The Pentateuch that made three voyages on the SS Great Britain

Jewish School and Family Bible. The First Part containing the Pentateuch

Jewish School and Family Bible. The First Part containing the Pentateuch. ANMM Collection 00018158

I have just finished reading Geraldine Brook’s masterfully written People of the Book (Fourth Estate, London, 2008), in which Brook describes the fictional quest by an Australian paper conservator to track down the previous history of the Sarajevo Haggadah ­– an extremely rare and highly significant illuminated Jewish manuscript – that was written in Barcelona, Spain, around 1350.

This quest by Brook’s fictional conservator reminded me immediately of a Jewish object in our collection at the Australian National Maritime Museum which also has an intriguing story to tell.

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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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“She will be the first woman that has ever made it.”

In 1766 Louis-Antoine Bougainville, a 37 year old French army and navy veteran, received his wish from King Louis XV to become the first Frenchman to circumnavigate the globe. In a time of European rivalry, Bougainville’s journey would be an ‘enlightenment expedition’ – not only searching for new lands and the power and glory they would bestow of France, but also of learning. To help him achieve this he took with him the botanist and physician, Philibert Commerson.

Commerson was a man passionate about his field of study and he bought with him a keen sense of observation for all new discoveries – natural, cultural and scientific. He also bought with him something that no one on the expedition could ever have foreseen, a woman.

Philibert Commerson, the botanist who relied so much on Jeanne Baret

Philibert Commerson, the botanist who relied so much on Jeanne Baret

Women were of course explicitly forbidden on French naval ships and Commercon and his “assistant” had gone to great lengths to conceal her true identity. Her name was Jeanne Baret and she was a skilled and knowledgeable botanist. Whilst never formally trained, Jeanne’s skill as a herbalist had made her a valuable assistant to Commercon prior to his acceptance of Bougainville’s expedition.

Jeanne and Commerson had lived together after the death of Commerson’s first wife. It seems initially Jeanne acted as Commerson’s housekeeper and nurse due his continuous ill health. But clearly intelligent and gifted, Jeanne also became an assistant in Commerson’s botanical studies. Jeanne had given birth to a child that many believe was Commerson’s and yet social conventions and class restrictions seemed to prevent them ever marrying.

Perhaps it was Jeanne’s own sense of adventure and scientific interest , a love for Commerson or a sense of responsibility to care for his health and assist in his studies, that saw the pair convince Bouganville that she, now known as “Jean”, was a Commerson’s male assistant. They were allocated a shared cabin aboard the Etoile where they could work, sleep and store their equipment. This alleviated many of the practical problems of keeping herself disguised from the crew. Nonetheless, suspicion grew on board that all was not quite what it seemed with “Jean”.

Jeanne Baret as

Jeanne Baret as “Jean”

Whilst on shore, Jeanne acted as Commeson’s eyes and legs. He was still plagued by leg ulcers and it is unlikely he could have walked the vast distances required to collect specimens. She carried all their equipment and often trekked the terrain alone and armed to ensure no further suspicions would be raised by any perceived lack of strength on her part.

The great reveal came whilst the Boudeuse and the Etoile were at Tahiti. Interestingly it seems it was the local inhabitants who exposed “Jean” rather than the dubious crew. Faced with the situation, Bougainville had no choice but to address it.

'Bougainville at Tahiti' by Gustave Alaux ANMM Collection 00000921

‘Bougainville at Tahiti’ by Gustave Alaux, 1930,  ANMM Collection

In his book ‘A Voyage Round The World In The Years 1766, 1767, 1768 and 1769’  Bougainville gives a very low key account of the event:

Some business called me to the Etoile and I had an opportunity of verifying a very singular fact. For some time there was a report in both ships, that the servant of Commerson, named Bare, was a woman. His shape, voice, beardless chin, and scrupulous attention of not changing his linen, or making the natural discharges in the presence of anyone, besides several other signs, had given rise to and kept up their suspicion. But how was it possible to discover the woman in the indefatigable Bare, who was already an expert botanist, had followed his master in all his botanical walks, amidst the snows and frozen mountains of the Straits of Magalhaens, and had even on such troublesome excursions carried provisions, arms, and herbals, with so much courage and strength, that the naturalist had called him his beast of burden?”

Bougainville's account of the journey which includes the story of Jeanne. This first English edition is part of the ANMM collection and was originally from the library of Matthew Boulton, associate of Sir Joseph Banks

Bougainville’s account of his journey which includes the story of Jeanne.  ANMM collection

What happened immediately after the discovery is not known for certain. Bougainville states that “after that period it was difficult to prevent the sailors from alarming her modesty” and certainly most accounts acknowledge serious physical repercussions against Jeanne by the crew. She claimed initially that Commerson had not known her or her gender before the expedition and it was her own interest in the journey and a lack of money at home that had caused her to act as she did.

Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, the expedition leader who would become an unlikely ally to Jeanne

Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, the expedition leader who would become an unlikely ally to Jeanne

Despite the illegality of her ruse, Bougainville seems to have had some sympathy and good will for both Commerson and Jeanne. Once the expedition reached Mauritus, he arranged with Pierre Poivre, the governor there, to ‘acquire the services’ of Commerson to carry out a survey of possible medicinal plants on the island. Poivre, an avid botanist himself and a forerunner in the area of conservation, became a patron of Commerson and provided him with a “huge apartment in his house where he could prepare and conserve his plants, birds, insects.. [Poivre] hosted him at his table, lent him his servants and rewarded his talents in the most generous possible way.”

There is no mention of Jeanne. Can we assume she stayed with Commerson? Safe now in Poivre’s house? It seems she was again pregnant with another son that she adopted out but she was certainly still in Mauritius when Commerson died in 1773.

After this, with Commerson’s death and Poivre replaced as governor, Jeanne was alone. One account tells that she found work as a herbalist or tavern maid and married a French solider. They made their way back to France in 1774 or 1775 and by doing so, Jeanne became the first woman to circumnavigate the globe. She took the considerable trouble to bring back with her the specimens and notes she and Commerson had compiled and the collection became part of the Musee du Roi in Paris.

Jeanne had been left some money by Commerson in his will and although her achievements were not acknowledged publically, she did later receive a small pension from the government in acknowledgment for her work on the expedition. There is one theory that it was Bougainville, who rose to great heights under Napoleon, who ensured this pension was paid to her. While some suggest Bougainville had wanted to distance himself from the fact a woman had been on his expedition, I rather think he admired her for it.

He does acknowledge in his book that in going around the world:

she will be the first woman that has ever made it, and I must do her the justice to affirm that she has always behaved on board with the most scrupulous modesty.”

Jeanne died in 1807 at the age of 67 but it was not until 2012 that a fitting tribute to her was created. Eric Tepe named a new plant species from southern Ecuador and northern Peru after her. In his dedication of ‘Solanum baretiae’ Tepe says:

“We believe that this new species of Solanum, with its highly variable leaves, is a fitting tribute to Baret.” They describe the plant’s namesake as “an unwitting explorer who risked life and limb for love of botany and, in doing so, became the first woman to circumnavigate the world.”

Solanum baretiae The plant named for Jeanne in 2012.

Solanum baretiae
The plant named for Jeanne in 2012.

 Myffanwy Bryant


P&O makes history in Sydney Harbour. Photographs by Gervais Purcell

A vintage photo of passengers queuing to board a P&O Liner

Passengers boarding a P&O liner c1950/1960s, ANMM Collection, ANMS1404[927]

Historic photographs for P&O Cruises Australia by Gervais Purcell give an insight into commerce, fashion, interior design and technology of the day and depict some well-known liners including SS Oriana, SS Himalaya, SS Orcades and the Princess of Tasmania. Captured are the crowds that flocked to the cruisers, either to sail on board or to celebrate the spectacle, as well as advertising images designed to attract prospective travellers.

Among the most historically significant of Gervais’ P&O images are a small set of aerial views of the SS Oriana arriving in Sydney Harbour on its first line voyage.

a vintage photo of SS Oriana and tug boats in Sydney Harbour 30 December 1960

SS Oriana arrives in Sydney Harbour 30 December 1960. ANMM Collection, ANMS1406[265]

SS Oriana was the last passenger liner commissioned by Orient Steam Navigation Company and was the first British-built liner to pioneer a bulbous bow with bow thrusters, and a much publicised television system.

A vintage photo of SS Oriana at the International Passenger Terminal in Circular Quay - aerial view with Harbour Bridge in the frame

SS Oriana docked alongside the newly opened International passenger Terminal at Sydney Cove. Photo taken 30 December 1960, ANMM Collection, ANMS1406[283]

Built by Vickers-Armstrongs (Shipbuilders) Ltd Yard at Barrow-in-Furness, England, it was the fastest ship at the time to make the crossing from Southampton to Australia, cutting the trip by seven days. The arrival documented by Gervais in Sydney was part of Oriana’s Southampton round-trip stopping at Melbourne, Sydney, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Setting out on 3 December 1960, SS Oriana arrived in Sydney 30 December 1960 and was the first ship to dock at the newly built International Passenger Terminal in Sydney Cove.

This BBC Movietone news reel offers a flashback to Oriana’s approach to Sydney, highlighting the ship’s cost, size, speed and amenity.

Australian connections were symbolically planned and incorporated into Oriana’s branding. Princess Alexandra of Kent, fresh from a royal visit to Australia, officiated at the launch and a bottle of Australian wine was among the three used in the naming ceremony. A portrait of the Princess was also commissioned for the ship from an up-and-coming Australian painter, Judy Cassab (1920-2015).

In an interview with James Gleeson dated 1 January 1978, sourced from
the National Gallery of Australia, the late Judy Cassab* gives an amusing account of her experience. Cassab explains how a director of P&O who bought a painting from her first solo exhibition in London (1959) happened to show it to then Chairman of P&O, Sir Colin Anderson (also chairman of the Tate Gallery Trustees). On Cassab’s return to Sydney, having been sworn to secrecy and informed of this inconceivable invitation to paint the Princess, Cassab describes a letter she received:

‘Her Majesty The Queen has given you the yellow drawing room in Buckingham Palace as your studio’. It was ridiculous—they asked me how many sittings, and whether I was I sure I would be out of there by 22 April. I said, ‘Yes, I hope so.’ They said, ‘Because on the 23rd General de Gaulle is moving in’. Princess Alexandra came every day and changed and posed for me. She was infinitely patient and full of good will, saying, ‘Don’t worry if you don’t finish it. I will come up to the office of Orient Line and continue sitting for you’. But I did finish it.

Another Movietone newsreel from the day shows a few good close-ups of some of the men who built Oriana and of the Princess.

But getting back to Gervais’ work, one of my personal favourites is a quirky promotional photo of a typical P&O bar. Like a well-orchestrated symphony, the actors and the photographer are perfectly synchronised, each interaction in the scene expressed and captured at that critical moment. Sadly for me, there were no images either side of this in the catalogue that hinted at a sequence, but perhaps, as more of the 3,000 images in the museum’s Gervais Purcell collection emerge, I will find others. For now I’m happy to imagine it as a single genius take.

A vintage promotional photo of a crowd at a P&O bar.

Promotional photo for a P&O bar scene c.1960, ANMM Collection, ANMS1406[318]

On 25 November 2015, five P&O liners will rendezvous in Sydney Harbour for a historic first. The museum is hosting a cruise to witness this contemporary spectacle. You can visit our events page to learn more about the cruise or to book a ticket – and take some photographs if you go.

— Gemma Nardone

Footnote: At the time of sending this article to press I was saddened to hear of the death of Judy Cassab. Judy Cassab CBE AO came to Australia as a refugee of World War II and became one of this country’s most celebrated and influential Artists. A biography is available on the Australian Womens’ Register.

Finding HMS Affray – science, industry and defence

A man looking at a television during a an underwater television camera test

Man watching an AWA television on board the ship TAIPING Photo by Gervais Purcell, courtesy Leigh Purcell

Gervais Purcell’s photographs depicting tests for an underwater camera by Amalgamated Wireless Australasia in Sydney have an interesting association with the discovery of the sunken HMS Affray on 14 June 1951 near Hurds Deep in the English Channel.

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The Bonnie Dundee

Detail of the Gourlay Bros. plan of the Bonnie Dundee.

Detail of the Gourlay Bros. plan of the Bonnie Dundee. ANMM Collection, 00001118

In 1987 the Australian National Maritime Museum purchased a set of original shipyard plans produced by the Scottish marine engineering and shipbuilding company Gourlay Brothers & Co. in Dundee. Like the best of discoveries, it seems the plans were destined for the rubbish but were saved at the eleventh hour. Together the plans represent images of early Australian cargo vessels, as well as a wide range of Australian shipowners and a long tradition in ship construction procedures.

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The sailor prince

Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh and captain of HMAS Galatea

Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh and captain of HMS Galatea

1868 was a year of firsts in Australia — the first tsunami recorded in Sydney Harbour, the first recorded UFO sighting and the first tour of an Australian cricket team to England. But the arrival of the first royal visitor to Australia eclipsed all these and saw the Australian colonies become a heart-pounding, jostling competition of patriotism and devotion.

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A woolie mermaid

Sailor's woolwork picture of Mermaid, 1870s

Sailor’s woolwork picture of the convict transport Mermaid, 1870s. ANMM Collection, 00004596

Last week I started exploring the fascinating intersection between needlework, craft and maritime history in the museum’s collection, examining an embroidered sampler made by young British migrant Julia Donovan in 1879. Today I will be looking at the sampler’s first cousin – the sailor’s woolwork picture or embroidered ship portrait, affectionately known as a ‘woolie’.

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A migration story in stitch

One of my favourite objects in the museum’s collection is a charming needlework sampler made by 19-year-old assisted immigrant Julia Donovan on board the Carnatic in January 1879. Immigration records show that Julia arrived in Rockhampton, Queensland, from England on 5 February 1879, and presumably went into domestic service in the growing port town.

Needlework sampler made by Julia Donovan on board Carnatic en route to Australia, 1879

Needlework sampler made by Julia Donovan on board Carnatic en route to Australia, 1879

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Gervais Purcell: hats, photography and fashion of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s

Gervais Purcell - model in beach hat

Woman modelling a hat, Gervais Purcell 1949

Cock your hat.
An angle is an attitude

– Frank Sinatra

Its hat week this week – for myself it’s an excuse to kit up for winter but among the vast collection of images by respected Australian commercial photographer Gervais Purcell the hats are generally more about form than function.

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