Daniel Boyd, Pemulwuy and the Buccaneers of the Age of Reason

Daniel Boyd: king no beard, oil on canvas, 290 x 178 cm, 2007

We are all familiar with histories of colonisations as written by Europeans. Although the perspectives of those being colonised are most often lost, the conflicts brought about by colonisers in the past are still with us.

The Natural History Museum in London invited Aboriginal artist Daniel Boyd from Sydney, Australia, to address this imbalance of perspectives – some 240 years after Australia was colonised. The story of this colonisation by the British starts with Captain James Cook. In 1770, after anchoring HMS Endeavour at Kundul (Kurnell, now Botany Bay) Cook had dubbed the Australian continent terra nullius – a land owned by no one under European law – and claimed it for the British Crown. Sir Joseph Banks was a botanist onboard and eight years later was elected President of the Royal Society, when he argued for the setting up of Australia as penal colony. Eleven coloniser ships set sail from the UK to Australia, known as the First Fleet, and arrived in Warrane (Sydney Cove or Port Jackson, now modern-day Sydney) in January 1788 to set up the colony with about 1,500 convicts, government officers and marines with their families.

Artist Daniel Boyd is a key proponent of a thriving Aboriginal art scene that with vigour explores its visual languages and cultural identity. Boyd’s work is meticulously researched and detailed. His major painting We Call Them Pirates Out Here (2006) was acquired by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney. He spent three months at the Natural History Museum in London researching the First Fleet Collection among other parts of the collection, and in particular human remains. He investigated how the Museum deals with such specimens currently in its possession and possible links to remains of his ancestors.

In his work, Boyd probes how colonial images inform contemporary society and how we interact with them. He more specifically questions the romantic notions that surround iconic images of key figures of colonisation through painting. Known portraits by George III, Captain James Cook, Sir Joseph Banks and Arthur Phillip, the first governor of New South Wales, are appropriated and reworked. This process allows Boyd to relate dispossession and colonisation to his own contemporary experience as an Aboriginal from the peoples of Kudjla, Eastern Kuku Yalanji, Kangulu, Jagara, Bandjalung, Kuku Djungan and the North Pentecost Island (Vanuatu) peoples.

Here, I would like to introduce two of his oil paintings: king no beard and sir no beard, both from 2007. The former is a portrait of George III, depicted as how we have come to picture a pirate – with eye patch and parrot. Next to him on the table, where his crown would normally be shown, is a jar with a preserved head – a self-portrait of Boyd. The second work is a retake of Benjamin West’s portrait of Sir Joseph Banks from 1773. The painting not only portrays the first president of the Royal Society, a position he held for 42 years, but again Boyd – his severed head in a jar. Surrounding Banks are artefacts he collected while on HMS Endeavour.

Why did Boyd place his head in a jar and why is this ‘specimen’ included in the portraits of Sir Joseph Banks and King George III?

On 8 April 1803 Banks wrote a letter to the then governor in Australia, Philip Gidley King:

“The manifold packages you have had the goodness to forward to me have always, owing to your friendly care in addressing and invoicing them, come safe and in good condition to my hands. Among the last was the head of one of your subjects, which is said to have caused some comical consequences when opened at the Customs House, but when brought home was very acceptable to our anthropological collectors, and makes a figure in the museum of the late Mr. Hunter, now purchased by the public.”1

The decapitated head that caused ‘comical consequences’ but was ‘acceptable’ to the anthropology collector belonged to the Aboriginal resistance fighter Pemulwuy, leader of Bidjigal (River Flat Clan). He ambushed and fatally speared Governor Philip’s convict game hunter John McEntire. In the battle of Parramatta in 1797, Pemulwuy was filled with buckshot but escaped declaring that ‘no gun or pistol can kill him’.2 Pemulwuy was outlawed by Governor Philip in November 1801 and shot dead on 2 June 1802.3 His head was severed and sent to Joseph Banks, making the botanist more than just a Linnaean plant collector. The head was in the collection of the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in London during the nineteenth century, but its whereabouts are today unknown. In early 2010, Prince William on a visit to Australia pledged to Aboriginal elders to support them in their quest to find the skull.

By replacing Pemulwuy’s head with his own, Boyd creates a continuation of Aboriginal history of the past 240 years. He also alludes to the current divergent perceptions of the reaction of the Aboriginal peoples to the white colonisers – did the Aboriginals simply fade away or was it a fierce battle?

Seductive to the viewer, Boyd’s paintings reframe the individuals of the Age of Reason. In these paintings, he questions the search for knowledge enabled through scientific methods and colonisation – questions of ownership, procurement and storage of human remains are recurrent themes in his work. The repatriation of Aboriginal remains and their return to ancestral land is an urgent concern among Aboriginal communities to which the Natural History Museum is currently responding.


Contemporary Art at the Natural History Museum

The Natural History Museum is a popular visitor attraction at the heart of which is a unique collection of natural history objects. We maintain this national collection of 70 million treasures from the natural world, including six million rare books and manuscripts, and the major parts are housed in historic landmark buildings.

About 300 scientists work here, researching the collection. We generate knowledge of the natural world and lead international debate on related issues. The collection provides the basis for an exciting visitor experience that reveals the journey of life to a broad and diverse audience.

The Natural History Museum has been working with contemporary artists for a number of years now and through various models. The dialogue between the Museum and artists is sparked by artists engaging with the science, scientific research and the history of the Museum’s collections and displays. Out of this dialogue blossoms new works that communicate in original ways and stimulate the public’s understanding of topical questions relating to the Museum’s science.

Daniel Boyd’s specially commissioned installation will be on display from early February 2012 in the Natural History Museum’s Images of Nature gallery.

Images courtesy of the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney


1. Manuscript, purchased from Lord Brabourne, 1884, transferred to the Mitchell Library, 1910, The Sir Joseph Banks Electronic Archive, Series 39.076.

2. J.W. Price, Journal on Minerva …. 1800. Add. MS 13880, British Library London. AJCP Reel 1574, Mitchell Library, Sydney.

3. Keith Vincent Smith, Eora. Mapping Aboriginal Sydney 1770 – 1850, exh. cat., State Library of New South Wales, p. 12.

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Daniel Boyd spent three months at the Natural History Museum in London researching the First Fleet Collection, in particular human remains, and possible links his ancestors.