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AM repatriation of Tongan remains follows

Marian Kupu and Hugo Hodge, Two Tongan skulls held in a Sydney museum have been repatriated to their traditional owners, ABC News, 17 January 2024

The remains of two Tongan males stored in the Australian Museum’s collection in Sydney have been repatriated to their present-day descendants living on ‘Eua Island in the south of Tonga.

The remains were laid to rest in a royal funeral service attended by hundreds. Supplied: Joshua Matakimango Savieti.

It came after several months of negotiation between the museum, the Royal Palace of Tonga and the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Mana Fonua, a descendant of ‘Ata Island where the remains are believed to have originated, said having them returned brought “closure” to the community.

“Why it’s important to me is that this is our national treasure, this is our inheritance,” she said.

“We can say that our ancestors are finally in their rightful place.”

Queen Nanasipau’u and Princess Lātūfuipeka Tukuʻaho, who were sitting on either side of King Tupou VI, were visibly emotional at the service. Supplied: Joshua Matakimango Savieti.

Taken without permission

The Australian Museum acquired the remains separately in 1875 and 1969 after they were taken “without permission” from Tonga, according to Laura McBride, the museum’s director of First Nations.

“One was donated over 150 years ago, we believe [it] was picked up in Tonga by a surgeon and then taken back to Australia,” she said.

The second skull, found attached to the skeleton, was retrieved from a cave on a reef of ‘Ata Island.

“And we believe the other one was picked up by an artist and the ancestor ended up in a Pacific art collection in Sydney and then was donated to the Australian Museum.”

Ms McBride said returning cultural heritage to communities was an important part of what museums do.

A crowd view of the funeral attendees. Flowers are shown, and many wearing black.
Hundreds of present-day ancestors attended the service. Supplied: Joshua Matakimango Savieti.

“It’s highly important that those ancestral remains are returned to their communities so that they can have their burial rights,” she said.

The ancestors’ real names may never be known — Palu and Tupou ‘Ata are the names posthumously bestowed to them by King Tupou VI and Queen Nanasipau’u Tuku’aho, who presided over the funeral service.

Bestowing names to the dead is not customary in Tonga, but this is a momentous occasion, according to Tongan noble Lord Vaea.

“I think in terms of repatriation from Australia, this is the first,” he said.

“It’s a very, very sensitive [and] very happy occasion — at the same time it allows us to look back.”

A dark past

A photo showing the Eua Islam in Tonga, which is green and surrounded by ocean.
In 1863, a Tasmania whaler tricked half of the population on ‘Ata into slave trade in Peru, according to historical accounts. Supplied.

‘Ata islanders were renowned for their impressive physique and the ease with which they were able to scale the island’s steep cliffs.

“I think this is one of the reasons why they were actually taken overseas and retained and looked upon scientifically to see where the growth was,” Lord Vaea said.

It has been widely documented that in 1863, a Tasmania whaler Thomas McGrath arrived on ‘Ata and tricked half of the island’s 350 residents into boarding his ship and took them to sell them into the slave trade in Peru.

Horrified by what took place, then-king Tupou I transferred the remaining ‘Ata islanders to his palace grounds before permanently resettling them on ‘Eua Island where they remain today.

Lord Vaea
Bestowing names to the dead is not customary in Tonga, but Lord Vaea says this is a historic occasion. Supplied: Joshua Matakimango Savieti.

Lord Vaea, who is himself a descendant of ‘Ata Island, said the presence of King Tupou VI at the service was significant.

“He’s actually rejuvenated that long traditional ancestry that they’ve had,” he said.

Queen Nanasipau’u and Princess Lātūfuipeka Tukuʻaho were also at the service and visibly emotional.

The Palace of Tonga has played a central role in the repatriation, according to the royal undertaker Haukoloa.

“For a leader … it’s a must for them. You have to bury your mum, you have to bury your dead. You can’t throw it away — it’s as simple as that,” he said.

Opening the door to more Pacific repatriations

A photo of the Sydney Museum from the street view.
The Australian Museum in Sydney. Supplied: Australian Museum.

The Australian Museum has been prioritising the repatriation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders remains in recent years, and now they’re looking to replicate their efforts in the Pacific.

Melissa Malu, the museum’s manager of Pasifika collections and engagement, said this successful repatriation could help inform more like it from other Australian institutions.

“Repatriation is a very big topic right now in Australia and finding out how we can do this properly was part of the process because it enables us to put some practices in place so that we can do that with the other ancestors we hold [from] throughout the Pacific,” she said.

“We’re just getting a step closer and closer to being able to decolonise such a colonised institution.”

The remains of the two males taken from Tonga have been repatriated to their present-day descendants living on the southern ʻEua island.