Category Archives: Ships
This is the story of how a parasitic, skin-chewing insect came to conquer the world.
For more than a century, scientists have been puzzled as to how an obscure louse native to Australia came to be found on dogs across the world. Heterodoxus spiniger evolved to live in the fur of the agile wallaby.
Despite little evidence to back the idea, many researchers believed it was linked to people from Asia bringing the dingo to Australia in ancient times. Perhaps people later took dingoes infested with this parasite back home, where it spread to local dogs, and onwards from there.
But when we approached the question again using the most up-to-date information, my colleague Peter Contos and I came up with a completely different explanation – one that better fits what we know of ancient migration and trade in the Asia-Pacific region.
As we report in the journal Environmental Archaeology, this louse probably originated not in Australia but in New Guinea, an island with a long history of intimate connection with seafaring Asian cultures.
Louse on the loose
H. spiniger is a tiny louse that lives on mammals around the world, mostly dogs. Using its clawed legs to hang on, it bites and chews at the skin and hair of its hosts to draw the blood on which it feeds.
As all its closest relatives are specialised parasites of marsupials, mostly other wallabies, logic suggested that H. spiniger must have evolved within Australia. It also seemed logical it would have spread first to the dingo, Australia’s native dog.
Our first task was to figure out just how far away from Australia it had spread; this would inform the likely pathways by which it could have travelled to the wider world.
We looked at museum collections, entomological surveys, and veterinary research reports to generate a map of its worldwide distribution.
The specimens we found, collected from the late 19th century to the present day, showed that this species is found on every continent except Europe and Antarctica.
But in Australia, we couldn’t find a single verifiable instance of the parasite living on dingoes. The only cases were from agile wallabies and domestic dogs.
That meant the prevailing wisdom had been wrong, and we had to look elsewhere for the origins of H. spiniger.
Where did it really come from?
Although marsupials are best known from Australia, they are also found in other parts of the surrounding region. The agile wallaby is also native to the island of New Guinea, which was once joined with Australia.
Dogs have also been in New Guinea for at least as long as the dingo has been in Australia. Traditionally, dogs were kept in Papuan villages, and were used to hunt game, including wallabies.
It came as little surprise, then, that we found H. spiniger on both agile wallabies and native dogs in New Guinea – and only a few decades after the first ever identification of the species.
So here was a more likely place in which the first transfer from wallaby to dog took place. But who took them out of New Guinea and into the wider world?
New Guinea was first colonised by humans around the same time as Australia. But since that time, compared with Australia it has had notably stronger connections with the outside world, reaching back millennia before European colonisation of Australia in 1788.
Around 4,000 years ago, agriculturalists known as Austronesians sailed out of Taiwan to settle several archipelagos in Oceania. With them they brought domestic species of plants and animals, including dogs.
By 3,000 years ago, at the latest, they reached New Guinea. We suggest this was the crucial moment when dogs first picked up H. spiniger.
In the ensuing centuries, Austronesians went on to settle much of Indonesia, the Philippines, Melanesia and Polynesia, and coastal sections of mainland Southeast Asia.
They even settled as far as Madagascar, suggesting their voyages probably took them around the rim of the Indian Ocean, along the margins of India and the Middle East.
Dogs accompanying the migrants probably helped spread the louse, which is found almost everywhere they went.
This spans an enormous distance – from Hawaii to Madagascar – a testament to the ancient Austronesians’ supreme seafaring skills.
Our research suggests how the parasite first got around the world, but not precisely when. Its journey probably progressed at different times in different places.
The Austronesian diaspora established trade routes between the places they settled, some of which spanned impressive distances across several island groups.
Later, foreign traders connected these communities with greater Asia and Africa. And in modern times, dogs continue to be transported as desirable goods themselves.
Trade and contact has probably led to further, possibly ongoing, dispersal of H. spiniger.
Unfortunately there are no archaeological examples that could demonstrate the louse’s early presence outside New Guinea, because this species prefers hot, humid environments.
A genetic approach is a better way forward. A start would be testing specimens from different parts of the world, to see when different regional populations – if they exist – branched off from one another.
This is particularly important in tracking its spread to the Americas, which likely occurred in recent centuries alongside European colonisation.
This research will help us further understand how migration, contact and trade unfolded in the prehistoric Asia-Pacific region, and how it affected the animal species – including the humblest of parasites – we see there today.
This paper would not have been possible without the contributions of Peter Contos, the work of volunteers on the Natural History Museum’s Boopidae of Australasia digitisation project, and the contributions of the public to Wikipedia Creative Commons, for which we are grateful.
Finding shipwrecks isn’t easy – it’s a combination of survivor reports, excellent archival research, a highly skilled team, top equipment and some good old-fashioned luck.
And that’s just what happened with the recent discovery of SS Iron Crown, lost off the coast of Victoria in Bass Strait during the second world war.
Based on archival research by Heritage Victoria and the Maritime Archaeological Association of Victoria, we scoped an area for investigation of approximately 3 by 5 nautical miles, at a location 44 nautical miles SSW of Gabo Island.
Hunting by sound
We used the CSIRO research vessel Investigator to look for the sunken vessel. The Investigator deploys multibeam echosounder technology on a gondola 1.2 metres below the hull.
Multibeam echosounders send acoustic signal beams down and out from the vessel and measure both the signal strength and time of return on a receiver array.
The receiver transmits the data to the operations room for real-time processing. These data provide topographic information and register features within the water column and on the seabed.
At 8pm on April 16, we arrived on site and within a couple of hours noted a feature in the multibeam data that looked suspiciously like a shipwreck. It measured 100m in length with an approximate beam of 16-22m and profile of 8m sitting at a water depth of 650m.
Given that we were close to maxing out what the multibeam could do, it provided an excellent opportunity to put the drop camera in the water and get “eyes on”.
The camera collected footage of the stern, midship and bow sections of the wreck. These were compared to archival photos. Given the location, dimension and noted features, we identified it as SS Iron Crown.
The merchant steamer
SS Iron Crown was an Australian merchant vessel built at the government dockyard at Williamstown, Victoria, in 1922.
On June 4 1942, the steel screw steamer of the merchant vavy was transporting manganese ore and iron ore from Whyalla to Newcastle when it was torpedoed by the Japanese Imperial Type B (巡潜乙型) submarine I-27.
Survivor accounts state that the torpedo struck the vessel on the port side, aft of the bridge. It sank within minutes. Thirty-eight of the 43 crew went down with the ship.
This vessel is one of four WWII losses in Victorian waters (the others were HMAS Goorangai lost in a collision, SS Cambridge and MV City of Rayville lost to mines) and the only vessel torpedoed.
After the discovery
Now we’ve finally located the wreck – seven decades after it was sunk – it is what happens next that is truly interesting.
It’s not just the opportunity to finally do an in-depth review of the collected footage stored on an external hard drive and shoved in my backpack, but to take the important step of ensuring how the story is told going forward.
When a shipwreck is located, the finder must report it within seven days to the Commonwealth’s Historic Shipwreck Program or to the recognised delegate in each state/territory with location information and as much other relevant data as possible.
Shipwrecks aren’t just found by professionals, but are often located by knowledgeable divers, surveyors, the military, transport ships and beachcombers. It’s no big surprise that many shipwrecks are well-known community fishing spots.
While it is possible to access the site using remotely operated vehicles or submersibles, we hope the data retrieved from this voyage will be enough.
It was only 77 years ago that the SS Iron Crown went down. This means it still has a presence in the memories of the communities and families that were touched by the event and its aftermath.
No war grave, but protected
Even though those who died were merchant navy, the site isn’t officially recognised yet as a war grave. But thanks to both state and Commonwealth legislation, the SS Iron Crown was protected before it was even located.
All shipwrecks over 75 years of age are protected under the Commonwealth Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976. It is an offence to damage or remove anything from the site.
This protection is enhanced by its location in deeper water and, one hopes, by the circumstances of its loss.
Sitting on the sea floor in Bass Strait, SS Iron Crown is well below the reach of even technical divers. So the site is unlikely to be illegally salvaged for artefacts and treasures.
Yet this also means that maritime archaeologists have limited access to the site and the data that can be learnt from an untouched, well-preserved shipwreck.
Virtual wreck sites
But, like the increasing capabilities for locating such sites, maritime archaeologists now have access to digital mapping, 3D modelling technologies and high-resolution imagery as was used for the British Merchant Navy shipwreck of the SS Thistlegorm.
These can even allow us to record shipwreck sites (at whatever the depth) and present them to the public in a vibrant and engaging medium.
Better than a thousand words could ever describe, these realistic models allow us to convey the excitement, wonder and awe that we have all felt at a shipwreck.
Digital 3D models enable those who cannot dive, travel or ever dream of visiting shipwrecks to do so through their laptops, mobiles and other digital devices.
Without these capabilities to record, visualise and manage these deepwater sites, they will literally fade back into the depths of the ocean, leaving only the archaeologists and a few shipwreck enthusiasts to investigate and appreciate them.
So that’s the next step, a bigger challenge than finding a site, to record a deepwater shipwreck and enable the public to experience a well-preserved shipwreck.
Researchers, including Australian maritime archaeologists, believe they have found Captain Cook’s historic ship HMB Endeavour in Newport Harbour, Rhode Island. An official announcement will be made on Friday.
The discovery is the culmination of decades of work by the Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project and the Australian National Maritime Museum to locate and positively identify the vessel, which had been missing from the historical record for over two centuries. Plans are now under way to raise funds to excavate and conduct scientific testing in 2019.
As the first European seafaring vessel to reach the east coast of Australia, the Endeavour – much like James Cook himself – has become part of Australia’s national mythology. Unlike Cook, who famously met his end on Hawaiian shores, the fate of the Endeavour had long been unknown. The discovery has therefore resolved a long-standing maritime mystery.
In a serendipitous twist, it coincides with two significant dates: the 250th anniversary of the Endeavour’s departure from England in 1768 on its now (in)famous voyage south, and the 240th anniversary of the ship’s scuttling in 1778 during the American War of Independence.
Identifying the Endeavour’s location has been a 25-year processs. Archaeologists initially identified 13 potential candidates in the harbour. Over time, the number of possible sites was narrowed to five.
This month, a joint diving team has worked to measure and inspect these sites, drawing upon knowledge of Endeavour’s size to identify a likely candidate. Excavation and timber analysis is expected to provide final confirmation. Those expecting an entire ship to be recovered will be disappointed, as very little of it remains.
But this is a controversial vessel, and celebrations of its discovery will be tempered by reflection about its complicity in the British colonisation of Indigenous Australian land. While Endeavour played an instrumental role in advancing science and exploration, its arrival in what is now known as Botany Bay in 1770 also precipitated the occupation of territory that its Aboriginal owners never ceded.
A ship by any other name …
Although Endeavour’s early days are well known, it has taken many years for researchers to piece together the rest of its story. One problem has been the many names the vessel was known by during its lifetime.
Built in 1764 in Whitby, England, as a collier (coal carrier), the vessel was originally named Earl of Pembroke. Its flat-bottomed hull and box-like shape, designed to transport bulk cargo, later proved helpful when navigating the treacherous coral reefs of the southern seas.
In 1768, Earl of Pembroke was sold into the service of the Royal Navy and the Royal Society. It underwent a major refit to accommodate a larger crew and sufficient provisions for a long voyage. In keeping with the ambitious spirit of the era, the vessel was renamed His Majesty’s Bark (HMB) Endeavour (bark being a nautical term to describe a ship with three masts or more).
Endeavour departed England in 1768 under the command of then-Lieutenant Cook. Ostensibly sailing to the South Pacific to observe the 1769 Transit of Venus, Cook was also under orders to search for the fabled southern continent. So it was that a coal carrier and a rare astronomical event changed the history of the Australian continent and its people.
Transit of Venus: a tale of two expeditions
Following Endeavour’s circumnavigation of the globe (1768-1771), the vessel was used as a store ship before the Royal Navy sold it in 1775. Here, the ship’s fate become mysterious.
Many believed it had been renamed La Liberté and put to use as a French whaling ship before succumbing to rotting timbers in Newport Harbour in 1793. Others rejected this theory, suggesting instead that Endeavour had spent her final days on the river Thames.
A breakthrough came in 1997. Australian researchers suggested the Endeavour had in fact been renamed Lord Sandwich. The theory gained weight following an archival discovery by Kathy Abbass, director of the Rhode Island project, in 2016, which indicated that Lord Sandwich had been used as a troop transport and prison ship during the American War of Independence before being scuttled in Newport Harbour in 1778.
Lord Sandwich was one of a number of transport ships deliberately sunk by the British in an attempt to prevent the French fleet from approaching the shore.
Finding a shipwreck is not impossible, but finding the one you’re looking for is hard. Rhode Island volunteers have been searching for this vessel since 1993, slowly narrowing down the search area and eliminating potential contenders as they explore the often-murky waters of Newport Harbour.
They were joined in their efforts by the Australian National Maritime Museum in 1999 and, in more recent years, by the Silentworld Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation with a particular interest in Australasian maritime archaeology.
Museums around the world are already turning their attention to the significant Cook anniversaries on the horizon and the complex legacy of these expeditions. These interpretive endeavours will only be heightened by the planned excavation of the ship’s remains in the near future.
Shipwrecks are a productive starting point for thinking about how we make meaning from the past because of the firm hold they have on the public imagination. They conjure images of lost treasure, pirates and, especially in the case of Endeavour, bold adventures to distant lands.
But as we celebrate the spirit of exploration that saw a humble coal carrier circumnavigate the globe – and the same spirit of exploration that has led to its discovery centuries later – we must also make space for the unsettling stories that will resurface as a result of this discovery.
The collapsing Nazi government ordered all U-boats in German ports to make their way to their bases in Norway on May 2, 1945. Two days later, the recently commissioned U-3523 joined the mission as one of the most advanced boats in the fleet. But to reach their destination, the submarines had to pass through the bottleneck of the Skagerrak – the strait between Norway and Denmark – and the UK’s Royal Air Force was waiting for them. Several U-boats were sunk and U-3523 was destroyed in an air attack by a Liberator bomber.
U-3523 lay undiscovered on the seabed for over 70 years until it was recently located by surveyors from the Sea War Museum in Denmark. Studying the vessel will be of immense interest to professional and amateur historians alike, not least as a way of finally putting to rest the conspiracy theory that the boat was ferrying prominent Nazis to Argentina. But sadly, recovering U-3523 is not a realistic proposition. The main challenges with such wrecks lie in accurately identifying them, assessing their status as naval graves and protecting them for the future.
U-boat wrecks like these from the end of World War II are the hardest to match to historical records. The otherwise meticulous record keeping of the Kriegsmarine (Nazi navy) became progressively sparser, breaking down completely in the last few weeks of the war. But Allied records have helped determine that this newly discovered wreck is indeed U-3523. The sea where this U-boat was located was heavily targeted by the RAF because it knew newly-built boats would flee to Norway this way.
The detailed sonar scans of the wreck site show that it is without doubt a Type XXI U-boat, of which U-3523 was the only one lost in the Skagerrak and unaccounted for. These were new types of submarines that contained a number of innovations which had the potential to make them dangerous opponents. This was primarily due to enlarged batteries, coupled to a snorkel, which meant they could stay permanently underwater. Part of the RAF’s mission was to prevent any of these new vessels getting to sea to sink Allied ships, and it successfully prevented any Type XXI U-boats from doing so.
With the U-boat’s identity correctly established, we now know that it is the grave site of its crew of 58 German servicemen. As such, the wreck should either be left in peace or, more implausibly, recovered and the men buried on land. Germany lost over 800 submarines at sea during the two world wars and many have been found in recent years. It is hopelessly impractical to recover them all, so leaving them where they are is the only real option.
Under international law all naval wrecks are termed “sovereign immune”, which means they will always be the property of the German state despite lying in Danish waters. But Denmark has a duty to protect the wreck, especially if Germany asks it to do so.
Hundreds of wartime wreck sites such as U-3523 are under threat around the world from metal thieves and grave robbers. The British cruiser HMS Exeter, which was sunk in the Java Sea on May 1, 1942, has been entirely removed from the seabed for scrap. And wrecks from the 1916 Battle of Jutland that also lie partly in Danish waters have seen industrial levels of metal theft. These examples serve as a warning that organised criminals will target shipwrecks of any age for the metals they contain.
Germany and the UK are among a number of countries currently pioneering the use of satellite monitoring to detect suspicious activity on shipwrecks thought to be under threat. This kind of monitoring could be a cost-effective way to save underwater cultural heritage from criminal activity and its use is likely to become widespread in the next few years.
The recovery cost is only a small fraction of the funds needed to preserve and display an iron object that has been immersed in the sea for many years. So bringing a wreck back to the surface should not be undertaken lightly. In nearly all cases of salvaged U-boats, the results have been financially ruinous. Lifting barges that can raise shipwrecks using large cranes cost tens of thousands of pounds a day to charter. Once recovered, the costs of conservation and presentation mount astronomically as the boat will rapidly start to rust.
The U-boat U-534 was also sunk by the RAF in 1945, close to where U-3523 now lies. Its crew all evacuated that boat, meaning that she was not a grave when recovered from the sea in 1993 by Danish businessman Karsten Ree, allegedly in the somewhat incredible belief that it carried Nazi treasure. At a reported cost of £3m, the operation is thought to have been unprofitable. The boat contained nothing special, just the usual mundane objects carried on a U-boat at war.
Similar problems were experienced by the Royal Navy Submarine Museum in the UK when it raised the Holland 1 submarine in 1982. In that case, the costs of long-term preservation proved much greater than anticipated after the initial rust-prevention treatment failed to stop the boat corroding. It had to be placed in a sealed tank full of alkali sodium carbonate solution for four years until the corrosive chloride ions had been removed, and was then transferred to a purpose-built exhibition building to protect it further.
The expensive process of raising more sunken submarines will add little to our knowledge of life at sea during World War II. But each time a U-boat is found, it places one more jigsaw piece in its correct place, giving us a clearer picture of the history of the U-boat wars. This is the true purpose of archaeology.
Recent research presented at a maritime archaeology conference has revealed at least 48 shipwrecks – including WWII ships and some post-war vessels – have been illicitly salvaged in Southeast Asia. This figure is an astonishing escalation from the handful of wrecks already known to have been damaged or destroyed.
However, sources close to the issue suggest that the figure may be much higher still, with one Chinese company claiming to have salvaged over 1,000 wrecks in the South China Sea.
It is now a race against time to protect these wrecks and preserve the histories they embody. Museums can play a key role. For instance, exhibitions such as the Australian National Maritime Museum’s current Guardians of Sunda Strait testify to the continuing resonance of these ships’ stories even as the sites themselves are destroyed.
This exhibition, which looks at the WWII loss of HMAS Perth and USS Houston, is made more poignant by the fact that HMAS Perth, in particular, has been heavily salvaged in recent years.
The emotional echo of the stories of courage and sacrifice told here – such as that of HMAS Perth veteran Arthur Bancroft, who was shipwrecked not once but twice, and USS Houston’s Chaplain Rentz, who insisted a young signalman take his lifejacket after the ship sank – is amplified, not diminished, by the accompanying contemporary tragedy.
Some countries, such as the US, have enacted legislation to protect their sunken military craft, regardless of where they rest.
At an international level, the 1982 UN Law of the Sea states that, unless explicitly abandoned, a flag state (the country where the vessel is registered) is entitled to exclusive jurisdiction over shipwrecks. This is also irrespective of whether the vessel sank in foreign waters or not.
For ships that have not been completely destroyed, there is a strong case to be made for the recovery of “touchstone objects” such as the ship’s bell on naval vessels – an item with which every officer and sailor, irrespective of rank, would be familiar.
In 2002, in response to concerns about the illicit salvaging of British wrecks in Malaysian waters, a team of Royal Navy divers oversaw the recovery of the bell from HMS Prince of Wales. This vessel was part of British naval squadron Force Z, established to protect Britain’s colonial interests in Southeast Asia. The force was destroyed in 1941 by Japanese aircraft. Reports indicate that the illicit salvage of HMS Prince of Wales, as well as nearby HMS Repulse, is ongoing.
Such strategic recovery initiatives must be the prerogative of the flag state, and strict conditions would need to apply. In many countries, this would require legislative changes. In instances where sunken war vessels are known to be underwater graves, the recovery of objects would also need to be conducted in consultation with survivors and descendants.
Snapping the past
Although we now know that many wrecks have been damaged, there are still some that remain untouched and even unlocated. For instance, the whereabouts of Australia’s first submarine, AE1, remains a mystery.
Meanwhile, near Savo Island in the Solomon Islands, HMAS Canberra rests upright and intact at the bottom of “Ironbottom Sound”. Scuttled after a damaging encounter with the Japanese in August 1942, the wreck was located in 1992 by Robert Ballard (better known for his discovery of RMS Titanic).
There is also a mystery hanging over the ship: with some suggesting the possibility that it was the victim of friendly fire. It is not known whether HMAS Canberra is at risk from salvagers, but there is no question that the ship will eventually succumb to natural degradation.
Well-preserved wrecks such as HMAS Canberra are prime candidates for one of the most exciting developments in maritime archaeology: digital preservation through photogrammetry. This involves a diver or a remote-operated vehicle taking thousands of photographs of a wreck and its debris field. These images are then digitally “stitched together” to create 3D visualisations, reconstructions and even replicas.
There is significant potential for such technology in a museum environment, not least of all because it enables new audiences to virtually access wreck sites while eliminating the challenges of depth, currents and poor visibility. Photogrammetry also surmounts legal barriers to access.
Curtin University’s HIVE facility is using big data, sophisticated algorithms and the processing power of a supercomputer to digitally preserve the wrecks of HMAS Sydney, lost in 1941 with all on board, and the German ship that sank her, HSK Kormoran. These wrecks are protected sites under Australian legislation, and are not accessible by the general public.
Nor is photogrammetry limited to those with access to a supercomputer. Maritime archaeologist Matt Carter is currently developing a 3D model of the Japanese mini-submarine M-24, located off Sydney’s Bungan Head, using little more than high-resolution cameras, off-the-shelf software, and a lot of patience.
Gone, but not forgotten
The responsibilities of museums become more acute the more that heritage is threatened – not just by thieves and pirates, but by climate change, rising sea temperatures, the impact of both coastal and deep-sea development, and natural degradation. And, as with many terrestrial sites, underwater heritage is now increasingly threatened by the effects of tourism.
Heritage objects and sites are not ends in themselves. The real value of these things and places is in how they can be used to make meaning, to reflect on the past, and to translate and interpret it anew for future generations.
For me, the destruction of these 48 ships does not preclude their stories from being told. Illicit salvaging of underwater heritage, particularly the unauthorised disturbance of human remains, warrants strong condemnation.
But our ability to derive meaning from these wrecks is not diminished by their absence. Some scholars even go so far as to propose that the destruction of heritage, as distressing as it is, provides an incentive for more active and conscious forms of remembrance.
Guardians of Sunda Strait will be on at the Australian National Maritime Museum until November 19.
Before dawn on the morning of June 4 1629, the Batavia, a ship of the Dutch East India Company, struck a reef at the Abrolhos Islands, some 70 kilometres off the Western Australian coast. More than seven months earlier the ship had left the Netherlands to make its way to the city of Batavia (present-day Jakarta), carrying silver, gold and jewels and 341 passengers and crew. During the shipwreck, 40 of them drowned. The others found safety on a nearby island.
Since there was no fresh water on the island they would name Batavia’s Graveyard (now Beacon Island), Commander Pelsaert and about 45 others took a longboat in search of water on the mainland. Unsuccessful in his search, Pelsaert decided to sail on to the city of Batavia to get help. By the time he returned in mid-September, the followers of Jeronimus Cornelisz, the man he had left in charge, had murdered 115 men, women and children.
It was not just the extent of the killings that shocked Pelsaert, but also their sheer cruelty: victims had been repeatedly stabbed, had their throats slit with blunt knifes, or their heads split with an axe. In his account of the events, Pelsaert tried to comprehend what had happened. No Christian man could ever have done this. It had to be the work of the devil.
Mutiny, shipwreck, treasures, brutal murders and a “happy” ending for the 116 people who survived: it all sounds like the script for a Hollywood movie. No wonder then that Russell Crowe has bought the rights to Hugh Edwards’s novel Island of Angry Ghosts, which recounts the shipwreck and its rediscovery in 1963. The Batavia’s tragic tale has inspired novels, a stage play, songs, an opera, a musical and radio dramas, and is now the subject of an exhibition combining art and science at the Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery at the University of Western Australia.
Retelling the Batavia horrors
Within a few months of the shipwreck, the first short accounts appeared in print in the Netherlands. In 1647 these were followed by the publication of Pelsaert’s notes under the title Ongeluckige Voyagie, Van ‘t Schip Batavia.
Unsurprisingly, Pelsaert’s sensational eyewitness account proved a considerable success. It was republished several times over the following decades.
The gruesome Abrolhos murders somewhat faded from view during the 18th and early 19th centuries. But by the 1890s they had re-entered the public imagination, not least because Perth’s Western Mail chose, somewhat curiously, its Christmas issue (1897) to publish a full English translation of Pelsaert’s account.
Since then there have been numerous novels and retellings of the tale. Bruce Beresford directed a 1973 TV movie. Many stories have been accompanied by illustrations. But the wreck has provoked surprisingly little response from visual artists.
Meditating on mortality
In the new exhibition, two Perth-based artists, Robert Cleworth and Paul Uhlmann, collaborated with a team of archaeologists from the University of Western Australia, who recently excavated several new burials of the murder victims on Beacon Island. The exhibition features a presentation of these recent digs and projections of the grave sites alongside works by Cleworth and Uhlmann. By referencing skeletons and skulls, the two artists create new forms of contemporary memento mori, or artworks that remind us we all must die.
Much of the work on display is inspired by the art and life of Johannes Torrentius, a Dutch painter convicted in 1628 for his alleged blasphemy, heresy and Satanism. Although not aboard the Batavia, Torrentius was widely believed to have inspired Cornelisz in his gruesome deeds.
Besides his heretical statements on religion, Torrentius had offended Dutch Calvinists with a number of bawdy pictures. All of these transgressive works were destroyed, yet titles such as A Woman Pissing in a Man’s Ear give some indication of their subject matter.
Ironically, the only Torrentius painting to have survived is an allegorical still life that warns against immoderate behaviour. During his lifetime, the painter would have created numerous vanitas paintings, works that address life’s vanities, assisted by a camera obscura, a darkened box in which a lens projects an external image – a forerunner to our modern cameras.
Uhlmann has used the same device to create a triptych of photo prints that show the skull of one of the Batavia murder victims from three different angles. The skull, recovered in 1964, was missing a small bone fragment, the result of a blow to the head. This fragment was unearthed during the latest excavations. Uhlmann has used both the skill and the fragment in his study to demonstrate the impermanence of life and the transience of the skull.
Skulls also feature prominently in the paintings on display by Cleworth, and not just skulls of humans but also that of a wallaby. The skull testifies to the hunger and hardship of the victims: wallabies were not indigenous to Beacon Island and must have been brought there by the shipwreck survivors. This is another example of how art and science are brought together in this show.
A second painting by Cleworth shows two hands hovering in front of a deep-blue background. The broad brushstrokes evoke the sea surrounding the islands. The hands are those of the lead mutineer, Cornelisz.
Somewhat ironically, no one died by these hands during the reign of terror. Cornelisz had ordered his cronies to kill, rather than committing the murders himself. Nevertheless, when Pelsaert returned to Batavia’s Graveyard and immediately dispensed justice, he ordered Cornelisz’s hands be chopped off before he was hanged on the gallows.
These artworks don’t simply retell the story of the Batavia and its cruel aftermath. They explore the nexus of art and science, using processes similar to those of the 17th century. They not only offer reflections on the unimaginable cruelty that took place four centuries ago, but provoke a new reading of past events.
Batavia: Giving Voice to the Voiceless is at the Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery until December 9 2017.
The final fate of the expedition led by Jean-François de Galaup, Comte de La Pérouse, has been a mystery ever since the frigates L’Astrolabe and La Boussole sailed out of Botany Bay in March 1788, vanishing, it seemed, into the vastness of the Pacific.
The expedition left the French port of Brest in 1785. The two vessels, with a complement of 225 officers, crew and scientists, were crammed with supplies and trade goods for a four-year long Pacific voyage that sought to emulate the feats of discovery of Captain James Cook. King Louis XVI took a personal interest in the undertaking and helped draft the plans and itinerary.
La Pérouse also had orders to investigate the new British colony in Australia. He arrived off Botany Bay, New South Wales in January 1788 to see Arthur Philip’s First Fleet at anchor, and so witnessed the beginning of European settlement of the continent. For six weeks the French camped on the northern shores of the Bay: the area now home to the south-eastern Sydney suburb bearing his name.
Before departing Australia to continue his voyage, La Pérouse left letters with the British for forwarding to the French Naval Ministry. In them he detailed how he planned to leave the Pacific Ocean via Torres Strait, the narrow waterway separating Australia and New Guinea, and be back in France by June 1789. Concern mounted when they did not arrive as expected. In 1791 the French National Assembly commissioned an expedition to search for the overdue navigator, without success. It is said that King Louis XVI, on his way to the guillotine in 1793, enquired of his captors “Is there news of La Pérouse?”
A dogged Irish captain finally solved the puzzle almost four decades later. In 1826 Peter Dillon saw European objects at Tikopia in the Solomon Islands, which locals told him came from a nearby island called Vanikoro. He suspected they were from La Pérouse’s ships. Eventually, he was given command of the survey vessel Research and arrived at Vanikoro in 1827, going on to learn the awful fate of L’Astrolabe and La Boussole: both frigates had smashed against the island’s fringing reef during a storm. Artefacts collected by Dillon were taken to Paris where they were identified as belonging to the expedition vessels.
The Vanikoro Islanders also related how survivors from Le Pérouse’s ships had spent several months constructing a small two-masted schooner, using timber salvaged from wreckage and hewn from the island’s dense forests. Once completed, they launched the vessel and sailed away.
What became of this vessel and its crew, desperate to return to France, has been an ongoing mystery. Subsequent books and articles about La Pérouse have asked the same questions: did the vessel even make it out of the Vanikoro lagoon, or was it attacked by locals in canoes? If it did get away, did it founder and sink beneath the waves? Or did the survivors die of thirst or starvation at sea? Or did they again suffer shipwreck elsewhere in the Pacific?
Read more: Transit of Venus: a tale of two expeditions
An Indian newspaper article from 1818 can perhaps shed light on the fate of the Vanikoro escape vessel. The December 1818 issue of The Madras Courier related how, in September that year, the ships Claudine and Mary, bound for Calcutta from Sydney, anchored off Murray Island in the Torres Strait Islands. There they rescued a castaway Indian seaman, Shaik Jumaul, who had survived the sinking of the merchant ship Morning Star four years earlier off the north Queensland coast.
On board the Mary, Shaik Jumaul was interviewed about his experiences on the island. He reported that he had seen swords and muskets on the islands, “differently made from English”, as well as a compass and a gold watch. When he asked the Islanders where they had obtained these things, an old man explained how thirty years earlier a ship was wrecked on the Great Barrier Reef, within sight of Murray Island. White men had come from her in boats, but in the fighting that followed all were killed except a boy, who was spared and brought up as one of their own.
The expedition crew list includes a ship’s boy, François Mordelle, from the port town of Tréguier in Brittany, northwestern France. Could this be last survivor of the La Pérouse expedition?
The article featuring the castaway’s account was reproduced in several other newspapers of the day, in Australia, Britain, France and other countries, and observers noted that this might refer to the La Pérouse expedition. Somehow, Shaik Jamaul’s story was largely forgotten in subsequent years.
The chronology fits nicely, for it was 30 years earlier, in late 1788 or early 1789, that the La Pérouse survivors departed Vanikoro in their small vessel. Furthermore, historians are not aware of any other European ship in the region at that time.
Torres Strait, which includes the northern part of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, is studded with reefs, rocks and sandbars. It has been described as a “graveyard of ships”, as over 120 vessels are known to have come to grief in its treacherous waters. The vessel reported by Shaik Jumaul is the earliest known shipwreck in the Strait and indeed, eastern Australia.
Could it be that the final phase of the La Pérouse expedition ended in tragedy in northern Australia? Future recovery of artefacts from the wreck site on the Great Barrier Reef – yet to be discovered – or the islands, will hopefully provide final confirmation.
One La Pérouse mystery, however, will likely remain unsolved.
The Murray Islanders showed Shaik Jamaul the young castaway’s clothing, and cried as they recalled how he, together with two young girls, left the island one night in a canoe. His island friends searched for them, but they were never seen again. Was he seeking to return to France? Did he suffer an accident at sea? Or was he shipwrecked elsewhere a third and final time?
A last crewman, a survivor, a castaway. Though his identity and fate are unknown, he is not lost to memory.