by du Chaillu. The anatomist Professor Richard Owen had already paid about £500 for specimens, including a series of gorilla skins and skeletons which, according to Gerrard, were in a poor state of preservation. On 25 April 1864 Gerrard informed Professor McCoy that du Chaillu was 'on the point of starting for the Gorilla country' and by 19 December 1864 he had some good news.

It is with great pleasure that I hasten to inform you that … we have at last succeeded in obtaining … a series of Gorillas, viz an adult male & female, & young with the skeletons of the two former. As I received them preserved in salt they were obliged to be put in hand at once, & they are now being mounted and the skeletons articulated. I anticipate they will make an attractive group as the whole are mounted on some branches and a kind of rock work, like those of the British Museum, which stands in the centre of the gallery in a case by themselves. … The male Gorilla I may observe is rather over 5 ft high and his arm which is of great length will be placed holding on above so that the whole group will be about 9 ft high.

Six months later three cases containing the gorillas and other specimens for the Museum were on the Holmsdale ready to sail for Melbourne. Gerrard instructed McCoy to take care to have the cases unpacked with the gorillas placed upon their feet. You will be able to do this by observing the case has a mark 'Top' upon it. If the stand is prised up & a smaller roller placed under it the whole can easily be rolled out of the case, care being taken that neither the rock work nor branch be touched in moving. I think the effect of the whole would be greatly improved if they could be placed on a pedestal about two feet high.

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