BEWARE! Engraving, c 1872, Matt Morgan in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. What ties San Francisco 1856 to the Australian National Maritime Museum Collection? ANMM Collection 00019630.
An enigmatic engraving
I often come across intriguing objects as I digitise the collection. Recently, in a box containing 263 engravings, covering topics including migration, the wrecking of vessels and ambitious shipbuilding commissions, there was one object which stood out: An engraving, illustrated by Matt Morgan, from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper (c 1872).
It appeared to be a depiction of the American ‘Lady Justice’, an allegorical personification of the moral force of judicial systems. Oddly, she was depicted here with neither her balanced scales nor the blindfold of impartiality. Standing beside her were a group of politicians, all cowering under her gaze as she pointed towards a historical event from six years earlier. The event, headed by the words ‘San Francisco 1856’, depicts a public lynching. I was instantly curious and so put my detective’s hat on: What was the historical precedent that influenced Matt Morgan’s choice of subject?
‘Australian pirate tales’, by curator Dr Stephen Gapps. From Signals 97 (Dec 2011-Feb 2012).
We might not think of Australian history as having much to do with pirates. Yet from the infamous Batavia mutiny in 1629 to the 1998 seizure of the oil tanker Petro Ranger by pirates in the South China Sea, there have in fact been dozens of instances of piracy in Australian waters or on vessels travelling from these shores.
The Batavia Massacre
In 1806 the brig Venus was weather-bound for five weeks in Twofold Bay, on the south coast of New South Wales. Ill feeling had been building between its crew and Captain Chase who, fearing for his life, left to report to the authorities that he also feared the crew would take the ship – which they promptly did. The Sydney Gazette described the ‘band of ruffians’. First mate Benjamin Kelly was a ‘pockmarked’ American whaler. Second mate Richard Edwards had a ‘very remarkable scar or cut in one cheek’. Seaman Joseph Redmonds was a ‘mulatto’ who wore his hair in pigtails and had ‘holes in his ears, being accustomed to wear large earrings’. Their accomplices included a ‘Malay cook’, two convicts with ‘sallow complexions’ and a woman with a ‘hoarse voice’. They would have been at home in any pirate tale.
The incredible voyage of Mary Bryant and her convict companions from Sydney to Timor in an open boat in 1791 showed that escape by boat from the colonies was indeed possible. William Bligh’s epic open-boat voyage after the 1789 Bounty mutiny may also have inspired the many convict escape attempts that followed. Certainly, after the mutiny on the Bounty, ship captains in the Pacific were on their guard. The lure of stealing a ship and living in a tropical paradise in the South Seas was clear. Lieutenant George Tobin, on Bligh’s second breadfruit voyage in 1792, noted how ‘passing some months at a South Sea Island and in the full swing of indulgencies’ was good reason to keep a ‘vigilant eye upon the crew’.