About Myffanwy Bryant

Myffanwy is a Curatorial Assistant at the Australian National Maritime Museum.

Monsters of the deep

Sea monsters. Not too far off the mark this engraving, from 1621, had the right idea of what was really lurking beneath the world’s oceans. ANMM Collection <a href="http://collections.anmm.gov.au/objects/29824/engraving-depicting-saint-brendan-saying-mass-on-the-back-of?ctx=d19a5c20-8539-4f29-a049-977fb903bcd9&idx=0">00019658</a>.

Sea monsters. Not too far off the mark this engraving, from 1621, had the right idea of what was really lurking beneath the world’s oceans. ANMM Collection 00019658.

What is lurking in the water?

Living life as an adult means shedding many childhood ‘truths’. Christmas elves, Easter bunnies and the tooth fairy don’t stand up to hard questioning, so our belief in them falls away. We lose our concept of another world filled with wonder and mystery as every phenomenon is explained by science instead. But, for some reason, this logic does not apply to the things that scare us…

No, horror stories hang around so much longer. The terror of ghosts, creeping creatures of the night and otherworldly happenings can last into adulthood. Even if it’s just a shiver down your spine before logic returns to its guard post.

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Seeking the lost Browne boys: Spiritualism and grief

The spiritualist movement of the late 19th century believed life and death included an in-between realm where spirits were able to exist and communicate with the living. In the case of the missing Browne brothers, their family believed the brother’s spirits could provide some startlingly detailed information about their deaths. Images: National Library of Australia.

The spiritualist movement of the late 19th century believed life and death included an in between realm where spirits were able to exist and communicate with the living. In the case of the missing Browne brothers, their family believed the brother’s spirits could provide some startlingly detailed information about their deaths. Images: National Library of Australia.

Communing with the dead

In tasteful parlour rooms across the world, the mood was set. Accompanied by soft lighting and gentle music, people quietly gathered, waiting not for romance but in the hope of receiving messages from the dead. The appearance of a well-known historical figure would cause a stir but generally, it was messages from loved ones who had passed on which audiences waited breathlessly for.

The spiritualist movement of the late 19th century believed life and death included an in between realm where spirits were able to exist and communicate with the living. In the case of the missing Browne brothers, their family believed the brother’s spirits could provide some startlingly detailed information about their deaths.

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Remembering the marvelous maritime mothers

Making it look easy, Ethel May Sterling and her daughter Margaret aboard her husband's ship, <em>ER Sterling</em>. ANMM Collection 00035539.

Making it look easy, Ethel May Sterling and her daughter Margaret aboard her husband’s ship, ER Sterling. ANMM Collection 00035539.

Mothering on the high seas

As Mother’s Day approaches a maritime museum is not usually a place one would look for motherly sentiment. Yet here at the museum and the Vaughan Evans Library, there are small yet extraordinary reminders of what motherhood can mean. And how hard it can be for some.

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Who was John Watt?

<em>'Daisy, I am sending the basket tomorrow. Bill'.</em> Despite the atmospheric picture, the message on the back of this card from the Watt collection is short. For years 'Daisy' and 'Bill' were strangers to the museum. ANMM Collection ANMS0410[048].

‘Daisy, I am sending the basket tomorrow. Bill’. Despite the atmospheric picture, the message on the back of this postcard from the Watt collection is short. For years ‘Daisy’ and ‘Bill’ were strangers to the museum. ANMM Collection ANMS0410[048].

An enigmatic collector

Over the years, the museum has acquired various collections that have taken the dedicated owner many years (or often a lifetime) to compile. The time, energy and cost required to gather together this type of comprehensive material can be enormous and so part of the unseen value of these collections is the story of the donor themselves.

In 1993, a collection of hundreds of photographs, drawings, postcards, papers and memorabilia featuring and related to ships was donated to the museum. It was clearly a collection that had taken a lifetime to accumulate by a dedicated and passionate individual. We were given the name Mr John Watt of McLean, New South Wales, as the collector.

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Search and survival: Abraham Leeman and the Vergulde Draeck

The power of nature wrought wild on the high seas. Ships in a storm on a rocky coast, Jan Porcellis, 1614–18. Courtesy Hallwyl Museum, Stockholm.

The power of nature wrought wild on the high seas. Ships in a storm on a rocky coast, Jan Porcellis, 1614–18. Courtesy Hallwyl Museum, Stockholm.

Bad luck and bravery

Dutch explorers and traders in the 17th century knew to their cost the dangers of sailing near the Great South Land. A humble and tenacious sailor named Abraham Leeman experienced the worst that these treacherous coasts had to offer – not once but twice.

In the hours before dawn on 28 April 1656, a Dutch East India (VOC) ship called the Vergulde Draeck struck an uncharted reef on her way to Batavia (now Jakarta) and sank off the coast of what is now called Western Australia, but was then an enigmatic landmass scarcely known to Europeans – the fabled Great South Land. In an era when the calculation of longitude was fraught with difficulty and error, this was a tragic event yet not a shocking one. The VOC had lost some 168 ships in the previous decade to various misfortunes, and this latest wreck was further proof of the occupational hazards for those who made their living by the sea.

The disappearance of the Vergulde Draeck could have remained an unsolved mystery for Joan Maetsuycker, the newly appointed Governor General of Batavia, and yet another loss for him to explain to the company council back in Amsterdam. But on 7 June 1656 a small boat carrying seven starving, dehydrated and exhausted men arrived to tell an incredible tale. The leader of this bedraggled group is believed to have been Abraham Leeman, who had been the Vergulde Draeck’s under-steersman, or second officer.*

Leeman explained how the ship had been wrecked upon a reef and that he and his men had managed to sail a small open boat to Batavia, spending over a month at sea. What was more, they were not the only survivors. They had left 68 other men and women, including the ship’s captain, alive on a shore on the Southland.

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A sailor’s heart

Photographer Samuel J Hood capturing the love of a sailor. ANMM collection <a href="http://collections.anmm.gov.au/en/objects/details/13305/man-and-woman-kissing-across-two-vessels?ctx=4531e83e-6228-4760-a471-0f1bf8c24f31&idx=0">00035634</a>.

Photographer Samuel J Hood capturing the love of a sailor. ANMM collection 00035634.

Valentine’s Day is not usually a day associated with sailors. Roses and chocolates are hard to find at sea and some would say romantic prose has no place on the decks of ships – particularly ships which do not come equipped with a cocktail bar and a pool.

For centuries, mothers warned their daughters about falling in love with a sailor. Tales of seafaring rogues and cads abound. As recorded countless times in songs and ballads, heartbreak was the only outcome for someone who caught the eye of a roving sailor. He was bound to desert the fair maiden, who would then usually die a tragic death caused by loneliness, grief or shame. Not really the stuff to make the heart swoon on Valentine’s Day. But do sailors really deserve this bad reputation? Is it true that no one can anyone really ever compete with a sailor’s real and greatest love, the sea?

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Goodwill to all

Henry Bowers' handmade Christmas tree, Cape Evans 1911.  Courtesy of the Scott Polar Research Institute.

Henry Bowers’ handmade Christmas tree, Cape Evans 1911.  Courtesy of the Scott Polar Research Institute.

As the year crawls to its inevitable end and we turn our thoughts to Christmas, it is important to keep things in perspective as the trials of the season also begin to appear. Usually, these occur doing the early stages of Christmas travel. The trips we so eagerly planned mid-year start becoming a reality as we hit the waterways, roads and airways for the ‘break’ we have been anticipating. Somehow in our planning, we conveniently forget the crowded Pacific Highway or the moorings that are hard to secure in our favourite ‘secret’ bay. The airport queues seem longer this year and we are again surprised that so many other people seem to have had the same idea as us. No matter what tales of Christmas travel woe you’ve endured this season, rest assured, someone has had it worse than you. In fact in 1911 a journey was undertaken that became known as ‘The Worst Journey in the World’.

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Sea Bird: A ghost ship story to shiver yer timbers

Ghost ship – Self steering and completely intact, the Sea Bird appeared to onlookers as being guided by a ‘mysterious power’. Image: <a href="https://unmyst3.blogspot.com.au/2015/12/ellen-austin.html"> Unsolved Mysteries in the World</a>.

Ghost ship – Self-steering and completely intact, the Sea Bird appeared to onlookers as if it was being guided by a ‘mysterious power’. Image: Unsolved Mysteries in the World.

One of the upsides of the eerie Halloween season is that you can let yourself dwell on the macabre. Even if the rest of the year you envision yourself as a hard-nosed cynic, on Halloween you are allowed to drop your scepticism and ponder the impossible ‘What if…?’

For maritime folk, there is no end of unnerving tales to scare yourself with. Oceans are vast and humans have sailed the seven seas long enough that you can take your pick of myths or unsolved mysteries that will keep you awake with chills, well into the night. Leaving aside sea monsters, murderous pirates or alien encounters, it is the appearance of ghost ships that can really raise the hair on your neck. The thought of these silent and abandoned vessels aimlessly making their way across oceans is disconcerting, to say the least.

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Sailing with the Captain on Father’s Day

On the deck of yacht SIRIUS off Rabaul, Papua New Guinea. ANMM Collection 00014421.

On the deck of yacht Sirius off Rabaul, Papua New Guinea. ANMM Collection 00014421.

This Father’s Day there will no doubt many a father choosing to spend the day on the water. Perhaps on the family boat for a sail around the quiet waters of home, pull in for a bbq at some bay and feel the sense of peace and gratitude that sailing in Australia can bring. Whatever your vessel type, the ease of getting out on the water brings joy to a lot of families.

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Soundtrack to the sea

Sheet music in the ANMM Collection.

Sheet music in the ANMM Collection.

It is so easy for us today to access music anytime, anywhere and in any style that it is difficult to imagine that music was still influential in people’s lives prior to radio, stereo, records etc. Music was played live but it was also widely distributed in the form of sheet music. Cheaply produced in large quantities sheet music meant people could play or learn the songs themselves and the song could be sung in a wide range of venues including homes, pubs, street corners, wharfs and music halls.

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The world of Thomas Lawson: Big ships, books and sofas

Thomas W. Lawson in his office, surrounded by the fresh flowers and books he loved. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Thomas W. Lawson in his office, surrounded by the fresh flowers and books he loved. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

At the beginning of the 20th Century, the world seemed unbearably young. It had yet to experience a World War or the Great Depression. Fossil fuels were the future and any new technology was seen as a good thing. It became known as the Gilded Age and it must have been heady times for those who had the cash to enjoy it. And there were plenty of those. One, in particular, was Thomas W Lawson. At one time Lawson was thought to be one of the wealthiest men in America with a fortune estimated at over USD $50 million (over $1 billion in today’s money).

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The many survivals of Barbara Crawford

The reality of travelling steerage where diseases found the perfect conditions. ANMM collection 00005627

The reality of travelling steerage, where diseases found the perfect conditions. ANMM Collection 00005627

The year 1837 was a busy one for the colony of New South Wales. Busiest of all was Sydney Harbour, which saw thousands of convicts arriving and a growing number of immigrants. In addition to the free single men and women, whole families were travelling from Britain to try their luck with a new life.

On 5 November 1836 the immigrant ship Lady McNaughton left Ireland for Australia. On board was the largest number of children ever to immigrate to Australia at that time. Passenger lists show 196 of the passengers of the ship were under the age of 14. However, by the time the ship was about 300 kilometres from Sydney, 54 of the passengers had died – 44 of those being children. Even in the age of dangerous sea travel, this was an extraordinarily high death rate. The typhus fever on board showed no signs of abating, with some 90 passengers still afflicted.

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Ken Warby and life lessons

SPIRIT OF AUSTRALIA driven by Ken Warby on Blowering Dam. ANMM Collection ANMS1163[291], courtesy of Graeme Andrews.

SPIRIT OF AUSTRALIA driven by Ken Warby on Blowering Dam. ANMM Collection ANMS1163[291], courtesy of Graeme Andrews.

Museums are truly wondrous places. Reminding us all where we have come from. Our shared history and what humans have experienced. I have always been constantly inspired by these stories but I now find myself using them as life lessons to be held up during moments of parental pressure. Continue reading

The lost art of the Christmas card

Not quite at the water's edge, yet. This 1865 depiction of colonists at Manly celebrating Christmas appeared in The Illustrated Sydney News. Image: ANMM collection 00006061.

Not quite at the water’s edge, yet. This 1865 depiction of colonists at Manly celebrating Christmas appeared in The Illustrated Sydney News. Image: ANMM collection 00006061.

It was bound to happen. There was only one this year: a lone Christmas card arriving in my mailbox, stoically spreading Christmas cheer and best wishes for the season. Likely, next year there will be none and although we may discover new ways to spread cheer, via emails or seasonal emojis, but for me, the demise of the Christmas card is cause for some lament.

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Monsters of the deep: Tall tales of the high seas

St Brendan saying mass on the back of a sea monster, 1621. ANMM Collection 00019658.

St Brendan saying mass on the back of a sea monster, 1621. ANMM Collection 00019658.

Whilst Halloween slowly approaches, its pretence of horror and worn out ghoulish clichés appear again. Pumpkins and cobwebs adorn houses and plastic skeletons dance limply off front fences. No doubt witches and vampires have their earned their scary credentials but the forced spookiness of the season only makes it feel like a poor cousin to where real horror exists. Offshore.

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