marine specimens and artists

When the first of the nine immigrant ships were reaching South Australia, Charles Darwin was on board HMS Beagle on his famous study of the natural world that led to his theory of evolution and the publication three decades later of his book On the Origin of Species. In July 1836 HMS Beagle visited St Helena and Ascension Island in the South Atlantic Ocean. It was sailing north to England after a five year voyage collecting specimens and studying biology and geology.

It was a time of enormous advances in exploring and studying the natural world. James Cook’s voyage charting the east coast of Australia in 1770 had provided the first European scientific study of the continent. Joseph Banks, the famous botanist and patron of science, had joined the voyage with a team of scientists to collect specimens and artists to paint records of the new continent’s botany and biology.

Nicolas Baudin led a French expedition to study the continent from 1800 to 1804 and collected thousands of specimens and hundreds of drawings that are now held in French museums. English commander Matthew Flinders followed in his circumnavigation of Australia from 1801 to 1803. By then it was standard practice to take artists on exploring expeditions. Before the invention of the camera scientific drawing provided the way to record the world. Indeed, today taxonomic drawing still offers the ability to capture and highlight aspects of plants, fish and animals in ways that cameras cannot.

Interest in studying the natural world spread beyond dedicated scientists. Science was a popular pastime among educated men in the first decades of the nineteenth century. Lachlan Macquarie, Governor of New South Wales, was presented with a collector’s chest in 1818. It was a finely crafted piece of furniture that he filled with specimens of birds, plants, animals and minerals.

Beyond science, passengers onboard emigrant ships in the nineteenth century searched for ways to pass the time. Among their more macabre diversions was catching albatross on baited hooks towed behind a ship and fashioning craftwork from their bones. The SA Maritime Museum has a pair of pipes with stems made from albatross legs. Passengers and crew would also catch shark for the sport of the catch, the spectacle of the fish on deck and for food.






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