23: A Ship’s Light

By Rebecca Goldsmith

Earlier this summer, a freighter from Australia pulled into Southampton in the UK. Its load included a container filled with the contents of my grandparent’s home in the seaside village of Port Fairy (its traditional owners are the Eastern Maar people) in Southern Australia. This shipment brought with it an old brass ship’s gimble lamp. Given the town’s origins (the name ‘Port Fairy’ is derived from the whaling ship The Fairy), my mother said that it probably used to hang in a whaling ship.[1]

I knew something of Port Fairy’s history from the times my grandfather had shown me around the town’s small history museum (a task he was fond of as President of the local Historical Society). I can’t remember whether the museum touched on the town’s colonial past. The area had once been a dense marshland, populated by the Pyipkil gunditj, who caught fish and eels. By the time white colonisers arrived in the nineteenth century and established the town as a whaling station, fishing was already an integral part of the local ecosystem. In the first instance, then, this whaling ship lamp speaks to the processes of drainage, land clearance and the violent enforced removal of Aboriginal populations, that saw areas like Port Fairy claimed by white settlers.

The gimble lamp

While my family’s arrival in the town predated its gentrification by several decades, the ‘decorative’ value of the lamp in my grandparents’ home reflects shifting patterns of local employment. Fishing remains a dominant industry, but my mother remembers the town’s Glaxo factory just as prominently. Arriving in the UK, the ship’s lamp speaks to the journeys that mark my family’s history, and its relationship to Australia. My grandmother’s family originally sailed out to Australia from Cornwall in the mid-nineteenth century to serve as missionaries on the gold fields. My grandfather sailed out, via Singapore, in the 1950s. Both journeys took place against the backdrop of significant emigration from the metropole to the settler colonies. Now the gimble lamp, like us, has come back to where its travels started.


[1] The town’s other name, at various stages of its past, was Belfast, reflecting its original settlement by poor migrants from Ireland and Scotland.

Image credits: Rebecca Goldsmith’s family collection

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