Agency, Encounter and Ethnographic Collecting: The Royal Navy in Australia, c.1772-1855

Daniel Simpson

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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This thesis uses the Indigenous Australian object collections of the British Museum as a stimulus to explore the history of ethnographic collecting in Australia by the Royal Navy, in the period 1772-1855. From ordinary sailors to the curious surgeons and naturalists who accompanied naval expeditions, object collecting made visible the tangled scientific, imperial and commercial influences which shaped early colonial encounters in Australia and throughout the British Empire. Ethnographic collections, and particularly those at the British Museum, continue to mediate the postcolonial relationship between Britain and Australia, and yet almost nothing is known of the circumstances of their provenance, or of the actors who collected them and dispersed them within museums; the agency of Indigenous Australians themselves is also little understood.

The thesis begins by arguing that scholars have struggled to move beyond the famous collections of Captain James Cook, and observes too that many have misunderstood Joseph Banks’ later contribution to naval ethnography. Focusing upon the principal expeditions made to Australia between 1800 and 1850, the thesis charts the growth of object collecting among a range of naval actors interested less in the pursuit of profit than in the expansion and consolidation of a new form of knowledge. Through its study of ethnographic collecting, the thesis offers an original perspective upon early colonial Australian history. The thesis is framed in particular as a contribution to recent work on subaltern knowledges and agencies, both European and indigenous, and adds too to our growing appreciation of the nineteenth-century Royal Navy’s participation in and direction of imperial British science.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
  • Laidlaw, Zoe, Supervisor
  • Sculthorpe, Gaye, Supervisor, External person
Thesis sponsors
Award date1 Jun 2018
Publication statusUnpublished - 2018


  • Royal Navy
  • The British Museum
  • Australia
  • Torres Strait
  • Indigenous Australia
  • Indigenous Australians
  • Ethnography
  • Ethnographic Collecting
  • Natural History
  • Natural History Collecting
  • Naval Collecting
  • Anthropology
  • Encounter
  • British Empire
  • Joseph Banks
  • James Cook
  • Haslar Hospital
  • Collecting
  • Museum Collecting

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