Flagging a mystery in Canton

The French and United States factories at Canton, c1841. ANMM Collection 00015750. Purchased with USA Bicentennial Gift funds.

The French and United States factories at Canton, c1841. ANMM Collection 00015750. Purchased with USA Bicentennial Gift funds.

History in art

When I visit maritime museums, I am always drawn to the ‘China trade’ paintings of Canton (now Guangzhou), the southern Chinese port to which all foreign trade was restricted from 1757 under the Qing dynasty’s Canton System. There is something about their composition that is so intriguing – the merging of Chinese and European artistic traditions, the bustling river crowded with boats, and the detailed architectural rendering of the Western merchants’ hongs (factories) with their national flags proudly displayed out front.

Recently I have been researching one of the museum’s China trade paintings as part of a broader project on the 200th anniversary of the arrival of Cantonese settler Mak Sai Ying in Sydney in 1818. Our oil painting depicts the French and American hongs on the western side of the Thirteen Factories district along the Pearl River. It has been dated about 1841, or the latter stages of the First Opium War (1839–1842) between Britain and China, which would result in the abolition of the Canton System and the opening of five Chinese treaty ports to foreign trade. What I really wanted to know about our painting was: why would the British Red Ensign be flying in front of the Spanish factory?

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Barbarism and brutality: surviving the Batavia shipwreck

A depiction of the massacre among the marooned survivors of the Batavia. From Pelsaert's published journal, 1647. ANMM Collection: 00004995.

A depiction of the massacre among the marooned survivors of the Batavia. From Pelsaert’s published journal, 1647. ANMM Collection: 00004995.

A shipwreck turns to tragedy

Almost 400 years ago, in the hours before dawn on 4 June 1629, a flagship of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) was wrecked upon Morning Reef near Beacon Island, some 60 kilometres off the Western Australian coast. It was the maiden voyage of the Batavia, bound for the Dutch East Indian colonies of modern-day Jakarta, but the tragedy of shipwreck would be overshadowed by the subsequent mutiny among the survivors on the isolated Houtman Abrolhos Islands.

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By the sea, drinking tea

The global influence of a beloved brew

‘By the sea, drinking tea’, by researcher and former assistant curator Mariko Smith. From Signals 103 (June-August 2013).

Tea can be considered as the first global commodity for mass consumption, and the maritime industry was crucial to this achievement by transporting chests of tea between ports around the world. Key players in the supply and demand for tea included large multinational merchant companies in Europe, most notably the United Dutch East India Company (VOC) and Britain’s own East India Company, which dealt in important trade goods such as tea between the Far East and Europe from the 17th to 19th centuries. These companies played important roles in exploration and discovery as well as commercial trade. Ships of exploration and commerce, they can be all considered as vessels of change: they brought significant social, cultural, economic and political transformations to nations such as Britain and Australia, simply through importing this fragrant cargo.

FLYING CLOUD painted to be the frontispiece for  'The Clipper Ship Era' -Arthur C Clark

Flying Cloud, painted to be the frontispiece for ‘The Clipper Ship Era’ -Arthur C Clark.

According to BBC Radio 4’s In our time profile on tea in 2004, Britain’s trade in tea began with a modest official import of just two ounces (60 g) during the 1660s, and grew to an annual supply of some 24 million pounds (11 million kg) by 1801. By the turn of the 20th century it was one of the most widely consumed substances on Earth; rich and poor alike were sipping an average of two cups a day and every Briton was using on average six pounds (3 kg) of tea leaves per year. Tea’s ability to transcend class was not lost on commentators such as English merchant philanthropist Jonas Hanway, who warned European society in an essay written in 1757 that ‘your servants’ servants, down to the very beggars, will not be satisfied unless they consume the produce of the remote country of China’.

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From Bengal to Bandhani to Bandanas: a story about Indian textiles

On my desk is a simple cardboard box filled with wonderful things.

Natural dyes and mordants. Cochineal, Black Henna, Indigo and a small laboratory of fixative chemicals. Beside these, a pile of silk and cotton lengths and a well loved wrap skirt made of old saree fabrics patterned with Bandhani ( an Indian technique of tie-dye). These materials sit in waiting for a fantastic program we are running next weekend in association with our East of India exhibition- from Bengal to Bandhani- a talk and textile workshop with renowned artist Liz Williamson.

bandhani (Indian tie dye) saree fabric

Bandhani (Indian tie dye) saree fabric

As a fine arts textiles student in years gone by, I used to spend much of my time thinking about the significance and stories of cloth. There are so many fascinating stories behind Bandhani textiles. Traditionally you could identify a person’s community affiliations from the patterns of Bandhani on their turban or saree. The colour of the dyes could indicate a bride (reds) or a new mother (yellows). A short tie-dyed silk length known as a bandana (also derived from the word bandhnu or banda- “to tie”) from Bengal was an incredibly popular export in the 1700s, worn around the neck, it became a quintessential clothing item for sailors and labourers. In our workshop we will explore many such stories behind Indian textiles, Bandhani, and natural dyes as we make our own silk and cotton resist dye scarves.

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Walking in Hall’s footsteps

Two men and a dog on the Hawkesbury c 1900, Photographer: William Hall
ANMM Collection

Ever since the museum joined Flickr Commons in 2008, we have gleaned a wealth of invaluable information related to photographic items from the collection. Flickr users have scanned images noticing the tiniest details, such as barely discernible ship names and locations. With their generous help we have been able to attach names to faces, found their stories and retold them with the aid of stunning photography particularly from the Samuel J Hood and William J Hall collections. One such example of the power of the Flickr Commons community was in the investigation of the Hall photographs of the lower Hawkesbury River region taken around 1900. A simple comment left by a Flickr user lead to correspondence with a historical society in an effort to learn more about the photographs. This was followed by a personal quest to explore Hall’s Hawkesbury and imagine what travelling the area may have been like for the man with the glass plate camera. Continue reading

Happy Birthday to Australian horses!

Today is the birthday of all Australian horses and to celebrate I decided to write about shipping horses from Australia to India. Yes a rather unusual topic, but nevertheless a key story in our upcoming exhibition East of India: Power, Trade and Australia 1788-1857.  I have been spending my days trawling through historic newspapers, government records and diaries to find reports of shipping activities between Australia and India during the early years of European settlement.

Imports from India to Australia included flour, rice, muslin, chintz, shoes, furniture and rum. Unfortunately for the ship owners there were few goods available for export back out of Sydney. While John Macarthur is famous for introducing the merino sheep to Australia, he also bred horses and established the largest stud in the colony. In 1822 he sent the Governor General of India a stallion as a specimen of a ‘fine New South Wales horse’. Captain Collins was sent to Sydney from Madras in 1834, his mission was to purchase horses for the Madras artillery and dragoons. By the end of the year he had sent three shipments of horses to India. Independent agents and ship owners were also keen to make money and they began shipping horses direct, hoping to sell for a higher price.

"Shipping horses to India"

Illustrated Australian News 4 October 1882  ANMM Collection

Offloading horses in Madras was particularly hazardous as shown in this dramatic painting from the collection of the Mitchell Library.

There was an absence of natural deep waters in the Madras region, so small country boats were sent out to meet the larger sailing ships. The horses were swung into the boats, and they were then taken to shallow waters, where the boats were capsized and the horses forced to leap out and somehow reach the shore. Daniel Wilson was responsible for looking after the horses onboard the Henrietta on a journey from Sydney to Calcutta and an excerpt from his fascinating diary held in the Mitchell Library illustrates one of the difficulties the horses faced on the journey.

‘Sunday 18th Feby. 1844-1845
We have now a great deal of trouble with the horses, they are quite worn out with standing so long on their legs that they are falling down every morning, especially Bowmans horses which are in very bad condition, being so when shipped.’

We are still working out how to tell the story of the horse trade in an effective and dynamic way for visitors. We could display paintings and reproduce historic advertisements or perhaps record dramatised accounts of diary entries with sound effects of loading horses onboard ship in the background. Another approach might be to interview a vet involved in shipping horses in the twenty-first century to reflect on the challenges involved.

While life onboard was difficult for all the crew and passengers, I feel especially sorry for the poor horses.

East of India: Power, Trade and Australia 1788-1857 opens in June 2013 and we will be posting regular updates on various aspects of its development over the next twelve months.

Object of the Week

Object of the Week: A Chinese tea caddy

Chinese tea caddy

Chinese tea caddy, ANMM Collection

This Chinese tea caddy was exported during the prolific tea trade of the 19th and 20th centuries. It has a pear shaped body decorated with finely grained chrysanthemum blossoms. The cylindrical cover was used to measure tea prior to the introduction of tea caddy spoons and is inscribed with the date, 30th April 1904-1929. The base features three hallmarks, including the manufacturer’s stamp of Hung Chong & Co, who worked out of Canton and Shanghai, China. It was owned and commissioned by an Australian merchant working in Shanghai, probably as a gift or memento.

Hung Chong & Co were influential and respected jewellers based out of Club Street, Honan Island Canton and Nanking Road, Shanghai in China between 1850 and 1930. During this period Shanghai became one of the major tea trading ports in China with the introduction of steam navigation on the Yangtze River in 1861.

Western merchants from America, Australian and Europe actively traded with China during the 19th and 20th centuries. On their ships they brought back items including metal domestic wares, paintings, furniture, carvings and tea. The exportation of silverware objects has been less acknowledged than other materials, as Chinese artists commonly used pseudo-marks on their manufactured wares, making it difficult to distinguish them from products made in Europe or America.

Hallmarks on the tea caddy base

Hallmarks on the tea caddy base

Founded in the 10th century, the city of Shanghai is located east of Suzhou at the mouth of the Yangtze River. Its importance in the region grew due to its extensive irrigation system and it soon became a major cotton production and manufacturing centre with a population of over 250,000 people.

In the 19th century the importance of Shanghai developed further as the city’s strategic position at the mouth of the Yangtze River was perceived by westerners as an ideal location for trade with the Chinese hinterland. Following the First and Second Opium Wars, Shanghai was recognised as one of the Treaty Ports established by the 1842 Treaty of Nanjing, the 1843 Treaty of Bruges and the 1844 Sino-American Treaty of Wangsia and foreigners were allowed to establish trading factories and European settlements inside the city.

Date inscription

Date inscription

These treaties opened the floodgate of western culture and influence into Shanghai. Over time two cities emerged: a chaotic Chinese city and a western city, inhabited mainly by Chinese. The western part of Shanghai was one of the most modern “European” cities in the world – often called the Paris of the East. New inventions like electricity and trams were quickly introduced, and westerners turned Shanghai into a huge metropolis with the western part of Shanghai nearly four times larger than the Chinese part in the early 20th century. British, American, French, German and Australian businesses made a great deal of money in the tea trade, real estate and finance and by the early 1920s half of all China’s imports and exports passed through the city of Shanghai.

This tea caddy is a lovely example of Chinese silverware and highlights the importance of tea as a western commodity in the 20th century. I talso represents the Chinese exportation of silverware by American, Australia and European merchants. The Australian National Maritime Museum collection contains a number of other Chinese export and trade items, including other silver tea caddies, pewter tea pots, snuff boxes, tea boxes, ivory fans, dinner sets and cutlery, which you can now browse on-line.