Searching for junks and sampans

‘<a href=";locale=en_AU&amp;metadata_object_ratio=14&amp;show_metadata=true&amp;VIEWER_URL=/view/action/;DELIVERY_RULE_ID=10&amp;frameId=1&amp;usePid1=true&amp;usePid2=true" target="_blank" rel="noopener">Sailing from Goondi to Geraldton</a>’, circa 1902. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.

Sailing from Goondi to Geraldton’, circa 1902. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.

Volunteer researcher Aliza Chin shares her investigations of late 19th-century Chinese vessels built in Australia.

A research adventure

For the past two months, I have been a volunteer researcher at the Museum. I have become an explorer who conducts archival deep dives, a decipherer and editor of Trove auto-text, an appraiser of photographs stored away in digital collections, swinging between feelings of elation and frustration, in between clicks and scrolls. If you don’t know Trove, it is an Australian online library database aggregator; a free faceted-search engine hosted by the National Library of Australia,[1] in partnership with content providers including members of the National & State Libraries Australasia.[2] It is one of the most well-respected[3] and accessed GLAM services in Australia, with over 70,000 daily users.

To say that the experience has equipped me with new skills in my field would be an understatement, but this blog entry is not about me. Rather, it is about the issues and new sources encountered and uncovered in the little-studied area of Chinese shipbuilding; specifically, vessels that were made here in Australia between the 1870s and early 1900s. Dr Stephen Gapps has been researching sampans and junks for a while and invited me to help with this project.

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A gesture of kindness, Lord Nelson and the crew of the HMS Cordelia

A donation to the Vaughan Evans Library yielded a mysterious tale from history. Image: Kate Pentecost/ANMM.

A recent donation to the Vaughan Evans Library yielded a mysterious tale from history. Image: Kate Pentecost/ANMM.

A story hidden within a book

Sometimes it is the little things in life that can be the most interesting. A story that recently came across our path at the Vaughan Evans Library reflects this: It is a tale that took place in 1891 and involves Lord Viscount Nelson, a kind lady from Darlinghurst and thirteen wounded crew members from the HMS Cordelia… Continue reading

Who do I think they are? Searching for copyright

Throughout my internship I have been investigating various diaries and logs to gain access into the lives of the authors, quite literally. Who were these people? Where did they live? In what country? Did they have any relatives? Children? A spouse? When was their birthday? Do they talk about their occupation? These are just a few questions running through my mind as I read and research. But while this process is important to conducting a thorough search into the object to understand provenance and historical background, there is another increasingly overlooked reason to conduct this research – copyright.

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Suitcases, boats and bridges

Last week I was invited to speak about the museum’s work at the Suitcases, boats and bridges: telling migrant stories in Australian museums workshop, organised by Dr Nina Parish from the University of Bath and Dr Chiara O’Reilly from the University of Sydney. The workshop brought together academics, museum professionals and museum studies students to discuss how migrant stories have been collected and articulated in a number of Australian museums, ranging from large government-funded institutions such as ours, to smaller regional, suburban or volunteer-run museums.

Suitcases and boats in Passengers, the museum's permanent exhibition about Australia's immigration history. Photographer Andrew Frolows

Suitcases and boats in Passengers, the museum’s permanent exhibition about Australia’s immigration history. Photographer Andrew Frolows

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Discover your past: Inside History Magazine’s Q&A

Inside History Magazine's Expert Q&A with ANMM, December 2012

Inside History Magazine‘s Expert Q&A with ANMM, December 2012

On 13 December 2012, my colleague Penny Hyde and I participated in Inside History Magazine’s weekly Expert Q&A hosted on their Facebook page. For weeks prior to the forum, we brainstormed the kinds of questions people were likely to pose. Nothing, however, could have prepared us for the deluge of interesting questions and comments posted over just one hour! One thing certainly became clear throughout this experience, and that is, there is a growing network of people present online who are passionate about all things genealogy and family history. This is an audience hungry for information and willing to delve into the various research tools open to them. We enjoyed ourselves so much, in the end, we’re not sure if we learned more from them, than they did from us! Continue reading

Raine Island: it never Raines, it pours…

Hey, it’s Oli here again to tell you about another one of my tasks as an intern here at the museum: research!!

Early next year (2013), the museum plans on making a trip to the tip of Northern Queensland in the hope of investigating, surveying, and possibly excavating some endangered artefacts from the reef-riddled waters surrounding the infamous Raine Island. Perhaps the word ‘infamous’ is a little strong these days, but if there is one thing this research has taught me, it’s that Raine Island was absolutely treacherous for sailors during the 19th century, with around 40 known shipwrecks in the area immediately surrounding the island (one article I found stated that there had been 51 wrecks in the area in 1854 alone).

“Disaster at Sea”, Woven by the Victorian Tapestry Workshop, concept by Murray Walker, Ausrtalia, 1989. ANMM Collection

From the late 1700s onwards, Raine Island represented an opening in the Great Barrier Reef, and the start of the passage through Torres Strait for ships attempting to voyage from the East coast of Australia to Asia, India, and Europe. Once past the island, ships could enjoy the protection of the reef, and relatively calm waters safe from the furious surf of the Pacific Ocean. However, before ships could take advantage of this calm, they had to navigate waters riddled with small and large reefs, and if a crew failed to properly identify a certain landmark, or else allowed themselves to deviate slightly from the established path, they were almost guaranteed to spend the rest of their voyage in a lifeboat (if they were lucky).

Alongside attempting to discover various facts about the ships’ destination and cargo, I am looking for accounts of the actual wrecking events in the newspapers of the period. This has exposed me to some amazing stories of death and survival, the like of which I would not otherwise have imagined were possible in the Australian context.

One of the most morbidly interesting is the story of the Charles Eaton, which was a barque out of Sydney bound for Singapore with around 40 people on board. On 15 August 1834, the barque mounted a reef and stuck fast under the heavy surf of the Pacific Ocean. Five members of the crew, including the ship’s carpenter and boatswain, immediately abandoned ship on the only boat that was still usable, but the others refused to join them because it seemed utterly hopeless for the little boat to get away. The five managed to survive and navigated their way right across the top of Australia to Timor where they were immediately robbed, and were almost murdered, but for the kindness of an elderly man, who nevertheless held them captive for over a year.

The rest of the crew on board the Charles Eaton set about making a raft from the components of the ship (after the storm had subsided) and finally succeeded in making a vessel large enough to carry around 10 people including three young boys: George and Willy D’Oyley, and William Sexton. The raft was set adrift, and the crew paddled for some days before meeting a man in a canoe, who invited them onto a nearby island, where he promised them turtle meat. Upon landing, the group were attacked by a large number of men, who decapitated all of them, except for the three boys, who were to be assimilated into the community (George D’Oyley and William Sexton were, however, beaten to death around two months later). Meanwhile, the rest of the crew still aboard the Charles Eaton had constructed another raft which would be capable of holding them all. This final vessel was cast off, and paddled around for a full week before also landing on an island at the direction of a man in a canoe. As the crew collapsed, exhausted upon the sand, they were attacked and butchered, and all were decapitated save another young boy who was also subsequently adopted into the community (the very same people who dealt likewise with the other raft).

The cover of a book in the museum’s collection, which is a narritive written by William Sexton some time after the shipwreck ordeal. It tells of his adventure, and some fond memories of his time on the island.

The fate of the Charles Eaton was an utter mystery for many months, before the five remaining crew managed to escape from their captivity in Timor, and sail to Batavia to alert authorities to the wreck. At this point, a rescue ship was sent out, but failed to discover the whereabouts of the survivors until the captain of another vessel reported sighting a white child in an indigenous family. The rescue vessel located them, along with a number of skulls identified as belonging to the crew of the Charles Eaton. The two boys were taken back to Europe, and provided witness to the whole event some two years after it had occurred (despite now having a slightly limited grasp on the English language).

Another interesting (and somewhat shorter) story was that of the Norna, which left for Hong Kong from Newcastle in 1861 under a cloud of controversy surrounding the murderous behaviour of the previous captain. The Norna was wrecked on a reef described merely as being 14 miles away from the wreck of the Constant. The ship and crew had been missing for some time before a search was sent out in the form of the Sphinx, which started searching islands around the Coral Sea, and managed to find a note in a glass bottle buried on a tropical island under a tree with a plaque reading “NORNA”. The note was written by the Second Officer of the Norna, and described the wreck event, and the subsequent months of being marooned on the island. The captain and his family had left after a week on the island, never to be heard of again. The rest of the crew intended to make for the ‘Pellew Islands’ in the remaining boat, but were not found there by the rescue vessel.

After further searches were made of the surrounding islands, the crew of the Norna were located on an island, but in the captivity of the indigenous people who refused to release their captives or negotiate with the would-be rescuers. As a result, the crew of the Sphinx burned down all the villages on the island, and held the the local chiefs hostage until eventually the surviving crew of the Norna were handed over.

These accounts, and others like them, provide an amazing insight into the extraordinary stories emanating from Australia’s maritime history, and the fact that many of these vessels are yet to be properly investigated (let alone discovered) convince me that the maritime archaeologists here at the museum have some of the most remarkable jobs in Australia!

Meet Inger Sheil, our in-house Titanic expert

Inger SheilMeet Inger Sheil, the personal assistant to the museum’s director and  Titanic researcher. Over the next week, Inger will recall an epic journey of discovery and research that’s occupied much of her life… We hope you enjoy.

Spending a childhood on Sydney’s northern beaches, the sea was a part of daily life. My grandmother shared my taste for documentaries, and together we’d watch Jacques Cousteau explore the world’s oceans. The first shipwreck I encountered on screen, however, was not the one that can lay claim to being the most infamous of all, but the more recent Andrea Dorea. As it lay in depths accessible to scuba divers, I watched in fascination as they explored the submerged wreck, and listened to the dramatic stories of survivors who described the terrible collision that sank her in 1956 off Nantucket, Massachusetts.

It was this human element that was to draw me to the Titanic some years later when I was introduced to the story of that great tragedy of the Belle Époque. A second-grade school friend showed me a book, and the outline of the famous story began to solidify for me – the lack of sufficient lifeboats, the ‘unsinkable’ reputation, the wealthy who were able to take lifeboat places when the third-class passengers could not. It would be many years before I found that the truth was not quite so simple, but the broad brushstrokes were there. Tucked into my childhood ephemera is a sketch I made in the journal I kept as a seven year old. Stick figures play out the story on a ship pitched at a dramatic 75 degrees to the sea’s surface, with terrified passengers and crew handing small children down to mothers in lifeboats. A sequel illustration of the scene ashore shows dripping survivors demanding their money back from ticket agents. Growing up, I picked up books on the subject where I could. I had just moved to Singapore when the Titanic was rediscovered in 1985. The challenges of a new school in a new country couldn’t compete with the fascination of the Time magazine cover painting of the lost ship on the ocean floor. With my interest reignited, I was able to locate such classics as Walter Lord’s vividly narrated A Night to Remember. But access to information was limited to some books and the occasional television program. No one in my immediate circle shared the fascination.

All this changed in 1996 when I first gained access to the internet. It enabled me to track down and order books and magazines on the subject from around the world, and to contact other enthusiasts. My bookshelf was soon creaking with the works of over 80 years of writing on the subject, and I became absorbed in online discussions about every aspect of the ship, from the minutiae of the lives of those connected with it to the placement of its rivets.

In fact it was the social history that most interested me. It was not so much the passengers – that cross-section of Edwardian British and American society along with immigrants from around the globe – but rather her crew that drew me in. These were the men and women for whom Titanic wasn’t a means of flitting from one continent to the other or a vehicle to a new life in a foreign land, but a career and a way of life on the sea.

– Inger Sheil

Visiting vessel RV Whale Song

Whale Song at sea

RV Whale Song at sea

We have a visitor at the museum! Whale research vessel Whale Song arrived last Thursday and will be moored at the museum wharves until 21 January.

On Thursday, I went onboard to have a look around. During my visit I met Curt and Michelle who live and research on the vessel with their daughter and two professional crew… Oh, and Skipper their fiesty little watch dog! Curt and Michelle generously showed me around the vessel and told me about their facsinating whale research.

I learnt that Whale Song is an ice class research vessel specifically built to conduct whale research throughout the worlds’ oceans.  Her hull and machinery are sound dampened so that whale songs can be heard using towed acoustic arrays (a series of underwater microphones) while the vessel is underway.  She may be one of the few vessels, besides navy submarines, that was ever designed to operate silently like this.  She has forward searching sonar and military spec night vision cameras (which we tested out, but no whales in Darling Harbour!) for locating whales in the most challenging conditions from the tropics to the poles.

RV Whale Song at sea with a pod of four whales at the bow

A pod of whales off the bow of RV Whale Song

Curt also showed me the impressive three dimensional real time bottom mapping software that allows scientists onboard to map canyons and seamounts where they find whales.

Most recently the team have completed the second season of a five year program funded by US oil and gas giants known as the Joint Industry Partners.  The project operated from Perigian Beach to the Queensland Sunshine Coast and examined the behavioural affects of seismic air guns on migrating humpback whales. Prior to that, Whale Song was in the Kimberley region measuring blubber thickness with stereo cameras set up on her gimballed 12m boom crane and applying satellite tags to northbound humpback whales off Western Australia’s Ningaloo Reef.

After a brief stop in Sydney, Whale Song will head south around the bottom of Australia, studying pygmy blue whales, killer whales and sperm whales enroute to Fremantle where she will finish  her first circumnavigation of Australia.  The following months will be spent satellite tagging blue whales and humpback whales in preparation for an expedition to the Antarctic in the summer of 2012/2013.

Curt, Michelle and Skipper the dog onboard RV Whale Song

Curt, Michelle and Skipper the dog onboard RV Whale Song

Whale Song can be viewed from the museum wharves until 21 January.

For more information about Whale Song and the Centre for Whale Research, visit their website.

Carli, ANMM.

P.S Check out pics from my visit on Flickr.

Insights from a Library Intern

Margaret Library Intern
Margaret, Library Intern

Let me introduce myself, I’m Margaret a third year undergraduate student in Information Studies. In order to graduate at the end of this year (fingers and toes crossed that I will) I’m required to do a three week library placement. After much consideration I thought it would be worthwhile for me to work in a research library in order to gain skills and experiences in a library very different to my current position working in a school.

After contacting Frances Prentice at the Vaughan Evans Library I was pleased to hear that I’d been accepted. During my three weeks I was given a number of wonderful opportunities to enhance my skills and experiences by performing a number of tasks. These have included original cataloguing, indexing and abstracting journal articles, writing a detailed summary of an oral history and my favourite researching enquires from family historians who had contacted the library to find information on voyages taken by particular vessels or passengers who had emigrated from the United Kingdom.

I would also like to take this opportunity to thank the staff of the Museum for giving their time in order to help me understand how the Museum functions and uses the library’s resources and services. Finally I’m very grateful to the staff of Vaughan Evan’s Library for mentoring and supporting me to further develop my skills and experience in a research library.

Library shares bookmarks with you

The Vaughan Evans Library is now publishing bookmarks on the museum blog.

“The Library’s Bookmarks” section at the right hand side of the screen contains the most recent bookmarks we’ve added to social bookmarking site

As Australian’s we’re aware that to access many of the primary resources used for maritime and related family history research can often involve people in long and expensive journeys. Either here or to their state libraries. Sometimes even interstate or overseas. So we began by seeking out digital versions of some of those hard to find texts and reference books for you.

We’ll be adding to our bookmark collection regularly and hope to share with you sites that we work with all the time.

We hope you’ll find them a useful and convenient research tool too and want to share them with others.

So visit the velibrary at