Following on from my last post on the loss of the Amphitrite and its female convict cargo, I thought an event which went on to provoke great public grief and anger (to the extent that it inspired Turner to paint it a couple of years later), must be represented with material in our collection. Such a notorious episode in our early colonial history must be there somewhere. Sure enough I found there are two broadsides about the loss of the Amphitrite complete with verse in ballad form in the encyclopaedic Ferguson Collection.
The Library’s other version (F1618a) seems to occur in different forms with different graphic elements and I’ve found copies in the Bodleian Library and the National Library of Scotland while the remarkable Warren Fahey has apparently recorded a version of it in 2009 and lists it on his Australian Folklore Unit website.
There is also an illustrated account of the disaster in a bound set of the Chronicles of the Sea – previously owned by the indefatigable collector Rex Nan Kivell (NK5719). This is a name with which readers of this blog will become familiar, if they are not already, due the extraordinary depth and breadth of the Nan Kivell collection which comprises nearly 20,000 items of all kinds, from oil paintings to maps, manuscripts and objects. The collection is frequently used in our Treasures Gallery displays and in Library and other exhibitions.
But more of that later. The final item, another broadside, which I found in my search turned out to be of special interest to me.
In searching the catalogue record I found out that it had belonged, until recently, to my old friend Robert Edwards AO the well-known collector of Australiana and 'national treasure’. Bob has also been a curator, researcher, administrator, planner and museum director, with a broad knowledge of Anthropology, Archaeology, Aboriginal Culture and Art History. Bob was the Curator of the South Australian Museum Aboriginal Heritage Collections and Director of Museum of Victoria, the founding Director of the Aboriginal Art Board of the Australia Council and Executive Director of Art Exhibitions Australia (AEA), the blockbuster exhibition development and touring body. Interestingly, Bob was instrumental through his role with AEA in sourcing the acclaimed Turner from the Tate exhibition for Adelaide and Canberra and which of course inspired this blogpost! Small world isn’t it.
Returning to the Turner painting for a moment it appears that this canvas was never exhibited and it seems unfinished, but it is clearly one of the artist’s most affecting maritime works. There are of course many to choose from, especially in an era when shipwrecks were very common – although the numbers of convicts drowned en route to Australia was comparatively small, about 550 I believe. Considering that about 162,000 people were transported here on 806 ships this is not a large number. My first thought on looking at the Turner was that he must have seen the epic Raft of the Medusa by the French artist Gericault (now in the Louvre, Paris).
I later found that this sprawling and dramatic canvas was exhibited in London in 1822 and Turner would have seen it. The comparisons are obvious although Turner makes his image a broader synthesis of the central drama and the vigorous activity of the sea and the drama of the sky – who knows how it might have looked had he persisted with it? Gericault’s iconic work with its dark symbolism relating to cannibalism between the starving and dying shipwrecked sailors is disturbing. Turning the pages of the Library’s Chronicles of the Sea I ran across its listing for the shocking Loss of the Meduse (sic) in 1816. The text quickly makes reference to the sailors “craving for the most loathsome sustenance”!
It seems a terrible irony that the ship Amphitrite, named after the sea goddess and wife of Poseidon, should founder in such a public and deadly manner with clearly awful results. Sadly, it reminds me of the 2010 Christmas island boat disaster where up to 50 asylum seekers drowned in a similar tragedy. People have been coming to Australia by boat for well over 200 years – as migrants, refugees and as convicts – and it has sometimes been a perilous journey.
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