Roslyn Russell, Kylie Winkworth
© Commonwealth of Australia, 2010
ISBN 97 80977544363 (pbk)
Provenance and historical items
The provenance of historical items may take the form of a chain of ownership or descent through generations of a family, but it may be more widely defined as the story or life history of the item.
Provenance is often the key to an item's historical significance and may be the main reason a museum or library acquires an item. Museums today encourage donors to provide as much information as they can about the item and who used it and how. Knowing the provenance of an item helps collecting organisations to understand its significance and make decisions about how to display and care for it so that its distinctive characteristics are preserved.
Provenanced items are the building blocks of artefact histories and a reference point for similar unprovenanced items.
The letter surviving with Bligh's signet ring documents the gift of the ring to Suttor, and its chain of ownership from Bligh to his daughters to Suttor. The documentation substantiates the provenance and enhances the significance of the ring.
Signet ring that once belonged to Governor William Bligh, Miers Jeweller London
Photo: Andrew Frolows
Reproduced courtesy of the Australian National Maritime Museum, Sydney
This gold signet ring, which carries a flat-surfaced bloodstone finely engraved with a classical male head, was once owned by Governor William Bligh. It is thought that it was used by Bligh to stamp imprints on wax seals.
Bligh's name is best remembered internationally for the mutiny against his captaincy of HMS Bounty in 1789, followed by his navigating an open boat 3000 miles to Timor.
Bligh became Governor of New South Wales in 1806, succeeding Philip Gidley King. Bligh's irascible temperament and his support for smaller landowners against the wealthier private settlers and senior officers of the NSW Corps provoked tensions in the colony. These came to a head in January 1808 when John Macarthur, a former NSW Corps officer and now a prominent free settler, went on trial for failing to pay a shipping bond.
Bligh criticised the conduct of the trial and accused certain NSW Corps officers of treasonable procedures. In defiance of the Governor, the senior officer of the NSW Corps, Major George Johnston, ordered Macarthur's release and the arrest of Governor Bligh on 26 January 1808.
One of Bligh's supporters throughout the leadership crisis was a free settler named George Suttor, who was the main force behind a petition to the British government in November 1808 seeking Bligh's reinstatement as governor. In 1810, Suttor sailed to England to give evidence at Johnston's court martial for mutiny. Bligh was exonerated and Johnston was cashiered.
Bligh died in 1817 in England. Later, his daughters gave the signet ring to Suttor as a gift of appreciation while he was on a visit to England. In an accompanying letter, Fanny Bligh wrote that she and her sister Jane were offering their father's antique ring to Suttor as 'the most acceptable token we can think of as a memento of our grateful remembrance of you, your faithfulness and integrity'.
Fanny Bligh's letter establishes the ring's provenance to her father. The gift to Suttor by the Bligh sisters commemorates their father's association with one of his supporters during one of the most momentous events in Australia's early history.
The provenance of the ring is both its association with Bligh and its descent through his daughters to Suttor, thence to its sale to the Australian National Maritime Museum.