Category Archives: rock art

The Murujuga Mermaid: how rock art in WA sheds light on historic encounters of Australian exploration



The Enderby Island ship image depicting His Majesty’s Cutter Mermaid, which visited the Dampier Archipelago in 1818.
Courtesy: Murujuga Dynamics of the Dreaming ARC Project

Alistair Paterson, University of Western Australia; Jo McDonald, University of Western Australia, and Tiffany Shellam, Deakin University

It is understandable that Captain Cook is a trigger for debates about our national identity and history. However, we often risk being blinded by the legacy of Cook. Around the continent, early encounters with outsiders occurred on other days, and in other years before 1788. Across northern Australia these did not involve Europeans, but rather Southeast Asian trepangers.

The earliest documented European landfall was at Cape Keerweer, Cape York, in 1606 with the landing of the crew of the Dufyken. For coastal Aboriginal communities around Australia each moment of encounter was unique, significant and – in many instances – cataclysmic.

Image of ‘Boon-ga-ree’ by Phillip Parker King.
Phillip Parker King, album of drawings and engravings, 1802–1902, PXC 767, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales.

The history of the exploration of Australia’s coast became a media story with Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s announcement that a A$6.7 million replica of Cook’s Endeavour would be built to circumnavigate Australia. Of course, James Cook never circumnavigated Australia. This was done by Abel Tasman in 1642 (albeit at a great distance) and most effectively accomplished in 1803 by Matthew Flinders.

Flinders was accompanied by Boongaree, an Aboriginal man from Port Jackson, now remembered as an iconic Aboriginal go-between for his ability to move between the Indigenous and settler worlds.

Remarkably, Boongaree would circumnavigate Australia a second time in 1817-18, accompanying Phillip Parker King, a consummate explorer. King would captain four expeditions circumnavigating Australia and filled in many details on the map. He and his crew remain unsung heroes of exploration compared to Cook.

Phillip Parker King c.1817, by unknown artist.
ML 1318, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales.

During archaeological field recording in the Dampier Archipelago (Murujuga), Western Australia, our team working with Murujuga Land and Sea Unit Rangers encountered an engraved depiction of a single-masted sailing ship. This image is on an elevated rock panel in an extensive Aboriginal engraving (petroglyph) site complex near a rocky water hole at the south-western end of Enderby Island.

We argue in a new paper that this image depicts His Majesty’s Cutter (HMC) Mermaid, the main vessel of the historically significant British Admiralty survey captained by King.

‘View of Mermaid Strait from Enderby Island (Rocky Head) Feb 25 [1818]’, in Phillip Parker King – album of drawings and engravings, 1802-1902. Mitchell Library, PXC767.
Mitchell Library, PXC767.

The Mermaid visited the Dampier Archipelago in 1818. It was not the first European vessel to visit – that was William Dampier in the HMS Roebuck in 1699. But King and his crew recorded encounters with Yaburara people. They observed fresh tracks and fires on the outer islands, and described how Yaburara people voyaged between islands on pegged log rafts.

Phillip Parker King, Native of Dampier’s Archipelago, on his floating log not dated, pen, ink and wash and scratching out on card, 7.9 x 11.5 cm (sheet). Transferred from the State Library Board of Western Australia, 2000.
Reproduced with permission of the Art Gallery of Western Australia

Murujuga is globally renowned as one of the world’s largest rock art estates. Our work has documented the tens of thousands of years of human occupation, the extraordinary production of rock art and the historical presence of American whalers.

The depiction of the boat on Enderby Island overlooks the bay where the Mermaid anchored two centuries ago. When they went ashore the crew observed Aboriginal camps, and the formidable rocky landscape. Boongaree went fishing, while the expedition’s botanical collector Allan Cunningham planted a peach pip near a fig tree. While there, it appears someone scratched the image of the Mermaid.

The Enderby Island ship image showing view across Mermaid Strait to the Intercourse Islands.
Courtesy: Murujuga Dynamics of the Dreaming ARC Project.

A scratched technique

There are various surviving documents from the Mermaid expedition, such as log books, day books, journals, watercolours, and coastal views. Interestingly, in their writings, King, midshipman John Septimus Roe and Cunningham all neglect to mention the engravings, and they did not mention making this image of their ship. We are confident the ship was not made by Yaburara people, as the scratched technique used is very different to the surrounding Yaburara engravings.

A) line drawing (by Ken Mulvaney), b) The ship engraving, Enderby Island, c) King’s detailed section of the Mermaid (Phillip Parker King, ‘Album of drawings and engravings’, Mitchell Library, PXC767)
Courtesy: Murujuga Dynamics of the Dreaming ARC Project.

While our investigation suggests that a metal tool was not used to make the image, the imagery – which demonstrates detailed knowledge of the ship’s rigging and proportions, and the inclusions of water in this “sketch” of the craft, leads us to the conclusion that this ship was sketched on the day that the crew of the Mermaid visited this area.

So, who made the image? We really don’t know (but do have some ideas).

The artist clearly knew the ship in great detail. The similarities to the Mermaid are profound, allowing us to rule out other possible vessels to visit the islands in later years such as two-masted whaling barques and pearling ships.

Both King and Roe made many images in their records of the Mermaid – was this one of theirs? Perhaps another unnamed crew member got involved. Perhaps Boongaree was impressed by the extensive rock art legacy that he encountered. Being from Sydney with a similarly rich rock art heritage – which includes the depiction of post-contact sailing ships – perhaps he depicted what was by then utterly familiar to him – a tiny sailing ship on a voyage across the unknown seas.

Whoever’s hand, if this is the Mermaid, as we argue, this new finding is of nautical and historical significance to Australia and Britain as well as being significant to the Aboriginal people of the west Pilbara.

Significant timing

The timing of King’s visit is significant. He was there for eight days in February and March, a time when monsoonal rainfall rejuvenates the rock pools on the outer islands and when turtles were hatching: a seasonal pulse in Yaburara island life.

During that week the crew of the Mermaid described their contact with family groups that were camped on several of the inner islands, as well as the widespread evidence for outer island use. Their encounters with people included the observations of their unique water craft, camps and a range of subsistence activities. One Yaburara man was kidnapped from his mangrove raft, and taken on board the Mermaid where Boongaree tried to reassure him by removing his own shirt to reveal his body marking and black skin. The visitors offered the Yaburara man glass beads, which he rejected.

King’s voyages of discovery left behind other marks along the West Australian coastline. At Careening Bay in the Kimberley in 1820, King had the name of the Mermaid carved into a boab tree, where it can still be found today. At Shark Bay, King had a post erected with “KING” spelt out in iron nails – today this is in the WA Museum.

Mermaid Tree, Careening Bay
Courtesy: Kevin Kenneally

Collections from the Archipelago included plants and stone artefacts still held in the British Natural History Museum. King’s daily journal helped him create his official account, published as two volumes in 1826 titled Narrative of a Survey of the intertropical and western coasts of Australia.

There was no marked national commemoration in 2017 of the 200-year anniversary of the start of King’s voyages. However, as Murujuga’s nomination to the World Heritage Tentative Listing proceeds, this new evidence adds further significance to the Mermaid’s brief encounters with the Yaburara.

It provides new insight to King’s Expedition around this continent’s seascape as well as adding to the deep-time record of Murujuga’s Aboriginal history – and place-making inscribed on this landscape.The Conversation

Alistair Paterson, ARC Future Fellow, University of Western Australia; Jo McDonald, Director, Centre for Rock Art Research + Management, University of Western Australia, and Tiffany Shellam, Senior Lecturer in History, Deakin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Rock art shows early contact with US whalers on Australia’s remote northwest coast



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Detail of the Connecticut Inscription, with image enhancement.
Centre for Rock Art Research and Management database, Author provided

Jo McDonald, University of Western Australia; Alistair Paterson, University of Western Australia, and Ross Anderson, Western Australian Museum

Rock inscriptions made by crews from two North American whaleships in the early 19th century were found superimposed over earlier Aboriginal engravings in the Dampier Archipelago.

Details of the find in northern Western Australia are in a paper published today in Antiquity.

They provide the earliest evidence for North American whalers’ memorialising practices in Australia, and have substantial implications for maritime history.

At the time, the Dampier Archipelago (Murujuga) was home to the Yaburara people. The rock art across the archipelago is testament to their artists asserting their connections to this place for millennia.




Read more:
Where art meets industry: protecting the spectacular rock art of the Burrup Peninsula


So did the whalers encounter the Yaburara? Did they engrave over earlier Aboriginal markings as an act of assertion, a realignment of a shifting political landscape? Or were they simply marking a milestone in their multi-year voyages, celebrating landfall after many months at sea?

The answer to all these questions is, we don’t know.

But these inscriptions provide a rare insight into the lives of whalers, filling a gap in our knowledge about this earliest industry on our northwestern coast.

Such historical inscriptions might be dismissed as graffiti. However, like other rock art, they tell important stories about our human past that cannot be gleaned from other sources.

Whaling in Australia

Ship-based whaling was a global phenomenon that lasted centuries. At its peak in the mid-19th century, around 900 wooden sailing ships were at sea on multi-year voyages, crewed by around 22,000 whalemen.

Most whaling in Australian waters was conducted by foreign vessels, and in the 19th century North American whalers dominated the globe.

Illustration of an American whaling ship in the 19th century.
Dr Kenneth McPherson, Indian Ocean Collection, WA Museum (with permission), Author provided

Whaling led to some of the earliest contacts between American, European and a range of indigenous societies in Africa, Australasia and the Pacific.

But early visits by foreign whalers to Australia’s northwest are poorly documented given the absence of a British colonial land-based presence in the area until the 1860s.

While explorer William Dampier named the Dampier Archipelago and Rosemary Island in 1699, British naval Captain Phillip Parker King was the first to document encounters with the Yaburara people in 1818. His visit to the archipelago in the rainy season (February) coincided with large groups of people using the seasonally abundant resources at this time.

The Swan River Colony (Perth) was established in 1829, but permanent European colonisation of the northwest only began in the early 1860s with an influx of pastoralists and pearlers.

For the Yaburara, this colonisation was catastrophic. It culminated in the Flying Foam Massacre in 1868 in which many Yaburara people were killed.

Early whaling contact

A few surviving ship logbooks record English and North American whalers on the Dampier Archipelago from 1801, but the heyday of whaling near “The Rosemary Islands” was between the 1840s and 1860s.

The logbooks describe American whaling ships worked together to hunt herds of humpback whales, which migrate along Australia’s northwest coastline during the winter months.

The ships’ crews made landfall to collect firewood and drinking water, and to post lookouts on vantage points to assist in sighting whales for the open boats to pursue.

Research by archaeologists from the University of Western Australia working with the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation and industry partner Rio Tinto has found some evidence of two such landfalls in inscriptions from the crew of two North American whalers – the Connecticut and the Delta.

The earliest of these inscriptions records that the Connecticut visited Rosemary Island on August 18 1842. At least part of this inscription was made by Jacob Anderson, identified from the Connecticut’s crew list as a 19-year-old African-American sailor.

Research shows this set of ships’ and people’s names was placed over an earlier set of Aboriginal grid motifs. This was along a ridgeline that has millennia of evidence for the Yaburara producing rock art and raising standing stones and quarrying tool-stone elevated above this seascape.

Visualising the Connecticut inscription.

The dates and names found in the inscription correlate with port records that show the Connecticut left the town of New London in Connecticut, US, for the New Holland ground (as the waters off Australia’s northwest were known) in 1841, with Captain Daniel Crocker and a crew of 26.

Connecticut inscription, tracing by Ken Mulvaney.
Antiquity, Paterson et al 2019 (with permission)

The Connecticut returned to New London on June 16 1843, with 1,800 barrels of oil, travelling via Fremantle, New Zealand and Cape Horn.

The largest of the Connecticut inscriptions showing micro-analysis of the inscription over the Aboriginal engravings.
Antiquity, Paterson et al 2019 (with permission)

The Connecticut’s logbook for the voyage is missing, so without these inscriptions we would know nothing of this ship’s visit to the Dampier Archipelago.

On another island, another set of inscriptions record a visit to a similar vantage point by crew of the Delta on July 12 1849.

Details of the Delta inscriptions.
Centre for Rock Art Research + Management

Registered in Greenport, New York, the Delta made 18 global whaling voyages between 1832 and 1856. Its logbook confirms it was whaling in the Dampier Archipelago between June 2 and September 8 1849.

The voyage of the Delta as researched from Log Book entries.
Antiquity, Paterson et al 2019 (with permission)

While the log records crew members going ashore to shoot kangaroos and collect water, no mention is made of them making inscriptions or having any contact with Yaburara people.

Given it was the dry season, and the lack of permanent water on the islands, this lack of contact is not surprising.

But again, these whalers chose to make their marks on surfaces that were already marked by the Yaburara. By recording their presence at these specific historical moments, the whalers continued the long tradition of the Yaburara in interacting with and marking their maritime environment.

Protecting the heritage

Between 1822 and 1963, whalers killed more than 26,000 southern right whales (Eubalaena australis) and 40,000 humpback whales (Megaptera novaengliae) in Australia and New Zealand, driving populations to near-extinction.

Commercial whaling in Australian waters ended 40 years ago on November 21 1978, with the closure of the Cheynes Beach Whaling Station in Albany, Western Australia.

Today there are signs of renewal, with whale populations increasing, and Aboriginal people are reclaiming responsibility for management of the archipelago.




Read more:
Explainer: why the rock art of Murujuga deserves World Heritage status


There is a strong push for World Heritage Listing of Murujuga — one of the most significant concentrations for human artistic creativity on the planet, recording millennia of human responses to the sustainable use of this productive landscape.

These two whaling inscriptions provide the only known archaeological insight into this earliest global resource extraction in Australia’s northwest – the whale oil industry – which began over two centuries ago.

They demonstrate yet again the unique capacity of Murujuga’s rock art to shed light on previously unknown details of our shared human history.The Conversation

Jo McDonald, Director, Centre for Rock Art Research + Management, University of Western Australia; Alistair Paterson, ARC Future Fellow, University of Western Australia, and Ross Anderson, Curator of Maritime Archaeology, Western Australian Museum

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Article: Northern Territory Rock Art


The link below is to an article concerning Aboriginal rock art found in the Northern Territory’s Nawarla Gabarnmang rock shelter.

For more visit:
http://www.ajc.com/news/nation-world/archaeologist-finds-oldest-rock-1459804.html


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