Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Protecting the H.M.S. Sirius Wrecksite and her Artefacts

Last week we celebrated the 224th anniversary of the wrecking of the flagship of the First Fleet, H.M.S. Sirius on the reef at Slaughter Bay. Her role as the flagship places her as Australia’s most important shipwreck and her artefacts are the most significant array of First Fleet cultural heritage held anywhere in Australia. She was the lead ship of those coming to start the new colony, and is therefore positioned right at the very beginnings of what was to become our Nation. The story of the first two years of settlement at Port Jackson and Norfolk Island are together the story of the start of Australia and the wrecking of the Sirius here was a defining event for both colonies. What is astounding is that as a whole we do not know or are not taught at school, about Norfolk Island’s role and the final resting place for the Sirius. I imagine every American child knows what happened to the Mayflower?

The site of the shipwrecking and eventual spread of her artefacts received National and Commonwealth Heritage Listing in 2011. Given her importance it is also not surprising that there is Legislation that protects the wrecksite of the Sirius, along with other Historic Shipwrecks around Australia. This is the Commonwealth Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976. This legislation covers the ownership and sale of historic shipwreck artefacts and also shipwreck sites. The aims of the Act are to ensure that historic shipwrecks are protected for their heritage values and maintained for recreational, scientific and educational purposes. The Act also seeks to control any actions which could result in damage, interference, removal or destruction of an historic shipwreck site or relic. It does not prevent private ownership of relics, or their sale or disposal, but it does regulate their transfer.
NIMAA members snorkelling on the last Sirius anchor still on the sea floor
It is also important for locals to know that while they may have Sirius or other historic shipwreck artefacts currently in their possession, the Act does not allow further removal of objects from wreck sites or disturbance of sites. Relics can only be removed if a permit has been issued (which is what occurred for the official expeditions to recover the Sirius objects). A permit can be issued by the Museum Director as the appointed Officer under the Act. For the Sirius site, there are no restrictions on the use of the site by divers, surfers or swimmers. When the Norfolk Island Maritime Archaeology Association (NIMAA) members were recently diving with visiting maritime archaeologists they were lucky enough to have conditions that do not occur very often over the site, being calm and with little current or swell, and could snorkel over the remaining anchor still visible on the sea floor (see photo).

It is important to know though that no-one may remove relics or disturb the physical fabric of the site. The reason for this of course is that we want the Sirius wreck site and artefacts to be around for future generations to see and learn from. Private owners have an obligation to ensure the artefacts they hold are looked after properly. Working with the Sirius collection on a daily basis we know the conservation work that is required to ensure that these objects do not deteriorate. We had a great example of this presented to us recently when a copper bolt was taken from the site without the diver, Jamie Ryves, being aware that this was illegal. Jamie is an experienced and very responsible diver – but was unaware of the HSP Legislation. The bolt he recovered is likely to be a keel bolt and is an exciting find. However after being under the water for 224 years, it immediately began to corrode once taken out of the water and quickly coloured bright green – a lovely colour in any other circumstances, but one that gave us a clear alarm bell that active corrosion was underway.

Janelle with the keel bolt and its 'tank'
Once we alerted Jamie to the importance of the bolt and that it shouldn’t have been taken off the site without a permit, he immediately donated it to the museum. Janelle Blucher quickly worked on its conservation by rinsing it in fresh water then removing the attached accretions.  This provided an even surface for treatment by immersion in a citric acid / thiourea solution.  The citric acid assists in the removal of the remaining salt laden calcareous concretions and the thiourea prevents the citric acid from attacking the underlying good metal.  The bolt is over 900mm long so a vessel long enough for the immersion in the solution was created (thanks Raewyn and Christian Bailey-Agencies!).  The bolt spent a few weeks in solution and was recently removed and will soon be ready for its next phase of treatment including immersing in sodium sesquicarbonate solution to remove salt contaminations in the metal. This process should remove all the salt and it will then be ready for a protective coating and display.

We sincerely thank Jamie for not only donating the bolt but approving of us publically relaying his actions as a way of publicising that the purpose of the Act, is protection of the artefacts. We hope that everyone will understand that the issue at stake here is not about denying the right to collect objects or ownership per se – it is about ensuring that our children’s children will be able to inherit their rightful heritage by us being good custodians during our lifetime. We are very happy to offer conservation advice and assistance with any artefacts anyone has that they may be worried about. Please call down and see us at the Museum or call on 23788.

Monday, March 24, 2014

224th Anniversary of the Wrecking of H.M.S. Sirius

Midday Wednesday 19th March was the 224th anniversary of the wrecking of HMS Sirius on Norfolk Island. It was in 1790 that the disastrous wrecking of the flagship of the First Fleet occurred, leaving the struggling settlements here and in Port Jackson in a desperate situation.  Just 3 years earlier the Sirius had led the fleet of eleven ships that set out from England carrying the people who would start a new Nation on the other side of the world. She was a vitally important ship to the settlements struggle for survival in their new, isolated home and the only real means of contact with the outside world.

At the time of its wrecking the Sirius was on a desperate mission. Since 1788 both communities had lived not far from starvation. In late 1788 Captain John Hunter, master of the Sirius had taken her on a voyage to Cape Town for supplies. However by the end of 1789 Sydney Cove was still starving. The plan was to send the Sirius to the Chinese port of Canton to obtain food and supplies. To relieve the pressure at Sydney she would be accompanied to Norfolk by HMS Supply, the smallest ship of the First Fleet. Together they would transfer 275 people to Norfolk Island (116 convict men, 67 convict women, 27 children and 65 marines).
George Raper The Melancholoy Loss of HMS Sirius off Norfolk Island
Both ships had arrived at Norfolk Island on 13 March 1790 through terrible weather. Because of the conditions they could not risk the usual anchorage position off the settlement at Sydney Bay (Kingston) and had sailed around to Cascade Bay. By 15 March all the people had been put ashore but the weather worsened and both ships were forced out to sea. After three long days they finally re-appeared at Sydney Bay.

By morning 19 March 1790 the Supply had completed unloading supplies and the Sirius had just begun when Captain Hunter noticed they were beginning to drift in to close to the reef. The Supply was already under sail and her Captain, Lieutenant Henry Lidgard Ball called out to Hunter, waving his hat towards the reef to warn that both vessels were coming perilously close to it. Immediately, Captain Hunter gave the order to sail windward on a port tack. At this point the Supply was ahead, but leeward of the Sirius. However just at the critical time that they sailed off – the wind shifted direction two points to the south. This wind shift was to spell disaster for the Sirius. It was now impossible for the ships on their port tack to clear the rocks off Point Ross.

The Supply was able to pass just clear under the Sirius’ weather bow by taking a starboard tack and desperately, Hunter tried to do likewise. The ship failed to tack and fell off the wind so he had to change to take the tack by turning the ship’s head away from the wind, endeavouring to sail east past the landing point and off between Nepean Island and the eastern point of Sydney Bay. He desperately tried to change tack then frantically cut away the anchor, halyards and sheets in the hope that would slow them down. But the wind just blew the ship backwards until, as he describes in his Journal “she struck upon a reef of coral rocks which lies parallel to the shore, and in a few strokes was bilged”.

Amongst those watching on the shore was Norfolk Island’s Commandant, Philip Gidley King. Surely belying what he would have felt, his Journal records the event with little emotion “at Noon the Sirius having twice missed Stays & being Embayed, struck on the outer part of the Reef”. King would return to Sydney Cove on the Supply to deliver the news to Governor Arthur Phillip. He wrote “You never saw such dismay as the news of the wreck occasioned amongst us all; for, to use a sea term, we looked upon her as our sheet anchor”. Luckily there had been no loss of life from the wrecking, however the Sirius had been the main means of contact with the outside world for both Settlements.
The Causeway, possibly built to help bring goods ashore
On Norfolk Island the effects were felt immediately. With an ‘overnight’ doubling of the population, food and other supplies were now seriously short. Starvation was a real possibility. Within a week martial law had been enforced. Lieutenant Ralph Clark of the Royal Marines had been on board the Sirius for the journey to Norfolk Island, and had been put ashore at Cascade before the wrecking. His diary entry expresses their fears: “Gracious God what will become of us all, the whole of our provisions in the ship, now a wreck before us. I hope in God that we will be able to save some if not all but why do I flatter myself with such hopes – there is at present no prospect of it except that of starving”. Starvation was averted by the arrival of over 200,000 migratory birds nesting on Mount Pitt in the following four months. Eventually hunted to extinction in Norfolk Island they christened the birds ‘Providence Petrels’. Midshipman George Raper captured not only the wreck on the reef in his painting, but also the emotion of her loss with the title “The Melancholy Loss of HMS Sirius, off Norfolk Island March 19 1790” (National Library of Australia).
George Raper Mount Pitt Bird (National Library of Australia)
Immediately the Sirius ran aground as much as possible was thrown overboard with the hope it would float ashore. To rescue the crew a rope was fastened to a barrel and floated ashore, then fastened to a pine tree allowing the men to scramble to shore. Convicts who volunteered to rescue the livestock broke into the rum supply and caused a fire, resulting further loss of precious supplies. In the following weeks it was decided to strip the ship of hardware so desperately needed on the island. Sails, hawsers, masts and spars, fittings and the timbers of the ship itself were removed until she was down to the waterline. It took two years to do this, finishing with fifteen cannons being removed in 1792. Before long all trace of the Sirius disappeared from view.

Today of course, the important HMS Sirius artefacts are housed in the Norfolk Island Museum, within view of the shipwreck location. Together with the story of their modern day recovery they sit on display alongside the stories of Captain John Hunter, Lieutenant Ralph Clarke and the other marines, convicts and civilians whose lives were all sent into turmoil that day 224 years ago, midday 19th March 1790.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Celebrating our 1788 Beginnings

Foundation Day this year was a fabulous celebration of the beginnings of our Island’s first British Settlement on the 6th March 1788. The day is important to celebrate as Norfolk Island’s significance at the very start of the colonization of what was to become Australia, has been largely forgotten in the minds of most Australians. Our story from 1788 is inextricably bound up with Port Jackson as both settlements needed each other for their very survival. At one point Governor Phillip even considered making Norfolk Island the primary settlement above Port Jackson such was this island’s relative success. The wrecking here of HMS Sirius in 1790 was an event that put both places at enormous stress and resulted in Norfolk Island housing an equal number of people as Port Jackson for the next few years.

The Pier Store Museum has a number of books for sale that provide good information on the First Fleet, the wrecking of the Sirius and life on Norfolk in the First Settlement.

Taking us back to our understandings of why and how the British prepared for and undertook the First Fleet voyage is Alan Frost in his book “The First Fleet – the Real Story”. Through a meticulous examination of hundreds of previously neglected documents he debunks the myth that it was an ill conceived, shambolic affair primarily about dumping unwanted convicts. The importance of the resources that Norfolk Island offered to establish a Pacific naval boat building base in terms of pine trees and flax plants, were well understood and reinforce the important place of Norfolk Island at the very start of our Nation.

Two books that have been written about First Fleeters who lived on Norfolk Island provide a great picture for not only their ancestors, but anyone who’s ancestor lived here then, of what life was like. These are: “Prisoners In Paradise – The Story of Olivia Gascoigne and Nathaniel Lucas” by Trevor Lagstrom, and “Robert Forrester, First Fleeter” by Louise Wilson. These are both highly recommended.

The wrecking of HMS Sirius on the reef at (now) Slaughter Bay in 1790 would have been a soul crushing event to have lived through. The entire populations at Port Jackson and Norfolk Island were already at breaking point when the vessel of their salvation was wrecked before their eyes. The story of the wrecking is included in a book that looks at the role and culpability of her Captain, John Hunter in the disaster. “An Unlikely Leader, the life and times of Captain John Hunter” by Robert Barnes may surprise some with his conclusions. “One Ship, Two Names, Three Voyages – the Story of the Sirius” by Helen Sampson provides a clear and concise telling of her First Fleet voyage and eventual wrecking.

There are two beautiful ‘coffee table’ style books for sale in the Pier Store. “The Northern Plains – A History of Longford, Cressy, Perth and Bishopsbourne, Tasmania” by Nic Haygarth, picks up the story of what happened to Norfolk Island’s settlers at the close of the First Settlement. In 1813 many were settled in the Norfolk Plains in Tasmania and last year the Northern Midlands Council produced this book to celebrate the 200 year anniversary of that event.

“A Most Admirable Australian – Phillip Parker King” by Brian Douglas Abbott is a comprehensive biography of perhaps Norfolk Island’s most successful, yet little acknowledged sons - and a son of Philip Gidley King. As is well known, Phillip followed his father into the Royal Navy and completed Matthews Flinders unfinished survey of the Australian coast. He also however completed hydrographic work in the Magellan Straits which laid the platform for the famous voyage of HMS Beagle and Charles Darwin. His son actually completed the voyage with Darwin. Phillip Parker was the first Australian born to become an Admiral of the Blue.

For such a small island Norfolk’s place in the start of Australia’s British history is large. Our current job is to communicate that loudly and clearly to the rest of Australia! There are many who will visit this island specifically because of that history, whether they have ancestry connected to that time or not. Our Foundation Day celebrations on Norfolk Island can play a big part in that communication and deserve our support.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Archaeology on Land and Water

This post concludes an account of two weeks in February when we had visiting land and water based archaeologists undertaking survey and training work on the island:  

We’ve just come to the end of a fabulous two weeks looking at the archaeology of Norfolk Island thanks to our five visiting archaeologists. We had the land covered with Dr Martin Gibbs, Dr Brad Duncan and Natalie Blake undertaking the Norfolk Island Archaeological Survey, and Andy Viduka and Amer Khan looked at our underwater heritage.

The land sites surveyed using three radar techniques were the Landing Place at Kingston including down to the area in front of Munnas, Emily’s Grave behind Emily Bay, the Cascade burial site and the original Melanesian Mission cemetery. Other areas that they visited to make initial observations and GPS readings were the range of properties that make up the Cascade Agricultural and Longridge Agricultural Stations. Due to the loss of days with wet weather and some equipment problems we didn’t get to cover quite as much terrain with the radars as originally envisaged. Each site is also complex with a variety of historical and current information available. While that may be a bit frustrating in the short term, it has meant that Martin and Brad are very keen to map out an on-going program of work to more fully cover the island and work on a funding program to do so. As a Senior Lecturer in Archaeology with the University of Sydney, Martin will be doing his best to see how the university can become involved in future work.

The land Survey radar results won’t be fully known until after the radar readings get thoroughly analysed by the team using a number of software applications back on the mainland. However there were enough anomalies (a word we’ve learnt to use to describe changes in the squiggly lines of the radar readings!) in the readings to give hope of some good results across the sites. Good results may include identification of what could be building structures or graves from cemetery areas as well an understanding about which previous buildings were ‘robbed’ of stone to build later structures that now leave only a caved in imprint on the radar. The remains of the Longridge and Cascade Agricultural Stations in particular really excited the team. While we didn’t get to investigate Phillipsburgh in detail it also remains as a large area to follow-up on.

By mid May the Museum will have mounted an exhibition on the whole survey which will include all the results and we will also publicise them in the paper as they become available. For Brad, Martin and Natalie they now face a busy few months processing and writing up the results into a report.

On Tuesday night Martin, Brad and Andy very generously gave a public presentation. Brad showed how he works with geo-referencing which gives real world co-ordinates and spatial references to historical maps. Knowing with good proximity where buildings shown on a 1795 map are on the ground today, obviously aids decisions about where to carry out radar activity. Andy talked about the value of knowing about our maritime heritage and the importance of recording the stories that surround our maritime objects.

Martin gave a fascinating presentation on Pitcairn Island as Cultural Landscape based on his thinking after visiting and carrying out archaeological digs on Pitcairn in the late 1990s. He states “…it will be suggested that when viewing the Bounty arrivals as a colonizing population, the perceptions and reactions of the Polynesian participants almost certainly included responses to a spiritual realm within the Pitcairn landscape that was most likely undetectable and incomprehensible to the Europeans.  In particular… especially in the early years the Polynesians were engaged in a constant series of negotiations within the spiritual and natural realms”. His presentation also gave an insight into the breadth of archaeology – its not just about finding buried remains but the whole landscape of a place, how and why people historically and currently respond to it.

Meanwhile, on the water and on-shore, Andy and Amer worked with members of the Norfolk Island Maritime Association (NIMAA). There were a number of dives to try and locate the position of known Admiralty anchors, a session on oral history and looking at how to measure up a wreck on the sea floor. Andy and Amer spoke to a number of people in the community about our maritime heritage, building up an awareness of our islands maritime culture. Andy also provided information to the Police on their role as Inspectors under the Historic Shipwrecks Act and to the museum on filling the Australian National Shipwreck Data Base.

The work of the last few weeks won’t stop here. The museum is very keen to continue supporting NIMAA and community members in their pursuits to identify and protect our historic shipwrecks heritage. On land, we will continue to work with Brad and Martin to see how we can establish long term archaeological projects that will work to help us understand more about the remains under our very feet and the stories of the people who live and have lived on our island. 

We extend our sincere thanks to Brad, Martin and Natalie for sharing so much with us over the last few weeks. We sincerely look forward to working with them all again. Thanks also to Andy and Amer for returning to the island to keep us and NIMAA members focused on our maritime heritage. It’s been a fabulous two weeks at the Norfolk Island Museum!

Archaeologists on Norfolk Island!

Five archaeologists visited Norfolk Island recently working on land and sea based surveys – it even began to look like Time Team moved in! 

From Febraury we reported: Dr Brad Duncan, Dr Martin Gibbs and Natalie Blake spent the last week getting the Norfolk Island Remote Sensing Survey underway. Andrew Viduka and Amer Khan have just arrived to get a marine survey and training underway with the Norfolk Island Maritime Archaeology Association (NIMAA) members. It really is fabulous to have professionals of this calibre on island working to help us locate and identify more of our islands heritage.

Brad, Martin and Natalie’s Survey, funded through a Commonwealth Your Community Heritage Grant, will continue till the end of the week. This week they spent time identifying sites to survey from across the island. Together with analysing historic maps and paintings, they also looked at aerial and historic photos, and written information including previous archaeological reports by KAVHA and Robert Varman. Walking through the landscape with former KAVHA Site Manager Puss Anderson was invaluable. It quickly became apparent to them that there is so much work to be done on Norfolk, in fact far too much for this short two week visit.

Brad is the geo-referencing and map expert and he spent many hours putting all the current and historical information into a computer program that creates an aligned layering of all the maps and information, which is then used to support decisions about where to survey and analysis of the results.

The Landing Place at Kingston was the first place surveyed and, given disruptions due to the rain, took close to three days to complete. Martin is the remote sensing expert of the group, and he set up three pieces of equipment to do the work – a Magnetometer, a Ground Penetrating Radar and a Resistance Meter. Laying out the grids and working the machinery backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards became the work of the group. The results will be fully analysed by Martin but already clearly show a number of anomalies.

Most likely the next area to work on will be the Emily bay burial grounds – will there be remains in Emily’s Grave marked on the survey maps of Jamison and Kennedy? The drainage systems and area at the back of Chimney Hill may be looked at after that. Phillipsburgh, Longridge, Cascade and Polynesian sites all remain to be looked at if time allows.

Water based activity with the maritime archaeologists Andy Viduka and Amer Khan will depend on sea conditions. Wether it be on the water or land they will progress surveying skills of NIMAA members along with oral history skills. Andy will also provide training to the Commonwealth Police in their role as Inspector’s under the Historic Shipwrecks Act. Our sincere thanks to Andy’s employer, The National Historic Heritage Section within the Commonwealth Department of the Environment, and Amer’s employer, the SA Department of the Environment for allowing them to travel to Norfolk to support the Museum’s Historic Shipwrecks Program activities.