Friday, March 14, 2014

Breaksea Island and the Venus de Milo

Eight weeks before King George Sound (now Albany) was colonised by Lockyer and his mates via the British Crown, the French weighed anchor here. They'd had a nasty 108 days' crossing from Tenerife through several storms, had lost a man, several chickens and some spars. 

Despite the lack of mobile phones or internet, just about every Brit in the Antipodes knew that the French were camped in the Sound, painting pictures, collecting plant and animal samples, and spending their nights swapping songs and stories from their country with the locals. It was the one part of the continent not yet annexed by the Crown, so Lockyer's missive was to get from Botany Bay to here as fast as possible to head off any French flag-planting ideas. I think it took the Amity two weeks, easterly winds, bad water and all.

Anyway, lets go back a bit ... the French ship Astrolabe was captained by a man named Jules Dumont d'Urville, a title with an interesting resonance with Hardy's Tess and her dastardly lover/rapist Alec d'Urberville, but here again, I digress. When d'Urville anchored the Astrolabe just off the channel in the same spot where Old Salt now has weekly fights with Grievous for flathead, he was already a famous man in his homeland for discovering the Venus de Milo in a paddock in Greece.

"The Venus de Milo is a statue of a naked woman with an apple in her raised left hand, the right hand holding a draped sash falling from hips to feet, both hands damaged and separated from the body. Even with a broken nose, the face was beautiful.

D'Urville the classicist recognized the Venus of the Judgement of Paris. (My note: know your Greek myths folks. It weren't the city but the man that Venus was playing here) It was, of course, the Venus de Milo. He was eager to acquire it, but his practical captain, apparently uninterested in antiquities, said there was nowhere to store it on the ship, so the transaction lapsed.
(My note again: Can you imagine how cranky d'Urville was, when his boss refused her berth? "Oh shipmate, the Venus de Milo? She'd be a useless freeloader. We're no people smugglers. We've got like bricks and wheat and shit to cart. C'mon!")

The tenacious d'Urville on arrival at Constantinople showed the sketches he had made to the French ambassador, the Marquis de Rivière, who sent his secretary in a French Navy vessel to buy it for France. Before he could take delivery, French sailors had to fight Greek brigands for possession. In the mêlée the statue was roughly dragged across rocks to the ship, breaking off both arms, and the sailors refused to go back to search for them."

So there you go. Six years later, d'Urville was in Albany. His officers met Mokare' and the other Menang Noongar folk of Kinjarling. They traded their songs, bits of language, curiousities and axes, all the while fixing up the Astrolabe's sails, masts and spars. d'Urville also described the men and women, those Vandemonian sealers who rowed that day from Breaksea Island to alongside his ship moored in the channel, to trade him a bag of black lizards for gunpowder and flour.

It was the first time the Frenchmen had seen the three sealer women and girl child. The little whaleboat was crowded with the exiled of Breaksea Island. Mary, plump in her sealskin frock, black face, red beanie with tufts of wiry hair escaping it and rows of gleaming marineer shells strung tightly around her neck: Weedchild, a tiny, waif-like creature in boy’s trousers, her wild halo of hair buffeted by wind and salt resembling a sea urchin: Wiremu Heke standing at the tiller, his tattoos spiralling over the belt of his canvas trousers, no shirt or shoes, beardless, wearing a slender length of green stone from his left ear and a necklace of stark white killer whale teeth: Smidmore, his ruined face - turned eye and stoved in cheek, his long black hair not quite concealing the gold earring beaten out of a sovereign: Dancer, naked but for her scars and shells, her ring of furry hair framing her round glossy face: And Sal, with the skull of a child strung about her throat, her long straight hair held back with a scrap of bright woven cloth, standing with one brown foot on the thwart and the toes of her other foot gripping the gunwale.
Sal held up a heavy sack, dripping with blood and circled by flies, to show the bemused sailors leaning over the side of the Astrolabe. From the sack, she produced a fat black skink the size of her forearm, its triangular head bashed in and its tail dangling by her elbow. 

“It’s good!” she said.

And this is why History is such a blast.

Quote from S.-C. Dumont D'Urville Two Voyages to the South Seas, Memoirs of Captain Jules. Introduction by Helen Rosenmann.


  1. Amazing story Sarah!!' How the Venus de Milo Lost Her Arms' - incredible.

  2. It was common to carve the arms separately on large figures then attach them using bronze pins before finishing them off. The reason for this is is that if you have a figure with arms outstretched to - say - six feet, then you would have to start with a block six feet wide and cut away all the excess at great time and expense. The armless torso would only require a block of about 2.5 feet.

    Venus's arms fell off, not broke off, but they are still out there somewhere. There is a huge philosophical debate in the world of antiquities about what to do if ever they were found. To put them back on again would sort of destroy an iconic image about the dangers of biting your fingernails.

    1. Oh and by the way, although it is next to impossible to disguise joints on white marble, this wouldn't have mattered because all the marble figures were painted in quite vivid colours. They only had respect for the statuary marble as a good carving material, not because of its milky whiteness as we do. End of lecture.

  3. Good stuff from a master! Thanks Tom.
    I did read somewhere that the way she lost her arms was disputed. Still, Rosenman was quoting from the description that d'Urville presented to Constantinople and he said she was holding an apple!
    The plot thickens ....

    1. Yes, it's possible that they were sawn off, but the above is still true - in the main.

  4. What if the French agreed with the Greeks about the sale of the Venus de Milo, cut off her arms to make transport easier, then thrown her arms to the Greek brigands during the chase across the rocks, as a decoy?
    Re your comment on the dilemma as whether or not to attach her arms again, sorry Tom, I'm new to all this. It's a whole new world. I've been sticking with d'Urville and Venus's tentative connection with King George Sound.

  5. Given how prolific they are, I"ve always wondered about the edibility of the local skinks (a possible protein source should Armageddon arrive?) so I asked a local Menang friend about it. According to her the locals don't consider them edible. Bungarras yes... but skinks no. Any volunteers for a bush foods experiment?

  6. Totally.
    I've been trapping them for the last six weeks, after two years of them living under the fridge. Would happily stoop to eating the bastards at this point ... if they were not a protected species. :~)