The Hairy Wild Man from Botany Bay. From a pamphlet A Tour through the Apollo Gardens, in Gaws worth, near Macclesfield, Cheshire (1802). Rex Nan Kivell Collection (Australian Rare Books), National Library of Australia, Canberra. On display until December 13.
In 1802, an unusual pamphlet was printed in Cheshire, England. It featured an illustration of a rather hirsute man brandishing a club and holding a clean-picked bone. His place of residence: Botany Bay.
In the anonymous pamphlet, the image of the hairy wild man is accompanied by a surreal story. The narrator travels through time and space, encountering musical fountains and verses in the night sky, but eventually ends up in Botany Bay. There he visits the den of the hairy wild man. The narrator is just reading the notice on the door when out bursts a furious man, his body “covered with hair at least two inches long … his beard monstrously long and black”. Luckily, chains prevent the narrator from being mauled and he manages to escape Botany Bay.
The Hairy Wild Man is certainly an intriguing image and it is on display for the first time since the 1960s at Canberra’s National Library of Australia as part of an exhibition, Portraits of the Famous and the Infamous, in the Treasures Gallery.
At the NLA I’m shown the work by Nat Williams, the James and Bettison treasures curator. He tells me this is the only known copy in the world of the pamphlet and this image. He has been researching its history for nearly two years, ever since he discovered it in the collection. “The presence of the wild man in a pamphlet created 14 years after European settlement is curious,” he says. “He may reflect the sense of intrigue, but also menace, that the struggling early convict settlement radiated back to its source.
“At least in the early days of settlement, the palpable fear of transportation to what must have seemed the end of the earth was clearly expressed. The manacled hairy wild man was perhaps a warning to readers about exile to remote lands. But when you look at the face, it is rather more benign than terrifying.”
Williams explains the image is an engaging visual trope with a long heritage. “Obviously this Hairy Wild Man image taps into that idea of monsters,” he says. “Botany Bay was a penal colony but you also had strange and unlikely wildlife … being sent back to England, and people are marvelling at these odd things and thinking that they have been created by a hand other than God. So … there was this idea about monsters and the fear of the unknown.
“I keep coming back to the date of it. The really remarkable thing is that someone in 1802 in Cheshire is producing something as beautiful and as curious as this story and image. It suggests to me that the imagination of people on the other side of the world was being stirred by this little colonial outpost.”
27 x 21.4 cm. Paper material