Melbourne 1865: Gorillas at the Museum
In the Argus of 20 June 1865 Professor McCoy announced with jubilation
I have now placed in the National Museum a male gorilla
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
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.