The Ethics of Repatriation: Reflections on the Australian Experience

Paul Turnbull

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review

27 Citations (Scopus)


This chapter considers the ethical dimensions of repatriation. The collecting of the bodily remains of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the long nineteenth century occurred in the context of violent colonial dispossession. The effects of the loss of ancestral lands and lifeways was imagined by European scientists and intelligentsia as dooming Indigenous peoples to extinction. Their remains were perceived as an endangered resource for advancing typological investigation of human variation. Present-day scientists and social commentators opposed to repatriation have risked perpetuating colonialist perceptions of Indigenous Australians as no longer having significant continuities of customary law and cultural traditions. After reviewing the responses of claimant communities and their representative organisations to claims that they have no grounds for securing the return of the remains of their ancestors, the chapter draws attention to important continuities of moral sensibilities and law in respect of the dead in metropolitan Britain and Australian settler society. In light of these moral and legal continuities, the chapter argues that it is ethically imperative we consider whether the knowledge that might be gained by denying Indigenous peoples their rights to the dead comes at the cost of diminishing our common humanity. Moreover, in the Australian context at least, there are indications that repatriation does not rule out the possibility of Indigenous Australians and scientists finding common ground for allowing future scientific investigations of ancestral remains.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Routledge Companion to Indigenous Repatriation: Return, Reconcile, Renew
EditorsC Fforde, C T McKeown & H Keeler
Place of PublicationOxon United Kingdom
ISBN (Print)9781138303584
Publication statusPublished - 2020


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