Lawrence Hargrave
with box kite at
Woollahra Point, c 1910
P1/710 Mitchell Library

Lawrence Hargrave
and the Spanish ships

Keith Vincent Smith

Lawrence Hargrave (1850-1915) is justly famed in Australia and throughout the world as a brilliant inventor. His pioneering experiments with light framed box kites, aeroplane models and compressed air engines strongly influenced those ‘magnificent men in their flying machines’, Wilbur and Orville Wright, with whom Hargrave generously shared his discoveries.  

In 1870, at the age of twenty, the English-born Hargrave strapped on a pair of experimental ‘shoes’ and walked across the water at Rushcutters Bay, where, a century before, Gadigal men and women paddled and fished from the stringybark canoes they called nawi.   

Nesta Griffiths, writing in Point Piper, Past and Present in 1947 recalled:

I can well remember the talk when I was a child of Mr. Hargrave walking on the water from Darling Point to Point Piper on some form of inflated water-wings like snow shoes, and the matter-of-fact people who found it all very ridiculous and amusing.

Lawrence Hargrave with box kites at Stanwell Park

In 1889 Hargrave perfected a three cylinder radial rotary engine to power model aircraft. On 12 November that year at Stanwell Park beach on the south coast of New South Wales he successfully ‘flew’ 16 feet (about 5 metres) into the sky on four linked box kites.

Hargrave’s solar kettle

In December 1912 Hargrave built a ‘solar water kettle’ with a conical surface that concentrated the sun’s rays on a central tube containing water. My wife Irene and I featured this far-sighted invention in ‘Solar 1’ – our first story on solar energy in our magazine Earth Garden No. 6 in 1973. This photo is much better than the one we took at the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, now the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney.

He was certainly a genius, but – how shall I put this? – in later life, like many bright people, Lawrence Hargrave was dominated by an irrational obsession with no connection to reality. He was flying a different kind of kite in 1909, when he claimed that two Spanish ships, the Santa Ysabel and Santa Barbara and their crews had moored in Sydney Harbour from 1595 to 1597. He went to ridiculous lengths to ‘prove’ this assertion.

It is true that in 1595 four Spanish ships commanded by Alvaro de Mendaña Barreto left Callao in Peru and sailed across the Pacific Ocean. They ‘discovered’ the Marquesas and attempted to make a settlement at Santa Cruz believing that they were in the Solomon Islands. The colony was abandoned after two months and Mendaña and many other died. One of his galleons, the Santa Ysabel, was separated from the fleet and lost. Lope de Vega, the captain, and his wife Mariana de Castro, Mendaña’s sister, were not heard of again.

Hargrave imagined that rusted iron ring-bolts in the rocks at Woollahra Point were placed there to moor the Santa Ysabel. More likely they were used by the boats that in earlier days brought guests to Henrietta Villa, where they were lavishly entertained by Sydney’s Naval Officer Captain John Piper in its domed ballroom and banqueting hall.

Hargrave cited as evidence of the Spanish presence the figures of men and animals carved on sandstone rocks by the waterside near his home in Wunulla Road. He became convinced that the vast gallery of images of kangaroos, shields, sharks and fish carved into the flat surfaces between Point Piper and Woollahra Point were not made by Aboriginal people but had been ‘cut on the rock by metal tools, not grooved or rubbed into being with flint or other hard stone’

These Aboriginal engraving sites were noted as early as July 1845, when Cora Gooseberry, widow of the Broken Bay leader Bungaree, conducted the travelling artist and writer George French Angas and Police Inspector William Augustus Miles on a tour of Aboriginal carvings at North Head, where both men sketched the figures in the rocks.

Aboriginal Carvings
George French Angas
Savage Life and Scenes in Australia and New Zealand … London 1847

Angas’s drawings of ‘Aboriginal Carvings, or Outline Tracings upon the Rocks and Headlands in the vicinity of Port Jackson’ were reproduced as Plate 1 of his book Savage Life and Scenes in Australia and New Zealand, published in London by Smith, Elder & Co. in 1847. The artist, who had been staying at the Point Piper mansion of Daniel Cooper (see ‘Who was Ricketty Dick’ on this website), wrote (page 204):

At Lane Cove, at Port Aiken [Port Hacking], and at Point Piper, we also met with similar carvings. Whilst on a visit to the latter place, it occurred to me that on the flat rocks at the extremities of the grounds belonging to the estate where I was staying, there might be carvings similar to those at the Heads; and on searching carefully I found considerable numbers of them in a tolerably perfect state of preservation. Of all these I took measurements and made careful fac-simile drawings on the spot.

At Point Piper, 1845
William Augustus Miles

In the Postcript of his long, rambling, speculative and breathtakingly ignorant paper ‘Lope de Vega’, read on 2 June 1909 and published in Vol 43 of the Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New South Wales in Sydney (pages 34 et seq), Hargrave identified the engravings of the figure of a man with his arms extended, recorded by William Augustus Miles (above) and Angas (No. 2) and of a male kangaroo,  remarking on page 53: ‘Both are within a few yards of my front door, and in all probability will soon be reduced to sprawls.’

He maintains the fantasy that these works could not have been done ‘by the aborigines of Australia’, who did not possess metal tools such as picks, gads and hammers and infers they had ‘no knowledge of perspective’. He continues: ‘I cannot see any better reason for the existence of these markings than to say they were made by Peruvian slaves at the command of their Spanish masters.’

This illustration shows the distribution of the Point Piper engraving group as seen by WCampbell in 1899

By this time Hargrave had seen the illustrations and text by W. D. Campbell, who surveyed the Woollahra Point-Point Piper area and in 1899 published ‘Aboriginal Carvings of Port Jackson and Broken Bay’ in Memoirs of the Geological Survey of New South Wales, Ethnographic Series No. 1, Sydney. It was obvious, Hargrave asserted, that the slaves had dropped their metal tools — ‘the sharp-eyed aborigine finding every one of them and mimicking their use’.

It suited Hargrave’s story in Part 2 of Lope de Vega, read before the Royal Society of NSW in December 1909, to miraculously transform the obviously male Aboriginal figure (above left), with outstretched arms but no mouth into his conception of Mariana de Castro (at right), with neck ruff, headband, shirt, trousers and clogs.

In 1910 the surveyor and anthropologist Robert Hamilton Mathews, also a member of the Royal Society of New South Wales, disclosed the technique used by the Aboriginal artists in an essay in the Bulletins et Mémoires de la Société d’Anthropologie de Paris (5th series, pages 531-35).

Firstly, a row of holes was pierced with a piece of pointed stone, establishing the outline of the drawing, after which the intervals between these holes were cut in such a way as to produce an uninterrupted groove.

Apart from one vivid example (above), the Aboriginal engravings that dotted the rocks around Point Piper were destroyed when houses were built on top of them. The exception, that of a large fish, survives under the floorboards of a home close to where Hargrave lived in Wunulla Road.

Writing about the Point Piper engravings in 1893, in ‘Idiographic Carvings of the Aborigines at Point Piper, Rose Bay, Port Jackson, and at Hawkesbury’ in Records of the Geological Survey of New South Wales (Vol. 3, pages 80-85), another member of the Royal Society of NSW, the palaeontologist Robert Etheridge Junr, wrote:

The first object to attract attention is the large fish, twenty-two feet long, by twelve and a half wide, and within its outline are other subordinate carvings. This fish is remarkable for the roundness of its anterior outline, great bulk, and a small well separated tail-flipper.

The ‘large fish’ engraving rediscovered in a garden at Point Piper
Daily Pictorial, Sydney, July 1930

Etheridge described the ‘Male figure, with outstretched bent arms, and eyes, but no mouth …  ‘The figure is five feet high, and has the knees and elbows typically angulate after the usual aboriginal manner.’

Carvings on the rocks near Rose Bay
Photograph by Lawrence Hargrave
Sydney Morning Herald
9 August 1912

Although he described them as ‘savages’ and even used the ‘N-word’, Lawrence Hargrave was no more a bigot than most other Australians of the period. His one-eyed racial attitude towards the Aboriginal people of the Sydney area is plainly revealed by his own words in the article ‘Carvings on the rocks’ which appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald on Friday 9 August 1912 (page 5).  See the printed extract below.

Hearing that some curious markings on the rocks near Carrara, Rose Bay, were visible, Mr. Hargrave repaired thither, and after several hours’ hard work with pick and shovel laid bare what he considers was  shelving grid, upon which the Spanish vessel was drawn up for repairs. There were curious carvings on the stone, and other evidences of human handcraft.  

Carrara, in modern Vaucluse, is now called Strickland House .

Hargrave wrote:

There is an inclined grid above high-water mark, which would be very suitable for hauling up a small vessel to effect repairs … five of the panels of the pavement, separated by grooves, have Spanish symbols of conquest carved thereon. 

Anyone familiar with Aboriginal rock engravings on high ground around Sydney will recognise that these ‘symbols’ represent shields, usually decorated with a vertical line crossed by one or two lines. See the shield illustrated inside the fish in Angas’ Fig. 9 above and the drawings by W.D. Campbell and a photo of a shield engraving at Bantry Bay (below).

Shields or Spanish ‘victory symbols’? Reproduced from W. D. Campbell
‘Aboriginal Carvings’ 1899
Shield engraving at Bantry Bay
Photo: Jeremy Steele

In all these excursions of Governor Phillip, and in the neighbourhood of Botany Bay and Port Jackson, the figures of animals, of shields, and weapons, and even of men, have been seen carved upon the rocks … Fish were often represented.
Arthur Phillip, The Voyage of Governor Phillip to Botany Bay … 1789

The Indigenous people of Port Jackson and coastal Sydney, who called themselves Eora (‘people’) did not read or write, but they left an eloquent witness to their artistic expression, culture and spiritual beliefs in hundreds of galleries of figures outlined and engraved in sandstone, which included ancestral heroes, shields, whales, sharks, fish, eels, kangaroos, echidnas and lizards, that were often clan or personal totems.

A totem is an emblem or image from nature, and the Eora regarded these as part of their identity. In Aboriginal society totems link the human, natural and supernatural worlds.

There are more than 1000 Aboriginal rock engraving sites in the Sydney area. In Gamaragal territory on the north shore, for example, they occur at Bantry Bay, Grotto Point, Balls Head, Berowra, Berrys Island, Bobbin Head, Gumbooya at Allambie Heights, Terry Hills, Wheeler Creek, West Head and other areas in Kuringgai National Park.

Copyright Keith Vincent Smith 2020


Welcome to 2018!

Dr. Keith Vincent Smith in the centre with The Hon. George Souris AM (at left) and NSW
State Librarian Dr. John Vallance.

On Tuesday 5 December 2017 I was delighted to receive the honorary title of Emeritus Curator from The Library Council of New South Wales. It was presented by The Hon. George Souris, President of the Library Council and Dr. John Vallance, the State Librarian, who has wonderful plans for improvements at The State Library of New South Wales in Sydney.

The collections of the Mitchell and Dixson Libraries at the State Library of NSW have been my happy hunting ground for research in Australian Aboriginal History for almost 30 years.

The award was given for ‘exceptional contributions in enhancing the story of Indigenous encounter in the nation and the use of the State Library of its collections.’

This refers to the two exhibitions in which I was involved at the SLNSW – EORA: Mapping Aboriginal Sydney 1770-1850, which I co-curated with Anthony ‘Ace’ Bourke in 2006, and MARI NAWI: Aboriginal Odysseys 1790-1850 which I curated in 2010.

I am deeply honoured by this recognition of my work.