Vista de la Colonia Inglesa de Sydney en la Nueva Gales Meridional.
[View of Sydney Cove from the North-West, April 1793]
Fernando Brambilla (1763-1834)
George 111, Kings Topographical Collection, K.Top.124 Supp.43.
British Library, London

Keith Vincent Smith

The Spanish and Italian voyagers in the corvettes Descuvierta (Discovery) and Atrevida (Intrepid), commanded by Don Alexandro Malaspina, anchored in Warrane (Sydney Cove) at noon on 13 March 1793. This five year long  scientific survey of the Pacific Ocean and South America was funded by the Spanish government.

The two ships and their crews spent one month in the Sydney area, leaving on 12 April 1793 after making repairs and replenishing wood and water.

Acting governor Major Francis Grose gave Malaspina’s officers permission to set up an observatory. They ‘chose the cove on which a small brick hut had been built for Bennillong by Governor Phillip, making use of the hut to secure their (astronomical) instruments,’ wrote Acting Judge Advocate David Collins.

[David Collins, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, vol. 1, London 1798: 275]

The small fired brick hut built by Arthur Phillip, first Governor of the colony of New South Wales, for the Wangal go-between Woollarawarre Bennelong, is glimpsed at top left in Fernando Brambilla’s ‘Vista’, just beneath the vessel with billowing sails coming up the harbour. The Aboriginal group at bottom left are copied from a drawing by the convict artist Thomas Watling, employed by Surgeon John White, who befriended the European visitors.

Above the group of people at right we see the road (now Bridge Street) leading up the hill to Governor Phillip’s house. The Museum of Sydney is built on the site.

At that time Bennelong and his young companion Yemmerrawanne, bound for England with Governor Phillip, were at sea on the ship Atlantic, some two months away from landfall at Falmouth in Cornwall.

In 1790 Fernando Brambilla, principal artist in the Malaspina expedition, born in Italy, had worked as a set designer and scenery painter at La Scala, Milan. He sailed in Atrevida,  joining the expedition at Acapulco in Mexico with his friend Juan Ravenet. After the voyage Brambilla became court painter to the Spanish king Charles 1V.

Malaspina, (1754-1810), an Italian from Tuscany, had secret instructions to report on the English convict settlement at Port Jackson. He asked Brambilla to prepare this and a second landscape of Sydney which were presented to Grose, who sent the two works and an image of Parramatta to King George 111 in England on the convict ship ship Kitty, which reached the Cove of Cork on 5 February 1794.  The Indian ink originals are now in the Buckingham Palace Collection of Queen Elizabeth 11.

Nueva Holande: Cabeza de un habitant, 1793
[New Holland: Head of a Native]
Juan Ravenet (c1766–1821)
Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, Sydney

Malaspina’s second artist Juan (Giovanni) Ravenet, who sailed in Discubierta as a figure painter, was born in Parma, Italy and studied art at the Fine Arts Academy, where his father taught engraving. In Sydney he sketched settlers, convicts and Aboriginal people. As historian Robert J. King remarks: ‘The portraits made by the artist, Juan Ravenet, are among the best representations ever made of the Eora of the period.’

While in Port Jackson Ravenet drew this fine portrait sketch of an Aboriginal boy whose identity is unknown. He represents a group of young ‘orphans’ adopted by settlers and given English names and clothing. Some of these youths embraced a life at sea on English sailing ships, but there are no existing images of Bundle (Bondel), Tristan Maamby or Tom Rowley, who were 10 or 12 years old at that time, nor of James Bath, who was about 15.

[See Keith Vincent Smith, MARI NAWI: Aboriginal Odysseys, Rosenberg Publishing, Dural, NSW, 2010]


Malaspina was intrigued by the numbers of Aboriginal men and women mingling with the settlers in Sydney Town and by the convict colony itself, just five years after its establishment and three years since the peaceful ‘coming-in’ of the Eora, brokered by Governor Phillip and Bennelong. 

He writes bluntly in ‘Examen politico de las colonias inglesas en el mar Pacifici’:

We have seen gathered and cared for with the greatest kindness, several Boys and Girls. Others, both men and women, although entirely naked and disgustingly dirty, have been admitted to the same Room where we were eating, and have been regaled with one or other dainty from the same Table. At times we have heard entire Families salute us with several shouts in English; at times in the principal Streets of the Colony itself they have danced and sung almost the whole night around a campfire, without anyone molesting them … the young adults at times suddenly quit the house where they are being fed, and the clothing which covers them …

In spite of their simplicity they live happily: ordinarily one comes across them dancing. Alike in this to the Guineans, they express the sensuality of their desires in their songs and attitudes. The vibration of their knees, the vigorous rubbing of the most sensitive parts, and the other movements of each sex, with the ardour which may be observed in their features, are other such unequivocal signs of what they express. Their abode is on the beaches and in the Woods …

Malaspina describes the nawi (stringybark canoes) and techniques used  by the coastal women when fishing in them.

Two or three yards of the bark of a tree scarcely an inch thick, folded at the ends to make a concave figure, is a Boat sufficient for three women, one of whom occupies herself with baling out the water which enters continually, while the others row with small paddles, with shells or merely with their hands. A fire which is placed on sand moves to and from among the women, and their skins which are proof against the elements are also incombustable. Hooks formed from the lip of a seashell, and gaffs made solely of wood are their gear for getting fish, which they devour scarcely warmed on the embers, as if they are always hungry, and put in their insatiable bellies whatever they come across—Bread, a Cob of Maize, and even a tallow candle are delicious foods, but nothing equals a Biscuit dipped in salty water, which is the most agreeable to them: they know it by the name ‘Berriguet’, not being able to pronounce its English name.

[Malaspina, in extracts from ‘Examen politico de las colonias inglesas en el mar Pacifici’ 1793; MS318, Museo Naval, Madrid, translated by Robert J. King  in Secret History of the Convict Colony, 1986:106; 148]

Una Mujer de la Nueva Olanda, 1793
Juan Ravenet (1766-1821)
Museo Naval, Madrid

Sure enough, Ravenet sketches the ‘Mujer’ (woman) I identified as the wife of the Kameygal headman Maroot the elder in my article published by John Ogden of Cyclops Press in his surf-oriented history saltwater people of the fatal shore – Sydney’s southern beaches, 2017. She holds in her hand such a ship’s biscuit.

Malaspina noted: ‘In some [‘Natives’] the hair was ornamented with Kangaroo teeth shells &c fastened to it  …I saw several with my own eyes ornamented in this manner’.

After he gave Maroot the elder a glass of brandy when he met him at Botany Bay five years later in 1798 Benjamin Bowen Carter, the American surgeon on the ship Ann and Hope from Rhode Island recorded: ‘Several other canoes came off, in one was a woman and a child at her breast. They all asked for biscuit, and promised fish in return, but never brought them.’ Carter gave them bread and meat and obtained a short vocabulary in return.

[Benjamin Bowen Carter, A journal of a voyage from Providence to Canton in the Ship Ann and Hope, Rhode Island Historical Society, Providence, Reel PMB 769, frames 83-4]

Borador del Revivimiento de los Oficiales en baie Botanica
[Reception of Spanish officers in Botany Bay: Governor’s House baie Botanica]
Juan Ravenet (c1766–1821)
Pen, ink and wash
Museo de América, Madrid (Colección Bauzá) No 2354
Reproduced from Tim McCormick, First Views of Australia 1788-1825,
A history of early Sydney, Longueville Publications, David Ell Press, Chippendale, 1987, page 49

At top left, Ravenet includes a naked Aboriginal man and child among the crowd of English gentlemen in cocked hats at a reception held for the Spanish visitors. At left below is an unfinished sketch of a woman. Sydney antiquarian bookseller Tim McCormick suggests the tall top-hatted figure in the foreground might be Major Grose.

It is always a pleasure and a privilege to leaf through the pages of early images (184 in full colour) and commentary in McCormick’s authoritative ‘First Views’, published in a limited edition of 2000 copies.

View of Parramatta from near Rose Hill, April 1793
Fernando Brambilla (1763-1834)
Pen, ink and grey wash
BL.K. Top 124 (supplement), 44                                                                                                                 British Library, London

On 5 April 1793 Don Luis Neé, botanist on board Atrevida, went by boat along the Parramatta River and reported at length on the buildings, orchards, gardens, soil and natural vegetation he saw.

On the way he jumped ashore at Kissing Point (now Putney) where, he said, the ‘industrial colonists’ were growing maize, ‘and every kind of greens and vegetable, such as kidney beans, peas, cabbages, lettuces, endives, melons, potatoes, turnips’.

‘I had hardly touched ground when I found two tetragonias and various other oraches, all edible, as I pointed out to the colonists’. These Indigenous plants are related to Warrigal greens (Tetragonis expansa), at first called ‘Botany Bay Greens’ or ‘New Zealand Spinach,’ which still grow in the area where Bennelong is buried.

Each house in the one-street township of Parramatta pictured by Brambilla, had a garden, where cabbages, pumpkins, turnips and potatoes were raised. ‘They also cultivate tomatoes’, wrote Neé in his diary.

On 6 April 1793 José de Bustamate Y Guerra and other Spanish officers, with David Collins, Surgeon John White, Captain George Johnston and Lieutenant Prentice were rowed up the river in two ship’s boats to Parramatta. They reached the ‘New Grounds’ or Toongabbie. Malaspina was told the name meant ‘place of handing over,’ while the botanist Thaddáus Haenke, who corresponded with Joseph Banks, recorded its Aboriginal placename as Thungabe. In 1808 mariner Nicolas Pateshall wrote it as Toon-gabbe.

Borador del Dibujo de Baia Botanica, 1793
[Outline of the sketch of Botany Bay]
Juan Ravenet (1766-1821)
Cat 747 Museo Naval, Madrid

When Descubierta’s tender was sent from Port Jackson to Kamay (Botany Bay) to take soundings to establish the astronomical location of Sydney Cove, Ravenet seized the opportunity, trekking overland, wrote David Collins ‘in order to have a better chance of finding some natives and to draw them with their weapons and in their native dress.’

They were escorted along the muru or Aboriginal pathway by Marine Lieutenant George Johnston and Lieutenant John Prentice and met the ship’s tender on the north shore of Botany Bay. The resulting field sketch, now in the Museo Naval in Madrid, captures this meeting with a group of Aboriginal men, women and children on the north shore of Botany Bay.

Based on the Spanish soundings and the shadows cast by the figures in the tableau, Robert J. King suggests that the tender had returned to Yarra Bay from off Towra or Pinnacle Point near Kurnell.

The Spanish ships were outside the Sydney Heads by 10 o’clock on the morning of 11 April 1793.

Photocopy of the missing artwork
Juan Ravenet, date unknown
Medium unknown
Size 68 x 38 cm
Whereabouts unknown


In February 1958 a photostat of a large finished drawing of Ravenet’s ‘Borador’ sketch of Australian Aborigines at Kamay (Baia Botanica or Botany Bay) was offered, through the British Embassy in Caracas, Venezuela, to The Australian Museum in Sydney.

It showed the above scene and the same Indigenous people, now fleshed out. The museum forwarded the work to the Mitchell Library at the State Library of New South Wales. From the photostat it is not possible to know the medium used. A hole, absent in the original, can be seen at left, where a young boy previously stood next to an elder throwing a spear with a womera (throwing stick).

Somehow this version of Ravenet’s sketch, a significant document in Australian history, had survived the intervening years. The owner said in a letter that ‘it was found in France by one of my grandfathers, who bought it [a] long time ago.’ It had been left by his aunt, who died unmarried in 1940.

The Library, then administered by State Librarian John W. Metcalf (1901-1982), offered the seller less than half the asking price of $US500 and returned it to the owner in South America.

Its whereabouts are now unknown. Today it would make a wonderful addition to the Mitchell Library’s extensive collection.

[Much of this article is based on the expert scholarship of Robert J. King. See ‘Eora and English at Port Jackson: A Spanish view’, Aboriginal History, vol 10, 1986, pages 47-58.

View online in TROVE at <>]

[‘Examen politico de las colonias inglesas en el mar Pacifici’ 1793. MS318, Museo Naval, Madrid. – R. J. King – Secret History of the Convict Colony, 1986:106; 148]

Copyright Keith Vincent Smith 2022