Wednesday, November 23, 2005

The spotted opossum

I happened upon this site that examines the history of exploration of Australia whilst looking for opossum engravings—really!—and was able to establish that the European settlement of the continent began at the time of our constitutional convention (in 1787).

Spotted Opossum
Spotted Opossum, Peter Mazell;
hand-coloured copper engraving
from Voyage of Governor Phillip to
Botany Bay
by Arthur Phillip
(Rex Nan Kivell Collection)

It turns out that Captain James Cook was the first European to discover Australia—did I ever know this?—in 1770, first sighting the southeast coast in March.

He discovered and named Botany Bay, carefully explored and mapped the coast northward, and finally, on Possession Island in Torres Strait, took possession of the whole eastern coast, naming it New South Wales.

(Excerpts from his journals are available on the site.) But the first settlements (for the establishment of a penal colony—decidedly part of my elementary school curriculum) took place decades later while America was debating its new constitution. Arthur Phillip, an admiral in the British navy, led this first expedition, landing in Botany Bay, and began to settle the continent. Phillip’s journals include a wide-ranging justification of the endeavor; an impressive historical survey (natural, anthropological, and otherwise), and an accounting of the young government, such as it was. But all of this is a thinly-veiled excuse to put up an amazing print [inset left] of the spotted opossum, a creature that surely cannot be real, conjured from the feverish imagination of a colonial sailor and amateur natural historian, prefiguring Lewis Carroll.



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