A toddler's survival story

A toddler's survival story
Elizabeth Isabella Broughton (1807–1891)
12 November 2015

Richard Read (1765–1827), Elizabeth Isabella Broughton 1814, watercolour; 36.3 x 30.3 cm, Rex Nan Kivell Collection (Pictures), NK417, nla.pic-an4862493

Of all the voyagers in the Library's Portraits of the Famous and Infamous exhibition, Betsey Broughton’s (1807–1891) story is perhaps the most affecting and unlikely. Collector Rex Nan Kivell’s discovery of this portrait was almost as improbable. Betsey, the  daughter of hardworking William Broughton, the acting commissary-general of NSW, and his wife Elizabeth, a former convict, was a tiny survivor of the infamous Boyd massacre in Whangaroa, New Zealand, in 1809. In this notorious incident, the ship’s entire crew and passengers were slaughtered (and most eaten), with the only exceptions being Betsey, Ann Morley and her infant, and Thomas Davis, a club-footed cabin boy of 15. Davis was spared by the Maori due to his friendship with Te Ara, also known as George, who was on the voyage from Sydney. A Whangaroa Maori chief ’s son, George was flogged and mistreated for an alleged theft on board and revenge for his loss of face ultimately precipitated the attack. After the murders, the ship was accidentally burnt to the water when gunpowder ignited during its ransacking, and Te Ara’s father was killed. The ensuing chaos led to a civil war in the region.

Meanwhile, having lost her mother at the age of only two, Betsey lived with the Maori for three weeks. She barely survived on their ‘unwholesome food’, before being freed ‘in a very emaciated state’ with Ann Morley, by Captain Berry of the City of Edinburgh. Berry, a friend of Betsey’s father, captured and ransomed two Maori chiefs to engineer her release. She then travelled, eventfully, to Lima, Peru, with Morley, who died there. Betsey was first taken care of by a local family but eventually returned to Sydney via Rio de Janeiro, arriving in May 1812, two and a half years after first departing. Her arrival ‘to the great joy of her disconsolate father’ led to this portrait, which Broughton commissioned from Richard Read and dedicated to ‘Don Gaspar de Rico and the other Spanish Gentlemen and Ladies’ who ‘nobly distinguished themselves by their humanity and in their protection’ of Betsey.

This image of a poised and rather preoccupied child was discovered by Nan Kivell in a Salisbury antique shop window in the early 1950s. One of the earliest extant portraits of a European created in Australia, Betsey was staring at the collector as he passed by. Later, he was astounded to find a letter inside the back of the frame from Betsey’s father to her adopted family in Lima. One can only imagine their surprise when this poignant portrait arrived from across the Pacific. Somehow it made its way to England and became a treasure of Nan Kivell’s portrait collection. In 1824, Betsey married Charles Throsby, the nephew of the prominent surgeon and explorer of the same name, and lived at Throsby Park, Moss Vale, NSW. She had 17 children and died aged 84 in 1891. She is buried in Bong Bong cemetery.

Image of Elizabeth Isabella Broughton later in life

Elizabeth Isabella Broughton later in life, courtesy Tress History

See the exhibition featuring amazing portraits from Shakespeare and Dampier's painted 'Prince Giolo' to social reformer Elizabeth Fry and the notorious Tichborne Claimant before it finishes on 13 December in the National Library's Treasures Gallery. See Portraits of the Famous and Infamous: Res Nan Kivell.   

This is my very favourite picture. In 1967 I worked in the National Library in Canberra and was very familiar with the Nan Kivell Collection. It is stunning. Lovely to see it again. In those days the magnificent collection was housed in old tin "sheds" in Kingston and we ate lunch next to a Tom Roberts or a filing cabinet housing Nellie Melba's fan. Amazing times!