Australian National Maritime Museum website

Naval gazing: Sea tales of derring-do

In Examples by Peter Gearin

The Australian National Maritime Museum website has nautical stories that helped shape a country’s history.

Do you know the story of Barbara Crawford? It’s one of the most peculiar Australian maritime tales since white settlement, but one you’ve probably never heard. Barbara arrived in Sydney on a fever-ravaged ship from Dundee in Scotland as a six-year-old in 1837. As a young woman, she travelled with her lover to Cape York, on Australia’s wild, northern tip. Their vessel was wrecked and her partner was presumed drowned, so Barbara lived among the local Kaurareg people for what was believed to be four or five years.

In October 1849, the crew of the HMS Battlesnake came across the Kaurareg community, including Barbara, who begged to be taken aboard. On the way back to Sydney, she told her amazing story, drawing and recording what she could about Kaurareg’s traditions, language, beliefs and way of life.

It’s an extraordinary tale; one that has been largely overlooked by mainstream Australian history. But not by Australian National Maritime Museum (ANMM) curatorial assistant Myffanwy Bryant, who tells of Barbara’s adventures on the museum’s blog.

The ANMM blog is a treasure trove of fascinating tales from this country’s distant and recent past. Mixed with recent news and exhibition details, the blog tells salty tales of grit, honour, treachery and derring-do. They explain how the sea has shaped this island continent.

The ANMM houses Australian maritime collections, exhibitions, research and archaeology. Physically it’s a bright white besailed building that sits on the edge of Sydney’s Darling Harbour, ringed by a selection of historical vessels – former Navy destroyer HMAS Vampire, patrol boat HMAS Advance, submarine HMAS Onslow and a full-scale replica of Captain Cook’s Endeavour. Inside, beside the permanent maritime artifacts and storyboards, it has an ever-changing procession of exhibitions. Free to the public, the ANMM attracts more than half-a-million visitors every year.

What is often overlooked is the ANMM’s presence online. The museum website typically highlights the latest exhibitions, family holiday attractions and ways to hire a venue or donate. But it’s the blog that tells stories of our close relationship with the sea, involving indigenous communities and early European explorers to transportation, immigration and victory in the America’s Cup.

Many of the stories, such as Crawford’s adventures, are written by one of the ANMM’s experienced and highly skilled curators. They cover a wide range of expertise, and include maritime archaeologists, librarians and shipwrights.

Recent blog posts include a note from the “new” Endeavour captain, John Dikkenberg, on what it takes to keep the girl shipshape, the latest adventures on dives to Queensland’s Kenn Reef (including the discovery of a Rodger’s pickaxe anchor, which sets researchers’ hearts aflutter) and an interesting history of the Australian White Ensign – the flag Australian troops first sailed beneath into battle in Vietnam.

The ANMM site also includes background information about the major collections and exhibitions. The exhibition that launched in March 2017, “Escape from Pompeii: The untold Roman story”, includes 2000-year-old artefacts from Pompeii, Sicily, Naples and Rome. A feature on the site, lifted from the ANMM’s quarterly Signals magazine alongside images and maps, tells the tale of the heroic (or foolhardy) Roman voyage to Mt Vesuvius in 79AD that ended in catastrophe.

Other stories tell of William Fowler, an Australian merchant sailor who found himself caught up in the Spanish Civil War, and the journey of Vietnamese refugee boat Tu Do after the fall of Saigon, and its restoration at the ANMM.

On this site, you’re sure to find something to float your boat.

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