The current exhibition in King’s Museum focuses on the life and career of University of Aberdeen graduate and colonial administrator, Sir William MacGregor. During his career, MacGregor was renowned for respecting the indigenous people of the countries in which he worked and his concern with improving health care and establishing a fair administration.
Born in 1846 in Aberdeenshire, MacGregor travelled the world, initially as a medical officer and then as colonial governor, working in what are now the Seychelles, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Nigeria, Canada and Australia. A significant proportion of the anthropological collections of the University of Aberdeen Museums was donated by him in the hope of inspiring students that there was more in the world than ‘Aberdeen and twal mile roon.’
MacGregor began his career in Fiji as Chief Medical Officer with the first resident governor, Sir Arthur Gordon. Responsible for public health in Fiji, MacGregor was concerned with introduced diseases, such as the measles outbreak in 1875 which killed about a quarter of the Fijian population. As a result, he argued for quarantine and vaccinations to control such epidemics.
MacGregor’s initial collections in Fiji were in earnest; he believed traditional culture was threatened and should be preserved by collecting examples of its arts and handicrafts. Such items were usually acquired from Fijian locals by exchanging gifts or by purchase, though some items were taken as war booty. In return, Fijians adjusted to the new circumstances and opportunities for trade by making many of their traditions things available to Europeans and creating additional goods for the European market.
British New Guinea 1888-1898
MacGregor was the first administrator of British New Guinea and, as in Fiji, he tried to establish indirect rule through the power of local leaders. He believed rule by law to be important to both establish colonial authority and protect New Guineans from actions of Europeans, stating ‘native lands are preserved to native by law; the people cannot be supplied with arms, ammunition, or intoxicants; they cannot, with a few exceptions, be removed from the colony.’
MacGregor travelled around the colony on official expeditions, collecting many unrecorded species, particularly birds, alongside ethnographic collecting. However, this collecting did not always go to plan as he notes ‘to my great disappointment I learned the day after we had left the mountain that Cesar Lifu and Joe (New Guinean bearers on the expedition) had eaten two of my three new birds obtained on the mountain.’
Following his term in office in New Guinea, MacGregor became Governor of Lagos, Nigeria. Known to be critical of ‘the policy of smash in west Africa’ which he saw as ‘the outcome of military imperialism’ he invited chiefs to form a Central Native Council, which he considered to be more successful as it ‘takes native character, native customs, and native susceptibilities into account.’ However, he was considered an ‘unfortunate incident in the colony’s history’ by both European settlers and the urban Africans of Lagos.
MacGregor brought his medical concerns to Lagos as well, remarking on the presence of ‘the fatal malaria’ and almost died himself in 1903 from a severe attack of malaria. He worked to defeat the virus using the latest scientific research; draining swamps and improving the quality of the water a supply. A drainage canal in Lagos still bears his name, and he was awarded the Mary Kingsley medal by the Society for Tropical Medicine for this work against malaria.
After his difficult time in Lagos, MacGregor regained his reputation as an effective colonial administrator and diplomat in Newfoundland, being described as ‘the model of what a Colonial Governor should be.’
MacGregor’s concerns for indigenous people and the economic development of the colony, as well as his scientific interests, led to him being the first governor to visit the northern coast of the island of Newfoundland and mainland Labrador. As always, MacGregor was concerned with health in Newfoundland, and with the newly introduced diseases affecting the Inuit of Labrador, particularly tuberculosis. MacGregor was critical of the government for its inaction but was also limited in what he could do in a settler colony.
MacGregor’s final posting was to Queensland, Australia. His political authority was again limited but he did go on a number of expeditions and was very critical of the government’s poor treatment of Aboriginal people. Visiting the government Aboriginal Station at Barambah in 1912 he described the accommodation as ‘wretched,’ while about Taroom he wrote that ‘every able-bodied man on the settlement appeared to have only one wish: to get away from the place.’
MacGregor appears to have collected very little material while in Queensland; a good indicator of his motivations for collecting in other locations. As a long-established colony, Queensland already had significant ethnographical and natural history collections in the Queensland Museums. Also, most of the Aboriginal people he meet were living on government stations rather than following the traditional way of life that interested him, not had a market developed for Aboriginal goods among European settlers.
The exhibition ‘Imperial Possessions: Sir William MacGregor, Doctor, Governor, Explorer and Collector’ will be on display in King’s Museum until 29 May 2016. Come along to learn more about Sir William MacGregor and some of the complexities the items he collected during his career.