I am constantly amazed at the array of discoveries that are being made in the Australian National Maritime Museum’s collection. Some of them are just what you might expect from a maritime history collection, and others are just downright unusual. Until recently, the above photograph was catalogued as ‘unidentified Japanese woman’ posing on board the San Franciscan liner SS Sierra at an event celebrating the arrival of Australia’s first Movietone News truck on 8 August 1929. However, as one of our Flickr Commons followers demonstrated, Sydney photographer Samuel J Hood photographed his fair share of interesting characters from far away shores. Continue reading
Rheumatism sufferers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were bombarded with many strange potions, lotions and pills – all claiming to cure their complaints. None were perhaps as strange, or stomach churning, as the curious cure practiced in the seaside town of Eden, Twofold Bay.
‘When a whale is killed and towed ashore and while the interior of the carcass still retains a little warmth a hole is cut through one side of the body sufficiently large to admit the patient, the lower part of whose body from the feet to the loins should sink in the whale’s intestines, leaving the head, of course, outside the aperture. The latter is closed up as closely as possible, otherwise the patient would not be able to breathe through the volume of animoniacal gases which would escape from every opening left uncovered.’
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.
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]
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.
Since coming across this striking portrait a year ago, the anonymity of its subject has given me plenty of room to reflect on its beauty. The dark and lovely creature peering intensely at the photographer in this image from our historic William Hall collection seemed entirely suited to the shroud of mystery surrounding her identity.
In 1938, on an uninhabited island somewhere between America and New Zealand, a German nobleman anchored his schooner. He had a mission. Twenty-one years previously, he’d buried treasure, or as he told the American press, ‘a chest with gold and German banknotes’. He told The Australian Women’s Weekly that a ‘plan of the hidden treasure was tattooed on his knee’ and he was finally making the journey from his country to retrieve it. There have been many labels used to describe Count Felix Graf von Luckner – war raider, Nazi spy, gentleman pirate, ‘rollicking buccaneer’, and the list goes on. Some of them are unfounded, yet some of them contain elements of the truth. So when he finally arrived, Samuel J Hood was on hand to photograph the man famed for sinking 28 Allied merchant vessels in 1917. Hood’s photographs display a glimmer of the controversy and suspicion aroused that day back in May 1938 as tensions brewed in Europe and a German war raider known as Der Seeteufel (the Sea Devil) sailed into Sydney waters in the dead of the night. Continue reading
Back in the olden days, you may be surprised to know, in honour of visiting international navy fleets, we hosted special events often called ‘Sydney Illuminations’. In 1908, during the United States Great White Fleet visit, ‘Magnificent! Splendid! Beautiful!’ were the words used to describe the electric lighting and searchlights placed around Customs House, Martin Place and Circular Quay. Even the great battleships themselves were lined from bow to stern in ‘dazzling brilliance’, in what culminated in a spectacular festival of light attended by thousands of people. Sound familiar? We’ve experienced the festival of light that is Vivid Sydney, and tonight a real treat is in store for International Fleet Review. Fireworks, projections and light will once again animate the Sydney Opera House and visiting ships on the harbour. At 7:40 tonight, it’s showtime! Continue reading
On this day, 100 years ago, the Royal Australian Navy’s first fleet of warships entered Sydney Heads ‘from out the morning mist’, as The Sydney Morning Herald dramatically described it. Headed by our first naval flagship, the aptly named Indefatigable class battlecruiser HMAS Australia, HMA Ships Sydney, Encounter, Melbourne, Warrego, Parramatta and Yarra comprised our first Fleet Unit. Sydney’s shores were lined with thousands of people, dressed in their Edwardian best, with their waistcoats and feathered hats. Over the next few days, Sydney Harbour will come alive once more, this time without the Edwardian garb, for International Fleet Review and what will be the largest gathering of navy ships most of us has ever seen.
Imagine a sailor, navigator or tactician and you don’t picture them in a blazer. Blazers are part of a formal uniform which need to be viewed alongside other artefacts to reveal their character and meaning. Most of the jackets and blazers in the sporting collections at museum have been collected as part of a selection of material related to sporting personalities, but here I’ll detail a few of them in isolation, to chart some of the key campaigns during Australia’s participation in the America’s cup.
In the years leading up to 1983 Australia had won the right to challenge every three years bar one since 1962. Then Sydney media baron and sailor Sir Frank Packer bankrolled the Alan Payne designed Gretel to scare the Americans a little with its efficient winch system, deck layout and speed to windward. With six further challenges moving from the east to the west coast of Australia the two countries had enjoyed a twenty year rivalry. Continue reading
Last week we had the pleasure of hosting a History Week event here at the museum – From Glass-plate to Cyber-space. As the theme was Picture This, we decided to talk about how sharing the museum’s collection online has completely transformed it and we invited representatives from other cultural institutions to do the same. As promised, we organised our photographer *cough* absolute lifesaver *cough* to record the event for those of you who couldn’t make it along. Enjoy! Continue reading