The Beothuk Skulls: Calum MacLeòid makes a compelling case for delivering these artefacts from their museum vaults in Edinburgh to the indigenous communities who are requesting their return.
In the heart of Edinburgh, among those treasures and artefacts which the National Museum of Scotland (NMS) cares for, but chooses not to place on public display, lie a pair of skulls. They belong to two of the last known members of the Beothuk people. Taken from their burial sites in Newfoundland by a Scottish explorer, they were sent to the capital in 1827, but calls for them to be returned are growing.
The Beothuk were a hunter-gatherer people indigenous to Newfoundland who were genetically, culturally, and linguistically distinct from the other indigenous groups in the area. Our knowledge of them is limited because they were completely wiped out by the time of the early 19th century.
As was the case throughout the Americas, a combination of pressures placed upon them by displacement, theft of resources, and disease brought by European colonisers (the French and British in this case) would have played a part in their extermination. There is also evidence of them being deliberately eradicated – the debate as to whether their death constitutes an example of genocide continues.
The skulls in Edinburgh are believed to be the remains of Demasduit, a Beothuk woman, and her husband, a Beothuk leader named Nonosabusut. These are not ancient remains of our prehistoric ancestors, or even remains from the early days of European colonisation of North America. Had the Beothuk survived a few more years, they could have been photographed.
These are not ancient remains of our prehistoric ancestors, or even remains from the early days of European colonisation of North America. Had the Beothuk survived a few more years, they could have been photographed.
Nonosabusut was shot and bayoneted while attempting to prevent the kidnapping of Demasduit by a group of British settlers. The settlers hoped that by taking a number of the Beothuk captive, they might be able to use that as leverage to develop better relations with the tribe. Demasduit died of tuberculosis the following year, while still a captive.
WILLIAM EPPS CORMACK
Their remains were laid to rest in a traditional Beothuk burial hut, until they were discovered seven years later, in 1827, by William Epps Cormack. Born in Newfoundland, Cormack was raised in Scotland and was an alumnus of the universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh. As the first European to traverse the Newfoundland interior, Cormack’s written accounts of his journey included groundbreaking details of the botanical and geological features of the island. He even named a mountain ridge there after his tutor at Edinburgh University, Professor Robert Jameson, who also taught Darwin.
In many regards, Cormack is the embodiment of the Enlightenment Scot. He was also a grave-robber.
In many regards, Cormack is the embodiment of the Enlightenment Scot. He was also a grave-robber. Cormack removed the skulls of Demasduit and Nonosabasut, along with a number of objects from the burial hut, which he then sent to Professor Jameson so they could be added to one of the collections that would go on to become part of NMS’s collection. For the past 190 years they have remained in Edinburgh.
THE CAMPAIGN FOR RETURN vs ‘THE RULES’
A campaign for the return of the skulls has been led by Chief Mi’sel Joe of the Miawpukek First Nation in Newfoundland. Representatives of NMS have met with Chief Mi’sel Joe and have let him view the remains. In May of this year, he was joined by the leaders and representatives of all the indigenous groups in Newfoundland and Labrador in making a joint call for the return of these remains.
In 2016, NMS rejected a formal request made by the Premier of Newfoundland and Labrador, Dwight Ball. Following that, the Canadian federal government indicated it would make a formal request – but to date, it appears it has failed to do so. During his visit to Edinburgh this June, the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau actually visited NMS, but failed to raise the issue of the remains, a move which campaigners greeted with dismay.
During his visit to Edinburgh this June, the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau actually visited NMS, but failed to raise the issue of the remains, a move which campaigners greeted with dismay.
This campaign has not gone entirely unnoticed in Scotland. In June 2015, Michael Russell MSP raised the matter in the Scottish Parliament. The Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Europe, and External Affairs, Fiona Hyslop, responded by setting out that decisions on these matters are for the Board of NMS and that there was a well-developed guidance on the repatriation of human remains. That is certainly true: however, this case raises some questions about that guidance.
NMS’s Human Remains in Collection Policy 2016 sets out that it will only consider an application for the return of remains if that application has: the support of a national government; a national agency supported by the national government; and a community descended from those to whom the remains are ancestral.
Each of these three criteria are potentially problematic. The first two depend on the support of a national government. The Canadian government has taken some steps towards addressing the historic – and continued – mistreatment and marginalisation of indigenous peoples. Yet even in this case, a year-and-a-half has passed since Ottawa first indicated that it would be making an application. As of this June, it was reported that NMS had still not received any such application.
While the Canadian government could certainly be pursing this matter with a greater sense of urgency, the indigenous groups requesting the Beothuk skulls can have at least some confidence that Ottawa will pursue this issue with sincerity. It is easy to imagine a situation where the NMS held the remains of a marginalised group which fell under the authority of a less cooperative national government. What would be the chances, for example, that a request from the Rohingya for the return of historical Rohingya remains held in Scotland would be supported by the Myanmar regime that persecutes them?
The third requirement is even more problematic in this instance, as there are no groups which can claim direct ancestral descent from the Beothuk. In such cases, the NMS policy states that if the community claimants are not a direct genealogical descendant of the remains, then they have to demonstrate that they “share the same culture (spiritual beliefs, cultural practices) attributed to the community whose remains are under claim“.
Representatives of other indigenous peoples of that province should not have to contrive some kind of a winning ‘cultural closeness’ argument in order to secure the return of these remains whose home most certainly is not Scotland.
But that prescription hardly solves the problem. The little surviving information about the Beothuk’s spiritual beliefs suggests that they differ from other indigenous groups of the Newfoundland area, whose beliefs in turn differ from each other. Representatives of other indigenous peoples of that province should not have to contrive some kind of winning ‘cultural closeness’ argument in order to secure the return of these remains whose home most certainly is not Scotland.
Had the Beothuk survived the colonial expansion of Britain, then we would perhaps have the chance to ask them about their belief-system, their language and culture, and how they viewed their place in the world. Not only would we be able to ask, but they would have the right not to answer, the right to tell us that we have taken enough from them already without taking their stories or language. Instead, we scrape for DNA from the skulls that once held those worlds.
Any national museum has a responsibility to represent a nation both to visitors but, more importantly, to the members of that nation themselves, reflecting back to them their stories and history in all its complexity, including their crimes. It can be argued that the National Museum of Scotland is failing in this regard. But some critics might say that NMS is in fact accurately reflecting contemporary Scotland: a nation seemingly more interested in proclaiming its influence in the world than honestly confronting its past crimes and complicity.
Some critics might say that NMS is in fact accurately reflecting contemporary Scotland: a nation seemingly more interested in proclaiming its influence in the world than honestly confronting its past crimes and complicity.
No one is questioning the expertise of the NMS staff or trustees, or their motives. The impulse to protect artefacts is understandable, and this impulse has been given a jolt in recent years by witnessing the wanton destruction of numerous historic sites in Syria and Iraq as a result of the conflicts there. Anyone who watched images of the destruction by of the Temple of Bel in Palmyra in 2015 would have been struck by just how fragile material culture is.
But temples are not skulls – and Newfoundland is not Syria. The Beothuk skulls were not the only Beothuk remains to have been taken to the UK. Much of what we know about the Beothuk comes from the testimonies of Shanawdithit, the niece of Nonosabasut and Demasduit, who died, also of tuberculosis, in 1829. After her death, her skull was taken to the Royal College of Surgeons in London. However there is no current campaign to return her skull; it was destroyed when the Luftwaffe bombed the building in 1941. It can hardly be denied that it would have been safer in Newfoundland than in the UK.
There will always be unanswered questions about the Beothuk. And there will always be people for whom it is all ancient history, best left stored away in some foreign museum. But for those who refuse to let the Beothuk be forgotten – especially those whose own people shared their fate of marginalisation and displacement, if not outright extinction – the continued possession of these precious remains by a Scottish museum must surely represent an on-going insult.
It likewise cannot be right that the onus for righting this wrong falls solely on the survivors who, like the indigenous peoples of Newfoundland, are the inheritors of this struggle. In almost all cases, these groups face a myriad of socio-economic and cultural challenges as it is. The people of Scotland could be doing more to support them – and others – as they strive to right historical wrongs. We should certainly be exerting pressure on our national museum, as well as on the Canadian government to pursue the issue with greater vigour.
No-one is accusing the NMS of handling stolen goods. Yet it is deeply troubling that this respected institution can be in possession of such remains, taken without the consent of the families or communities to which they belonged. And since it is our national museum, the NMS has done so on our behalf and in our name. Had these skulls been taken from Greyfriars Kirkyard with the same disregard, we in Scotland would not be so complacent.
OUT OF SIGHT, OUT OF MIND
The Beothuk skulls are not on public display. It is easy to imagine why this is so. If they were displayed, we would be invited to look at them. And the longer we looked at them, and the more we learned of their story, the more difficult it would become to regard them as scientific specimens, or mere historic artefacts. As we recognised the humanity of the Beothuk, that gleaming bone might reflect back a glimpse of our own inhumanity, of our own unresolved inheritance. That inheritance which built Edinburgh, which built Glasgow, which built Scotland. It certainly built some incredible museums.
The Beothuk never asked us to care for their remains. No member of that tribe lived to set foot on Scottish soil, and yet we have kept the remains of two of them for nearly two centuries. These skulls do not belong to us. It is time to return them to the land from which they were taken.
Calum L. MacLeòid is a journalist and writer. His first novel A’ Togail an t-Srùbain was published by Clàr in October 2017. Originally from Inverness, Calum now lives in Montreal. Find him on Twitter at @CalumMacLeoid
Feature image: Inside the National Museum of Scotland. Image: NMS.