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Friday, 10 February 2012

A slap in the face with a dead fish

I have been off around some of the goldfields, but I would like to turn to a book of mine that will be out in October 2012, from the National Library of Australia. It is called Curious Minds, and it is about some of the naturalists and natural history painters who feature in the natural history of Australia in a period running from one century before to one century after the arrival at Botany Bay of the First Fleet.

The name Curious Minds is deliberately ambiguous, but never more so than in the case of the unusual Wilhelm von Blandowski.

Blandowski was responsible for the images of fish which I have reproduced here. I don't believe that I am in breach of copyright by showing them here, but I would certainly like to acknowledge the source, a book called Australia: William Blandowski's Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Aboriginal Australia, Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2010, ISBN 9780855757137 (pbk) or 9780855757175 (hbk).  It was edited by Harry Allen, and is definitely a keeper on my shelves.

The simple fact of the matter: Blandowski found himself driven to distraction by a number of people, and found a way, through the fish, of striking back at those he considered had injured him. That, at least, is my interpretation of the case.

When a biologist has a new species to name, it is common to give it the name of somebody that the namer would like to honour.  It is a requirement that the species be sufficiently described to allow another biologist, examining another example of the same species, to realise that they are the same.

The problem, in this case, was that Blandowski over-stepped the mark when he named the fish after members of the council of the Philosophical Society.  That, by itself, would have raised little fuss, but have a look at the illustrations, and see if you can see any hint that there might be a bit of the caricaturist's pen there.

The evidence was largely destroyed, but one of the descriptions is believed to have read "slimy,
slippery fish. Lives in mud". Another fish, named for a Mr. Eades was described as "easily recognised by its low forehead, big belly and sharp spine".  Mr. Eades may have lacked a sharp spine, but the belly and forehead apparently fitted him well.  I suspect that the first example might be the fish named for Mr. Eades.

In the book, I go into a lot more of the background and some of the personalities who were involved, but as one who has had, from time to time, to be polite to pompous asses, I'm afraid my sympathies lie more with Mr. Blandowski.

The council destroyed the offending pages, rejected the names, and hoped they had got all of the illustrations, but happily, Blandowski kept the plates, and later reproduced them.

I have researched him fairly extensively in the public press of the 1850s, and you can read more if you go to The National Library's Trove collection and search on the phrase "William Blandowski".

This is why I like writing: I get to meet interesting dead people.

P. S. If you like really dead fish, I visited some in early March.

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