Lawrence Hargrave and Norman Lindsay

December 29, 2013

Norman Lindsay was a writer and artist at the beginning of the 20th century.  His involvement as an illustrator and writer in the Bulletin and Lone Hand magazines, as well as his separately published stories and art, have made him one of Australia’s best known artists.  In 1911 he and his literary colleague J.H.M. [John Henry Macartney] Abbott had a brief but enduring encounter with Hargrave that, arguably, influenced his approach to consider looking for evidence through archaeological excavation.

Figure 2.  Norman Lindsay's depiction of the engraving of the 'Spanish Proclamation'

Figure 1. Norman Lindsay’s depiction of the engraving of the ‘Spanish Proclamation’

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Lawrence Hargrave’s Spanish Sydney – new paper

December 8, 2012

I’ve just had a new short paper published in the December 2012 issue of Placenames Australia, which is the excellent quarterly newsletter of the Australian National Placenames Survey [ANPS] .  This organisation is supported by the different state and Commonwealth place name gazettal boards, to capture the history and meaning of the different toponyms around Australia.  These provide a rich landscape archaeology of successive occupations from indigenous people to the present.

The paper is ‘Lawrence Hargrave’s Spanish Sydney’, and it is about his belief that Lope de Vega landed in Sydney in c.1595, in the ship Santa Isabel [or Ysabel], after separating from the rest of Mendana’s expedition to the Solomons Islands [Gojak 2012].  Hargrave believed that place names around Sydney and Torres Strait supported his case.  According to him the Spanish named various parts of Sydney Harbour and the surrounding coast they explored, and these names were adopted by the Aborigines.  Later, after the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788, it was assumed that these were Aboriginal names.  Hargrave annotated about two dozen of these into his evolving text for his book on Lope de Vega, added them on maps and charts and in amongst his voluminous correspondence.  A further list of names was ready to hand, presumably ones for which he was still searching for an origin.

You’ll have to read the paper for the full list [download of all the ANPS Newsletters is free], but just one example shows Hargrave’s logic follow.

In 1900 heavy storm surges had eroded or stripped grassed dunes, leaving behind exposed dense beachside scatters of Aboriginal artefacts.  These were written up by Etheridge and Whitelegge [1907].  A few years, in 1914, later Australia was hosting the British Association for the Advancement of Science, and a variety of excursions were offered to the delegates.  One took in Kurnell, on Sydney’s southern outskirts, for a visit to Captain Cook’s landing place, and a side trip to Quibray Bay, on the Botany Bay side of the Kurnell Peninsula.  At Quibray Bay one of these desne artefact scatters had been exposed.  Hargrave’s copy of the conference handbook is annotated on the page describing the tour.  He notes ‘quibra’ is Spanish for ‘crack’, as in Quibray is ‘the flint cracking place’.  Seemingly unaware of the Etheridge and Whitelegge paper, he may have otherwise wqondered why this place was so named, when they record the same storms having exposed Aboriginal artefact scatters on many beaches all along the coastal area of Sydney, and Quibray was perhaps one of the more modest.  Quiebra acloser meaning is to break or fail, rather than crack.

Hargrave didn’t speak Spanish, but did get assistance from Captain Bertram Chambers of the Royal Australian Navy.  Its not clear how good Chambers’s Spanish was, but he seems to have been a speaker of the language rather than a writer or reader.

This was just another example of how Hargrave’s obsession with the inherent truth of his belief clouded his judgement, allowing him to selectively pick at different facts, and twist them until they matched his belief.


Etheridge, Robert and Thomas Whitelegge 1907
‘Aboriginal workshops on the coast of New South Wales, and their contents’, Records of the Australian Museum, vol. 6 [4], pp. 233-250.  Available here.

Gojak, Denis 2012
‘Lawrence Hargrave’s Spanish Sydney’, Placenames Australia: the newsletter of the Australian National Placenames Survey, December 2012, pp. 3, 6-8.  Available here.

The Ploughed Ground – 1

August 12, 2012

One of the earliest speculations about unrecorded voyages to Australia comes from the memoirs of Joseph Mason, a convict who served his sentence in NSW in the 1830s.  Mason’s handwritten memoirs remained almost unknown, but were finally edited and published in 1996 [Kent and Townsend 1996] and are an important source for Australian convict history as seen from the inside.

Mason was transported for participation in unrest arising from the social dislocations accompanying industrialisation in Britain.  Perhaps because of his status as a political prisoner he reveals himself to be a thoughtful chronicler whose memoirs are quite different from the normal convict fare.  He was assigned as a convict servant to Hannibal Macarthur at his Vineyard estate near Parramatta in 1831.  Macarthur also had another grazing estate called Arthursleigh on the banks of the Wollondilly, south of Sydney, which had been established before official settlement was permitted within this area [Fletcher 2002].

In a section of his memoirs where he speculates about previous history of Australia, and whether the Aboriginal people were its sole former occupants, Mason says:

There is two spots of ground one about 30 miles to the south of any residence and the other on the bank of the Hunters River which I was informed by creditable witnesses as well as having seen the same in a book bear marks as if it had once undergone the operation of ploughing. The first of these lies in the road leading to the south of the colony and is always called the ploughed grounds. The blacks have been asked if they know what occasioned these spots [of] land to Assume their present shape but their are quite ignorant as to the cause Had any of their ancestors been acquainted with husbandry there certainly would have been more extensive marks of it remaining than these two spots of ground nor is it likely that the present race or rather generation should have been so retrograded from the path of industry as to possess not a single grain of corn an agricultural impliment, or the slightest notion of cultivating land.  [Kent and Townsend 1996: pp. 121-2]

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Michael Terry

March 13, 2012

Michael Terry is little known now but was one of a small group of adventure-writers who helped to shape Australia’s self image during the 20th century.  A genuine explorer, who took advantage of motor vehicles to traverse some of the last desert areas crossed by Europeans in Australia, he helped to open up and map large areas of desert country.  In 1961 he discovered unusual rock art at Cleland Hills, west of Alice Springs, depicting stylised faces, which he thought may have indicated ancient foreign contact.  From that time on secret visitors became an obsession and he can be credited with collecting many of the stories that were later picked up by Rex Gilroy and others and have become part of secret visitor lore.

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The ‘Spanish Proclamation’ – additional information

January 10, 2012

The blog entry on the engraving site that Lawrence Hargrave called ‘The Spanish Proclamation’ at Meriverie, on the northern headland of Bondi, provides a detailed discussion about its authenticity and likely history of creation.  Since it was posted in April 2011 I have come across some additional information about the engraving which adds more to what we can say about it.

Who told Hargrave about the engravings?

The earliest I had tied Hargrave back to the Meriverie engravings was his tracing of 12 March 1910, with a short note a month later jotting down his possibly first inspiration of the symbolic textual message it contained.  However, some further work at the National Library at the end of last year adds more to this story.

Hargrave received a letter from [illegible] Kirk of ‘The Ravine’, Ormond Street, Bondi, who had read of Hargrave’s claims in the Sydney Morning Herald in late July-early August 1909.  He or she wrote:

After having a look at the Woollahra Pt carvings as a result of your interesting description in the ‘Herald’, I walked across to Meriverie to refresh my memory in regard to the carvings there which I have not seen for some years & with which doubtless you are acquainted.  I venture to remind you that they have all the characteristics of those at W. Pt and there can be no doubt were the work of the same people, if not of the same individuals.  And if as you surmise they were the work of Spanish adventurers, then those I refer to prove that those gentry travelled at least as far afield as Meriverie & made some stay there.  As at W. Pt there are outlines of men and fish, and a similar track of oval markings.  Also there are the hulls of two ships but although of antique looking, high pooped built they are in better drawing and probably of later date.  They were there however at least 30 years ago & were weatherworn then.  I am inclined to think however that some of the glyptic vandals who in late years have been carving initials & dates over the drawings have been adding finishing touches to the ships, touches which I don’t remember as existing when I formerly saw them. [NLA MS 352 ? Kirk to LH 5.8.1909]

Clearly Kirk’s main reference was to the Aboriginal engravings, but their comments on possible additions to the ships is interesting.  They push the date of the ships back to before c.1880, which does not challenge the claim made by Peck that they were done by two employees of the Dredge Department in c.1870 [Peck 1929].  Ot is possible that the unfamiliar touches left by the ‘glyptic vandals’ refers to the additional letters.

On this basis we can assume that Hargrave was made aware of the Meriverie site by the letter from Mr or Ms Kirk in August 1909.  If he visited it soon afterwards Hargrave would have had some basis for accepting the idea that there was a common hand at work – the Aboriginal engravings are much more abundant than those at Woollahra Point but essentially in the same Sydney engraving style.  It was probably before Hargrave obtained a copy of Campbell’s monograph and therefore likely that he formulated the idea of all of the engravings representing the work of Lope de Vega’s men.  As with other theories, once he came up with something and fleshed it out to his own satisfaction he was incredibly reluctant to change his mind, regardless of the contrary evidence.

Postscript – 9 Nov 2014 – J. Ruffels identified the head of the household at ‘The Ravine’ as R.N. Kirk, a company manager of O’Connell Street.  Using that clue I was able to find out that Kirk’s business was mining investment and management.  From the sounds of his letter he was a long-term occupant of the area, so his estimate of the engravings being present ’30 years ago’ should be accepted.

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Lawrence Hargrave talk

July 31, 2011

Today I gave a talk to the ‘Tea Time talks’ for Woollahra Council [a local government area covering the Eastern Suburbs of Sydney] , which they hold monthly at the Council Chambers.  Originally last year I had approached the Woollahra Historical Society to see if they would be interested in a talk to coincide with the 100th anniversary of Lawrence Hargrave’s dig at Woollahra Point in July 1911.  The President, Peter Poland, suggested that the Tea Time talks got a bigger crowd and might be worth a try.

Peter was not wrong.  We had more than 90 people turn up – a record!  A good story in the local newspaper helped to drum up interest, and we were left with a standing room only crowd.  Can’t get better than that.

The talk itself was focussed on the archaeological dig that Hargrave persuaded the Australian Museum to conduct on a shell-midden in a rock shelter near his house on Wunulla Road, about a kilometre from the venue.  The dig was a small affair, run by C.C.Towle, who was the Curatorial Assistant in Ethnography.  This was probably his first dig and it neither showed great prospects for further rockshelter excavations or for answers being forthcoming on the big questions like the length of Aboriginal occupation, and whether there was a single or multiple waves of people.  The dig did find a heavily rusted iron spike, which vindicated [to some extent] Hargraves’ belief that the dig would reveal evidence of the Spanish occupation of Woollahra Point, part of his grand theory that the Spanish had been in Sydney Harbour nearly two centuries before the First Fleet.  As well as the rockshelter Hargrave identified many sites that he thought were evidence for his theory in the Woollahra / Double Bay / Rose Bay area.

The crowd asked lots of good questions.  If any of them were believers in either Spanish or Portuguese they didn’t let on.  Several had memories or stories of Aboriginal art sites that were sitting in peoples’ back yards in different suburbs.  I think they appreciated the bitterness that consumed Hargrave in his last decade, and while I was talking the penny dropped and I realised that he had been watching past history repeat itself.  For two decades he bore ridicule as a ‘crank’ for his aeronautical experiments, only to be vindicated with the Wright Brothers achievement of powered flight.  He did not get a lot of credit at the time – his contribution was not nearly as well understood as it could have been.  When he embarked on the quest for Lope de Vega and the lost Spanish ship his actions were clearly informed by his past experience.  This time he waited more than three years from the time of his ‘revelation’ before he went public with the story, hoping to have a water-tight and uncontestable argument prepared.  It proved not to be the case.  He still held on to the idea though that, even though he was being pilloried, he would eventually be vindicated.  It never came, and in the last years of his life his thoughts became darker and darker.  It was only in preparing the talk and stepping it out that I really saw the parallels between the aviation and Spanish phases so clearly.

Another good thing that came out of the talk is that although I have been a constant whinger about how archaeologists should present their findings back to the public, we seldom do it.  Now I can be just that little bit less hypocritical next time I complain about it, and the failings of my colleagues.  The audience were gagging to hear about archaeology, and we could so easily fill venues around the state and present factual interesting information to people who care, and vote and fund it all through their taxes.

As a final thing, the talk fell nicely on the World Archaeology Congress’s Day of Archaeology, which aims to document the range of work done by archaeologists around the world on a single day.  Look for the site here.  I’ll add something about my day soon.

The ‘Spanish Proclamation’

March 20, 2011

High above Bondi Beach with spectacular views out to sea you will find a small rock engraving which became one of the proofs used by aviation pioneer Lawrence Hargrave in support of his theory that the Spanish had landed in eastern Australia in 1595.  He thought that the Spanish had made this carving as their official record of their presence and possession of the land, and termed it the Spanish Proclamation.  Hargrave’s argument convinced very few people and the story associated with the engraving remains largely forgotten.

Hargrave is best known for his aeronautical experimentation, for which he is rightly recognised as a pioneer.  Much of this took place in the late 19th century; once the Wright brothers flew successfully his work was superseded by others.  Perhaps in part driven by relevance deprivation, during mid 1906 Hargrave was inspired by the discovery of a cannon in Torres Strait and his own memories of work in the same area in the 1870s to develop a theory that the Spanish mariner Lope de Vega in the ship Santa Isabel [or Ysabel] had been separated from Alvaro de Mendana de Neira’s expedition to settle the Solomon Islands and had instead travelled as far south as Sydney Harbour, where they stayed for perhaps 3 years before being rescued.


Figure 1. Hargrave’s recording of the ‘Spanish Proclamation’.

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