The Sydney Ducks and the San Francisco 49ers

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 <a href=";idx=0">00019630</a>.

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?

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Reflections on Charlotte medal

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.

Front of the silver Charlotte Medal.

Front of the silver Charlotte Medal.

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]

Front of the silver Charlotte Medal.

Front of the silver Charlotte Medal.

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.

George Cruikshank: Satirising the Eastern trade

'An interesting scene on board an East-Indiaman, showing the effects of a heavy lurch, after dinner' by George Cruikshank, 1818 Currently on display in the museum's latest exhibition, East of India - Forgotten trade with Australia ANMM Collection

‘An interesting scene on board an East-Indiaman, showing the effects of a heavy lurch, after dinner’ by George Cruikshank, 1818
Currently on display in the museum’s latest exhibition, East of India – Forgotten trade with Australia
ANMM Collection

‘“Make us laugh or you starve—Give us fresh fun; we have eaten up the old and are hungry”’
~ William Makepeace Thackeray, 1840

In his work, An essay on the genius of George Cruikshank, the English novelist William Makepeace Thackeray wrote in admiration for one of the most famous illustrators of his day. Thackeray was trying to convey how a ‘greedy public’ has ‘bought, borrowed or stole’ a ‘heap of personal kindnesses from George Cruikshank’ and therefore owed a great deal to the caricaturist. In a way, one of Cruikshank’s ‘kindnesses’, an engraving from the museum’s collection, portrays the essence of what Thackeray was trying to say. The themes of greed, fickleness and arrogance highlighted by Thackeray, are illustrated brilliantly in Cruikshank’s caricature which is currently on display in the museum’s latest exhibition, East of India – Forgotten trade with Australia. Continue reading

Object of the week: The horrors of the deep

ANMM Collection, purchased with USA Bicentennial Fund

Art has the capacity to evoke a range of emotions from the viewer, whether it be religious fervour, nostalgia, romance or even horror. Valentine Green’s engraving, Youth rescued from a Shark (1779), is designed to portray what was seen as, and to a large extent is still considered, one of the most feared aspects of the ocean – a shark attack.

In 1749, the fourteen-year-old English sailor, Brook Watson, was swimming in Havana Harbour, Cuba when he was attacked by a shark. Watson had been serving on board an American merchant ship before he decided to take that fateful swim. His shipmates spotted him struggling against the shark and rowed to his aid. Watson managed to disentangle himself; however the shark had severed his right foot at the ankle and he later had his leg amputated just below the knee.

This image captures the moment just after Watson loses his right foot and before his crew mates managed to hoist him into the boat. The engraving is a copy of the 1778 oil painting by American artist John Singleton Copley. Almost 30 years after the attack, Watson, then a successful businessman, commissioned the well-known portraitist to depict the event. Immortalised in paint, Watson and the Shark caused a sensation when it was exhibited at London’s Royal Academy in the same year. A London newspaper provided a detailed description of the attack, though it is believed that Watson wrote it himself. It is dramatic and stirring in its tone concluding, ‘after suffering an amputation of the limb…the youth received a perfect cure in about three months.’

While Watson’s motivations behind the commission are unclear, six years after the painting shocked London viewers, he entered politics. An entry into this sphere brought with it the usual drawbacks of politically-motivated derisive commentary from his peers. The Rolliad (1812), a British satirical publication designed to poke fun at politicians, penned this scathing critique of Watson and the story that made him famous:

‘“One moment’s time might I presume to beg?”
Cries modest Watson, on his wooden leg;
That leg, in which such wondrous art is shown,
It almost seems to serve him like his own;
Oh! had the monster, who for breakfast ate
That luckless limb, his nobler noddle met,
The best of workmen, nor the best of wood,
Had scarce supplied him with a head so good.’

Worlds away from the shark attack these cutting remarks were attacks of a different kind, designed to thwart Watson’s political ambitions. What it demonstrates, however, is how Watson’s public persona became synonymous with the terrifying tale of his struggle against the shark. The fact that the painting was reproduced in this engraving also lends itself to this idea, as it would have been printed and distributed for buyers interested in obtaining a copy of it. Below the engraving is a small blurb in English and French detailing the ‘Loss of the Flesh & Foot, torn from the Right Leg’ and Watson being ‘sav’d from the Jaws of the voracious Animal’.

Green’s engraving demonstrates the popularity of Copley’s painting, but it also hints at the range of possibilities for what it may have represented for its viewers. An orphan from the age of six, perhaps Watson commissioned the work out of more than a self-indulgent desire to record this significant chapter in his life. In this light, the painting acts as an 18th century parable of survival in the face of adversity. Watson’s will, dated 12 August 1803, echoes this sentiment as he concluded he would donate the painting to Christ’s Hospital in London. In praise of their charitable efforts for disadvantaged children, he hoped it would stand as a ‘most usefull [sic] Lesson to Youth.’

Nicole Cama
Curatorial assistant

Object of the Week: Gnung-a Gnung-a’s story – the first Aboriginal Australian to visit America

Engraving of Gnung-a Gnung-a by Nicolas-Martin Petit in 1807

You may have heard of Bennelong, the famous Aboriginal man who befriended Governor Arthur Phillip and accompanied him to England in 1792. Fewer people, however, have heard of Gnung-a Gnung-a Mur-re-mur-gan, who became the first Aboriginal Australian in written history to visit America in 1793. His story has been reconstructed from written records from Judge-Advocate David Collins whose work, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, provides snippets of information about the voyage of HMS Daedalus across the North Pacific to America.

According to the records, Gnung-a Gnung-a was sent by Lieutenant-Governor Major Francis Grose to sail on the expedition, ‘for the purpose of acquiring our language.’ Lieutenant Hanson was instructed to ‘by no means’ ‘leave him at Nookta, but, if he survived the voyage, to bring him back safe to his friends and countrymen.’ Collins described his own insights regarding Gnung-a Gnung-a’s character, claiming that, ‘he was a man of a more gentle disposition than most of his associates’ and willingly accepted the voyage. On the 1 July 1793, Gnung-a Gnung-a boarded HMS Daedalus, leaving behind his young pregnant wife Warreeweer, sister of Bennelong, ‘of whom he always appeared extremely fond’.

Although not much is reported about Gnung-a Gnung-a’s time on the voyage, there are some intriguing accounts of his visit to Hawaii. Collins describes the high esteem Gnung-a Gnung-a held amongst his sailing companions as he ‘conducted himself with the greatest propriety…readily complying with whatever was required of him.’ During Gnung-a Gnung-a’s stay, the Hawaiian King Kamehameha offered to purchase him, ‘making splendid offers to Mr. Hanson, of canoes, warlike instruments, and other curiosities….’ Gnung-a Gnung-a refused the offer as he was anxious to return to New South Wales.

A few months later, on 3 April 1794, HMS Daedalus returned to Port Jackson. Gnung-a Gnung-a disembarked, appearing in ‘English dress, and very clean’, to find a large reception of his people waiting to greet him. Amongst the crowd was his wife, who was ‘in the possession of another native, a very fine young fellow, who since his coming among us had gone by the name of Wyatt.’ Collins dramatically captures the moments after their encounter:

‘The husband and the gallant eyed each other with indignant sullenness, while the poor wife (who had recently been delivered of a female child) appeared terrified, and as if she knew not which to cling to as her protector, but expecting that she should be the sufferer, whether ascertained to belong to her former or present master.’

Gnung-a Gnung-a performed ritual revenge by throwing a spear and wounding his rival. He emerged the victor with Warreeweer claimed as the ‘prize’, despite later reports of Gnung-a Gnung-a being ‘seen traversing the country in search of another wife.’

In December 1795, another ritual revenge battle is recorded to have taken place in Sydney between Gnung-a Gnung-a and the great warrior and leader of the Bidjigal people, Pemulwuy. According to Collins, Gnung-a Gnung-a received a barbed spear in ‘his loins close by the vertebrae of the back’. English surgeons later declared that they could not dislodge the spear and so Gnung-a Gnung-a, ‘determined to trust to nature’, left the hospital and was seen for ‘several weeks’ after ‘walking about with the spear unmoved’. Further to these accounts, Collins claims that Warreeweer ‘had fixed her teeth in the wound and drawn it out’. Although Gnung-a Gnung-a recovered, ‘which gave general satisfaction, as he was much esteemed by every white man who knew him…for his personal bravery’, the incident left him with an injury which plagued him for the rest of his life.

View of Sydney from Bennelong Point, as it would have appeared in Gnung-a Gnung-a's time

On 12 January 1809, Gnung-a Gnung-a was found dead behind the Dry Store (present day Sirius Park in Bridge Street, Sydney). The exact cause of his death is unknown, however, the Sydney Gazette described Gnung-a Gnung-a, referring to the injuries inflicted by Pemulwuy years earlier and his general character:

‘The deceased was to us well known, for his lameness…He was not less remarkable however for the docility of his temper, and the high estimation in which he was universally held among the native tribes:- he had extended to many an orphan a fostering hand, and, as his own children, provided for their infant wants….’

Apart from a small number of written accounts, all that survives of Gnung-a Gnung-a is a coloured drawing attributed to convict artist Thomas Watling and the engraving featured here, which was created by French artist Nicolas-Martin Petit in Sydney in 1802. From the little information we can gain from these accounts, what emerges is a fascinating story of dramatic encounters and adventure. Gnung-a Gnung-a’s story and Collins’ observations shed light on relations between Aboriginal Australians and Europeans at such a crucial moment in Australia’s colonial history. These stories bring Petit’s portrait to life in a way that demonstrates how prominent Gnung-a Gnung-a was during the period of early settlement – a figure held in high regard by both Aboriginal Australians and Europeans alike.