Imagine being a prisoner-of-war, locked in the hulk of an overcrowded, old ship. How would you pass your time? You could tell stories, daydream and reflect on ‘better times’ or perhaps make things out of the limited materials available to you – the clothes and jewellery on your body, left over food scraps or your own hair.
During the Napoleonic Wars (1792-1815), French captives held in British prisons and ships produced ship models, typically made from the left over bone from their staple diet of mutton stew. Gradually, after each meal, the prisoner would build up a collection of bone which he would submerge for prolonged periods in wet clay to make it pliable, before working on its construction.
This particular bone ship model in the Powerhouse Museum’s collection would have been made by a skilled artisan. It is a rare example as it bears the French flag (the production of most prisoner-of-war ship models were shown with the British flag, since prisoners generally made models for sale to the local British markets).
It is a 72-gun French Frigate warship, which because of the French flag, the time it was made and the resemblance, may in fact be identified as the 74-gun French vessel, ‘Le Heros’, produced as a souvenir example for the maker. Since prisoners did not have images to copy or the aids of draughts or plans this meant they were forced to rely on both their memory and imagination, thus errors were likely.
However, to throw a spanner in the works (and this is what makes research fun!), at the time the Museum acquired this model we received the following information “…made by a French convict in a settlement off the Australian coast line”. This would, at first, seem unlikely as the model is typical of those produced by French prisoners held in England during the Napoleonic Wars – but then perhaps the statement refers to New Caledonia, which became a French penal settlement in 1862?
If the “French convict” was an ex-prisoner of the English during the Napoleonic Wars, this would mean that he was probably aged in his late seventies or early eighties when travelling to New Caledonia (not a pleasant trip for a man of that age!) – but then neither would his manual dexterity allow the creation, I believe, of such a fine model.
Maybe the model was taken to New Caledonia or another French Pacific possession by the descendants of an ex-Napoleonic Wars prisoner of the British? The model may have been made in England, but was retained by a French prisoner and presented to his family upon his release and return home to France, which would also explain the French flag.
Or, maybe there was an error in the transmission of this statement, and it was actually supposed to read British Coast line, rather than Australian!?
What do you think?