1818: Interview with the natives at Luxmore Head in Melville Island

Commented by: Daniel Simpson

Material description:
‘Interview with the natives at Luxmore Head in Melville Island’, by Captain Phillip Parker King, R.N., 17 May 1818. State Library of New South Wales, PXC 767, 42. Approximately 15cm by 23cm. Ink and wash on paper.

Objects featured: Spears, basket, hatchet.

Place represented:
Luxmore Head, northwest coast of Melville Island (known to the indigenous Tiwi people as Yermalner), in the eastern Timor Sea, off the coast of the Northern Territory, Australia.

Moment represented:
Sunday 17th May, 1818. An instance of trade at Melville Island, Australia, between the crew of H.M.S. Mermaid, under Phillip Parker King, and the indigenous Tiwi people, in which a hatchet is exchanged for a basket of fruit. One day earlier, the Tiwi had stolen the stand of a navigational instrument called a theodolite, which a party of sailors had left behind after being chased back into their boats.

Place and moment of production:
Unknown (presumably as above).

Short summary:
Captain Phillip Parker King, R.N., collected over 400 objects from Indigenous Australians between 1817 and 1822. Drawn by King, this image depicts an exchange with the Tiwi people of Melville Island in 1818. A deceptive coalescence of real and imagined events, the drawing reveals the subtle politics of imperial exchange.

Image Commentary:
In the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, the European exploration of Australia began anew. Between 1817 and 1822, the British naval captain Phillip Parker King charted the north and west coastlines of the continent in the ships Mermaid and Bathurst. Collections of ethnographic specimens formed a significant part of King’s work; guided jointly by the Admiralty and the Colonial Office, he and his crew were instructed to study the ‘comparative perfection’ of the ‘state of the arts, or manufactures’ of the Indigenous Australians they encountered, as well as the ‘principal objects of their several pursuits’. This image depicts one of over four hundred object collections which King in consequence made. The scene is Luxmore Head on the northwest coast of Melville Island, northern Australia, and the date is Sunday 17th May, 1818. The parties shown exchanging a hatchet for a basket are, on the right, King and five members of his crew aboard the Mermaid’s jolly boat, and on the left, twenty-two of the Tiwi people indigenous to Melville Island, known to them as Yermalner.

The basket depicted here was not subsequently given to a museum. Though approximately sixteen objects now in the British Museum originate from King’s survey (Simpson, 2018, pp. 358-359), none were initially intended for the collection, given directly to it, or dispersed through ‘official’ channels. In this period, the Admiralty and Colonial Office were content to receive visual representations and textual descriptions of object specimens from the navy’s sailors. These satisfied their desire to develop a general understanding of the relative commercial and cultural sophistication, and capacity for European civilisation, of indigenous peoples living at sites marked for future colonial development. Accordingly, the majority of the collections made by King and his crew were later sold or dispersed in Britain through private patronage networks.

Drawn by King in minute detail on a sheet of paper no bigger than that of the page of an average book (corresponding, today, approximately to A5) this particular image was not intended for display. It is a draft, annotated with labels such as ‘water’ and ‘sandbank’ to permit revision and colouring, of a picture later included within King’s published journal of his expedition (King, 1827, p. 112), which was targeted at Admiralty officials, colonial administrators, fellow sailors and an interested public. The draft was nevertheless kept by King, apparently as a keepsake, and preserved within a family album of drawings and engravings, which composed an unofficial record of his expedition. In style, the drawing mimics the coastal views typical to the iconography of contemporary surveying (Martins, 1998, 145-146), but the field of view is too narrow to be of navigational significance.

The imagined viewpoint is the deck of the Mermaid itself; the image’s extension to the edges of the paper, combined with the large space dedicated to the sky, assists the impression that the scene is being viewed as if from another person’s eyes. A draft though it may be, the image is more detailed, and so more revealing, than the rather poorer final product; for whatever reason, the plate included within King’s journal was not ultimately coloured, and much of the finer detail was lost in translation. Likely created shortly after the encounter in question, the draft image is a valuable record of King’s initial thoughts about the events shown; his drawing comments on the moral nuances and political complexities of a British practice of object acquisition premised upon the assimilation of Indigenous Australians and their land into the British Empire. Six years after the events depicted, Melville Island was colonised by Britain, and became the site of Fort Dundas.

The image was, in its final version, accompanied in King’s text by a body of writing to which it bears only a partial relation (King, 1827, pp. 110-115). There, King explained that the encounter in question was stimulated by the loss, earlier that day, of a valuable brass stand used to hold a navigational instrument called a theodolite, which was crucial to the operation of his survey. Bizarrely, King had fired a shotgun at a lizard, and in consequence disturbed the Tiwi people, who chased him and his crew into the sea, obliging them to leave the stand behind. King returned in the jolly boat in order to offer hatchets in exchange for the stand, but the Tiwi declined to engage, and thus it was lost forever. For once, King chose not to resort to the punitive measures he often employed on the survey, such as the retributive confiscation of objects or the use of violence. It may have been that the stand was too valuable to risk losing if these techniques failed, and so exchange was rendered King’s only option. It is possible too that, the day being Sunday, moral and religious concerns were also involved; the Mermaid’s crew had attended a ‘divine service’ that morning. The image makes only a very subtle reference to these events; the fifth figure from the left appears to be shown holding the stand.

The text in King’s journal therefore records in uncomfortable detail the crew of the Mermaid’s failure to retrieve a valuable object through the medium of exchange; here, a power asymmetry existed in favour of the Tiwi, who had ‘collected’ from the Mermaid’s crew without their permission. The Tiwi’s refusal to receive hatchets in exchange for the return of the stand, which was arguably of little practical use to them, was likely intended as an assertion of power; a pointed refusal to engage voluntarily in trade. King records that the Tiwi sought to mock him, by pretending to think he desired the woman holding the stand, rather than the object itself; the fourth Tiwi figure from the right depicted in the image may be one of the women who in consequence waded into the water. The basket which the Tiwi instead gave to King and his crew contained a similarly ambiguous value; the fruits with which it was filled were the intended gift, but King kept the basket as an ethnographic and botanical specimen; he may later have traded it in England.

Intriguingly, the purpose of the image appears therefore to have been to represent as a successful incidence of intercultural exchange a series of events which in reality called into question the trustworthiness of the Tiwi, and the military authority of the British, while disturbing notions of the efficacy of collecting as a means of establishing cultural and economic superiority. In other words, the drawing represents only King’s frustrated vision of how colonial encounter, collecting and exchange ought properly to operate. As much is apparent in the image’s passive title, inscribed in pencil on the document: ‘Interview with the natives at Luxmore Head in Melville Island’. But this was not a deliberate deceit; so obvious are the contradictions between the image and its accompanying text that it would seem King sought to deploy visual documentation as an imaginative and experimental medium; a space where potential, counterfactual or hypothetical scenarios could be made real.

Rather like a cartoon, the interpretative and conceptual potentials of the image are apparent in the manner in which it plays with the idea of time. It was not unusual for naval draughtsmen to superimpose idealised ethnographic montages on to otherwise accurate coastal views (Smith, 1985, pp. 191-197), but the style of this particular image is decidedly unusual, and perhaps unique to King. The image must be read not as a ‘snapshot’ of a precise moment, but as a chronological series of events, of which some are real, others imagined. The drawing is intended to be read from the left – the beginning of the encounter – to the right – its apotheosis. Thus, one can deduce that the exchange shown near the centre is the image’s principal subject; here, King depicted himself trading the British hatchet for the Tiwi basket.

The implication, intended as much for a public audience as those involved in imperial affairs, is undoubtedly that the Tiwi people depicted were capable of improvement. Their ostensible willingness to trade, and their recognition of the hatchet’s superior technology, is shown in their outstretched arms; their humanity is displayed in the depiction of two children of whom one, whimsically, is standing on a parent’s shoulders for a better view. Toward the left, a domesticated dog gamely joins the proceedings. Initial tension, shown in the ‘war dances’ of two figures wielding spears, is overcome shortly before the trade takes place. For future explorers, the image may therefore also have functioned as a guide to how such exchanges might safely and successfully be accomplished.

Though King accordingly portrayed the Tiwi in a sympathetic and compliant light, a hint of the tensions apparent in the loss of the theodolite stand can be deduced from the fact that King and his crew are shown not to have left the jolly boat. It was their intention, here, to tempt the Tiwi people away from the ‘in-between’ space of the beach, that site of encounter, ‘transformation’ and ‘crossings’ famously studied by Greg Dening, and so into the sea, where they were rendered less powerful (Dening, 2002, 9). Only one newcomer appears to have left the boat, and to have crossed onto the sand. In a creative addition not supported by King’s journal, the tenth figure from the left, shown standing on one leg and leaning placidly on his spear, is the Kuring-gai man Bungaree, who joined King as an indigenous ‘intermediary’ and interpreter. His detached, even philosophical poise differs markedly from that of the man to his immediate left, who adopts an aggressive stance, and the two people to his right, who appear astonished. Bungaree’s was not, therefore, a successful encounter; King deliberately juxtaposed his mixed success in the use of intermediaries (Shellam, 2015, 88) with the relative, if idealised, merits of object exchange, as rival techniques for conducting a friendly ‘interview’.

Bibliography: 

Dening, Greg. ‘Performing on the Beaches of the Mind: An Essay’, History and Theory, 41 (2002), 1-24.

King, Phillip Parker. Narrative of a Survey of the Intertropical and Western Coasts of Australia. Performed Between the Years 1818 and 1822. London: John Murray, 1827.

Martins, Luciana. ‘Navigating in Tropical Waters: British Maritime Views of Rio de Janeiro’, Imago Mundi, 50 (1998), 141-155.

Shellam, Tiffany. ‘Mediating encounters through bodies and talk’, in Konishi, Shino., Nugent, Maria., and Shellam, Tiffany (eds.). Indigenous Intermediaries: New Perspectives on Exploration Archives. Acton: ANU Press, 2015, 85-102.

Simpson, Daniel. Agency, Encounter and Ethnographic Collecting: The Royal Navy in Australia, c. 1772-1855. Unpublished PhD thesis: Royal Holloway, University of London and The British Museum, 2018.

Smith, Bernard. European Vision and the South Pacific. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985.


Cite this article as:
1818: Interview with the natives at Luxmore Head in Melville Island, commented by 
Daniel Simpson, in: Translocations. Ikonographie: A collection of commented image sources on cultural heritage relocations since antiquity, http://transliconog.hypotheses.org/kommentierte-bilder-2/1818-interview-with-the-natives-at-luxmore-head-in-melville-island, published 16/05/2018.