The Curious Case of the Memetic Marsupial

Two hundred years after Captain Cook travelled to Australia and back to London the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins introduced the notion of a meme that performs many of the same functions of genes but in the cultural context of ideas, images and concepts among humans. A meme takes hold as it were, or as Dawkins wrote in 1976

‘memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad senses, can be called imitation’.

Captain Cook, Sir Joseph Banks and others on board HMS Endeavour saw kangaroos and wallabies in Australia but on their return to London they agreed to the use of a painting made from the stuffed pelt of a dead animal to create the first European meme of the new animal that was so difficult to understand within the Linnaean taxonomy of quadrupeds that had emerged in the mid eighteenth century.

Stubbs’ Kangaroo

The Kongouro from New Holland (Kangaroo) 1772 by George Stubbs.

In 2013 George Stubbs’ paintings of a kangaroo and a dingo, done from stuffed pelts brought back from Botany Bay by Sir Joseph Banks in 1770, were sold for Aust $10,000,000 to the National Gallery of Australia. But the sale was prohibited by the UK government and the paintings purchased for the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. Stubbs’ kangaroo (or wallaby) had become the dominant meme of the animal for the rest of the eighteenth century, despite the arrival of live kangaroos in London from the early 1790s. And the return of the First Fleet in 1789.

Sydney Parkinson’s Kangaroo or Wallaby

[Natural History Museum London]

More than fifty vessels from Europe reached Australian coasts before Captain Cook’s Endeavour hove to in 1770. The Duyfken, captained by Willem Janszoon, parlayed with Aboriginals in 1606. But the first image and specimen of a kangaroo – or perhaps a wallaby – to reach Europe seem to have been secured when the Endeavour hit a reef off Queensland.

On 22 June 1770 crew members, sent ashore to shoot pigeons, reported seeing a ‘greyhound-like’ creature the colour of a mouse. Three days later the Endeavour’s naturalist Joseph Banks wrote:

‘In gathering plants today, I myself had the good fortune to see the beast so much talkd of, tho but imperfectly; he was only like a greyhound in size and running but had a long tail, as long as any greyhounds; what to liken him to I could not tell, nothing certainly that I have seen at all resembles him.’

Sydney Parkinson, one of the two ship’s artists on the Endeavour, made several hundred sketches including one of the kangaroo (which is now in the Natural History Museum in London). He didn’t make it home to England, dying of dysentery in January 1771 off Batavia. The other ship’s artist had predeceased him in Tahiti.

But Parkinson’s journal did reach England and was published in 1773. It contained what is the first known image of a kangaroo by a European. Though being the size of a greyhound – and there were greyhounds on board the Endeavour, used for hunting food and fauna specimens – the animal may have been a wallaby.

Captain Cook’s and Sir Joseph Banks’ Kangaroo or Wallaby

Joseph Banks took the pelts of a kangaroo (or wallaby) and a dingo back to Britain. He commissioned George Stubbs, the famous equestrian painter, to paint oils of these two animals in 1772 using the stuffed pelts and Parkinson’s sketch. The paintings were shown at the Society of Artists in London in 1773.

Captain Cook’s diary was also published in 1773. The Kanguroo is illustrated with an engraving from Stubb’s oil painting,with an illustration engraved from the Stubbs painting that was exhibited at the Society of Artists in London in 1773.

Plate XX. An animal found on the coast of New Holland called Kanguroo.

© Derived from Vols. II-III of the London 1773 edition: National Library of Australia call no. FERG 7243, page 560, 2004
Published by South Seas, using the Web Academic Resource Publisher
To cite this page use:
John Hawkesworth’s An Account of Voyages Undertaken for making discoveries in the Southern Hemisphere in 1773

Arthur Bowes Smyth’s Kangaroo or Wallaby

Nearly twenty years after the Endeavour, Captain Arthur Phillip and the First Fleet of 11 ships and around 1,350 people, arrived at Botany Bay in January 1788 and then moved on to Port Jackson in what the eminent Australian historian WG Hancock termed as early as 1930 “The Invasion.”

Arthur Bowes Smyth practised as a surgeon in Essex between 1778 and 1783. In March 1787 he was appointed surgeon to the ship’s company on the Lady Penhryn, one of the transports in the First Fleet, which carried 101 female convicts to New South Wales. There is a sketch of a kangaroo in copies made of his Journal, dated 1787-89. It looks remarkably like the Stubbs painting of 1772. Bowes Smyth died six months after his return to London.

‘The Kangaroo’ 1787-89 by Arthur Bowes Smyth, State Library of NSW Arthur Bowes Smyth’s drawing of a kangaroo. From the collection Drawings from his journal `A Journal of a Voyage from Portsmouth to New South Wales and China in the Lady Penrhyn …’, 1787-1789. Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales

Three manuscripts of Bowes Smyth’s journal are known to exist. The original is held at the National Library of Australia and two slightly differing transcribed copy versions are at the Mitchell Library in Sydney and the British Library in London. Only the two ‘fair copies’ include the bulk of the illustrations, said to be pen and ink drawing by Bowes Smyth. They are listed as ‘compiled circa 1790’, after Bowes Smyth had returned to London.

According to an archival note relating to the Mitchell Library copy the 25 watercolour illustrations had previously been folded and tipped-in to the journal with sealing wax.

One of several curious aspects of the provenance of the drawing that appeared in the transcription copies made of Bowes Smyth’s diary after his return to London is that its obvious derivation from Stubbs’ painting was not remarked upon at the time of its publication.

Bewick’s Kangaroo

Also in 1790 A General History Of Quadrupeds. The Figures Engraved On Wood By T. Bewick was published in London. And again it used the Stubbs meme from 20 years earlier despite two major visits to Australia.

Commercialising the meme

The Australian National Gallery of Art has a mug made in Staffordshire ‘circa 1800’ listed as ‘ceramics, earthenware, slip cast with transfer and painted decoration’ of Bowes Smyth’s pen and ink drawing of The Kangaroo, purchased in 1980.

National Gallery of Australia. Staffordshire Mug c 1800. Place made: Staffordshire, England. Materials & Technique: ceramics, earthenware, slip cast with transfer and painted decoration.

You can still occasionally buy a replica on eBay.

Des Cowley and Brian Hubber noted in 2000 that for almost 20 years, the Stubbs painting was the only image of a kangaroo in circulation. It continued to dominate even after new images returned with the First Fleet and live kangaroos arrived in London from the early 1790s.

Yet for a long time Bowes Smyth’s image was regarded as a contribution to the slowly growing information about this exotic species. Even the note made by the Australian Joint Copying Project in 1974 as it filmed the three copies of Bowes Smyth’s diary held in Australia and London doesn’t remark on the curious derivation of Figure 39, the Kangaroo. As Richard Dawkins suggested in 1976, memes endure by replication.