Voyaging whalers the source of this Australian rock art, study reveals

Text chiseled into boulders more than 150 years ago is the earliest archaeological evidence of a thriving 19th-century American whaling industry found in northwestern Australia.

By John Pickrell
Published 4 Mar 2019, 11:08 GMT
A sailor named J. Leek commemorated the arrival of his American whaling vessel Delta on the ...

A sailor named J. Leek commemorated the arrival of his American whaling vessel Delta on the shores of West Lewis Island, Australia, in 1849.

Photograph by Centre for Rock Art Research + Management CRAR+M database

Homesick sailors on 19th-century American whaling ships commemorated their remarkable circumnavigations of the globe by recording their voyages into rocks on remote islands in northwestern Australia, report archaeologists.

Engravings created by whalemen on two vessels—Connecticut, in 1842, and Delta, in 1849—have been found amid Aboriginal rock art on the Pilbara coast of Western Australia, nearly 1,000 miles north of Perth. The discovery is reported in the journal Antiquity.

The 42 islands of the Dampier Archipelago and the adjacent Burrup Peninsula are one of Australia’s most significant rock art regions, with an estimated one million petroglyphs, or engravings, created over 50,000 years.

The discovery of the Connecticut engraving was made during surveys of indigenous rock art on Rosemary Island by archaeologists at the University of Western Australia and local rangers from the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation.

The inscription, dated August 18, 1842, notes the vessel sailed from New London, Connecticut, in 1841 and had been at sea for a year. It’s signed by a Jacob Anderson, who was noted in port record upon departure from the U.S. as an 18-year-old African-American, an ethnicity he shared with one in six American whalers by the 1850s.

Following that find, the team was alerted to a similar engraving on West Lewis Island, detailing the voyage of Delta. That was left by “J. Leek”’ and dated July 12, 1849.

A profusion of rock art

The Connecticut inscription is “on an outcrop that’s already heavily decorated,” says archaeologist Alistair Patterson, the paper’s lead author. “Boulder after boulder and rock surface, all with some type of engraving. Human figures, animal figures, geometric designs.”

To reach this location, the whalemen climbed a ridge, perhaps to get a vantage point over the archipelago. “That’s obviously why you seek high land if you’re a whaler,” says Patterson. “You look around you to see if there are any whale groups moving past.”

Aside from watching for whales, whalers came ashore to replenish water supplies and fuel for fires to boil down whale oil on board, as well as hunt animals such as kangaroos.

Though it may sound surprising that American vessels from the East Coast were in remote Australian waters, this was common practice by the time, notes Michael Dyer, curator of maritime history at the New Bedford Whaling Museum in Massachusetts, who was not one of the study authors.

“It was the peak of the national industry with over 700 vessels from 34 ports, numbering tens of thousands of crew members,” he says.

“The streets of civilized cities in America and Europe were lit by oil and there was an incredible demand for whale products,” adds Patterson. “It was extremely profitable.”

Circumnavigating the globe

Records show that Delta, from Greenport, New York, made 18 whaling voyages between 1832 and 1856. Its logbook, now at the New Bedford museum, shows it was off the Pilbara coast from June to September of 1849.

No logbook remains for Connecticut, but port records show it had 26 crew members and arrived back in New London in June 1843 with 1,800 barrels of whale oil.

Circumnavigating the world was not uncommon as whale populations depleted and ships had to travel further afield to follow the animals’ migration paths. “They would come home the second the boats were full. If they were lucky, they’d be back within a year, if they were unlucky it might be three years,” says Patterson.

During the 1840s numerous vessels might be in the Dampier Archipelago simultaneously, as they were then targeting this important point along the humpback migration route. “Whalers arrived in late June and stayed through July recording great numbers of humpbacks,” says Dyer.

First contact between cultures

Although there is no specific mention in any of the ships’ logbooks of encounters with Aboriginal people in the Dampier Archipelago, the whalemen’s inscriptions are significant, as “they are an indication of cultural contact at a time when very little colonial development had occurred in that part of Australia,” says Jason Raup, a maritime archaeologist at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina.

It’s “fantastic” to have found inscriptions from around the time of first contact with the islands’ Yaburara people, agrees Peter Jeffries, a local elder and CEO of the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation. He says a number of Aboriginal petroglyphs across the region may depict first contact. These include possible depictions of ships with sails and a sailor with a hat that has “pointy ends,” which was typical for naval dress of that period.

Unfortunately, colonization would be catastrophic for the Yaburara. Two decades after the inscription left by Delta whalemen in 1849, the so-called Flying Foam Massacre saw mainland colonists murder up to 60 Yaburara. The survivors left the islands, never to return.

“The American whalers, however, preceded this more permanent European expansion into the area, recording a brief moment when Indigenous people and visiting whalers shared territory without obvious major conflict,” the authors of the Antiquity paper observe.

Follow John Pickrell on Twitter.

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