. Chapter 7. The platypus frontier: eggs, Aborigines and empire in 19th century Queensland

Libby Robin

Table of Contents

The platypus debate
Ceratodus (The Queensland Lungfish)
Gold and adventure seeking
Science and frontier life
Mr Caldwell’s travels
Scientific and settlement frontiers in tension
The telegram that closed a frontier

On 19 February 1971, Professor Rick Beidleman of the Department of Biology, Colorado College, USA sent a letter to Dr Michael Hoare, Research Fellow at the Academy of Science. The letter sought advice on a sabbatical project on the ‘impact of Australian historic frontiers on the development of Australian natural science’. Beidleman had undertaken a study of the relation between the American frontier and natural science in the 1950s, and saw Australia as a logical extension: ‘The comparison is so similar, indeed, that one finds the same people carrying out natural science exploration in the two countries, as you appreciate’, he wrote.[1]

Hoare’s response to the question of ‘frontier science’ was to translate it as ‘colonial science’. His ‘futuristic dream is to do a study of the science in the old “Empire” New Zealand, Australia, Canada, S. Africa, India, etc, etc. (I guess, too, the USA before it was such!)’. He was interested in the influence of places at the margins of empire on ‘ideas and the advancement of knowledge’, whilst Beidleman is actually pursuing a notion of ‘national science’ in America itself. The idea of a ‘national frontier’, well-developed in the United States since the Frederick Jackson Turner era late last century, did not, in fact, translate as easily to the Australian context as Beidleman had hoped. The empire got in the way. The place of science in empire was an ongoing concern of both science and history of science well into the 20th century in Australia.[2] The land itself also got in the way. The frontier in Australia never closed.[3] Hoare was afraid for the American who claimed he wanted to take ‘field trips’ following explorers. ‘[I] must ask you whether you know just how merciless and hard the Australian interior can be even nowadays’, he cautioned . In 1971 Australia was a nation that had turned back to its coasts, never closing the frontier. It was a land where the Great Australian Silence about the violence of the Aboriginal past still reigned.[4] While Hoare and Beidleman have in common an interest in ‘pioneering’ natural science in new lands, the ‘frontier’ only works in America.

The cross-cultural dimensions of Australian history have exploded in the past 30 years, and the idea of ‘frontiers’ has taken on new meaning in the Australian context. The role of Aboriginal people in science has remained under-studied, however. The other question also remains of the relation between science and nation. The uncomfortable suspicion persists in Australia that the ‘frontiers of knowledge’ are somewhere else. The American Professor never had that doubt. ‘National science’ meant ‘world science’ for an American. In Australia, the attachment to Empire was essential to making an impact on the frontiers of knowledge. That attachment meant clinging to the coast and looking outward again, not resolving the issues of place and people at the heart of the continent, not using the resources of this very different land to ask different questions about the world.

The parable of the platypus, a famous moment in 19th-century Australian scientific history, was about empire, knowledge (eggs, in this case) and Aborigines. It is also about the anxiety of local science, left out of the loop. The people who lived with the exceptional material lacked the scientific institutions of the old country, and the people with the institutions carried northern hemisphere expectations and values, and tended to carry away the specimens to work on elsewhere. The silence of the frontier worked to prop up Empire and to support a long cultural cringe. The rhetoric of ‘frontiers’ and ‘colonials’ captures some of this confusion.

When the rhetoric of ‘frontier’ reached Australia, the frontiers were not of battles but of settlement, with implicit rather than explicit wars. Studies of the imaginative space of the settler frontier explore encounters between colonising people, indigenous inhabitants and contested land.[5] In science however, we find another frontier. The scientific frontier is perhaps about war on ignorance. The divide between civilised and savage, so important to the settlement frontier is present again in muted form: scientific knowledge civilises; to remain ignorant is savage. The imperative to know clearly motivated much of the exploration that made settlement/invasion possible. In this chapter, I will explore some episodes of science on the frontier, which open up the interplay between frontiers of settlement in Queensland and frontiers of science.

The complexity of mixing frontier metaphors is immediately apparent. The frontiers are different shapes and textures, if you like. The frontiers of settlement concern a (sometimes bloody) commingling on the plain. The scientific frontier is a (rarefied) mountaintop. Both are about meeting the unknown, discovery, and embracing/colonising the ‘other’/unknown. Frontiers of knowledge apply in disciplines other than science. But the perceived cumulative nature of science, which builds ‘up’ knowledge, makes the gaining of scientific knowledge particularly rich with mountain and vertical metaphors. The most famous is Isaac Newton’s statement that ‘If I have seen a little further it is only because I have stood on the shoulders of giants’.[6] Science is a story of effort-laden progressive steps towards ‘the’ answer. There may be many slips on the way, but the goal is to gain that mountaintop. The spread of settlement, by contrast, is a horizontal metaphor, the horizontality flattening the violence and oozing with inevitability.

The central story of the chapter is the ‘discovery’ by British scientist W. H. Caldwell that monotremes (platypus and echidna) lay eggs. The famous telegram ‘monotremes oviparous, ovum meroblastic’ (monotremes lay eggs of the same sort as reptiles), sent to the British Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Canada in 1884, resolved a long debate about whether platypus laid eggs or had live young.[7] The story reveals much about the imperial shaping of scientific knowledge – British settlers in the Australian colonies and Aboriginal informants had long asserted that platypus laid eggs, but they had been disbelieved. ‘Discovery’ was reserved for a British scientist of impeccable scientific lineage.[8] Only certain sorts of people are allowed to declare that the top of the mountain has been reached.

The platypus debate

The platypus debate began in the 18th century. David Collins in 1797 saw ‘an amphibious animal of the mole species’. ‘The most extraordinary circumstance observed in its structure’, Collins wrote, ‘was its having, instead of the mouth of an animal, the upper and lower mandibles of a duck’.[9] George Shaw of the British Museum described the dried specimen he had been sent in 1798 by a naturalist named Dobson as ‘of all the Mammalia yet known … the most extraordinary in its conformation; exhibiting the perfect resemblance of the beak of a Duck engrafted on the head of a quadruped’. The dried skin he received is still marked by the scissors that Shaw used to check that the beak had not been stitched on by a taxidermist.[10] The British Museum could ill-afford to become the butt of a cheap hoax.

Shaw named it Platypus anatinus in 1799, and the German anatomist Blumenbach, Ornithorhynchus paradoxus in 1800.[11] A genus of beetles already carried Shaw’s name, it was later discovered, so the platypus today is scientifically known as Ornithorhynchus anatinus, using the rules of priority. Even the vernacular naming story is not simple – why was this animal not ‘mallangong’, (or another Aboriginal name)?[12] The kangaroo (cunquroo) had defied description, so an Aboriginal name had been borrowed. The wallaby, koala and others had all similarly needed ‘new’ names. But the platypus is known by its lost (Greek) scientific name, although until the mid-twentieth century ‘duckbill’ (a translation of Ornithorhynchus – literally, bird-nosed) was also popular.[13] And the paradoxical, although lost to priority from the scientific literature, stuck in popular consciousness.

Naming and renaming are events of colonisation, but in this case the naming of the platypus did not resolve the matter of where it belonged in the citadel of knowledge. Everard Home dissected a specimen preserved in spirits sent to Sir Joseph Banks by Governor Hunter in 1802, and was able to give a full internal description. Home noted its likeness to the echidna in having a common cloaca for reproduction and excretion: ‘this tribe [has] a resemblance in some respects to birds, in others to the Amphibia’.[14] Until 1824 evidence of mammary glands, the distinguishing feature of mammals, had been undiscovered.[15] But even when they were, the matter of whether the platypus and echidna gave birth to live young was unresolved, and this was seen to be critical to their place in the ‘natural’ world. It also became a question of nationalism. The French evolutionary thinker, Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, ignoring the evidence of milk glands, separated the Order Monotremata, from ‘true’ mammals. He placed them halfway between mammals and reptiles. The British anatomist Richard Owen, disagreeing with the Frenchman’s theories of evolution, saw them as definitely mammals, and therefore, he argued ‘ovoviviparous’ (the eggs were hatched inside the mother and the young born alive). The classification of platypus and echidnas as mammals remained a problem, and the question of egg-laying contested for nationalistic as well as scientific honour. Perhaps this was partly why neither Aboriginal nor colonial evidence had been regarded as valid. Caldwell records three letters from colonial observers: John Jamison (1818), John Nicholson (c. 1865) and George Rumby (1864), who claimed they had seen platypus eggs.[16] The nations concerned were both of the European world, far from the specimens concerned. But the bitter rivalry between the English and the French permeated the status in science of the little faraway swimming monotreme. Stephen Jay Gould has observed that the language of taxonomy still reveals to some extent the Eurocentrism of classification: Prototheria (monotremes) are ‘premammals’; Metatheria (marsupials) are ‘middle mammals – not quite there’; and ‘Eutheria’ (the warm-blooded animals of the north) are ‘true mammals’.[17]

The platypus was the archetype of Australian otherness in the popular British imagination. The title of Umberto Eco’s 1999 book, Kant and the Platypus, which has very little to say about platypuses and a great deal about enigmas, suggests that this may still hold. Although scientists were doubtful about its egg-laying habits, at least some of the general public accepted this as one among so many Antipodean oddities.[18] The anonymous illustrated poem, The Land of Contrarieties, published in 1860 in Britain begins with the platypus:

There is a land in distant seas

Full of all contrarieties.

There beasts have mallards’ bills and legs,

Have spurs like cocks, like hens lay eggs.

In the Australian colonies, meanwhile, people were becoming more familiar with platypus – no longer was it perceived wet – camouflaged as ‘a lump of dirty weeds’, but increasingly its lovely fur was noticed. George Bennett the Sydney doctor, in his Gatherings of a Naturalist in Australia 1860, describes the thick fur as ‘a beautiful adaptation to both the burrowing and aquatic habits of the animal’.[20] Bennett celebrated the personality of the animal, speaking of the ‘playfulness’ of his captive platypus twins. He was also reluctant to shoot the animal, trying to capture it to watch its behaviour. But there was no money in the maturing colonial economy (gold rushes notwithstanding) for ‘pure’ research. Bennett’s research was constantly interrupted by the need to earn money (as a medical doctor), much as he would have preferred to explore the life of the platypus and other matters of natural history.[21]

I will return to Bennett’s platypuses later, in connection with W. H. Caldwell, but in order to understand the story of the platypus frontier, it is necessary to locate the particular place for this scientific and colonial encounter. The question of whose country yielded up the mystery of the platypus was not determined by the platypus, but by another ‘missing link’ in the evolutionary story.

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