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  • George Baden-Powell (1847-1898)

George Baden-Powell (1847-1898)

What’s in the collection?

Seven mammals and two birds, from Tasmania and New South Wales, including echidnas and a platypus.

Eastern quoll
An eastern quoll collected by Baden-Powell (Dasyurus viverrinus. UMZC A6.11/10)

When did it arrive?

December 1870

What do we know about the specimens in Cambridge?

They were collected by George Baden-Powell in Australia in 1869-70, during his travels there. The collection was then purchased for the Museum from Baden-Powell through William Flower of the Royal College of Surgeons.

Who was George Baden-Powell?

Sir George Baden Powell

He held several positions and commissions in colonial administrations, including in Australia, the West Indies, South Africa, Canada and Malta, and published several books about the economies of British colonies, and was an emigration promoter. In 1885 he became the Conservative MP for Kirkdale, Liverpool – a seat he held until his death in 1898.

He was the older brother of Robert Baden-Powell – the founder of the Scout movement.


Upon leaving school in 1866 George Smyth Baden-Powell spent three years travelling to Germany, Norway, Spain, Portugal, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia. He was particularly impacted by the last two, and published the book New Homes for the Old Country in 1872.

This book is an enthusiastic account of life in Australia and New Zealand, written to encourage emigration there from Europe. It covers specific descriptions of what migrants can expect to find in the major cities and also the settled parts of the interior; details of how various industries work there; political and social arrangements; accounts of First Nations Australians with themes and language typical of the era; as well as information about natural history.

For the latter, Baden-Powell follows the problematic Victorian trend, particularly in the light of Darwinian evolution, to describe marsupials as hierarchically inferior to other groups of mammals:

“In relation to theories concerning natural selection, the family of marsupials is of great interest. Its low organisation places at midway between birds and reptiles on the one hand, and the Mammalia of the present day on the other.”

He suggests that marsupials are an ancient group barely hanging on in Australia, destined to be driven to extinction by exposure to more “modern” mammals, perpetuating an incorrect colonial view of Australian mammals as evolutionary dead-ends.

One of the many suggestions he makes for how the colony should develop itself is the establishment of a zoo, to hold species that he believes will be driven to extinction in the wild: “there be preserved therein the various types of native fauna, which assuredly must in the course of time disappear”.

It’s somewhat error-prone (for example omitting that there are any rodents in Australia, or marsupials in South America), and includes some rather fanciful ideas, such that platypuses like to lie belly-up in the water and then spring vertically into the air, in order to dislodge parasites, in the manner of a killer whale. Published just two years before William Caldwell proves egg-laying in monotremes, he incorrectly concludes firmly that it’s been established that they give birth to live young.

The book goes into detail about how to hunt or trap various species, including those represented in the collection he sold to Museum.

Baden-Powell’s travel experiences and the book clearly sparked his interest in how the economics of colonisation and colonised nations work in relation to the imperial centre, and this forms the focus of his later books and other publications over his career, such as The Political and Social Results of the absorption of small Races by large, published in 1876. He was a convinced free-trader, and felt the model would work well in the colonies, arguing against trade tariffs, for example on sugar from the West Indies.

His career in colonial administration and politics began in 1877 when he was appointed private secretary to the Governor of Victoria, George Bowen (who was married to another of the Museum’s donors, Diamantina Bowen. Subsequent positions included being a joint commissioner of the West Indies from 1882.

Further Reading

Rubinstein, W.  Powell, Sir George Smyth Baden- (1847–1898), politician and author. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Retrieved 26 Jan. 2023,