Two invasions, two nations and a solitary carving

Old Man’s Hat, where the 1940 inscription marking the detention of <em>Pierre Loti</em> was carved, offers spectacular views over South Head, the Tasman Sea and hundreds of historic inscriptions left by sailors, passengers and Sydney residents. Image: Ursula K Frederick, Sydney Harbour National Park.

Old Man’s Hat, where the 1940 inscription marking the detention of Pierre Loti was carved, offers spectacular views over South Head, the Tasman Sea and hundreds of historic inscriptions left by sailors, passengers and Sydney residents. Image: Ursula K Frederick, Sydney Harbour National Park.

Saigon bristled with terror in April 1975. As shelling and small-arms fire sounded out an ever-shrinking cordon around the South Vietnamese capital, wails of a different kind split the airspace above the city. On board a Royal Australian Air Force Hercules aircraft, over 200 traumatised children and infants – primarily orphans – were being tended by nurses, doctors and military personnel. Leaving Ton Son Nhat airport on 3 April, these bewildered passengers were then transferred to a Qantas flight bound for Sydney. Numbering among the 2500 children scooped up by ‘Operation Babylift’, they arrived at North Head Quarantine Station just weeks ahead of the final collapse of South Vietnam.

Oddly enough, the Babylift children were not the first displaced Vietnamese to be held at North Head. It would be another year before the earliest refugee boats – the vanguard of a rickety flotilla escaping the humanitarian crisis afflicting Southeast Asia – landed on northern Australian shores. Although two small groups of these arrivals were briefly accommodated at Sydney’s Quarantine Station in 1977, in April 1975 only the Babylift evacuees were being tended by nurses and community volunteers at this hilly headland near Manly.

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Vale Ernest Alfred Flint – MBE OAM ED

Ern Flint at the opening of the Mission-X ANMM Exhibition, 2013 - Photo by Andrew Frolows

Ern Flint at the opening of the Mission-X ANMM Exhibition, 2013 – Photo by Andrew Frolows

Ern Flint, who died on 3 July at the age of 88, lobbied for many years to earn recognition for the service of the more than 3,000 Australian civilians who risked life and limb serving under contract in the US Army Small Ships Section during World War II.
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Saving whales in the International Court of Justice and on the water

The news that Australia won its case in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) has been met with jubilation and excitement. The decision handed down by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on 31 March 2014 found “… Japan’s whaling programme in the Antarctic is not in accordance with three provisions of the Schedule to the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling”, and that whaling activity in the Southern oceans now cease. The purpose of the action was to seek to bring an end to Japan’s “scientific” whaling in the Southern Ocean.

Minke whale and Yushin Maru 2 15 February 2013

Minke whale and Yushin Maru 2 15 February 2013
Photograph by Marianna Boldo courtesy Sea Shepherd Australia

Australia argued that Japan was in breach of two prohibitions established under the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling: the general prohibition on commercial whaling, and a prohibition on such whaling in the Southern Ocean Sanctuary. Japan has sought to rely on an exception to the convention concerning whaling ‘for purposes of scientific research’. The Australian government argued the whaling carried out by Japan was commercial, not scientific, and did not fall within that narrow exception.

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Australian pirate tales

‘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

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’.

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MV Krait – annual slipping

This humble fishing trawler led a double life during World War II. In 1941, in Singapore, it evacuated people to Sumatra during the Japanese advance. Renamed MV Krait (after a deadly Indian snake), the boat was fitted out in Australia for Operation Jaywick in 1943. Perfectly disguised as a local fishing vessel, Krait sailed boldly into Japanese-occupied waters with a team of Z Special Unit commandos whose mines blew up and severely damaged seven enemy ships in Singapore harbour.

MV Krait

MV Krait

After the war, Krait worked in the Borneo timber trade, until it was recognised by two Australians on a business trip in 1962. Krait returned to Australia to a hero’s welcome, a testament to Australian sacrifice during war. Krait is on loan from the Australian War Memorial.


The vessel was recently moved to Noakes shipyard on Monday 9th December 2013 for its annual slipping. The work package for this preservation was agreed by the Australian War Memorial and the Australian National Maritime Museum. MV Krait ex-WWII veteran under the care of the ANMM has been slipped for a preservation period of 2 weeks.

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Object of the Week

‘Pass the whale, please’: A tin of whale meat

Tinned whale meat, ANMM Collection

Tinned whale meat, ANMM Collection

This tin of whale meat relates to a pivotal stage in Australia’s maritime history, when whale meat became prohibited from import/export in Australia. Produced in Japan by the Taiyo Fisher Company, the tin of seasoned whale meat was confiscated by Australian Customs in the mid-1980s under the Commonwealth Wildlife Protection Act (1982).

Although the import/export of whale meat is prohibited in Australia, and commercial whaling in Australian waters has been banned since the late 1970s, historically whaling has been a vital national industry. During the 19th-century whales were hunted in Australian waters for blubber (melted down for oil), baleen (used in corsets and buggy whips) and ambergris (used in perfumes and soaps).

Nothing was wasted in the whaling process, and by the early 20th-century Australian whalers were grinding the whale carcass to add to fertiliser and livestock feed. Many nations believed, however, that the meat from a whale should be sold for human consumption. Fresh, salted, smoked, cured, preserved or canned, countries all over the world were increasingly eating the ‘by-product’ of whales, particularly Japan, Norway and Germany. Despite these nations best efforts at promoting the meat by distributing canned samples, most American, British and Australians simply found that there was ‘something unpleasant about the thought of eating whale meat’ (‘London Table Talk’, The Advertiser, Adelaide, South Australia, 20 April 1910, p 10).

It wasn’t until the food shortage of World War I that alternative meats such as whale were seriously reconsidered in America and the British Commonwealth.  Renamed ‘sea beef’, the meat became a reasonably priced and plentiful substitute for beef, pork and lamb. Sold fresh in steaks and roasts, Women’s magazine gave instructions on how it should be cooked, preferably with a ‘good brown onion sauce’.

The Australian National Maritime Museum collection includes a vast assortment of objects relating to Australia’s history of whaling and various whale products, which you can now browse on-line.

War and Love

A new exhibit has been installed in the Museum's Passengers gallery, about Japanese War Brides. It is called 'War and Love'.
A new exhibit has been installed in the Museum’s Passengers gallery, about Japanese War Brides. It is called ‘War and Love’.

This new exhibit tells the story of two Japanese women – Teruko Blair and Sadako Morris – who met and fell in love with Australian soldiers during the Allied Occupation of Japan. They made Australian immigration history, being the first significant group of non-Europeans permitted to migrate to Australia in the early 1950s while the White Australia Policy was still in place.