Field Guide to Falling in Love in Tasmania

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  • A Colony of Fish

    A Colony of Fish

    This is the slender-spined porcupine fish, or southern porcupine fish, or the globefish, Diodon nicthemerus, first described to European science by Cuvier in 1818. You’ll find it in the southern waters of Australia, from Geraldton to Port Jackson, but it’s most common in Port Phillip Bay or the coastal waters of Tasmania. (This specimen was found near Beaumaris, on the east coast.)

    This is one of a number of fish illustrations done by William Buelow Gould during the Vandemonian convict era. The artist would later gain international fame after being fictionalised by Richard Flanagan in the well-reviewed Gould’s Book of Fish. His fish are made handsome in watercolour; the porcupine fish looks lonely and unloved, and it’s easy to sympathise with it. Perhaps Gould identified with it himself.

    William Buelow Gould was a chosen name. It seems he was born as William Holland on November 8, 1803; his father was a boatman on the Thames. He was literate and as a young man moved to London where he took up an apprenticeship with lithographer Rudolph Ackermann. His artistic skills were being developed and he married.

    But William fell in with a crowd of boozers and gamblers – always easy to stumble upon in London. In his twentieth year, one of his drinking mates was murdered, perhaps in shady circumstances; William fled to Staffordshire with his wife and their new child.

    But before too long he departed from there too, this time abandoning wife and child. And he ditched the name with which he was born as well.

    The name ‘Gould’ was a good association to make – John and Elizabeth Gould were gaining esteem as artists of natural history. So the runaway artist declared himself William Buelow Gould, “Portrait Painter and Drawing Master”, when he arrived in Northampton.

    But although he had left so many things in his wake, William Buelow Gould was not prepared to dispose of his bad habits. Drinking, gambling, and stealing marred his new career with a painter and glazier by the name of Thomas Smith. Within weeks he was charged with stealing his employer’s materials and suffered three months in prison, as well as a public flogging. And in November 1826, he stole someone’s coat, hankie and gloves; he was found guilty, and sentenced to seven years’ transportation in Van Diemen’s Land.

    On the Asia, the vessel that brought him to Van Diemen’s Land, he painted his first portrait of a ship’s officer. It was pretty ordinary, but Gould seemed to have been able to talk himself up. He was given convict employment as a potter – but was transferred to the chain gang for drunkenness. Then, he put his artistic ability to use in attempted to forge a banknote. He was to be sent to Macquarie Harbour, but after a storm forced the ship to pause en route, many of the convict passengers mutinied; Gould didn’t, and was rewarded for his good behaviour with an assignment to Dr James Scott. Here, he was put to work drawing specimens.

    Coincidentally, the inspirations for his pseudonym arrived in Tasmania during this convict apprenticeship: John and Elizabeth Gould were friends of the Lieutenant-Governor John Franklin and his wife. One wonders whether they were shown the work of the convict Gould, and what they made of his impressive images, which would later be credited by UNESCO as valuable enough to enter their historical registers.

    Gould’s work throughout the rest of his convict career would include still-life images of fruit, flowers, game and fish. Finally a free man, he was given a job painting coaches in Launceston, although he almost sabotaged that immediately; given tools and material to do his work, Gould absconded, only to return shortly enough afterwards to not lose his job.

    “His last years were spent in some comfort,” writes a biographer, but no doubt his life was shortened by the years of hard living. He died in his home in December 1853, joining the great ocean of dead things that surrounds us all.

    Yet he was later resurrected, and reimagined, by Flanagan; in it, he belongs to “a colony of fish masquerading as men”; and the surgeon to whom Gould is assigned turns into Diodon nicthemerus.

     

    Previously on Field Guide, a German baron goes into the Tasmanian mountains.
    On another east coast beach, a French captain takes a convict lover.

  • Fish in Tasmania

    Fish in Tasmania

    Some of my mates like fly-fishing; I commend them. This activity is a fine demonstration of a person’s positive qualities. People who spend their leisure time traipsing across the highlands, just to dangle a tiny sculpture of steel, threads, feathers and other bric-a-brac in front of a fish – only to have the fish generally display its species’ rather snobbish attitude towards contemporary art – deserve credit for their patience, devotion, and optimism (no matter how unwarranted).

    Tasmania is well-known around the world as a famous fly-fishing destination. In rivers and lakes all across the island, you’ll find waters worthy of a line. Brown and rainbow trout wriggle away in the cold streams descending from the mountains. They are lovely creatures. It is nice to see fish rising in the Mersey or the South Esk. They seem wholesome.

    But of course, these animals (i.e. Salmo trutta; Oncorhynchus mykiss) weren’t originally found in Tasmania. This island’s waterways carried on without trout until 1864, when the first brown and rainbow trout were raised in the southern hemisphere. There had been a number of failures: beginning in 1852, with 50,000 salmon and trout ova that arrived on the Columbus and failed to acclimatise, effort and money (as well as piscine offspring) went to waste almost annually on importing the fish.

    But 1864 brought the successful introduction with both trout and salmon, here on the River Plenty. The cold, clear, mountain-sourced waters of the Plenty run out the sea, which made it perfect as a breeding ground for the salmon. Mr. Robert Read of ‘Redlands’ gave access to the river through his property. Enthusiasts led by the entrepreneurial Morton Allport watched over the development.

    Soon, Tasmanian ova and fry were being exported around Australia and into New Zealand. Constable James Wilson stocked the Great Lake in 1870. Various other intrepid fishermen undertook expeditions into the central highlands to hasten the introduction of these foreign fish into the island’s river systems.

    Nowadays, some 30,000 licensed anglers fish Tasmanian waters each year. It’s a niche tourist trade, and a font of innumerable good yarns. The Salmon Ponds, now a historic site, does a decent trade itself: visitors can see great numbers of handsome trout and salmon varieties moving languorously through the dark water to receive their pellets of feed. The day I was there, a platypus stole the show, scratching its noggin for about five minutes in full view.

    But what of the native fish of Tasmania? Some experts the various species of galaxiids, a small freshwater fish family found only in the southern hemisphere, are under threat due to competition with trout, and even from direct predatory attacks. The poor Pedder galaxias (Galaxias pedderensis) is extinct in the wild, following the construction of an impoundment that flooded the river. Of many of the galaxiidae, little is known.

    As always with the relationship between humans and other animals, it’s complicated.

  • What Lies in the Middens

    What Lies in the Middens

    Dr. Rhys Jones was the first professional archaeologist to work in Tasmania. Born in Wales and educated at Cardiff, he arrived in Australia to do his doctorate in Tasmanian archaeology.

    His research began in the north-west of the island, particularly around Rocky Cape. Using radiocarbon dating techniques on various cave middens, Jones reported that Rocky Cape had been continuously occupied by Aboriginal Tasmanians for 8000 years or more.

    This was the least contentious of Jones’ claims. He also entered into a long-running question about the Tasmanians: could they make fire? Much of this question was based on observations (or, perhaps, a single observation) made in the diary of George Augustus Robinson, who travelled with Aboriginal populations in the 1820s and 1830s. Fire, Jones suggested, was carried “in smouldering slow burning fire-sticks”, but if they went out, the Tasmanians had no way of relighting it.

    The archaeologist also suggested that some 3000-4000 years before now, the Rocky Cape middens revealed that Aboriginal consumption of scale-fish completely stopped. He concluded that the Tasmanians had forgotten how to catch fish. Bone awls were also no longer being produced.

    Rhys Jones concluded that with the relatively small population stranded and separated from Australian Aboriginals following the post-Ice Age flooding that created Bass Strait, the Tasmanians had been struggling to adapt. He described it as a “slow strangulation of the mind”.

    Later archaeologists tend to disagree. They refer to other references, by both French and English observers, of pre-colonial Tasmanians using fire-making implements. These Tasmanians would have struck chert (a flint-like stone), sending its spark into dry bark, moss or grass, these archaeologists say. This stone – myrer, Robinson writes that the Bruny Islanders called it – was possibly considered special, and fire-making may have been the responsibility of leaders within a band or kinship group.

    In fact, there may have been a variety of techniques for fire-making: in the early 1900s Quaker observer Ernest Westlake recorded conversations detailing the use of grass-trees, banksias, stringy-bark, tea-tree and fungi, in a variety of methods, for Aboriginal fire-making.

    The change of diet to exclude fish is still mysterious, but recent research tends to suggest that a cooling of the climate occurred at a similar time. In fact, evidence from 3000-4000 BP presents a series of dramatic adaptations across Tasmanian populations. Settlements changed, artistic practices developed, and Tasmanians began to manage the land through seasonal burnings and honed their hunting techniques accordingly.

    “These developments, and their concurrence with similar developments in south-east Australia, contradict the strangulation view,” writes Shayne Breen.

    Tang Dim Mer is one of the names the original Tasmanians had for Rocky Cape; the more prosaic name comes from Matthew Flinders, who spied it from the strait as he circumnavigated Tasmania in 1798. At that time, there were Aboriginals living amongst the banksias and wildflowers, beneath the jagged cliffs, facing out on that notorious stretch of water.

    We are still trying to work out what we lost when Europeans destroyed their lifestyles.

    And although Rhys Maengwyn Jones may be most remembered for its controversies (he died in 2001), much of his work helped to support Aboriginal populations, especially in evidencing for their antiquity. Jones himself hoped to introduce to a wider audience the brutality with which Aboriginal populations around Australia were treated. In Tasmania, he said he saw a history of genocide.


     
    George Robinson's tours with Aboriginal Tasmanians were hugely significant in Tasmanian history.