Hargrave – ‘They searched for gold’

Another piece of Hargrave evidence, another blog post.

Lawrence Hargrave believed that when Lope de Vega’s crew were stranded in Sydney in 1595 they occupied their time gainfully by doing what all Spaniards in New Worlds do – they searched for gold.  Fortunately they had Peruvian miners amongst their crew because the glowing testimony Mendana gave about the Solomons Islands all but guaranteed that abundant gold would be found there.  Once Lope de Vega in the Santa Ysabel became separated from the remainder of the ships and ended up stranded in Sydney Harbour it is perhaps to be expected that they would have taken the chance to go looking for gold.  And, according to Hargrave, they found it.

The first Hargrave writings on Lope de Vega did not particularly dwell in any way upon the topic of gold.  It was only when he began to recognise that the engravings right near his home on Woollahra Point may have been part of the story that he began to seek connections.  In his second Royal Socie ty of NSW presentation he recorded how the engraving of the human figure at Woollahra Point must have been made with metal tools [Hargrave 1909].  However, when the compendium produced by WD Campbell [1899] was made available to him in late 1909 he became aware of the vast number of engravings around Sydney and their remoteness from the Harbour.  This was a strong counter to his argument about their Spanish origin, a point highlighted in the paper given by the rock art expert RH Mathews [1910][Footnote 1].  He therefore needed a mechanism that would have the Spanish out and about in Sydney much more than mooching around by the Harbour waiting to be rescued.

By the time he wrote Lope de Vega Hargrave [1911] had developed the idea that the prime motive for the Spanish in Sydney was to search for gold wherever they could find it until their rescue was affected.  In this way he sought to explain the abundance of the engravings throughout the Sydney basin, as documented by Campbell, reflecting gold-seeking expeditions heading north and south.  Maintaining, against the evidence, that they were done by metal tools, he also proposed that some of the engravings may have been done in imitation by Aboriginal people using tools lost or stolen from the Spanish and their Peruvian workers.

This contention was also tested in a typically Hargrave manner.  He collected scrapings from the engravings to determine whether there was any metal present in their residues remaining from their initial chiselling.  The testing by Mr Hamlet of the NSW Dept of Public Health came back negative [NLA MS 352 William Hamlet to LH 9.7.1909 ].  During the 1911 archaeological excavation undertaken at Hargrave’s behest at Woollahra Point by the Australian Museum the only European artefact found was an iron spike.  Hargrave had no hesitation in labelling this a chisel used by the miners [Gojak, in prep.].

The Shoalhaven River

Sydney sandstone and shales can contain miniscule amounts of gold, but its recovery is at the lowest commerical limit and would require tons upon tons being processed [SMH 1894].  Gold appears in commerical quanitities once you leave the Sydney Basin.  One such location is the Shoalhaven River, which cuts through gold-bearing geology that was mined in the 19th and 20th centuries.

As discussed in an earlier blog, Hargrave received a letter from Walter Hull, who described a rock shelter on the Shoalhaven, known locally as ‘the Devil’s Hands Shelter’.  Hargrave was able to create a scenario that tied in the shelter to his gold story, with the hands recording the quantity of gold recovered, Aboriginal gold-mining slaves being punished and therefore fearing the place and so on.  The story is set out in full here and here.

‘Vertical cross-cuts of great antiquity’

Although the Shoalhaven was the key gold-related site, there were a number of other sites that Hargrave also decided supported his gold-seeker hypothesis.

The first of these sites was on Sydney’s northern beaches at either Narrabeen or Dee Why – there is some confusion in his papers as to which. Initially Hargrave believed that he had found evidence of mining north of Dee Why Lagoon, later naming both Narrabeen Long Reef, which are both north of Dee Why Lagoon but separated by a few kilometres.

In a letter to the Sydney Morning Herald he wrote:

On the Manly-Newport road, just north of the Narrabeen lagoon, there is a spur, capped by boulders, that the road winds round. If you climb this spur you will find the highest boulder is a mere shell, with a well smoked interior. The next boulder to the north of the hollow one is marked, low down on its western face, by six deep, vertical cross-cuts of great antiquity. The chunk of stone between the two northern crosscuts has been broken off. I Infer that this chunk was dollied, and washed out in the lagoon below.  The prospect, of course,did not show a colour, and the claim was abandoned as a duffer. [Hargrave 1910].

Figure 1. Sandstone boulder with marks Hargrave believed were from gold prospecting

There is a steep spur just north of the Narrabeen lagoon crossing, adjacent to Nareen Parade, that was used as a quarry in the early 20th century.  However this is about the only time he mentions Narrabeen as its location.  In all later references Hargrave places the rock at Long Reef, which is a spur projecting into the ocean north of Dee Why Lagoon, about 5 kilometres south of Narrabeen.

A photo of the boulder with its cross-cuts was published in Hargrave’s Lope de Vega [1911], produced privately following the Royal Society of NSW’s decision not to accept further material on the topic.  It looks like a typical Sydney sandstone boulder – a large rounded block, several metres across, with differential erosion resulting in it losing material from some layers faster than others.  About half way up there are four regularly spaced vertical parallel cuts in the face of the boulder; the remaining two Hargrave believed flanked the missing chunk at the left side of the stone.  These appear to cut through a series of naturally bedded layers.  While occasionally some vertical erosion of this sort results from plants rubbing against the vertical face of the stone, the fact that there are numerous cuts, their depth and regularity strongly suggests human agency.  The purpose of the cuts is unknown.  The cuts do not appear to be related to quarrying the stone – the damage to the left of the cuts indicates that it is poor quality stone – or to removing it one piece at a time.  Blasting powder was freely available and used for this purpose.  Neither are the cuts consistent with rebates for a timber frame, which is sometimes found around Sydney.  Removing samples for assaying as suggested by Hargrave could be done by hammering off a lump or picking up a loose stone.

Hargrave’s letter is dated 1 January 1910.  A few weeks earlier, on 5 December 1909 his friend and fellow aviation enthusiast George Augustine Taylor  made a number of flights from Narrabeen Beach in a human-powered glider, becoming the first to do so in Australia [SMH 1909].  It is reasonable to suppose that Hargrave was in the crowd for that event or the following week or so that Taylor and members of the Aerial League spent there.  He would have travelled to the northern beaches, almost certainly by ferry to Manly, following the Pittwater Road, passing Dee Why Lagoon and then Long Reef.  Taylor’s site was probably on the main run of Narrabeen Beach, which is not accessed by crossing Narrabeen Lagoon.  It seems that this first mention of Narrabeen is likely to have been an error in reporting a locality with which Hargrave was not familiar, and it was corrected in later writings.

Hargrave also considered the locality, now Sydney suburb, name of Dee Why to be likely evidence of Lope de Vega.  The suburb had taken its name from an annotation in the 1815 survey notebook of James Meehan – ‘Dy’.  Over the years many attempts have been made to explain this, none convincingly.  Hargrave thought it may have been Meehan’s misreading of some carved initials – De V – for de Vega [Hargrave 1909: p. 417].

As an aside, Hargrave’s own speculations about Dee Why were vaguely remembered and transformed into another version of Dee Why’s origin in the 1930s.

‘I have heard,’ said Jane as we drove along, ‘a number of reasons for the name. First, because the shape of the lagoon suggests the two letters D and Y; secondly, that it is called after the aboriginal name for the grebe or dab-chick, “diwai”, a bird which frequented the lagoon; thirdly, because the initials D.Y. were found on a nearby rock. These initials were supposed to have been carved by the survivors of the Dona Ysabel, a Spanish ship wrecked on the beach’. [Fairfax 1951: p. 184]

The fate of the gold

Hargrave believed that the gold that was allegedly found in the Shoalhaven ended up being taken in the Santa Ysabel and the rescue ship, the Santa Barbara back up the coast.  The Santa Barbara ran aground on Facing Island, near Gladstone, on the Queensland coast.  The Santa Ysabel was left to make its way to Torres Strait where it too was lost.  According to Hargrave the gold was kept in a bamboo tube with tortoise-shell additions, in the form of a figure that was a stylised represetnation of Lope de Vega – citing the ‘armour’, a ruff collar and symbols on the headband which would originally have spelled ‘DEVEGA’.  This figure was collected by J.B. Jukes during the expedition of the Fly [Jukes 1847: 193].  The figure, about 3 feet high, was carried on board the ship by Mammoos, a Darnley Islander who traded it for an axe.   The figure was recorded as being lodged in the United Services Institution, London.

Figure 2. The ritual figure collected by Jukes from Torres Strait, which Hargrave thought contained Shoalhaven gold

When Hargrave wrote to them, however, they had no record of the figure.  Although their ethnographic specimens had been transferred to the British Museum there was no record of this.  Hargrave believed that ‘someone’ had discovered the gold inside the figure and had taken it, destroying the figure in the meantime [Hargrave 1911: p. 12].  In a footnote, the British Museum did find a damaged figure that has sufficient circumstantial evidence to be considered as the one collected by Jukes [Fraser 1959].  Fraser identified it as being an extremely rare type of figure, with only a few comparable items known.  There was no evidence that it had ever contained any gold.

Hargrave’s narrative weaves around his many pieces of corroborating evidence.  None of these bear scrutiny, but then Hargrave was not interested in evidence that could test his ideas, only corroborate them.  The story of gold appeared because it fit the simplistic stereotype of Spanish conquistadors, and then Hargrave had to keep finding more things that could bolster the story and fill in some of the gaping holes in his logic.  Unfortunately all that does, as we can clearly see, is allow a bad idea to grow out of hand until it is so complex and convoluted in order to account for every anomaly that it must necessarily collapse under its own internal logic over time.


1.  Hargrave’s papers in the National Library of Australia include a copy of Campbell’s book with a number of  similar motifs cut out and stuck together for comparison.



National Library of Australia
MS 352 – Lawrence Hargrave papers relating to Lope de Vega.  Series 2 – Drawings and photographs for Lope de Vega publications.
MS 352 – Lawrence Hargrave papers relating to Lope de Vega.  Series 6 – correspondence 1908-1910.


Campbell, W.D. 1899
Aboriginal carvings of Port Jackson and Broken Bay, NSW Department of Mines and Agriculture, Memoirs of the Geological Survey of NSW, Ethnological Series no. 1., Sydney.

Fairfax, John 1951
Historic roads round Sydney, Angus & Robertson, Sydney.  [Originally published as Then and Now, 1937].

Fraser, D.F. 1959
‘The rediscovery of a unique figure from Torres Straits’, Man, vol. 59, pages 61-64.

Gojak, D. in preparation
‘Lawrence Hargrave and an early archaeological dig at Woollahra, Sydney Harbour, NSW’, submitted to Australian Archaeology.

Hargrave 1909
‘Lope de Vega’, Journal of the Royal Society of NSW, 43, pp. 39-54, 412-425.

Hargrave, L. 1910
‘A story in stone’ [Letter to editor], Sydney Morning Herald, 5 January 1910, page 11.  Available here.

Hargrave, L. 1911
Lope de Vega: in continuation of previous publications contained in the Journal of the Royal Society of New South Wales, Vols XLIII,XLIV, 1909, 1910, privately published, Sydney.

Jukes, J.B. 1847
Narrative of the surveying voyage of H.M.S. Fly during the years 1842-1846, T. & W. Boone, London.  Available here.

Mathews, R.H. 1910
‘Some rock engravings of the Aborigines of New South Wales’, Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New South Wales, 44, pages 401-445.

SMH 1894
‘Royal Society’, Sydney Morning Herald, 4 October 1894, page 6.  Available here.

SMH 1909
‘Gliding at Narrabeen’, Sydney Morning Herald, 7 December, page 3.  Available here.

Notes on Figures

Figure 1 is taken from Hargrave [1911], Plate 4.  Copyright has expired on this image.  Hargrave’s copy of the letter to the Sydney Morning Herald has a sketch of the stone.  The face shown in the photo is orented roughly NE-SW.  Immediately to the north of it, and hard to see in this photo, is the other rock that is just a shell with a smoke-blackened roof.  Looking at the 1943 Roads and Maritime Services air photo coverage of the site there are a large number of boulders that could be candidates, although housing had begun to be erected, and it may already have disappeared.

Figure 2 is from JB Jukes’s [1847] account of his expedition to New Guinea in HMS Fly.  Copyright has expired on this image.


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