January 26: One day, many meanings

Worimi man Steve Brereton paddles a nawi in Darling Harbour in 2012.

Worimi man Steve Brereton paddles a nawi in Darling Harbour in 2012. Image: Andrew Frolows/ANMM.

On 26 January the museum has often sailed the HMB Endeavour replica in the Tall Ships Race on Sydney Harbour. This year, Endeavour will not be out, but another important vessel linked to the museum will be involved in the 26 January events.

At 7.30am on Thursday at Barangaroo Reserve a bark canoe – or nawi in the Sydney Aboriginal language – will bring ashore a small fire from the Tribal Warrior vessel. The fire will be lit as part of the WugulOra (One Mob) ceremony that will begin Australia Day events in Sydney by ‘recognising our shared history’. Previously held at the Opera House, WugulOra will be at the new Barangaroo parkland site for the first time this year.

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Governor Phillip’s ‘Portsmouth Gig’

This watercolour 'Ban nel long [Bennelong] meeting the Governor by appointment after he was wounded by Willemaring in September 1790' by The Port Jackson Painter shows Governor Arthur Phillip being rowed out to meet Bennelong to attempt a reconciliation after the Governor had been gravely wounded by a spear at Manly. Bennelong has his nawi (bark canoe) paddle raised. Watling Collection, Natural History Museum, UK.

This watercolour ‘Ban nel long [Bennelong] meeting the Governor by appointment after he was wounded by Willemaring in September 1790’ by The Port Jackson Painter shows Governor Arthur Phillip being rowed out to meet Bennelong to attempt a reconciliation after the governor had been gravely wounded by a spear at Manly. Bennelong has his nawi (bark canoe) paddle raised. Watling Collection, Natural History Museum, UK.

In January 1788, life for people in Sydney was transformed dramatically and forever. The first inkling of change was the appearance of two ship’s boats in the harbour. This was the advance party of the 11 ships anchored at Botany Bay, exploring what Captain Cook had called Port Jackson in 1770 as a better site for the establishment of a British colony. Little did the people of Sydney know what was to follow in the wake of these ship’s boats. Within 12 months a small bridgehead of British colonisation had taken hold around Warran, or Sydney Cove, and at least half the Indigenous population had died from disease, their bodies littering the foreshores of the harbour in May 1789.

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The many meanings of Australia Day – celebration, commemoration and contestation

The Founding of Australia by Captn Phillip R N 26th January 1788. Algernon Talmadge, 1937. Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales

The Founding of Australia by Captn Phillip R N 26th January 1788. Algernon Talmadge, 1937. Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales

The 26th of January – Australia Day – has long been associated with boats on Sydney Harbour. In 1838, to mark 50 years after the arrival of the First Fleet, a regatta was held, watched from the foreshores by ‘crowds of gaily attired people … bearing the supplies for the day’s refreshments…’ and from the crowded decks of steamers ‘decked out in their gayest colours’.

In the early 1800s, in the colony of New South Wales, 26 January was referred to as First Landing Day or Foundation Day. In a very short time, however, the day had shifted from official toasts to the king at the governor’s table to a people’s celebration.

But the history of Australia Day has taken many more twists and turns along the way. In 1938 it wasn’t thought proper to include convicts in a parade of history through the streets of Sydney. And this same parade was met with a silent group of protesters who called Australia Day a National Day of Mourning.

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Commemoration and contestation at Kurnell

1930 poster - the landing of Captain Cook at Botany Bay 1770 Australia

1930 poster – the landing of Captain Cook at Botany Bay 1770 Australia. ANMM Collection.

Last week was the 245th anniversary of the arrival of Captain James Cook and HMB Endeavour at Botany Bay, just south of Sydney. Cook and his crew spent 8 days here from 29 April 1770, their first landfall on the Australian coast.

The moment of Cook’s landing took on a great consequence for Australians ever since. For non-Indigenous Australians, from the 1820s Cook was seen as a far better set of origins than Captain Phillip and his boatloads of convicts in the First Fleet. Indeed it was Cook’s landing at Kurnell on the southern headland of Botany Bay that was the preferred moment of commemoration right through the 19th and well into the 20th century.

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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.

The Charlotte Medal

On public display for the first time in over 20 years the celebrated Charlotte Medal is one of the few objects still in existence from the voyage of First Fleet.   Convict Thomas Barrett engraved the 74 mm silver Charlotte Medal on board the transport ship Charlotte when it was anchored in Botany Bay in January 1788. Along with the rest of the fleet Charlotte was awaiting Governor Phillip’s decision to sail north to strike the first European settlement at Port Jackson.

On public display for the first time in over 20 years the celebrated Charlotte Medal is one of the few objects still in existence from the voyage of First Fleet. Convict Thomas Barrett engraved the 74 mm silver Charlotte Medal on board the transport ship Charlotte when it was anchored in Botany Bay in January 1788. Along with the rest of the fleet Charlotte was awaiting Governor Phillip’s decision to sail north to strike the first European settlement at Port Jackson.