American whaler rock art found in northwest Australia

Researchers have discovered rock engravings left by American whalers on two islands in northwestern Australia. Left by sailors on the whaling ships Connecticut and Delta in the mid-19th century, they are the earliest archaeological evidence of the presence of Americans in northwest Australia.

The inscriptions were found by a team from the Centre for Rock Art Research + Management documenting the Aboriginal Australian occupation of the Dampier Archipelago. There are archaeological remains on the islands of the archipelago indicating human occupation going back 50,000 years, and Aboriginal petroglyphs abound. When the American whalers followed migrating herds of humpbacks to the Dampier Archipelago, the sailors left their marks over earlier indigenous rock art.

We know from a few surviving ship logbooks that foreign whaling ships were plying their bloody trade in the area as early as 1801, six decades before the British established permanent colonies on the islands. The indigenous residents, the Yaburara people, were devastated by clashes with the colonists and their oral histories and knowledge of life before colonization were devastated along with them. Their rock art is an important and rare surviving cultural record. The mixture of earlier Yaburara petroglyphs with pre-colonization but post-contact inscriptions from whalers sheds light on little-known period of transition.

The inscriptions were found on Rosemary and West Lewis Islands. The one on Rosemary was left by sailors on the Connecticut in 1842, engraved on a basalt stone on a high ridgeline overlooking the coast. The site had a great view for whale watching, and the Aboriginal people who lived there for thousands of years left more than 265 rock art panels and more than 70 standing stones. Of more than 800 motifs recorded in the petroglyphs in this area, 81 of them are grids, vertical and horizontal lines intersecting like graph paper.

Over this grid, the whalers engraved the following:

Sailed August 12th
And This Was Right? [written] August 18th 1842
New London
New London
cpt D – CROKER
12 mths out? 18[4]1

The logbook of the Connecticut has not survived, but other records note that it was a 398-ton bark that departed New London with a crew of 26. Daniel Crocker, 33 years of age, was the captain. Jacob Anderson was an 18-year-old New Londoner of “black complexion.” (Black men were common in whaling crews by the mid-19th century. Records show that by the end of the 1850s, one in six whalers were described as African-American.) It returned to New London on June 16th, 1843, carrying 1800 barrels of whale oil.

The engravings by the crew of the Delta are much less formal. They consist of the name of the ship (repeated in different hands), the date, initials and the name J. Leek. They were found on the headland of West Lewis Island, again superimposed over pre-existing rock art. The logbook of this voyage has survived, so we know that the Delta, commanded by Captain David Weeks, was working the area in spring and summer of 1849, and that crews would go ashore often to collect water and wood, to hunt or enjoy “liberty” time.

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.

3 thoughts on “American whaler rock art found in northwest Australia

  1. The calligraphy of the inscriptions is very similar to rock inscriptions along the Oregon Trail made about the same time, e.g. Register Cliff and Independence Rock, Wyoming.

  2. Jacob Anderson, according to my brief research, was indeed a black whaler from New London, CT. He died in 1897 age ~74 and this little gem of news coverage turned up on his findagrave site:
    “Funeral of Jacob Anderson-The Body of Popular Old Colored Citizen Laid to Rest.

    …There was quite a large gathering of old acquaintances of Captain Anderson, many seafaring men, and altogether a representative body of citizens who respected the deceased in life. The body reposed in a handsome casket and the face of the dead was calm and peaceful and very natural in appearance.”

    Both Jacob Anderson and Capt. Daniel Crocker were buried in New London’s Cedar Grove Cemetery (Crocker in 1878 age ~71).

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