Harden Sidney Melville’s Torres Strait Canoe and five men at the site of a wreck on the Sir Charles Hardy Islands, off Cape Grenville, North East Australia, 1874, is an exceptionally rare example of an early interaction between Torres Strait Islanders and European maritime explorers oﬀ the Australian east coast – the only known image of this activity involving long-range voyaging by Torres Strait Islanders. Painted by English artist Harden Sidney Melville in 1874, whose most iconic work before now was a lithograph – most illustrations from this period are drawings, watercolours or lithographs (not paintings) – this extraordinary acquisition has truly transformed the NGV’s holdings of Australian history paintings.
When trying to tell the history of Australia through public art collections, one faces a dilemma: across our national cultural institutions, there is a glaring absence of Indigenous history paintings. In the historical Australian galleries at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, the presence of Indigenous people can be felt through the small but significant holdings of nineteenth-century artists such as William Barak, Tommy McRae and Captain Harrison, as well as an important collection of painted, woven and carved cultural objects by artists whose names are not recorded. Overwhelmingly, however, the art that one encounters presents to us scenes post 1770, from the perspective of the coloniser, and devoid of Indigenous presence and agency.
The works where Indigenous people do appear, for example, in John Glover’s paintings of Tasmania, are for the most part Antipodean Arcadias – landscapes where Indigenous people have been reduced in scale to decorative figures engaged in traditional activities, such as hunting and fishing. In reality, when Glover painted many of his works, the Tasmanian Aboriginal population had been removed from their ancestral lands and exiled to Flinders Island, making their presence in his works an imagined one.
In order to tell the true and full story of Australian history, one is left reliant on contemporary artists to fill the voids. Indigenous artists such as Marlene Gilson, Christopher Pease, Maree Clarke, Gordon Bennett and Brook Andrew, tackle these gaps head on, highlighting the absences through their own artistic presence. These interventions into the chronology stand in as a substitute for material that doesn’t exist. However, these kinds of works can also be seen to reinforce the chronology of European arrival as the dominant narrative, by sitting within it. And so when, in June 2020, an oil painting was discovered that depicted the pre-contact tradition of Torres Strait Islanders voyaging down the east coast of Cape York Peninsula, it would be an understatement to say this was anything short of groundbreaking.
It may initially seem an odd combination to bring together an archaeologist from Monash University, with expertise in the Torres Strait (McNiven), and an NGV Curator, with expertise in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art (Russell-Cook), to write about such an oil painting, and yet the chance discovery of this 1874 painting is akin to unearthing a rare and beautiful archaeological object from the past. Archaeology reminds us that objects allow us to transgress distinctions in history. There are no categories of the past, only tools through which we can read and under-stand it. In the case of this painting, its historical and cultural importance was immediately recognised as something that would transform the NGV’s ability to tell the truth about the past, while also shedding new light on understand-ing these early interactions.
Harden Sidney Melville’s Torres Strait Canoe and five men at the site of a wreck on the Sir Charles Hardy Islands, off Cape Grenville, North East Australia, 1874, depicts a scene from a rare dimension of Australia’s nineteenth-century maritime colonial frontier, which has previously only been known through historical texts and Indigenous oral histories. A group of Torres Strait Islanders in a huge double outrigger canoe are seen visiting the Sir Charles Hardy Islands in the northern Great Barrier Reef located more than 150 km south of their homeland. There are five people in the vessel – four men and what appears to be a young man, or perhaps a boy. The canoe is of a form that nineteenth-century historical images (paintings, lithographs and photographs) indicate was unique to Torres Strait.1I. J. McNiven, ‘Canoes of Mabuyag and Torres Strait’, Memoirs of the Queensland Museum – Culture, vol. 8, 2015, pp. 127–207. The hull features a curved profile carefully adzed from a large tree at the mouth of the Fly River in south-west Papua New Guinea before it was traded onto Torres Strait Islanders for the addition of telltale accruements. The bow (left) is an elaborate box-like structure that often featured eyes, a mouth and beard. The eyes helped the canoe see its way through the sea for Torres Strait Islander canoes were animate beings in their own right.2I. J. McNiven, ‘Torres Strait canoes as social and predatory object-beings’, in E. Harrison-Buck & J. A. Hendon (eds), Relational Identities and Other-Than-Human Agency in Archaeology, University of Colorado Press, Denver, 2018, pp. 167–96. So from the world view of the men on this vessel, this actually would be a painting of six sentient individuals, as the canoe would be seen as a living person.
The centre of the canoe has a living platform supported by two bamboo outrigger booms. On the platform is a fireplace with a giant clam shell receptacle and a large fish ready to be cooked. The back of the canoe (right) features the characteristic tall stern post with plant fibre tassels. Other fine details of the canoe are obscured partly by 150 years of accumulated grime.
Actually, two vessels are depicted in the painting. To the left of the canoe are pieces of a shipwreck – a large slab of wood (possibly a piece of deck or hull) and what looks like a section of mast. Three of the men appear to be loading onto the canoe something large and heavy with a length of rope attached to a wooden pulley. It is likely they are loading up with wreckage of the ship. Nineteenth-century historical records attest to Torres Strait Islanders cruising across their expansive territorial seas and reefs, ever on the lookout for European shipwrecks and much coveted iron.3D. R. Moore, Islanders and Aborigines at Cape York, Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, Canberra, 1979, p. 150. These records and local oral histories also document Torres Strait Islanders voyaging down along the Great Barrier Reef as far as Lizard Island located more than 500 km south-east of Cape York.4I. J. McNiven, ‘Precarious islands: Kulkalgal reef island settlement and high mobility across 700km of seascape, central Torres Strait and northern Great Barrier Reef’, Quaternary International, vol. 385, 2015, p. 51. Some of these voyages included men and women using their intimate navigational skills and marine knowledge to find food resources. Trips also involved obtaining particular types of stone to manufacture tools such as the renowned stone-headed clubs used in headhunting raids. With the arrival of British colonists and the establishment of shipping lanes across seas and treacherous reefs they knew little about, shipwreck salvaging was added to reasons to voyage by canoe southwards along the Great Barrier Reef. How does this painting manage to accurately depict such intimate details of Torres Strait Islander voyaging activities hitherto known only through textual and oral histories? This is where the author of the painting, professional artist Harden Sidney Melville, enters the frame.
Melville was born in England in 1824 from a family of artists; his brother Henry was a painter, and both were influenced by their father, also Henry Melville, the famous London engraver, lithographer and painter.5Design & Art Australia Online, ‘Harden Sidney Melville’, <www.daao.org.au/bio/harden-sidney-melville/biography/>, accessed 29 Sep. 2020. At seventeen years old, after making a name for himself as a talented artist, Harden S. Melville ‘joyfully accepted’ an invitation as official draughtsman onboard HMS Fly for the British Admiralty’s official hydrographic survey and mapping expedition of the north-east coast of Australia, focusing on Torres Strait, between 1842 and 1846.6H. S. Melville, The Adventures of a Griffin on a Voyage of Discovery, Bell & Daldy, London, 1867, p. 5. We meet Melville and some of his detailed engravings of Torres Strait Islanders briefly in Joseph Beete Jukes’ official account of the expedition – Narrative of the Surveying Voyage of H.M.S. Fly – published in 1847.7J. B. Jukes, Narrative of the Surveying Voyage of H.M.S. Fly, 2 vols, T. & W. Boone, London, 1847. Two years later, Melville published a small volume of twenty-five hand-coloured lithographs, some including Torres Strait Islanders and their canoes, in Sketches in Australia and the Adjacent Islands.8H. S. Melville, Sketches in Australia and the Adjacent Islands, Dickinson & Co, London, n. d. . Jukes mentions visiting the Sir Charles Hardy Islands in 1843 and again in 1844, to obtain drinking water, but makes no mention of Torres Strait Islanders.9Jukes, vol. I, pp. 125–6, vol. II, pp. 266–7. John Sweatman who was on board the HMS Fly’s tender, the cutter Bramble, mentions coming across Torres Strait Islanders ‘as far south as Sir Charles Hardy’s Islands’ in 1846.10J. Allen & P. Corris (eds), The Journal of John Sweatman, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 1977, pp. 24, 36, 79. Here we start to glimpse the inspiration for Melville’s painting.
Melville’s voice on the HMS Fly expedition would remain largely silent if not for a curious book titled The Adventures of a Griffin on a Voyage of Discovery published in 1867. This biographical account of the artist onboard the HMS Fly was clearly authored by Melville but in third person under the nom de plume of a ‘griffin’. Like Jukes, Melville mentions visiting the Sir Charles Hardy Islands in 1843 but makes no mention of Torres Strait Islanders. However, in this same region, he notes that ‘remains of numerous wrecks strewed the rugged and inhospitable rocks of the Barrier Reef’.11Melville, p. 126. In March 1845, the Fly expedition visited the Kulkalgal community residing on the sandy island of Dhamudh (Dalrymple Island) in central Torres Strait, where Melville observed ‘portions of wrecked ships’ scattered around huts.12Melville, p. 188.
Melville returned to England at the end of the Fly expedition in 1846 where he continued to draw, paint and write for a living. He was in his fifties when he produced Torres Strait Canoe and five men at the site of a wreck on the Sir Charles Hardy Islands, off Cape Grenville, North East Australia, and it is without a doubt one of his most monumental works in terms of scale, at 105 × 155 cm (including frame). His skilful brushwork imbues this composition with an ‘uncomposed’ appearance while the sensitive palette and tonal harmonies evoke a distinctly Australian sunset. The kind of pictorial structure he used suggests (to us at least) that this scene was one that remained forever burned into his memory.
Most paintings from the nineteenth century represent Indigenous people as passively waiting, as if nothing happened on the Australian continent until 1770. Melville shows Torres Strait Islanders as active explorers with their own agency who have mastered the ability to cross seas, something until now most people would have only associated with the colonising British. It is extraordinary to think that Melville died in north London in late 1894, aged seventy, leaving behind a body of work that more than a century later we are still discovering. One cannot help but wonder what more surprises does Melville have in store for us?
This was originally commissioned for and publishing in NGV Magazine Issue 25 Nov–Dec 2020.
I. J. McNiven, ‘Canoes of Mabuyag and Torres Strait’, Memoirs of the Queensland Museum – Culture, vol. 8, 2015, pp. 127–207.
I. J. McNiven, ‘Torres Strait canoes as social and predatory object-beings’, in E. Harrison-Buck & J. A. Hendon (eds), Relational Identities and Other-Than-Human Agency in Archaeology, University of Colorado Press, Denver, 2018, pp. 167–96.
D. R. Moore, Islanders and Aborigines at Cape York, Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, Canberra, 1979, p. 150.
I. J. McNiven, ‘Precarious islands: Kulkalgal reef island settlement and high mobility across 700km of seascape, central Torres Strait and northern Great Barrier Reef’, Quaternary International, vol. 385, 2015, p. 51.
Design & Art Australia Online, ‘Harden Sidney Melville’, <www.daao.org.au/bio/harden-sidney-melville/biography/>, accessed 29 Sep. 2020.
H. S. Melville, The Adventures of a Griffin on a Voyage of Discovery, Bell & Daldy, London, 1867, p. 5.
J. B. Jukes, Narrative of the Surveying Voyage of H.M.S. Fly, 2 vols, T. & W. Boone, London, 1847.
H. S. Melville, Sketches in Australia and the Adjacent Islands, Dickinson & Co, London, n. d. .
Jukes, vol. I, pp. 125–6, vol. II, pp. 266–7.
J. Allen & P. Corris (eds), The Journal of John Sweatman, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 1977, pp. 24, 36, 79.
Melville, p. 126.
Melville, p. 188.