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Melbourne 1865: Gorillas at the Museum

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In the Argus of 20 June 1865 Professor McCoy announced with jubilation that:

I have now placed in the National Museum a male gorilla …the largest example of the monster ape recorded. It is a very old male and, no doubt, exhibits the extreme size to which the species attains. Probably from this great age a curious variety of colour not before noticed is seen. The sides, hinder part of back, and part of the hind quarters and legs, are irregularly clouded with ashy grey; the hair of the arms and upper parts of the body, as well as the skin of the face, hands and breast, are the usual blackish brown. The top of the head is also peculiar for a bright rusty chestnut hue. … Besides this very old male I have procured an adult female, and the young one she was suckling when shot; these are of a dark brown or sooty hue, and the female is, as is well known, of much smaller size than the male.

Given McCoy's fierce rejection of any distant connection between humans and apes, it is notable that he could not a resist the temptation to attribute human qualities to his 'family'.

The expression of countenance of our old male is more one of contented jovial jollity than malignity, and the air of absorbing good-natured maternal affection characterises the face of the female, while the whimpering air of a spoilt pet child is oddly enough reflected in the nature of the young one.

On the 25 July 1865 more than half the front page of the Illustrated Melbourne Post was taken up in a special feature and a facsimile sketch by the artist Samuel Calvert. The exhibit achieved instant 'star' status, the nineteenth century equivalent of Phar Lap and, like Phar Lap, the appeal was not simply for itself but what it represented. In Mr Gorilla's case - nothing less than the meaning of life. The Post devoted more than three columns of close type to discussion of its significance.

Mr. Gorilla and family have arrived in Victoria, and they have already been visited by many hundreds of persons. … To those gentlemen who will insist that the present race of man is only a highly-developed gorilla existence, it must be a source of great regret that only through the aid of the taxidermist have they been enabled to make the acquaintance of these alarmingly impressive apes, that struck Monsieur du Chaillu with astonishment and qualified admiration in the grand solitudes of central Africa.

Those who have active imaginations may readily suppose all this to be said by the very earnest-looking head of the gorilla family, as he stands 'grasping a sapling' in the striking attitude that the vera effigies [true likeness] of the late Mr Benjamin Hall is made to assume in a popular exhibition in this city. His mouth is open, as if he had just delivered himself of some very telling protest in the original gorilla tongue, with which M. du Chaillu had very reprehensibly omitted to make himself acquainted: and which he describes in his book on Equatorial Africa as a roar resembling thunder.

For the opponents of Darwin's subversive theory McCoy's display was offered as the last word on the subject - and a clear example of the value of museums. As he observed in the Argus report,

it is well for the inhabitants of a country so remote, under ordinary circumstances, from the chance of seeing actual specimens of this the greatest and most man-like of the anthropomorphous apes, to see how infinitely remote the creature is from humanity, and how monstrously writers have exaggerated the points of resemblance when endeavouring to show that man is only one phase of the gradual transmutation of animals, which they assume may be brought about by external influences, and which they rashly assert is proved by the intermediate character of the gorilla between the other quadrumana and man. I am perfectly sure no student of zoology and comparative anatomy at our university, nor student in our medical school, can ever hold such views, now that immediately after lectures the characters can be demonstrated to them from nature.

After McCoy's death, the gorillas were moved with the Museum to Swanston Street, but their particular significance was lost when their case was joined to another containing the chimpanzees, orang-utans and gibbons (also obtained by McCoy in the mid nineteenth century). The evolutionists had largely won the day, and Mr Gorilla was just another primate.

After so many years, the gorillas are still in good condition, and if one looks very carefully, a small ray of mystique still plays around them. It is possible still to glimpse their place in the scheme of things and understand the lure of the deep, dark African jungle, the excitement of new ideas and why McCoy devoted so much time to their acquisition.

Joan M. Dixon, former Senior Curator of Mammals, has been with the Museum since 1965. She is a former president of the Australian Mammals Society and has written widely on diverse aspects of Australian mammalogy including the reproduction of John Gould's The Mammals of Australia and a definitive text on Donald Thomson's mammals and fishes of northern Australia for which she received the Whitley Award in 1985.

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