Category Archives: Museum of Tropical Queensland

The Myth of the Mermaid

This blog post is the first in an ongoing series titled Connecting with Collections. The series offers readers a peek inside collections at the Museum of Tropical Queensland, highlighting objects and their stories.

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Everyone knows the myth of the mermaid – the half woman, half fish, who is sometimes kind and at other times a source of evil who lures unassuming sailors to their deaths. But where did the legend come from?

The myth can be traced to cultures all over the world. One of the earliest versions of the tale speaks of the Sirens of Greek mythology, who show many similarities with the modern day mermaid. In Assyrian mythology, dating to c. 1000 BC, it is said that the goddess Atargatis took the form of the half woman, half fish creature during her life. Another legend speaks of Alexander the Great’s sister, Thessalonike, becoming a mermaid after her death.

In Irish mythology, there is the Merrow. In Scotland, the Ceasg or Selkie. In Western Europe, the Melusine, and in Slavic folklore, the Rusalka. Parts of Africa hold belief in Mami Wata, Cameroon calls their mermaid the Jengu, and in Maori culture, Pania of the reef. Chinese, Korean, and Thai cultures all have their own variations, and in many Western cultures, Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid has immortalised the image of the mermaid that we know today.

In Papua New Guinea, there is a legend about the mythical Ri or Ilkai, sometimes known as a Pishmary (meaning fish woman): a human-like sea creature that resembles the European mermaid. The creature long thought to be this mythological being, with sightings stretching back several decades, has since been proven to be the Indo-Pacific dugong, ‘Dugong dugon’. Regardless of this, there are many locals who still believe that a mysterious being lives in the waters of Papua New Guinea, with the tail of a fish, and the features of a woman.

This sculpture was donated to the Museum of Tropical Queensland by Peter Watt. Mr Watt worked as an engineer on the Melanesian Discovery tourist-ship which travelled around the Trobriand Islands and Sepik River regions of Papua New Guinea in 1990, during which time he collected several items that would later become part of the Museum’s collection. The sculpture allows us to see how different people experience and visually interpret certain myths, like that of the mermaid.

Sophie Price, Assistant Curator Anthropology, Museum of Tropical Queensland

A compass gimbal from Mermaid

Written by Carl Tanner, compiled by Dr Madeline Fowler

The final part of a blog series written by undergraduate students at James Cook University, who undertook research on objects in the Museum of Tropical Queensland’s maritime archaeology collection as part of the 2017 topic AR3008 Boats and Beaches.

The shipwreck

HMCS Mermaid was built at the Howrah Dry Docks on the Hooghly River in Calcutta, India, in 1816, by the shipwrights Thompson (Phipps 1840:108, 123). Built out of Indian teak, it was iron-fastened and clad in copper sheathing along the keel (Hosty 2009:17). Designed as a cutter, it was originally rigged as a one-masted ship, but was refitted later into an armed, two-masted schooner (Hosty 2009:17; ANSD 2017). The ship displaced 83-85 gross registered tons, was 17m in length, 5.48-5.6m in beam and had a draught of 2.7m (Hosty 2009:17; Phipps 1840:123; ANSD 2017).

Continue reading A compass gimbal from Mermaid

A porthole from Gothenburg

Written by Tia Eagleson, compiled by Dr Madeline Fowler

Part of a blog series written by undergraduate students at James Cook University, who undertook research on objects in the Museum of Tropical Queensland’s maritime archaeology collection as part of the 2017 topic AR3008 Boats and Beaches.

 The shipwreck

The site of the Gothenburg wreck is in Flinders Passage, North QLD (Latitude: -19.37 Longitude: 148.06). Gothenburg was built in the UK in 1854 by Mr. John Scott Russel. The vessel, a twin-screw steamer, has numerous features in view at the site of the wreck which are indicative of the build of the ship. These consist of two compound single screw engines each with 60 individual horsepower, two decks and three masts and a female figurehead with an elliptical shaped stern. The dimensions of the ship were 59.92m in length, 8.6m in width and 3.23m in depth. Overall, the vessel weighed approximately 737 tonnes. This shipwreck is identified as number 2563 (Australian National Shipwreck Database; Central Queensland Herald 1931:13).

Continue reading A porthole from Gothenburg

Copper-alloy sheathing from Coolangatta

Written by Caroline Mercer, compiled by Dr Madeline Fowler

Part 3 of a blog series written by undergraduate students at James Cook University, who undertook research on objects in the Museum of Tropical Queensland’s maritime archaeology collection as part of the 2017 topic AR3008 Boats and Beaches.

The shipwreck

Coolangatta was built by John Brinksell in 1843 in Shoalhaven, New South Wales (NSW) (Davidson 2014). It was commissioned and owned by Alexander Berry, who named the brigantine sailing vessel after his property in the area (Potts 2010). The boat’s life was largely spent transporting goods up and down the eastern coast of Australia, bringing materials such as coal to the north and most often returning to Sydney with a cargo of timber (Potts 2010). At the time of the wrecking of Coolangatta, it had recently delivered coal to Brisbane and was starting its return trip back to Sydney when it was wrecked. On 19 August 1846, Coolangatta was driven ashore during a gale as it attempted to enter the Tweed River (Davidson 2014). The ship was abandoned by the crew and Captain Steele, after it was stripped of any removable gear and rigging (Davidson 2014). A couple of months later there was an attempt to repair the vessel, with Brinksell being brought up from NSW to repair the damage on the port side (Davidson 2014). However, shortly after the wreck was lifted onto rollers, another gale forced it into a worse position and the keel broke, ending any hopes of repairing the ship (Potts 2010).

Continue reading Copper-alloy sheathing from Coolangatta

A sperm sewing machine oil bottle from Aarhus

Written by Tate Devantier-Thomas, compiled by Dr Madeline Fowler

This is part of a blog series written by undergraduate students at James Cook University, who undertook research on objects in the Museum of Tropical Queensland’s maritime archaeology collection as part of the 2017 topic AR3008 Boats and Beaches. Continue reading A sperm sewing machine oil bottle from Aarhus

An earthenware bottle from Yongala

Written by Robyn Blucher, compiled by Dr Madeline Fowler

This is Part 1 of a blog series written by undergraduate students at James Cook University, who undertook research on objects in the Museum of Tropical Queensland’s maritime archaeology collection as part of the 2017 topic AR3008 Boats and Beaches. Continue reading An earthenware bottle from Yongala

The Maritime Archaeology Collection: Part 2 Islands and Reefs

Written by Dr Maddy Fowler, Museum of Tropical Queensland

Following from Part 1 Shipwrecks, which detailed the 17 named shipwrecks represented by artefacts in the Museum of Tropical Queensland collection, Part 2 explores objects discovered at islands and reefs that are not ascribed to a known shipwreck. With the Great Barrier Reef, one of Australia’s greatest ship-traps, lying off the Queensland coast, it is unsurprising that shipwreck material occurs on many of the islands, reefs and cays both there and further offshore in the Coral Sea.

Continue reading The Maritime Archaeology Collection: Part 2 Islands and Reefs