Tag Archives: charles darwin

Copyright takes the Cake

Copyright is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma to me – and yet I know I should try to understand it, because for any historian, access to sources – documents, pictures, other media generally – forms the basis of what we do.

I struggle constantly with the issue of copyright in my blog, since there is a question over any picture I pull from the web to put in a post. My personal compromise is to link the picture back to its original source on the web. That means – where I can – finding the library or art gallery it comes from, rather than just somebody else’s blog post. I’m not sure if this is an adequate safeguard, but since my blog only reaches a few hundred people, and makes no money, there’s probably no harm done. In a book, though, it’s not possible to salve a guilty conscience with a hyperlink.

Any author knows the nightmare of tracking down copyright owners to get their permission to publish images, or permission to use documents which are not in the public domain.

Many years ago, a friend of mine wrote a thesis on the history of a union. Both the friend and the union had better remain unnamed. He had the full cooperation of the union executive throughout his research – until shortly before he was due to submit his PhD, the executive of the union changed, and withdrew its permission. He spent a thoroughly miserable few months removing great chunks of quotations from his work. It was still a good thesis, but a shadow of its former self – as, indeed, was he for a while there.

The problem is worst with manuscripts, where copyright lasts forever. Now that digitization of printed sources has transformed so much research – Trove, I love you – libraries want to move on to digitize manuscript materials as well. There are already some wonderful digitized collections, often cooperative efforts such as the Darwin Correspondence Project and the Papers of Sir Joseph Banks, others more modest such as the University of Otago’s Samuel Marsden Online Archive. The Mitchell Library has just embarked on a project to digitize the Macarthur Papers.

googled images of handwritten recipes

I Googled ‘handwritten recipes’, planning to pull something suitable from the web – but then decided the whole page looks so pretty, I took a screenshot instead. This, I think, makes ME the copyright owner. The system’s crazy.

But the basic issue of manuscript copyright is holding others back. Under current legislation, even old recipe books are copyright. FAIR (Freedom of Access to Information and Resources) has come up with a unique way to lobby for a change to copyright law. Next Friday, 31 July, is Copyright Day. Anyone concerned about copyright laws is encouraged to find a recipe, cook it, and post a photo of the dish and the manuscript recipe it is based on with the hashtag #cookingforcopyright on Twitter or on FaceBook here

Unfortunately most of my grandmother’s recipes are for cakes and puddings. This may be an unhealthy weekend coming up.


In July 1845, the Geelong Advertiser announced the ‘WONDERFUL DISCOVERY OF A NEW ANIMAL’.  Colonists had been hearing about bunyips from the Aborigines for nearly 30 years – the first account of a water monster seems to date from 1819, when the explorer Hamilton Hume found some bones at Lake Bathurst, but the Geelong discovery was the first to appear in print:

‘On the bone being shown to an intelligent black, he at once recognised it as belonging to the “Bunyip,” which he declared he had seen.  On being requested to make a drawing of it, he did so without hesitation.  … One declared that he knew where the whole of the bones of one animal were to be found; another stated that his mother was killed by one of them, at the Barwon Lakes, within a few miles of Geelong, and that another woman was killed on the very spot where the punt crosses the Barwon, at South Geelong.  The most direct evidence of all was that of Mumbowran, who showed several deep wounds on his breast made by the claws of the animal…

They say that the reason why no white man has ever yet seen it, is because it is amphibious, and does not come on land except on extremely hot days when it basks on the bank; but on the slightest noise or whisper they roll gently over into the water, scarcely creating a ripple…

The Bunyip, then, is represented as uniting the characteristics of a bird and an alligator.  It has a head resembling an emu, with a long bill, at the extremity of which is a transverse projection on each side, with serrated edges, like the bone of a stingray.  Its body and legs partake of the nature of the alligator.  The hind legs are remarkably thick and strong, and the fore legs are much longer, but still of great strength.  The extremities are furnished with long claws, but the blacks say its usual method of killing its prey is by hugging it to death.  When in the water it swims like a frog, and when on shore it walks on its hind legs with its head erect, in which position it measures twelve or thirteen feet in height…’

News spread quickly, with papers in Sydney, Melbourne and Hobart all copying the story.  A year later, in 1846, the Australian Museum in Sydney displayed a skull found on the Murrumbidgee.  Eventually scientists decided that it was part of a deformed foal foetus, but for days people queued to see the ‘bunyip’ skull.

'So-called bunyip skull', The Tasmanian Journal of Natural Science, January 1847

In Europe during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the fossilised bones of unknown animals often turned up when canals were being dug, and later during railway construction. The puzzle was how to explain them.  Clearly animals no longer existed.  Whether they had evolved into new species, or been drowned in the Flood, was a matter of opinion, but most 19th century thinkers were less preoccupied with Biblical literalism than creationists are today.

There was a general feeling that anything was possible zoologically in Australia.  Joseph Banks marvelled at kangaroos, and the platypus caused a sensation when stuffed ones arrived in England.  In 1836, Charles Darwin visited Australia on the Beagle, and heard about a collection of fossils that had been discovered at the Wellington Caves by the explorer Sir Thomas Mitchell in 1831.  Mitchell took the bones back to London, where Richard Owen examined them at the Natural History Museum.  Using comparative anatomy, he described them as giant versions of the kangaroo (Thylacoleo) and wombat (Diprotodon).  Not surprisingly, Darwin was interested in the gradual evolution of the megafauna into their modern counterparts.

But where did the bunyip fit in?  Was it, too, an example of the megafauna of earlier times, or something else entirely?  There was no obvious reason to dismiss the bunyip as fantasy, when much of the country still remained unknown, and an ‘intelligent black’ had described them in such detail.

New reports of bunyips kept coming in.  In January 1847, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that Aborigines reported ‘THE BUNYIP, or KINE PRATIE’ on the Hunter and the Murrumbidgee, still with a head like an emu, but now with a ‘long and flowing mane – feeding on crayfish… and occasionally on a stray blackfellow’, and another bunyip was seen in the Logan River near Brisbane in 1850.

Australia Post stamp, 1994

Meanwhile, bunyips entered popular culture.  ‘Bunyip’ was the name of a racehorse, then a newspaper, and eventually a town in Victoria.  No real bunyips turned up, alas, but by the early 1850s, the word was applied generally to describe something monstrous.

This was a time of rapid change.  The gold rushes brought in new wealth and new immigrants.  At the same time, the British government decided it was time for the colonies to govern themselves.  New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania and South Australia already had Legislative Councils with some elected members.  Now they were to draw up constitutions, which would be ratified by the Parliament in Westminster.

The NSW Legislative Council was dominated by (relatively) old money, generally the sons of early settlers who had done well from early land grants.  They drafted a constitution modelled on the Westminster Parliament, with an upper house, like the House of Lords, based on a hereditary peerage.  And guess who these new colonial lords would be?

The public and press erupted.  On the gold fields, the Bathurst Free Press and Mining Journal described the rule of  ‘my Lord Buckjumper or the Marquis of Bunyip’ and the radical journalist Dan Deniehy gave a speech deriding the idea of a ‘bunyip aristocracy’ as something absurd and monstrous, and ridiculing the pretensions of the men who put up the idea.  James Macarthur, he suggested, would become the Earl of Camden, with a coat of arms emblazoned with a rum keg, while William Wentworth, like William the Conqueror, was really William the Bastard.

The idea of a hereditary peerage died of mockery, but the term stuck.  It was one of PM Paul Keating’s (many) terms of abuse, and in Keating: the Musical, he describes the opposition leader John Hewson as ‘Mr Mediocrity for the bunyip aristocracy’.

Bunyip sightings continued into the 20th century.  There have been various theories – a seal or a prehistoric turtle – or, perhaps, an Aboriginal joke on the settlers. The Aboriginal artist Lin Onus painted bunyips, and said:

‘It is not possible to grow up in any Koori community without knowing about Bunyips. I tend not to see them as the evil menacing creature that some non-Aboriginal literature suggests, but rather as slightly timid—preferring to keep out of humans’ way. Whilst generally rather shy, they are not averse to a good feed of human once in a while (I understand the ears are a particular delicacy) if someone is so foolish as to go swimming in dark or murky water or in the turbulent river holes where you may be dragged under and trapped.’ (5 March 1987) 

Definitely an Aboriginal joke, I think, as well as a useful way of keeping children from playing in dangerous waterholes.  Perhaps we should bring them back.

Bunyips Exhibition, National Library of Australia

Turtles (and tortoises) all the way

At Mon Repos, near Bundaberg, the giant turtles returned again to lay their eggs during the past summer.  The turtles have swum hundreds, perhaps thousands of kilometres across the South Pacific to get to their rookery – and I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve never made the journey of less than 5 hours it takes from Brisbane to Bundaberg.  So I’m grateful for Robert Ashdown’s terrific photos of the event instead.  And also for a splendid shot of a woman riding a turtle some time during the 1930s.

Humans have been doing dreadful things to giant turtles for hundreds of years.  And also to giant tortoises.

Mostly, they ate them.  Both tortoises and turtles were an important food source for sailors.  They were relatively slow and easy to catch, and because they breathed air, unlike fish, they could be kept alive until needed for food.  Penned on board ship, they were a living, breathing, and no doubt very miserable source of meat.  With a slow metabolism, they could live without food and sometimes without water for a long time, so they have been unwilling travellers across the globe.

This was particularly true of giant tortoises.  The Galapagos Islands get their name from the Spanish word for tortoise, galápagos, but there were also other species found in the Indian Ocean, including the Seychelles.  Both areas were raided for supplies by visiting ships.  In 1925, the director of the New York Aquarium went through surviving American whaling records and estimated that American whalers between 1830 and the 1920s took perhaps 100,000 tortoises from the Galapagos, mostly female, since they were nearer the coast.

One of the oldest animals ever recorded was Tu’i Malila, a Seychelles tortoise who was allegedly given to a Tongan chief by Captain Cook in 1777.  He (or possibly she – nobody seems to mention this) died in 1965.  Another long-lived individual was Harriet (long known as Harry), a Galapagos specimen who was certainly living in the Brisbane Botanical Gardens by the 1870s, and died at Steve Irwin’s Australia Zoo in 2006.

Charles Darwin spent 5 weeks at the Galapagos in 1835, on the Beagle.  The Beagle was there to collect fresh water and food for the crew, and left with more than 30 tortoises.  Their principal purpose was to supply meat for the crew, but several juveniles made it back to England.  Was one of these Harriet?  It’s a long shot, but John Wickham, who served on the Beagle until 1841, became Police Magistrate of Brisbane in 1842, and there’s a theory that Harry/Harriet came back to Australia with him.

Like tortoises, turtles were also an important source of food on long voyages – with the added advantage that the shells, confusingly known as ‘tortoiseshell’, was a valuable item of trade.  When the Endeavour was holed in the Great Barrier Reef, Cook had to beach the crippled ship on what is now the Endeavour River, in far north Queensland.  During the 6 weeks it took to repair the ship, the crew gathered water and vegetables, but also a number of turtles.  On 15 July 1770, Joseph Banks wrote in his diary:

In the evening the Boat return’d from the reef bringing 4 Turtles, so we may now be said to swim in Plenty. Our Turtles are certainly far preferable to any I have eat in England, which must proceed from their being eat fresh from the sea before they have either wasted away their fat, or by unnatural food which is given them in the tubs where they are kept given themselves a fat of not so delicious a flavour as it is in their wild state. Most of those we have caught have been green turtle from 2 to 300 lb weight: these when kill’d were always found to be full of Turtle Grass…; two only were Loggerheads which were but indifferent meat; in their stomachs were nothing but shells.

Four days later,

Ten Indians visited us today and brought with them a larger quantity of Lances than they had ever done before, these they laid up in a tree leaving a man and a boy to take care of them and came on board the ship. They soon let us know their errand which was by some means or other to get one of our Turtle of which we had 8 or 9 laying upon the decks.

In other words, the local Guugu Yimithirr people insisted on their right to a portion of the catch.  They were, after all, their turtles.

Banks was struck by how much better turtle tasted when fresh.  Nevertheless roast turtle meat and soup were highly regarded in Britain, where a ‘turtle dinner’ was a prestigious event. Like many expensive foods, the costliness of the dish was a large part of its appeal.

Eventually, however, the cost of buying a live turtle became prohibitive, and mock turtle soup replaced green turtle soup, using a calf’s head and feet.  Alice in Wonderland’s mock turtle, with his calf’s head and feet, describes a soup ‘so rich and green’ not because of its colour, but because it comes from the green turtle.


Charles Haskins Townsend, The Galapagos Tortoises in their Relation to the Whaling Industry (1925)

Wikipedia article on Galapagos Tortoise (which is excellent)

Paul Chambers, ‘The origin of Harriet’, in New Scientist, 11 September 2004.