About this object

Paintbox, belonging to Isaac Smith, who carried it on the voyage of the Endeavour (1768-1771) and the later voyages of the Resolution (1772-1775 and 1776-1779). Smith was the midshipman cousin of the wife of the captain, the famous Captain Cook. Arriving onboard the Endeavour at not quite 18 years old, Smith is alleged to be the first foreigner to have set foot on Australian soil on either April 28 or April 29, 1770.

Willingly or apprehensively: unknown. A seaman, then midshipman, then master’s mate, Cook’s boon companion, he had been promoted on account of his excellent surveying and drawing skills.

Reports differ. Some say, upon the prow hitting the sandy shore, Cook said: “You go first.” Others claim he said: “Jump out, Isaac.”

Imagine him crouched there, ready to do his captain’s bidding, feeling himself ennobled or perhaps sacrificial. Also in the boat: Tupaia, the navigator they had picked up in Tahiti. While he’d been useful in New Zealand, an irritated Cook noted in his journal, Tupaia now could simply not make himself understood by these men onshore.

Oh – there were men onshore. Both the journal and a later lithograph verify this. Two naked black men, Cook says, brandishing spears and seeming to “oppose our landing”, although he had kindly thrown some nails and beads to them from the yawl. Cook seems to have misinterpreted their gestures as beckoning the European men ashore but realised his mistake quickly and fired his musket at them, upon which one of the men threw a stone, causing Cook to again fire his musket and comment later that although some of the shot hit one of the men, it seemed to have no effect other than to “make him lay hold of a shield or target to defend himself” – and here then is the first true give and take, the first parley, the first contact between two peoples as Isaac Smith ducks down in the boat ready to jump out at Cook’s urging to confront these two men, one bleeding with buckshot, with no language between them but a wooden shield. Or perhaps two shields, if Cook is using Smith himself as a sort of shield while he gropes for more buckshot.

There are others onshore Cook calls “the Indians”. Sailing here he has expected fear and awe but instead has noted again, with something like irritation or perhaps exasperated incredulity, that the people who have seen the ship sail majestically by have seemed positively indifferent to its arrival, that people fishing from rocks they sailed past had “scarcely lifted their eyes” and that they had seen an old woman lighting a fire onshore who had expressed neither surprise nor concern at their appearance.

It didn’t matter to the Europeans that these locals steadfastly refused to have anything to do with them – they set up a British flag on the shore each day nonetheless and gathered up some 50 spears to take back to England. Cook fretted over what to call this bay he had landed in. The great quantity of huge stingrays found in this place, he wrote on May 6, occasioned me in giving the name of “Stingray’s Harbour”: but this name is crossed out. His next try was “Botanist Harbour”, also crossed out. “Botanist Bay” was given a run, then finally he seized upon “Botany Bay” for the place previously known as Kamay. While almost none of Isaac Smith’s watercolours remain, this obliterating of existing names does, this flag-planting, musket-ready, shield-or-target world which needs to be pieced together, now, from old pages and remnant scraps, strung together out of nails and beads and compressed cakes of colour stamped with symbols rubbed away with use. Artefacts are all that remain, displayed and artfully lit in museums, singing their silent songs; bundles of stolen spears and preserved journals, a red mangrove shield, and this object, Isaac Smith’s paintbox, placed chronologically between the plague and fire years and the nominal abolition of slavery in the British Empire, in the Museum of London.

Dried watermarks rim the greens and browns, and it is possible to imagine Smith and Joseph Banks mixing these to create the grey-green of eucalyptus and the mushroom-dun tones of marsupial fur, the outlandish animals they tried and failed to sketch with any realism.

Close inspection shows the red watercolour block has also been well used. Flora, perhaps, or sunsets, or the coats of his compatriots, fanning out to claim the landscape. There is a single extant portrait of Isaac made by fellow crew member Richard Cosway while aboard the Endeavour, in which he wears a similar red coat, and a wary expression.

Still tucked into the box is a little mussel shell Isaac picked up somewhere to hold water and moisten his brushes. The box sits in a single dim pool of light behind glass, alongside its museum label. A good label, says the Victoria and Albert Museum, “should encourage visitors to look, to understand, and to find their own reward, whether aesthetic, intellectual, or personal”. Another name for a label of this kind is “tombstone”. It makes sense – the engraved dates, the explanatory notes, the dead objects standing in testimony.

Things are dim, inside the museum. There is no flash photography in the galleries but leaning in close reveals that the blues and the dark indigo in the set also show signs of use: they are splashed and grooved, as if Smith was trying to paint while sailing on rough seas. I imagine him onboard the Resolution on another voyage of discovery entirely, gazing in astonishment at icebergs and floes, attempting to paint the white on blue on grey world of an untouched Antarctica.

Yes, all pure fanciful guesswork. But I, like you, am looking to find my own reward. I am casting for it. It feels like fumbling to open a box and with a brush, some water and a white page, trying, again and again, to capture the frozen, fractal colours of ice by its shadows alone.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 18, 2021 as "About this object".

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