In April 1802 when the lookout station situated on the southern headland at the entrance to Port Jackson reported the sighting of a French naval vessel approaching, the news spread quickly through the streets of Sydney. Isolated on the far side of the world from England, it was normal for news of the arrival of a ship to cause excitement at the prospect of news from Europe and the hope of fresh supplies. The armed corvette Le Naturaliste however, was an unusual arrival and unlikely to bring much comfort to the town.
The search for Malaysian Air Flight MH370 in the southern Indian Ocean is like looking for a needle in a haystack. By international agreement Australia is responsible for co-ordinating search and rescue efforts over an area of about 53 million square kilometres – more than one tenth of the earth’s surface! While this is an enormous area, the use of modern satellite and radar technology and the co-ordination of civil and military efforts by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) significantly improves the efficiency of the search and the possibility of locating something in the search area.
The auction of the Charlotte medal in copper this week, focuses the spotlight once again on this fascinating episode from Australia’s earliest colonial history. Made of copper and just 47 mm in diameter, the medal bears an almost identical but necessarily abridged version of the inscription found on the much larger silver Charlotte medal purchased in 2008 by the National Maritime Museum, where it is now displayed.
Both medals are believed to be the work of convict Thomas Barrett who was transported aboard the First Fleet ship Charlotte which arrived in Botany Bay on 20th January 1788. A convicted thief, Barrett had come to the attention of Surgeon- General John White who also sailed aboard the Charlotte. From the following entry in White’s journal it is clear that Barrett was an accomplished and ingenious forger capable of producing coins from materials available on board the vessel:
5th August 1787
Still calm. This morning a boat came along side, in which were three Portugueze and six slaves, from whom we purchased some oranges, plantains, and bread. In trafficking with these people, we discovered that one Thomas Barret, a convict, had, with great ingenuity and address, passed some quarter dollars which he, assisted by two others, had coined out of old buckles, buttons belonging to the marines, and pewter spoons, during their passage from Teneriffe. The impression, milling, character, in a word, the whole was so inimitably executed that had their metal been a little better the fraud, I am convinced, would have passed undetected. A strict and careful search was made for the apparatus wherewith this was done, but in vain; not the smallest trace or vestige of any thing of the kind was to be found among them. How they managed this business without discovery, or how they could effect it at all, is a matter of inexpressible surprise to me, as they never were suffered to come near a fire and a centinel was constantly placed over their apartments. Besides, hardly ten minutes ever elapsed, without an officer of some degree or other going down among them. The adroitness, therefore, with which they must have managed, in order to complete a business that required so complicated a process, gave me a high opinion of their ingenuity, cunning, caution, and address; and I could not help wishing that these qualities had been employed to more laudable purposes.
[Journal of a voyage to New South wales, John White Surgeon-General to the First Fleet and the Settlement at Port Jackson]
The silver Charlotte medal is thought to have been made from a surgical dish – perhaps supplied by Surgeon White to create a memento of the arrival of the First Fleet in Botany Bay. Inspection of the copper Charlotte medal reveals it is made from thin copper around 1 mm thick. This thickness equates very closely to the heaviest grade of copper sheathing used in Royal Navy shipyards at that time. Three weights – 32 ounce/ square foot; 28 ounce /square foot and 22 ounce/square foot were used to sheath the underwater hull of ships. Copper is highly toxic to barnacles and other aquatic organisms which, if allowed to grow, reduce the speed and affect a vessel’s manoeuvrability. Weed and barnacles grow especially well in warm tropical waters and like the Royal Navy, ships employed by the East India Company trading to and from Asia were frequently copper sheathed.
A relatively new ship, the Charlotte was one of three First Fleet ships contracted by the East India Company to sail to China after leaving Sydney, to purchase valuable cargoes of tea for the return voyage to England. Enroute the Charlotte’s captain Thomas Gilbert ‘discovered’ and named the Gilbert Islands [now the Republic of Kiribati].
And how did the Charlotte get its name? From the German Princess Charlotte von Mecklenburg – Strelitz who marriage to King George III in 1761 made the name fashionable in England. Captain Cook named Queen Charlotte Sound in the South Island of New Zealand in honour of the Queen and the town of Charlotte in North Carolina was similarly named in her honour.
The stunning silver Charlotte medal can be seen on display at the National Maritime Museum in Sydney’s Darling Harbour.
One reason for the enormous number of these coins is thanks to the discovery of a mountain of silver at Potosi in Bolivia which throughout the 16th and 17th centuries produced thousands of tons of silver for Spain. ‘Pieces of eight’ (officially known as 8 Reales) were sliced like salami from a bar of silver, to produce coins of similar weight (27 grams) before being stamped with insignia. The process was quick but crude, and unfortunately, open to fraud as the rough coins were frequently ‘shaved’ of some of their silver. Despite this drawback, ‘Pieces of eight’ were produced up until the 1730s when regular-shaped and milled coins were introduced.
The immense wealth of the Spanish Empire was both attractive and vulnerable to pirates, as the great galleons sailed along well-defined tracks and at particular seasons towards the narrow passage separating central and south America. Packed on mules, the treasure was then carried through the tropical jungle to the Caribbean coast where Spanish ships waited to carry it home. Also waiting were the hordes of pirates, who like tourists today, haunted the balmy islands and convenient anchorages of the west indies. ‘ARRRR captain Blackbeard – what about another mojito while we’re waiting?’
Strictly speaking, piracy involves the unlawful seizure of a ship, but things change completely when war is declared. London’s famous Portobello Road was renamed (previously Green’s Lane) in honour of Admiral Vernon’s capture of the Spanish Panamanian port – Puerto Bello in 1739 during the War of Jenkin’s Ear (so named for the English captain Jenkin’s ear which was cut off by a Spanish coast guard). Four years later commodore George Anson became a legend when his ship HMS Centurion successfully ambushed and took the Manila galleon carrying over 1,300,000 ‘pieces of eight’.
Which brings us back to the picture of ‘pieces of eight’ in the museum’s collection. The coins were recovered by archaeologists from the 1656 wreck of the Dutch ship Vergulde Draeck lost off the coast of Western Australia while enroute to Batavia. Silver was readily accepted by Asian merchants and all ships trading to the east indies carried silver in some form.
The discovery of the wreck in 1963 led to unauthorised attempts to salvage the silver using explosives, ultimately prompting new laws which continue to protect our underwater cultural heritage. So you see – you may talk like a pirate, but you don’t need to be one to get up close and personal with this ‘treasure’ from our past.
Nigel Erskine, Curator Exploration & European Settlement
Australian National Maritime Museum
This post was shared to celebrate Talk Like a Pirate Day.
Earlier this year, the ANMM acquired the highly significant Voyage de Découvertes aux Terres Australes – the record of Nicolas Baudin’s 1800–1804 expedition to Australia. It’s made up of four quarto volumes and a magnificent folio atlas.
The great exploratory voyages of the late 18th and early 19th centuries were just like today’s space expeditions. A nation’s prestige was linked with its mission’s success. The journeys were endorsed by political leaders, sponsored by elite scientific societies, and equipped with the most advanced technology of the day. And, just as the world turned on the TV to witness man’s landing on the moon, 200 years ago the medium for communicating huge events was the book. It was, literally, bound to impress, and was often published with grand atlases of charts and views showing the finer details of the latest discoveries.
The Voyage de Découvertes… is the official record of Baudin’s expedition. But it also embodies a wider story of social and political upheaval in France at the turn of the 19th century, and of Baudin’s fall from grace even after leading an expedition that rivalled Matthew Flinders’ exploration on HMS Investigator.
Some historical background
When the Seven Years War (1756–1763) ended, there was new peace between France and Britain. Both countries renewed their interest in exploring the Pacific. Byron, Bougainville, Wallis and Carteret all led expeditions, before Cook’s three great voyages redefined the geography of the Pacific and Australia. For the first time since 17th-century Dutch voyagers had mapped the general outline of New Holland’s north, west and south coasts, most of the east coast was also revealed. But important questions still remained. Was the continent divided by a great gulf? What was the connection between Tasman and Furneaux’s charting in the south and Cook’s survey of the east coast? Were there any potentially strategic harbours and rivers and, if so, where were they?
In 1785, La Pérouse led a new expedition, with instructions from King Louis XVI to:
… run down the western coast and take a closer look at the southern, the greater part of which has never been visited, finishing at Van Diemen’s Land [Tasmania], at Adventure Bay …
A Voyage Round the World … under the Command of J.F.G. de La Pérouse, Robinson; Edwards; and Payne, London, 1799
In fact, La Pérouse focused mainly on the western and northern Pacific. Apart from a few weeks in Botany Bay, he had little interest in Australia. And, after he left the east coast in early 1788, all opportunity was lost when La Pérouse’s ships were destroyed on the reefs at Vanikoro (Solomon Islands).
The disappearance of such a high-profile expedition demanded that every effort be made to discover what had happened, and to search for any survivors. The French government ordered Bruni D’Entrecasteaux to lead a new expedition to the Pacific in 1792. There was no trace of La Pérouse, but D’Entrecasteaux extended French surveys of Australian waters, particularly along the south-west coast and in southern Tasmania.
Before his disappearance, La Pérouse had been sending back progress reports. There was enough new geographic information to justify publishing a partial account of his expedition, and his maps in the form of a grand atlas. It would be as significant the one the British published for Cook’s third voyage. No expense was spared in producing a suitably imposing (rival) work in honour of La Pérouse and the French nation. See the elaborate title page alone (pictured), which symbolically refers to advancing the sciences of navigation, botany, astronomy and ethnography! While La Pérouse’s atlas set a benchmark, D’Entrecasteaux’s expedition also resulted in similarly exquisite large publications.
The next French expedition to investigate Australia was led by Nicolas Baudin. He set sail from a homeland that had changed dramatically in the years leading to the new century.
— Dr Nigel Erskine, ANMM Curator of exploration and European settlement