The Devils Hands at the Shoalhaven

Figure 1.  The cave as depicted in the Lone Hand [Greig 1909: 45]

Lawrence Hargrave did not falter from the strong negative reception to his two presentations to the Royal Society of NSW announcing his Lope de Vega theory [Hargrave 1909].  His next venture was a privately produced pamphlet titled Lope de Vega [Hargrave 1911].  Written during 1910 and published in 1911, it extended and amplified the information that Hargrave had collected in the year since his previous paper.  One new piece of evidence that he introduced related to a rock shelter near the Shoalhaven River, south of Sydney.  This was covered with Aboriginal hand stencils and other motifs.  Our interest is in how Hargrave took this new information and wove it into his scenario.

A Mr Walter Hull sent Hargrave a photograph originally published in the Lone Hand [Greig 1909], which is shown below.  The photo shows a man in early 20th century dress standing in front of a large vertical rock-shelter face with a number of hand stencils interspersed with other stencilled objects, mainly indistinct.

The account Hargrave presents is based on Hull’s information as he does not seem to have visited the site himself.  It states that the shelter was ‘on an iron-stone rock face on the Shoalhaven River’ and ‘no aboriginal will go near them’ [Hargrave 1911: p. 12].  His interpretation is that, as with the rock engravings of Woollahra Point, they are almost literal pictographs telling a story. ‘I reason out that the boat shaped marks refer to water journeys, footsteps to land journeys, and “hands” refer to manual labour.’ [p. 12].  Hargrave proposes that the labour related to the search for gold and that the number of hands and fingers referred to the quantities [‘quills’] recovered.  To Hargrave this provided an explanation why evidence he claimed to be Spanish was also found far away from de Vega’s Sydney landfall.  He had already begun to weave a story about the crewing of the Santa Ysabel with Spanish seamen and Peruvian miners in his earlier work to explain the Woollahra rock engravings and this served to tie up a number of loose ends and suggest additional motivations for the key actors.

Gold has historically been mined from beside the Shoalhaven River at Yalwal and further upstream at Bungonia in the late 19th century and in the 20th century.  Hargrave proposes that de Vega used Aboriginal people as gold mining slaves, and it was their brutal treatment that served to make them avoid the rock-shelter ever afterwards.  The gold itself was carried through the rescue by the Santa Barbara, the shipwreck on Facing Island and the journey to Torres Straits.  It was hidden in a manufactured god-figure built around a bamboo tube that was comparable to the one that Hargrave had seen on Ugar in the 1870s and which he later became convinced had some hidden message relating to Lope de Vega’s journey.  The figure was collected by JB Jukes but was subsequently lost [Fraser 1959].  A further detailed article on this is planned.

Part of Hull’s letter is reproduced by Hargrave.  It describes the hands, and makes the statement that ‘These “hands” are only found in the Shoalhaven District’ [p. 12].  The description of the hands suggests no familiarity with just how ubiquitous they are throughout NSW where the local geology creates suitable sites.  Among the motifs is one that Hull refers to as a ‘cross boomerang X’.  He assumes this represents a single object and then proposes that as it is not used by Aboriginal people but is known from other cultures ‘that in some pre-historic time a canoe load of one of the South Sea or South American people was blown out of their course and made land at the Shoalhaven Heads’ [p. 13].  Hull says the contemporary Aboriginal story of the site is that the Devil was washed down the river and tried to climb out.  Each time he reached up and grabbed the rock he left an indelible mark of his flailing arm.

The shelter is still known.  It was probably the subject of a long article on Aboriginal art, spirituality and cultural origins written by the Reverend D. McLennan of Berry in the Shoalhaven Telegraph [McLennan 1895].  Two postcard photos are known dating to 1905 or earlier [Bindon pers comm].  In the early 1970s it was relocated and studied by W.G. McDonald, who also found other early mentions of the shelter [McDonald 1974].  It is confirmed as the same as Hargrave’s by comparison of the surviving motifs.  Eight hands at least survived, mainly held vertically but a few horizontal.  There was also a stencilled fish and other marks that had faded beyond identification.  ‘[W]e saw no footmarks or boats’ [p. 34].

Other images of the shelter and its art can be found here, here and here.

Peter Bindon also studied this shelter as part of a comprehensive survey of Aboriginal art sites in the Shoalhaven region for his archaeology honours thesis at the Australian National University [Bindon 1976].  Bindon notes that the lower part of the shelter is affected by river flooding, and it has been defaced by graffiti.  He also confirmed that there were no motifs or art techniques which were unusual or out of the normal range of Aboriginal art.  Neither could he remember any footprints, fish or ‘boat-shaped marks’ [Bindon pers. comm.].

As with other matter that Hargrave picked up as evidence, his willingness to slot it in to his pre-existing framework is sometimes astonishing, as is his uncritical acceptance of statements made by others.  When Hull wrote to him Hargrave was already trying to find some underlying explanation for the widespread scattering of rock engravings, apparent anomalously early evidence of mining and so on that was contrary to his theory.  The search for gold provided a convenient device to explain all of these and conformed to the historical stereotype of the Spaniards in the New World.  Hargrave had already proposed that the Santa Ysabel had Peruvian gold miners on board [Hargrave 1909].  Their travels outwards from Sydney to search for gold were, according to Hargrave, done with an almost manic fervour, ‘The gold greedy Peruvian Spaniards … the searching of the hills and valley for indications of the glittering metal, the elusive specks in the sandstone, the pounding at this rock with copper gads … the overseer with scourge driving the dilatory … and then the disappointment’ [1911: 11].

Although not well known to most Australians at the turn of the 20th century, stencilled and occasionally pigmented hand motifs were a very common form of art found through many parts of Australia.  There is no evidence to suggest that they were made by anyone other than Aboriginal people over the course of time.  The Devils Hands Cave at the Shoalhaven is, or was in the early 1900s, a well-preserved but by no means unique example of this along the NSW coast.  The cross boomerang motif noted by Hull is known elsewhere as being made by two overlapping boomerang stencils [><] and does not require foreign intervention for its  explanation.  The footmarks and boats claimed to have been seen by Hargrave in the photograph do not seem to have been more than wishful interpretation by Hargrave and Hull.

The Devils Hands stands out as a particularly weak piece of supporting evidence adopted by Hargrave.  His own prejudices about this and the Sydney rock engravings are entirely consistent with the prevailing racist attitudes of the period, which still viewed any accomplishment in its design or execution as being beyond the capabilities of Aboriginal people.  A century later, however, we can be clear that hand stencils are entirely an Aboriginal art form found throughout Australia.  While uncommon the stencilling of objects is also known and entirely consistent with the other art.   While Hargraves may be perhaps forgiven for displaying the attitude of his time, it does not excuse his uncritical adoption of the Devils Hand site as proof that the Spanish obtained gold from the Shoalhaven or of the development of gold seeking as an underlying explanatory motif for such evidence being found elsewhere.


Peter Bindon generously provided me with copies of the early newspaper article and images of the shelter from his thesis research.


Bindon, P. 1976
The Devils Hands: a survey of the painted shelters of the Shoalhaven River basin, BA Hons thesis, Australian National University.

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

Greig, A.W. 1909
‘Aboriginal art: with an account of the mysterious rock pictures of the Glenelg District [W.A.]’, The Lone Hand, 5, 1 May 1909, pp. 42-48.

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

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.

McDonald, W.G. 1974
Lawrence Hargrave of Stanwell Park: a sketch of his life and work, Illawarra Historical Society, Wollongong, second edition.

Figure sources

Figure 1.  This picture was originally published in Greig [1909: p. 45].  It was not captioned or specifically referred to in the text.  Peter Bindon [pers. comm.] says that there were several postcard images of the Devil Hands Shelter made in the early 20th century.  It is possible that the original of this picture was also a postcard.


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