Canoe House Post Figure. Silentworld Foundation Collection. Image: Todd Barlin/Oceanic Art Australia

Artefacts from an Aofa

Artefacts from the Solomon Islands

This important Sacred Canoe House Post Figure was originally from the interior of a sacred Canoe House (an aofa) that stood at Star Harbour of San Christobal Island in Eastern Solomon’s before World War II (WWII). Star Harbour is famous for its carvers, who specialised in carved house posts, and decorated canoes and food bowls.

Canoe House Post Figure. Silentworld Foundation Collection. Image: Todd Barlin/Oceanic Art Australia
Canoe House Post Figure. Silentworld Foundation Collection. Image: Todd Barlin/Oceanic Art Australia

Surviving World War II

Todd Barlin, owner and director of Oceanic Arts Australia, was told by the clan elders that this post was in the canoe house that was abandoned during WWII due to the fighting between the Japanese and the USA/Australian allies. All of the villagers moved from the coast into the interior of San Christobal to avoid the fighting.

During this time, the canoe house was destroyed by a typhoon, and when the villagers came returned to settle on the Coast after WWII, the surviving sacred carvings that were salvageable were kept.

Example of the type of Canoe House Santa Ana Islands, prior to 1945 and WWII. Photo From The National Gallery of Australia Exhibition Catalogue Varilaku, 2011.
Example of the type of Canoe House Santa Ana Islands, prior to 1945 and WWII. Photo From The National Gallery of Australia Exhibition Catalogue Varilaku, 2011.

Aofa: The Canoe House

This post figure depicts an important known ancestor, the face has deeply incised traditional tattoos of a high-ranking man, known in the local language as ‘segesege’. The figure is wearing a traditional crescent-shaped pearl shell necklace and shell cylinder ear plugs, in his left hand he is holding a lime gourd used when chewing betel nut and in his right hand he is holding his phallus, this relates to the genealogy of the clans.

The English term ‘canoe house’ does not signify the importance of this ceremonial structure. known as an ‘aofa’. The building housed, not only the important canoes that were kept inside its walls, but also the bones of important clan members were placed in carved bowls and fish-shaped coffins. This was the place where the ancestors were consulted in all important manners.

Canoe House Post Figure. Silentworld Foundation Collection. Image: Todd Barlin/Oceanic Art Australia.
Canoe House Post Figure. Silentworld Foundation Collection. Image: Todd Barlin/Oceanic Art Australia.

Fish-shaped coffins

This is a contemporary artwork of a fish coffin is from Santa Catalina Island, and is of great merit for its elegant form and fine shell work. Though not used as a coffin, it shows the skill of the artists from this area. The resurgence of interest in Solomon Island cultural material has spurred the revival of making these and similar objects once more.

Shark effigy coffin. Silentworld Foundation Collection. Image: Todd Barlin/Oceanic Art Australia.
Shark effigy coffin. Silentworld Foundation Collection. Image: Todd Barlin/Oceanic Art Australia.

Houses (aofa) vary from dwelling houses in that often they are separate buildings for men and women that hold sacred objects, and where rituals are performed.
Some of the most substantial were vast canoe houses such as the aofa of Santa Ana. These sheltered special canoes for long-distance voyaging and had elaborately carved posts. Boys lived in and were initiated at these aofa to ready them for bonito fishing.

Interior photograph and example of the type of Canoe House Santa Ana Islands, prior to 1945 and WWII. Photo From The National Gallery of Australia Exhibition Catalogue Varilaku, 2011.
Interior photograph and example of the type of Canoe House Santa Ana Islands, prior to 1945 and WWII. Photo From The National Gallery of Australia Exhibition Catalogue Varilaku, 2011.

Ancestor Figures

This remarkable pair of ancestor figures had been given by the US Navy to the Denver Fine Art Museum in 1949. These were collected by the US Navy during WWII, in the Solomons, and brought back to the USA. The department of the Navy decided they should be given to The Denver Fine Art Museum, where they were kept until the items were deaccessioned.

These figures are from either the Star Harbour Area of Stan Christobal Island or the close by small Islands of Santa Ana and Santa Catalina Islands. All of these areas are connected by language and culture.

The figures were kept in the Sacred Canoe Houses that held all the important ceremonial objects including the chief’s bone coffins in the shapes of sharks as well as important feasts and ancestor offering bowls.

Pair of Ancestor Figures. Silentworld Foundation Collection. Image: Todd Barlin/Oceanic Art Australia.
Pair of Ancestor Figures. Silentworld Foundation Collection. Image: Todd Barlin/Oceanic Art Australia.

During the intense fighting between the USA and allies against the Japanese Army, most of the native people fled to the interior of San Christobal, where they felt safe from the brutality of the Japanese and the fighting. The Sacred Canoe Houses were abandoned until after the Japanese had been defeated and the people felt safe to go back to their villages. It is unknown how the US Navy acquired these figures (perhaps they were gifts from the local people in deep gratitude for getting rid of the Japanese?).

This pair of ancestor figures are extremely rare as much of what existed in this area prior to WWII was destroyed during the conflict. After WWII, the culture had been changed profoundly by these events.

William Davenport did field studies in this area since 1958 and for 13 months during 1965 -1966. He had commissioned artworks from the older men, and these artworks are well documented in the Penn State University Museum.

One of the figures of a legendary deity Karopungi, by the artist Tigoana, made at this time was later owned by Todd Barlin and sold to The National Gallery of Australia in 2008. This pair of figures is one generation older than the figure by Tigoana now at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra.

A couple of interesting points about this pair of ancestor figures:

  • The male figure is shorter and this may allude to the fact that it is a matrilineal society and women are the hereditary paramount chiefs in the Star Harbour area.
  • The male figure looks as if in intense prayer with his hands held before the chest and an open mouth, while the female figure is more rigid with the hands held at the side, her stomach, chest & face has intricate incised tattoos that are typical for the Star Harbour area.
  • It is possible that with further research, one could find out the village and carver of these figures because the rights to make certain images are passed down through the generations.

Acknowledgements

Silentworld Foundation would like to thank Todd Barlin, Director of Oceanic Arts Australia for the photographs he provided with the objects purchased for our collection and acknowledge the field research he conducted in acquiring these objects in the Solomon Islands.

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Portrait of William Cox. Silentworld Foundation Collection SF001178.

On the road with William Cox

Becoming an Aussie builder

William Cox was a military officer, road builder, best remembered for his work on the construction of the first road over the Blue Mountains.

He was born at Wimborne in Dorset, England in 1764. He joined the army in 1797 and was commissioned a lieutenant in the New South Wales Corps. The next year he was appointed paymaster. In 1799, accompanied by his wife and four of his six small sons, he sailed for New South Wales in the Minerva. The ship stopped in Cork where it picked up a consignment of Irish convicts who had taken part in the rebellion the previous year. He was put in charge of them as well as his detachment of the corps.

He arrived in the colony in 1800. Cox bought Brush Farm at Dundas from John Macarthur who had previously held the position of paymaster. His other property acquisitions put him into debt and eventually his land was sold to repay his creditors.

At this same time in 1806, Cox was ordered to return to England under arrest to be questioned about his role as paymaster in the NSW Corps. He sailed to England in 1807 but was never brought to trial. Cox resigned his military commission in 1809 and returned to the Colony in 1810.

A portrait...or two

Portrait of William Cox. Silentworld Foundation Collection SF001178.

Portrait of William Cox, Silentworld Foundation Collection SF001178.

This portrait is unsigned but is thought to be by, or after, Frederick Buck. The State Library of NSW holds an almost identical portrait which is estimated to have been painted in 1797 or 1798 based on the fact that Cox wears the uniform of the NSW Corp which he joined in 1797. It could be that Cox had two portraits painted in England before he left England in 1799 or he had one painted then and another was a later copy but both images were in the Cox family until recently.

Roadworks

On his return, Cox was appointed as a magistrate at the Hawkesbury by Gov. Macquarie. Cox took government contracts for erecting gaols, schools and other buildings in the Windsor district, several of which still stand in good repair. In July 1814 he was tasked with building the first road over the Blue Mountains. Which had first been crossed by the explorers, Blaxland, Lawson, and Wentworth.

The thirty convicts in his working party were chosen because they looked capable of hard work, and their reward was to be their freedom. They made 101 miles (163 km) of road through rugged mountain country, building over a dozen bridges and splitting hundreds of posts and rails in six months without serious accident or loss of life.

This is William Cox’s own daily account of the construction of the road from Frogmore Bridge to Ropes Creek to Rooty Hill to East Creek to Lawson Bridge to Wentworth to Parramatta, which took place between 12 July and 25 August 1815.0

In the notebook, Cox records details of the men employed, their role, cost incurred progress made and a one-page diagram of the actual road. The design of the notebook suggests that it was likely carried in Cox’s pocket throughout the project. It remains in its original condition and was handed down through his descendants until it came into the Silentworld Foundation collection in 1996.

The road-building recorded in this manuscript was probably an extension of the mountain crossing that had been completed a few months earlier in January 1815.

William Cox’s own daily summary account of the construction of a road from Frogmore Bridge to Ropes Creek to Rooty Hill to East Creek to Lawson Bridge to Wentworth and to Parramatta between 12 July and 25 August 1815. Silentworld Foundation Collection SF000100.

The homestead

Watercolour painting of the Cox family homestead by an unknown artist, Silentworld Foundation Collection SF001434.

Watercolour painting of the Cox family homestead by an unknown artist, Silentworld Foundation Collection SF001434.

William Cox and his family had become prominent landowners in the new colony. By 1810 he and his sons had taken up land in the Mulgoa district and later ran flocks of sheep in the Mudgee district. Cox received the first land grant west of the Blue Mountains, 2000 acres across the river from Bathurst which he called Hereford and Cox’s large estate at Clarendon near Windsor was one of the finest in the colony employing over 50 convicts.

In 1819 his wife died, leaving five sons, and two years later Cox married again, adding to his family three sons and a daughter. William Cox Jr. of the 46th Regiment married the daughter of Captain Piper and purchased the estate of Hobartville near Windsor in 1816, and afterwards took up properties near Muswellbrook and Warialda. He and his father purchased 8,000 acres in 1825 to form the estate of Negoa.

William Cox (the elder) died in 1837. His numerous sons also left their names on the records of the early pastoral development of New South Wales.

Further research is required to determine which of the Claredon, Hobartville, Negoa Wimboune, Hereford, Burrandong or other Cox family properties this watercolour represents. The pencil annotation of 1861 is believed to potentially be a later addition. The actual date of the painting is more likely to be from the 1830s or 1840s.

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Portrait of Elizabeth Ann Wilson Potter (Mrs Francis Barnes). Silentworld Foundation Collection SF001457 data-src=

A portrait in pastel

Portrait of Elizabeth Ann Wilson Potter, Mrs Francis Barnes

This portrait was painted by the famous artist Augustus Earle in Hobart in 1825.

Earle is best known as the first artist to accompany Charles Darwin on the Beagle during his voyage. He was trained in the British Royal Academy and travelled extensively throughout the United States, South America, India and the Mediterranean.

Portrait of Elizabeth Ann Wilson Potter (Mrs Francis Barnes). Silentworld Foundation Collection SF001457>/a>.

Portrait of Elizabeth Ann Wilson Potter (Mrs Francis Barnes), Silentworld Foundation Collection SF001457.

An accidental 'Australian' artist

Earle arrived in Australia by happenstance.  He was actually on his way to Calcutta when the sloop Duke of Gloucester stopped at the remote island in the south Atlantic, Tristan d’Acunha, to take on a cargo of potatoes.  Earle went ashore with his dog Jemmy to explore.  Before he got back to the ship, a gale blew up and the captain had to up anchor and sail away.  Earle was stranded for eight months in one of the remotest places on earth, a rocky island with a population of only six adults!  He was rescued by a passing ship bound for Hobart.

During the four years between 1825 and 1828 Augustus Earle worked in Tasmania, then Van Diemen’s Land, and New South Wales.  He has been described as, ‘by far the most interesting artist working in New South Wales in the 1820s.’  In his travels, Earle painted portraits of a cross-section of colonial Australia from the Governor of New South Wales to Aboriginal elder Bungaree, as shown in the video below from the National Gallery of Australia. This portrait is in that vast cross-section of the Australian population.

A timely portrait

Elizabeth Ann Wilson Potter was born in Hampshire, England.  She was convicted of larceny in 1813 and transported to New South Wales for seven years.  The following year she was transferred to Hobart where she married Philip Macklin.  Ten years later she married again to Francis Barnes.  Barnes was a former soldier and printer who had also been transported.  His crime was the theft of banknotes.

Francis Barnes was one of the first settlers who came to Hobart with Lt-Gov David Collins on the Calcutta in 1804.  By 1819 he was farming 50 acres of land and had four servants.  He was also the owner of the Hope Tavern in Macquarie Street which was Hobart’s first licensed premises.  The Hope Tavern was located closes to the waterfront at Sullivan’s Cove, an area where Augustus Earle would have frequented after his arrival in Van Diemen’s Land.

This portrait of Mrs. Barnes is very special for a number of reasons.  First is the date of 1825, which makes it an early Australian portrait by Augustus Earle.  Earle was in Hobart between January and May, 1825, when he left the town.  He did not return until October 1828.  Mrs. Barnes died in 1827 at the age of 43.  She was 41 at the time the portrait was made.  It also has a very clear autograph signature by the artist.  And finally, it is a pastel, not a medium that was seen to be used by Earle.  He is better known for his works in watercolours, coloured chalk and oil paint.  Plus, the work is in very fine condition in its original frame and glass.

Further reading

This blog is based on the catalogue entry for the Deutscher and Hacckett auction 49, Important Australian and International Fine Art, 10 May 2017, Lot 69 by David Hansen.

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View of the Endeavour River. Silentworld Foundation collection SF001479.

Iron ballast from HMB Endeavour

HMB Endeavour runs aground — time to throw some items overboard...

On 10 June 1770, HMB Endeavour under the command of Captain James Cook was sailing north along the east coast of Australia. At 11 pm, it struck a reef and started taking on water. Desperate to lighten the ship, the crew heaved nearly 48 tons of material over the side, including ballast and cannons. At the next high tide Endeavour was pulled free. The crew spent the next six weeks repairing the ship at what became known as Endeavour River in Queensland.

View of the Endeavour River. Silentworld Foundation collection SF001479.


View of the Endeavour River. Silentworld Foundation collection SF001479.

An account of the incident was published in 1773 by John Hawkesworth in Volume 3, Chapter V, Dangerous Situation of the Ship in her Course from Trinity Bay to Endeavour River. Page 547.


An account of the incident was published in 1773 by John Hawkesworth in Volume 3, Chapter V, Dangerous Situation of the Ship in her Course from Trinity Bay to Endeavour River. Page 547.

First Voyage: An Account of the Voyages undertaken by the Order of His present Majesty for making Discoveries in the Southern Hemisphere… Volume 3‘. Edited from Cook’s journals by the writer John Hawkesworth. Printed for W. Strahan and T. Cadell; the Strand, London 1773.

‘…six of our guns, being all we had upon the deck, our iron and stone ballast, casks, hoop staves, oil jars, decayed stores, and many other things that lay in the way of heavier materials, were thrown overboard with the utmost expedition, every one exerting himself with an alacrity almost approaching to cheerfulness, without the least repining or discontent; yet the men were so far imprest with a sense of their situation, that not an oath was heard among them, the habit of profaneness, however strong, being instantly subdued, by the dread of incurring guilt when death seemed to be so near.’

Rediscovery and recovery

In 1969 an expedition for the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia arrived on the Great Barrier Reef with the dual purpose of finding the material jettisoned by Captain Cook on Endeavour Reef and collecting fish for study at that Academy and the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.  All six cannon along with several tons of iron and stone ballast were recovered and turned over to the Australian government for conservation and curation by the appropriate institutions.

The conservation was carried out by Dr. Colin Pearson at the Defence Standards Laboratory in Melbourne.  Dr. Pearson pioneered the treatment of iron objects recovered from the marine environment and went on to teach a generation of maritime archeological conservators.

After completion of the conservation treatment, then Prime Minister John Gorton decided to distribute the canons to the countries and states related to Captain Cook’s voyage. One canon was given to the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia; the Maritime Museum at Greenwich, England; the New Zealand government; the Queensland and New South Wales state governments and one was retained for the Commonwealth. After being on display in the Australian National Maritime Museum for over two decades, it can now be seen at the National Museum of Australia, Canberra.

After completion of the conservation treatment, then Prime Minister John Gorton decided to distribute the canons to the countries and states related to Captain Cook's voyage. Photo: Australian National Maritime Museum.

After completion of the conservation treatment, then Prime Minister John Gorton decided to distribute the canons to the countries and states related to Captain Cook’s voyage.

Photo: Australian National Maritime Museum.

In April 2013 Silentworld Foundation acquired a substantial collection of maritime archaeological material from Ben Cropp who was an early diver/adventurer who went on to create his own small museum in Queensland.  Much of the material was recovered before the Historic Shipwrecks Act was in place.  However, all of the material was registered with the Commonwealth under an amnesty.

When the material came into the Silentworld Foundation collection it was realized that most of the objects needed remedial conservation treatment.  Among those artifacts were three pieces of iron ballast from the site of the Endeavour stranding.  This work was contracted out to a local conservation service.  When I joined the Foundation the ballast was still in treatment and, when the treatment was complete, it was my job to collect it.

Two pieces of ballast were In very good condition, however, one was significantly more deteriorated.

A piece of the Endeavour ballast in the Silentworld Foundation Collection. Image credit: Silentworld Foundation, 2021.

A piece of the Endeavour ballast in the Silentworld Foundation Collection. Image credit: Silentworld Foundation, 2021.

A piece of the Endeavour ballast in the Silentworld Foundation Collection. Image credit: Silentworld Foundation, 2021.

A piece of the Endeavour ballast in the Silentworld Foundation Collection. Image credit: Silentworld Foundation, 2021.

In fact, when that piece of ballast was picked up it broke into two pieces!  In a museum situation, this is normally a disastrous affair.  But in this case, the break revealed a fascinating discovery: Inside the cast ingot, we found round and intact cannonballs! The ballast had cracked at the junction of the well-preserved cannonball and the deteriorated cast-iron, as can be seen in the two images below. This discovery alludes to some interesting questions over the production of the ballast and the use of pig iron.

The cracked ballast, revealing cannonballs were added to the iron mixture at the time of manufacture. Image credit: Silentworld Foundation.

The cracked ballast, revealing cannonballs were added to the iron mixture at the time of manufacture. Image credit: Silentworld Foundation.

The cracked ballast, revealing cannonballs were added to the iron mixture at the time of manufacture. Image credit: Silentworld Foundation.

The cracked ballast, revealing cannonballs were added to the iron mixture at the time of manufacture. Image credit: Silentworld Foundation.

Further reading

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