This small sailor, carved from bone and barely 50 millimetres high, is not a toy as we would think it today – as a plaything for children. It was carved as a trinket, probably by sailors. Although there was no official uniform for British officers or seamen at the time, the high hat, hip-length jacket, three-quarter-length trousers, bare feet and long pigtail are typical for sailors of the period.
The toy sailor was excavated from naval surgeon Jacob Mountgarrett's hut at Risdon Cove in 1980. Mountgarrett was attached to the first British colony in Tasmania, established at Risdon Cove in September 1803. He was implicated in the killing of an unknown number of Mumirimina (local Aboriginal people) during a violent confrontation at Risdon in May 1804.
Mountgarrett adopted a young Mumirimina boy orphaned in the killings and had him christened by the Reverend Robert Knopwood. The boy was named Robert (after Knopwood) Hobart (after the new colony) May (for the month in which he was christened). His Aboriginal name is unknown, and although Lieutenant Governor David Collins ordered that the boy be returned to his people, this did not occur. Robert Hobart May was among the first of many Aboriginal children stolen, an activity criticised by the colony's governors and one which angered Tasmanian Aborigines.
Mountgarrett dissected at least one body retrieved after the killings and is said to have sent body parts to Sydney in a cask, the first hint of the wave of an impersonal scientific study of Tasmanian Aborigines – which concluded with the display of the skeleton of Trukanini at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery between 1904 and 1947.
This sailor is an evocative reminder of the invasion of lutruwita – Tasmania – and its violent aftermath. A beautiful toy with a dark past.