Printer Friendly

Australia's convict explorers and landscape artists.

When I emigrated from Rhodesia to Australia in 1970 few people acknowledged their convict antecedents. Today many people actively search for convict ancestors. In forty years the devils have turned into angels, so I wondered whether convicts related to my discipline of mapmaking and surveying had been falsely accused of stealing sixpence or were mass murderers! Attitudes have changed dramatically since 1820 when the Reverend Samuel Marsden described Catholic immigrants as "the most wild, ignorant and savage race ... men who have been familiar with robberies, murders and every horrible crime since their infancy.. .they are very dangerous members of society, treacherous and fond of riot." (Fitzsimons 2012). I decided to examine the stories of nine convicts who became surveyors or landscape artists.

The following table illustrates the approximate numbers of convicts transported to Australia over eighty years (1788-1868):

Colony                         Period     Convict nos. (approx.)

New South Wales              1788-1840           <80,000
Van Diemen's Land            1788-1852            69,000
New South Wales & Victoria   1846-1850            3,000
Western Australia            1850-1868            9,700
South Australia                                    nil

(Aust. Ency. 1979, 6:110)

The total number of convicts exceeded 160,000 of whom about 1.5% died on the way to Australia. Only 18% were female, an extreme imbalance resulting in some convicts consorting with Aborigines.

In the 1700s, London was a depressing place for poor people. In his etching Gin Lane (Fig. 1.) artist William Hogarth depicts a starving ex-soldier, a drunken woman neglecting her child, a group quarrelling, a man hanged upstairs, and a building collapsing on a funeral. The unjust conditions resulted from overcrowded towns, the unanticipated effects of the Industrial Revolution and the Enclosure Acts which deprived people without property of the hunting and foraging opportunities they had previously enjoyed in the forests and common lands. 1 1

When Britain lost its American colonies in their War of Independence in the 1770s, it lost its dumping ground for convicts. These latter were consequently herded onto hulks before transportation to Australia where the vast majority worked unsung as labourers, farm hands or house servants. Five years after First Settlement, the visiting Spanish artist Fernando Brambila depicted one group of convicts used like oxen to pull and push a cart at Parramatta while another group waits under armed guard (Fig. 2.). Forty years later the famous artist Augustus Earle depicted some convicts still wearing leg-irons (Fig. 3.).



Convict, constable, assistant explorer

Joseph Wild was transported to Sydney in the Ganges in 1797 alter being found guilty of burglary. A decade later he was still working as a servant for Robert Brown, a botanist. In 1812 he assisted Brown in exploring the interior of the colony beyond Richmond and was given a conditional pardon the next year. In 1815 he was appointed a constable in the Five Islands district. Then he accompanied James Meehan (q.v.) and Charles Throsby on an expedition to Jervis Bay, and later joined Throsby on an expedition of discovery to Bathurst, for which service Wild was granted 100 acres of land. The famous 'Nineteen Counties' map (Fig. 4.) shows the vast distances he traversed in rugged terrain with some risk of attack from displaced Aborigines.

In 1819 Wild settled in the County of Camden, and in 1820 he is credited with discovering a lake named Wee-raa-waa by the Aborigines. This large intermittent body of water was renamed Lake George. Between 1821 and 1824 Wild continued his duties as a constable under the direction of Magistrate Throsby. He was directed to seize cattle belonging to Edward Smith Hall whose animals frequently wandered on to the land of others including that of Surveyor-General John Oxley. Hall was a free settler and petulant newspaper proprietor who was imprisoned for three years for persistent attacks on Governor Darling.

At the age of fifty Wild joined the expedition which discovered the Monaro Plains and the Bong Bong area south of Lake George at the base of the Snowy Mountains. When Wild died in 1847 he was the first person to be buried in the Bong Bong cemetery. Although Wild was illiterate, his exceptional knowledge of the bush was instrumental in assisting better known explorers (ADB 1967, 2:597).



Convict, Deputy Surveyor-General

James Meehan was born in Ireland, but after the unsuccessful Irish Rebellion was sent as a political prisoner to Sydney where he was assigned to assist Charles Grimes who was acting in place of the first, but ailing, Surveyor-General Augustus Alt. Meehan accompanied Grimes in exploring the Hunter River in 1801, and King Island and Port Phillip in 1802 (Kass 2008, 3-5). Just after being appointed Surveyor-General in 1803 Grimes travelled to England for three years during which time Meehan undertook the survey of several new towns including Bathurst. In 1807 Meehan produced a plan of the Town of Sydney (Fig. 5.).

In an 1810 plan published in London by John Booth (Fig. 6.) some stretches of the Nepean River had still not been explored. Governor King directed Meehan to survey the missing portions of the river, which latter eventually became the largest source of fresh water for Sydney. Governor Macquarie then directed Meehan to remeasure all the farms in Van Diemen's Land--now Tasmania--and in 1818 he was appointed Deputy Surveyor-General of New South Wales. In 1820 he accompanied Hamilton Hume and Joseph Wild (q.v.) to Lake George.

Large land grants in the colony were normally made only to military officers or to free settlers but Meehan was rewarded for his work with five significant grants:

1803   Field of Mars   100 acres
1808   Bankstown       130 acres
1809   Upper Nelson    500 acres
       Minto           340 acres
1816   Airds/Minto     2020 acres    (Aplin 1988, 136)

The Lands Building in Bridge Street in the heart of Sydney was built in the 1880s and occupies a whole city block. It is reputed to be the largest sandstone building in Australia and its clock tower once provided the best lookout in Sydney! The four facades of the Lands Building include 48 niches for statues. By the early 1900s statues of governors and explorers had been placed in about half the niches while the others remained vacant (Fig. 7.). In 2010 the first new statue in a century was added, that honouring Deputy Surveyor-General James Meehan (Fig. 8.), sculpted by Paul Therlow.



Convict, surveyor, lithographer

In 1815 Peter Louis Bemi, a school teacher whose ancestors had arrived in England from Corsica, was sentenced to life imprisonment at the Old Bailey and transported to Australia aboard the Mariner. On his arrival his life continued to be a mixed bag of successes and failures. Appointed a Sunday school teacher he was sacked for drunkenness but when he petitioned for Emancipation he received an excellent character reference from the Superintendent of Government Stock, David Johnson. In 1824 Surveyor-General John Oxley's daughter Charlotte Jane Thorpe sought approval to marry Bemi but this was refused.

Bemi was appointed a draftsman in the Survey Department in 1827 at a salary of 100 [pounds sterling] per annum and in 1828 produced the first map in Australia using the lithographic printing process. The map "Saint John in the Hundred of Parramatta, County of Cumberland" (Fig. 9.) bears the inscription: "This was lithographed by me in The Surveyor General's Department in 1828. P.L. Bemi."

Although it is recorded that Bemi was well liked by Surveyor-General Major Mitchell, Bemi left the department for reasons unknown. In the public service draftsmen were paid only 100 [pounds sterling] p.a. while surveyors were paid 200 [pounds sterling] p.a., so this might well have been a reason, but one might also speculate that when Bemi named his first son Napoleon, knowing full well that Major Mitchell had fought against Napoleon in the Spanish Peninsula War, it was not a smart career move. Whatever the reason, he established his own firm as a land surveyor and lithographic draftsman.

Bemi married Jane Wright, the daughter of First Fleet convict James Wright. Jane already had two children by Captain Thomas Raine. A property was provided in trust for her children, but when Bemi fell on hard times, he tried to sell it. In the subsequent court case a judge accepted the claim by Bemi's wife that Bemi had no right to do so. Jane changed her name from Bemi to Bennie and died from alcoholism at York Street, Sydney in 1851. Bemi himself died two years later (Trunecke 1993; Inst. Surveyors NSW 2000).



Convict, explorer

Many Government officials had their portraits painted but extremely few convicts. Jorgenson was born in Copenhagen, the son of a royal watchmaker. At age 15 he went to sea on the English collier Jane. On a visit to London he was press-ganged into the Royal Navy. In 1801 he reached New South Wales and became second mate on the Lady Nelson, the colony's first major supply ship. He was present at the first settlement on the Derwent River in Van Diemen's Land. In 1805 he returned to Denmark via Cape Horn and in the Anglo-Danish war was given command of a Danish warship named Admiral Juhl. He succeeded in capturing three prize ships before surrendering to HMS Sappho in 1808 and becoming a prisoner of war in England. After ten months in restriction he made his way to Iceland and, in a bizarre incident, with the assistance of English seamen, arrested the Danish governor, placed himself at the head of government, and declared the island a republic independent of Denmark. After nine weeks HMS Talbot arrived and restored the earlier status quo. Iceland would not regain its independence until 1944, 130 years later.

Following a couple of years spent as a spy in Europe, Jorgenson became disillusioned and debauched before being arrested for petty theft and imprisoned on the hulk Bahama at Chatham where he wrote a book called The Religion of Christ is the Religion of Nature. After transportation to Van Diemen's Land in 1826 he earned his ticket-of-leave within a year, was appointed a field constable and assigned to the Van Diemen's Land Company where he explored north-west Tasmania and the company's quarter million acre land grant. He also wrote a history of the company, climbed Ironstone Mountain, and joined two expeditions seeking a route from Circular Head to Hobart (Fig. 11.).

Jorgenson was employed as a constable in the pursuit of Aborigines but, rather than attacking them, he produced a dictionary of their language with the help of an interpreter named Black Tom. In 1831 Jorgenson married Norah Corbett, an Irish convict whose drinking problem he overlooked. Both he and his wife were granted a free pardon in 1835. She died in mid-1840, while his colourful life came to an end six months later in early 1841 due to 'inflammation of the lungs' (ADB 1967, 2:26-28; Rienits 1970-72, 12:553).



Convict, surveyor, architect

James Blackburn worked as an engineer in London but also engaged in a private building venture which failed. When he was threatened with the resumption of all his possessions he forged a cheque for 600 [pounds sterling] . He was sentenced to life imprisonment and transported to Hobart in 1833 where he was employed in the Department of Roads and Bridges. He surveyed 210 km of road and supervised most road construction in the colony. His superior was dismissed and Blackburn was granted a free pardon. In 1840 Blackburn designed Holy Trinity Church in Hobart and a grand house for Governor Franklin which is now a museum. In 1849 Blackburn sailed for Melbourne where he set up practice as an engineer and architect. He was appointed the City Surveyor and produced his greatest legacy, the design of Melbourne's first regular water supply from the Yan Yean reservoir. His eldest son James followed his profession (ADB 1966, 1:109-110).


fl. 1789

Convict, mapmaker

Among British veterans suffering hardship in London after the American War of Independence was Francis Fowkes who stole a greatcoat and boots valued at 21s 6d. He was sentenced to seven years transportation, one of 69 such sentences that day. Only three months after arrival in the First Fleet, Fowkes made a plan of Sydney. The map was published in London in 1789 making it the first ever published of Sydney (Fig. 12.). A month earlier than Fowkes's survey, an officer of the First Fleet, Lieutenant William Bradley, drew a map from a survey by Captain John Hunter (Fig. 13.), but it remained unpublished until 1969. It is interesting to compare the two: Bradley's map, which was made for Governor Arthur Phillip, shows the hydrography and more buildings, but that by Fowkes depicts the first fields already sown to grow vital food for the colony, as well as a 'Brick Field,' and parties making roofing shingles.



Convict, artist

In the early days of the colony landscape artists provided a valuable topographic overview of towns and Aboriginal-European interaction. Thomas Watling, an orphan from Scotland was educated by an aunt. He ran his own academy in Glasgow but was convicted of forging bank notes. Watling's wonderful "A direct north general view of Sydney" (Fig. 14.) has been called the first oil painting made in Australia, but is now thought to have been done in England from drawings made in Sydney. Another work (Fig. 15.) depicts the construction of the brig Portland in 1804 and includes Sydney's oldest remaining building--Cadman's Cottage.

Watling's book Letters from an Exile was published in Scotland about 1794 and gives his pictures and his views on the colony. After serving only five of his fourteen year sentence, Watling was given an absolute pardon by Governor Hunter and returned to Scotland with a son apparently born to him by a mistress. His final resting place is unknown (ADB 1967, 2:574-575).



Convict, artist

John Eyre (not to be confused with the explorer Edward John Eyre) was born in Coventry and transported for housebreaking in 1801. He drafted charts for Governor Bligh and produced several 'Views' which were published by emancipist Absalom West in 1812, the earnings enabling Eyre to leave the colony the same year. West published a book of Eyre's etchings in 1813 (Fig. 16.), but Eyre was never heard of again (ADB 1966, 1:365-366).



Convict, artist

Lycett was convicted of forgery and transported to NSW in 1814. During his employment in the police office in Sydney he was again caught forging and sent to the coal mines at Newcastle. While there he painted an altar for Christ Church which so impressed the commandant that he granted Lycett a conditional pardon and sponsored him to paint views of Newcastle. Here is one (Fig. 17.) from his superb oeuvre, illustrating every building in Newcastle plus Nobbys, a rocky island in the middle of the Hunter River. Today a sand-spit connects Nobbys to Newcastle and the old river mouth is no longer recommended for navigation!

Governor Macquarie pardoned Lycett in 1822. He somehow obtained the fare for himself and his family to return to England where his watercolours were published as etchings. In 1827 he was visited by the police on suspicion of forging banknotes. Caught red-handed at age 57, he took the drastic step of cutting his own throat to avoid re-transportation (ADB 1967, 2:140-141; Lycett 2006).


Not everyone knows that the site of Queensland's capital Brisbane was actually discovered by convicts! In 1823 four convicts sailed 100 km south of Sydney to gather cedar timber but in a storm were blown 800 kilometres north to Moreton Bay. One of the four perished en-route but the remaining three commenced living with Aborigines around Moreton Bay. When Surveyor-General John Oxley was seeking a site for a suitably remote convict establishment he met the convicts who showed him the freshwater Brisbane River, then entirely unknown to the European establishment. Little can they have imagined that a city of two million people would spread outwards from Brisbane River (Johnson 2001).

At the GeoCart 2014 conference I was asked to justify my proposition that 'landscape artists' were the de facto 'topographers' in the early days of the colony, so I gave as an example the amazing case of Tower Hill near Warrnambool, Victoria, one of the last volcanoes in Australia to become extinct. It was painted by artist Eugene von Guerard in August 1855; about ten species of trees can be identified in his painting. Over the years all the vegetation was removed in order to plant potatoes but in the long period since it became a National Park in 1872, trees indigenous to Australia, but not local, were replanted; these were found to be unsuccessful. However when von Guerard's painting was used to select the species of trees to be replanted, the forest was regrown successfully. In addition, many types of native wildlife have now returned as a result of planting the original species of trees.

In conclusion I am of the view that, despite the convicts ranging from repeat offenders to freedom fighters, some made a magnificent contribution to the development and even the conservation of Australia.


APLIN, Graeme (ed.), (1988), A Difficult Infant: Sydney before Macquarie, NSW Univ. Press, Kensington (NSW).

AUSTRALIAN DICTIONARY OF BIOGRAPHY (1966-), Melbourne Univ. Press, Carlton. v.1 (1966) 1788-1850 A-H; v.2 (1967) 1788-1850 I-Z.

AUSTRALIAN ENCYCLOPAEDIA, (1979), 3rd ed. rev., 6 vols, Grolier Society, Sydney.

BRADLEY, William (1969), A voyage to New South Wales, the journal of Lieutenant William Bradley RN of HMS Sirius, 1786-1792, 2 vols., Trustees of the Public Library of NSW in assoc. with Ure Smith, Sydney.

EARLE, Augustus (1830), Views in New South Wales and Van Diemens Land : Australian scrap book 1830, London.

FITZSIMONS, Peter (2012), "A savage race?", Sun-Herald (Sydney), 30 Sept., p.88, col.1.

INSTITUTION OF SURVEYORS NSW (2000), Surveying New South Wales - The Pathfinders (CD).

JOHNSON, Richard (2001), The Search for the Inland Sea -John Oxley, Explorer, 1783-1828, Melbourne Univ. Press, Carlton.

KASS, Terry (2008), Sails to Satellites: The Surveyors-General of NSW (1786-2007), NSW Dept. of Lands, Sydney.

LYCETT, Joseph (2006), Joseph Lycett convict artist, Historic Houses Trust of NSW, Sydney.

MCCORMICK, Tim (1987), First Views of Australia 1788-1825: a history of early Sydney, David Ell Press in assoc. with Longueville Publications, Chippendale (NSW).

REVERTE, Javier, PUIG-SAMPER, Miguel Angel, MORENO MARTIN, Jose Maria & VALLESPIN, Fernando (2010), Expedicion Malaspina : un viaje cientifico-politico alrededor del mundo 1789-1794, Turner, Madrid.

RIENITS, Rex (ed.) (1970-72), Australia's Heritage: The Making of a Nation, Hamlyn, Dee Why West (NSW).

TRUNECKE, Josef (1993), "Peter Louis Bemi and early lithographic map production in Australia", The Globe, 38:13-16.

Frank Urban [1]

[1] Frank Urban practised as a Land Surveyor in Rhodesia, studied photogrammetry in the Netherlands and, after serving as Chief Cartographer and Assistant Director of Survey, became Director of Mapping in NSW, Australia in 1981. He now lives in Port Macquarie and presents power-point talks on Art Masters and Culture.
COPYRIGHT 2016 Australian and New Zealand Map Society, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2016 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Urban, Frank
Publication:The Globe
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Jul 1, 2016
Previous Article:Charting the sealing islands of the Southern Ocean.
Next Article:Conference notes.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters