Lawrence Hargrave – Powerhouse archives

Lawrence Hargrave is rightly considered one of Australia’s foremost pioneer scientists, with many valuable contributions to early aeronautics and aeroplane design. He also figures as a brief but important contributor of claims for Spanish voyaging along the east coast of Australia in the late 16th century.

I had the opportunity to search the Powerhouse Museum’s Lawrence Hargrave archival collection recently. It was acquired from the Royal Aeronautical Society in the 1960s following strong lobbying of the Australian government by W. Hudson Shaw, one of Hargrave’s biographers.

The collection was too large to search in its entirety but it was well indexed so I looked at nearly all the Spanish related material. Hargrave maintained a ‘journal’, essentially a well-maintained letter copy book, with original versions of his letters set out in his very clear handwriting. These were supplemented by later annotations following up matters in the letters and there were a range of loose items inserted in the volume, such as clippings of his many letters to the editor.

The Spanish explorer material dates from his renewed interest in the topic in 1906, prompted by the discovery of brass cannon in Torres Straits. Hargrave had visited Darnley Island [traditionally called Ugar Island] in December 1877 at the end of his term with the expedition of De’Albertis to the Fly River. While there he had come across a hut on the northern part of the island, which contained a cylindical object covered in gum, with seeds embedded in it. At the time he thought it noteworthy but nothing more.

Now, almost 30 years later it inspired him to think about a connection between the coins, cannon and the Ugar object, which he came to think was associated with Spanish mariners. Writing to the London Missionary Society’s E. Baxter Riley, whose area covered Ugar, he asked him to see if the object was still there and obtain it for him. Hargrave believed that the cylindrical object was a storage tube that held a ship’s log or other written evidence of the lost Spanish voyagers.

Riley reported back that the hut had been demolished some years back, but the oldest remaining woman on the island said that the object may have been spirited away and buried. Riley had natives digging the island to try to find it. He thought it was a typical Torres Strait sacred object, a claim that Hargrave, who had only sighted it briefly, rejected out of hand.

The Ugar object was the catalyst for Hargrave’s exploration of the potential Spanish voyages along the east coast. Initially he had a number of candidates but soon settled on Lope de Vega, part of Mendana’s expedition of 1595. Hargrave’s further thoughts will be explored down the track, but this first insight into his thinking has already raised a number of questions worth exploring.

It is not clear why Hargrave was so quick to pick up the Spanish thread, beyond the general discussion that had taken place a few years earlier with Cardinal Moran’s suggestion that the Spanish had made an Australian landfall at Port Curtis, which had been heavily discredited by other researchers. The Hargrave correspondence confirms that there was effectively no good reason for him to think the way that he did, beyond linking three items into a story that had some superficial validity and appeal.

None of Hargrave’s correspondents seems to have questioned his interpretation beyond the brief remark by Riley that he thought it was a typical Torres Strait Islands sacred object. It may be that this lack of argument, perhaps through apathy or the general appeal of the story, persuaded Hargrave that he was right.

More on Hargrave, possibly much more, as my thesis proceeds.

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