Daniel Simpson

The Royal Navy and colonial collecting in Australia, c.1800-1855

Supported by

Arts and Humanities Research Council

This project uses the Museum’s Indigenous artefact collections to explore early naval encounters with Aboriginal Australians and Torres Strait Islanders.

Start Date: September 2014
End Date: September 2017
Theme: Ocean trade and connections
Research discipline: Material culture and colonial history
Locations: Pacific, UK
Staff member: Gaye Sculthorpe
Department: Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas
University and department: Department of History, Royal Holloway, University of London
University supervisor: Zoe Laidlaw
Profile: Royal Holloway

What did Naval personnel collect, and why?

Weapons were popular, but so too were domestic objects like baskets and ornaments. Valuable 'curiosities', they featured in much scientific debate.

Was collecting purposeful, or random?

It was both. Experts made guides to direct collecting, but much encounter and trade was unplanned, meaning that many collections were spontaneous.

What do the objects reveal about colonial encounters?

Some objects bear the mark of violence - the result of aggression or misunderstanding. Others came through intermediaries, friendship and trade.

About my research

The British Museum holds a significant collection of Aboriginal Australian and Torres Strait Islander objects, many of which came to the Museum through the hands of an eclectic mix of naval surgeons, sailors, surveyors and explorers.

I consider these a fascinating insight into the early history of Britain’s encounter with Australia and the Torres Strait. Unlike later collections made by missionaries and anthropologists, the objects collected by naval personnel in the period 1800-1855 come from the very forefront of colonisation, and often represent extraordinary moments of cultural contact and exchange.

The Australian collections made by Captain Cook and Joseph Banks in the late eighteenth-century have been thoroughly investigated and published on, but so far there has been very little systematic attention given to the role of other naval personnel in this and later periods. What new perspectives might new objects, and new collectors, offer us?

A mask from the Torres Strait, collected by the Royal Navy and donated by Haslar Navy Hospital.

A basket made in Port Essington. It was donated by the Admiralty, via Haslar Hospital, in 1855.

A wood and feather ornament from Western Australia, acquired by the noted philanthropist Henry Christy.

Aims of my research

This project explores the historical meaning of the ethnographic collections made by Royal Navy servicemen in Australia and the Torres Strait, in the first half of the nineteenth century.

I structure the thesis with three related enquiries; first, what might an investigation of specifically naval collecting, and collections, unveil about the early history of colonial encounter in Australia, and what is the best way to go about investigating this? Second, to what extent, with what means, and for what purpose were object collections acquired in this period? Finally, what might such histories of naval collecting contribute to our understanding of the early history of British ethnographic research?

The thesis will develop our knowledge of the meaning, origin and history of Aboriginal Australian and Torres Strait Islander object collections at the British Museum, as well as those held at other locations around the United Kingdom. There is scope to discover new, undocumented collections, and the untold stories of those who made them.