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Darwin Correspondence Project

Introduction to the Satire of FitzRoy's Narrative of the Voyages of the Adventure and Beagle

Keeling atoll BHL.jpg

Inside an atoll, Keeling Island. Illustration by R. T. Pritchett. Charles Darwin, Journal of Researches (D. Appleton & co. 1890)
Biodiversity Heritage Library

I naturally wished to have a savant at my elbow – in the position of a humble toadyish follower – who would do the Natural History department – on my sole account – but not being able to obtain such a one I was (in a manner) compelled to take Mr Darwin on a far too independent footing. He was indeed – perhaps he still is – “very fond of Natural History”…

Not all pictures of Darwin during the Beagle voyage are flattering.  Published here for the first time is a complete transcript of a satirical account of the Beagle’s brief visit in 1836 to the Cocos Keeling islands, the only coral atoll Darwin observed first-hand.  The satire, which purports to be a new edition of Robert FitzRoy's Narrative of the surveying voyages of His Majesty's Ships Adventure and Beagle (1839), was written by John Clunies Ross, a controversial figure, and one of the two European men who claimed to have first settled the islands.  Although he didn’t meet them personally, Ross took bitter exception to Darwin and FitzRoy’s later accounts of both the settlement history and geology of the islands.  This edition of the ‘long, pugnacious and sometimes disturbing’ manuscript is made available courtesy of Dr Katharine Anderson, York University, Toronto.


Introduction by Katharine Anderson

John Clunies Ross’ satire, written c.1848, is a fascinating document. It is remarkable as a rare glimpse of one of the most famous scientific voyages of the nineteenth century, the circumnavigation of HMS Beagle in 1831 to 1836. Our other substantial accounts of that voyage come from those who sailed in the Beagle, and especially the works published in 1839 by her captain, Robert FitzRoy and his naturalist companion Charles Darwin. Ross’ unique perspective on the Beagle voyage, by contrast, was that of an outsider. Yet he was an unusually knowledgeable outsider. A merchant captain and skilled navigator himself, Ross was also a keen observer of the natural world. We can readily infer that Ross saw himself in both men, even though, since he was in fact absent from the settlement when the Beagle visited, his knowledge was indirect: filtered through reports from his wife and foreman on the one hand and the texts written by FitzRoy and Darwin on the other. We can certainly understand the linkages between the Beagle’s hydrographical and natural historical work more clearly as a result of Ross’ perspective.

As the satire unfolds Ross’ many activities and opinions, it brings to life

the imperial world of early Victorian Britain

The satire is noteworthy as a history of imperial ambitions and their context. The broader canvas of the manuscript is the whole scope of British interests in the region. As Ross explains, his encounters with the Indian Ocean world began as a harpooner on the southern whaler Baroness Longueville in 1812. By the time of writing the manuscript, his experience of the region stretched over four decades. Ross’ chief project from 1826 to his death was developing a settlement on Cocos-Keeling Islands. He anticipated a major trade route developing between Australia and British India, and he envisioned Cocos-Keeling as a way-point on that route. Understandably, his many grievances are matters connected with that critical project. These included, most notably, his rivalry with a second (or was he first?) settler at Cocos, Alexander Hare; the equally consequential legal question of the status of those who lived on Cocos-Keeling – whether enslaved people, indentured servants, or wage labourers; the apparent contribution of FitzRoy’s visit to a subsequent insurrection of these people; the disparagement of the settlement at Cocos Keeling by Royal Navy captains like FitzRoy and Belcher; and, last but by no means least, the coral reef theories of Charles Darwin. (For that particular concern see the fuller account in Anderson (2018) and Ross’ posthumous publication on coral formation in 1855).

The Cocos-Keeling controversies provide a framework for details that bear on much wider economic and political matters. Thus, the manuscript illustrates how ships, people, goods, books and even clay soil (as ballast-turned-fertilizer) circulated in the region. Clunies Ross reveals his Radical stance in casual references to Swedenburg, Cobbett and Chartism and in one clear comparison between and denunciation of both Whigs and Tories. Other political references include noteworthy conversations between Hare and Ross about the shifts of Dutch and British power in the region, and allusions to various notables like Sir Stamford Raffles, governor of Singapore or Admiral T.B. Capel. Perhaps most critically, the detailed story of Hare’s travels from Borneo to the Cape of Good Hope and back to Cocos-Keeling with his slaves gives a glimpse of what changed, and what didn’t, when the British outlawed slave ownership in the Empire.

Ross’ own religious and racial views are harder to decode than his political leanings – he responded brutally to the Cocos-Keeling protests in 1837, but he claimed to be the champion of Hare’s former slaves. Such a position, however, was integral to his own claim to primacy at Cocos Keeling as a more law-abiding and respectable citizen than the Seraglio-keeper and slave-owner Hare. Ross’s manuscript also reviewed Biblical evidence to argue for a black Jesus and pointed out that to East Asians, all Europeans were “Franks.” Clearly, Ross’ ethnographic insights on such matters as the temperament of various ethnic groups in the region, or remarks on the labour conditions at the Cocos may be untrustworthy, reflecting his own singular interests. They are nevertheless full of historical interest.

Ross’ picture of both FitzRoy and Darwin on this voyage is unlike any others we have

Ross loathed FitzRoy as a privileged Tory aristocrat and as a cog in the powerful machinery of the Royal Navy whose imperial authority necessarily influenced Ross’ own enterprises. His attitude to Darwin was somewhat less resentful, but still unfavorable. Ross’ Darwin was a young man filled with theories and a naïve enthusiasm for bones. Darwin, Ross suggested, was a rather unskillful observer who cheerfully stole others’ data and insights, while protected by a “Philosopher-Squad” at home. Finally, according to Ross, neither man wrote well: Darwin was trite and conventional , while FitzRoy produced endlessly pompous descriptions.

Ross’ opinion of Darwin and FitzRoy as authors points to a second major interest of the manuscript. Ross was not only a captain and an entrepreneurial settler but a man deeply engaged with the process of reading and writing. This is not to say that the literary merit of the manuscript is substantial. Anyone today who dips into this manuscript will find his attacks on FitzRoy’s style a striking instance of the pot calling the kettle black. Ross rehearsed his grievances in exhaustive detail, and his account of Cocos Keeling’s history was repetitive. In some ways, this lightly fictionalized account parallels many of his other reports on the settlement, published in Gibson-Hill, 1952.

Yet despite these considerations, the manuscript is valuable as an unusually vivid picture of both reading and writing in the mid-nineteenth-century. The fundamental structure of Ross’ work is that of exegesis. Purportedly a prospectus and preamble to a new edition of FitzRoy’s Narrative, Ross produced extracts, comments and refutations of the printed words of others, sometimes line by line or even word by word. His own authorial persona was complex and plural. He was at once “a nobody-sort of person – sometime Master of a Merchant Ship” and FitzRoy’s fictional amanuensis in preparing a second and revised edition. The use of first person in the manuscript is always in FitzRoy’s voice, but some footnotes are signed “J.C.R.” and there are editorial interventions in “FitzRoy’s” text from “Clunies Ross.” 

The manuscript is also punctuated with accounts of readers and authors in less direct ways. We encounter a portrait of Ross himself encountering a text with which he disagreed: “I know that when Mr Ross saw it (Brochure and all) he elevated his shaggy overhanging eyebrows and curled his upper lip as he thought to himself.” He imagines “FitzRoy” in turn envisioning others reading his work. “Of course the first moment that I received the first copy – I perceived the horrid omission – and instantly (imagining that I saw the First Lord and Master of our profession with the Volume in his hand – and heard him exclaiming to the other Lords – after reading these enunciations – “What! A Post Captain R. N. printing and publishing these ultra-red-republican doctrines --.” Similarly, Ross elsewhere in the text  made reference to other readers, the publisher Colburn, a ghost writer (“Mr. Literary Fag”), fictional compositors and his own copyist. In all these ways, Ross’ self-conscious attention to the production and consumption of books is striking.

Ross was also a word-fancier. He was one of the earliest users we can trace of the term “Indonesia” for the region in which he made his life,[i] and he debated the proper term for inhabitants of Australia. He threw in allusions to Milton and the Bible (“he having read in it at his mother's knee – when he was little more than five years old – and having scarcely ever had any other important book in his possession until he was about twenty seven”), Scottish ballads and Latin tags, French expressions (“revenons à nos moutons”) and Malay words. He had opinions on geographical nomenclature, and often dwelt on legal matters that hinged on language (oaths, certificates, and libel). Doctrine was a favourite term. He relished insults both of the picturesque and crude variety: a book is “a churnful of sour whey in a literary dairy” while FitzRoy with his “Peripatetic Academical mode” of conversation was “a ninny and a first cousin to a Booby.”  His general interest in word-play is a feature that still retains its charm for me, even at task’s end of transcribing the long, pugnacious and sometimes disturbing manuscript.


About the text

The transcription is based on the copy of Clunies Ross’ manuscript held in British Library since 1908 (British Library Add MS 37631 1824-1854  - # 4: a satire of Narrative. Capt John Clunies Ross). Its provenance is uncertain. Images of the manuscript are available through the Australian National Library. While its existence was noticed occasionally by scholars interested in the history of Cocos-Keeling settlement, this manuscript was first analyzed as a satire related to the Beagle voyage in 2018.

Two unusual features of the text deserve notice here.

Firstly, the first person in the satire is Ross’ mock authorial persona of Captain Robert FitzRoy (see above, and Anderson (2018)). Occasionally JCR breaks into this authorial voice with a signed footnote or a brief comment in square brackets. 

Secondly, the manuscript contains repeated sections of two parallel columns. Eleven of these refer to FitzRoy’s Narrative and are marked in roman numerals. Others relate to Darwin’s 1839 or 1845 volumes and Belcher’s Narrative of the Voyage of H.M.S. Samarang (1848) and are not so marked. A final set refers to a comparison of a letter and a newspaper editorial. In all these cases, a left column reproduces (sometimes inexactly) excerpts from the original while the right column represents the “revised” version or commentary. In almost every case, right (revised) columns are much longer than the original excerpt. Thus at the end of the excerpt in the left column the copyist typically marked a flourish across the bottom of the column, while the right column was written to the equivalent length, then carried over to the full width of the page. I have attempted to reproduce this feature of the ms., which is explained by the author (p.27), in the layout of the transcription.


About the transcription

The transcription gives both the pagination of the British Library Folio ff. 146-233 and the internal pagination of the manuscript, pp.1-169. There are three additional pages marked I-III added between p.94 and p.95. The letters r and v in the folio reference refer to recto and verso.

Spelling (and misspelling) and capitalization and underlining for emphasis have not been changed. Corrections within the ms. have been marked with strike-through, and additions above the line marked with ^. These additions are in the author’s own hand, to judge from a comparison with signed letters from John Clunies Ross. Most of the manuscript is written in a fair copyist hand but a long section from p.68 to p.95 is similarly in his own hand, a circumstance which he explains in the manuscript.

The punctuation is typical of early nineteenth-century manuscripts, with dashes serving to replace commas, semi colons, and periods. I have attempted to preserve this, but I admit I may have missed a dash or two. There are also frequent quotations extracted from other texts. Sometimes, this feature is indicated with a double quotation (“) at the start of each line, a standard feature. But this is not consistent and the quotations elsewhere in the text are sometimes not closed with a final (”). More importantly, these extracts are not always completely faithful to the original referenced text. Readers of this transcription interested in these features of punctuation and quotation are urged to consult the originals, both of Ross’s manuscript and the texts he cited. Images are available through the Australian National Library <> and the originals are held in the British Library.

Where I have not been able to decipher the text, the word or passage is indicated as [illeg] or, in the case of a phrase, [2 words illeg].

[ ]  indicates a parenthetical comment by the author set off in square brackets in the original ms, and not an editorial remark. Ross also used round brackets liberally throughout.

* refers to footnotes in the ms. which are marked in the original with a cross, or with a double or triple cross if two or three footnotes appeared on the same page. These have been gathered to the end of the transcription for ease of viewing online, and sequentially numbered, with numbers in square brackets.


Key people mentioned in the manuscript

The Malay people: the Malay individuals brought to Cocos-Keeling by both Ross and Hare are rarely mentioned by name, but they are a strong presence in the text. Ross had brought a small settlement party with him, but Hare reported to Captain Sandilands in 1830 that he had nearly 100 men, women and children. At the time of the disturbances in 1837, Ross spoke of two hundred Malays, from several different tribal communities, and claimed that three quarters of them were island-born. Harding’s subsequent report to his superiors referred to a population “about 190 of Frenchmen, Americans, Malays, Hindoos, Japanese, Africans, and half-cast Indians” (Gibson-Hill, 274).  It appears that all British residents except the Ross family, left after 1837.

John Clunies Ross (1786-1854) was born in Weisdale, Shetland. The eldest son of a teacher, George Cluness and Elizabeth Ross of Yell, Ross became a strong Scots patriot and took pride in Norwegian ancestry through his paternal grandmother. He went to sea first in a Greenland whaler aged thirteen, c.1800. In 1812, aged 25, while on a southern whaling voyage that stopped for supplies in Kupang, Timor, he left whaling to take up a position as commander of a small armed despatch vessel (Olivia) contracted for the use of the British authorities in Java. After two years, Ross began a series of trading voyages for the Olivia’s owner, Alexander Hare, and for Hare’s brothers, who were London merchants. He then managed Hare’s settlement at Banjarmassin until 1818. The Dutch eventually confiscated Hare’s estate. Ross in the meantime had built a ship, the Borneo, and in 1820 he sailed Hare and a party of his ‘people’ (slaves or servants) to Cape of Good Hope where Hare planned to settle before continuing to London. In 1820 he married Elizabeth Dymoke (1795-1853) in London. Ross then spent several years as a merchant captain for the Hare brothers. During this period, Ross decided to emigrate with his growing family and had begun to consider prospective locations. He landed and planted some crops on the then uninhabited Cocos-Keeling islands in December 1825. Returning to London, Ross collected his family and a settlement party (his wife, her mother and five children, 2 carpenters, 2 seamen, a blacksmith, a cook and five apprentices), and arrived at Cocos Keeling in February 1827. He claimed to be surprised to find Hare and his people already in residence on the northern islands of the atoll, and as described by Ross, the relations of the two men deteriorated from 1827 until Hare’s departure. Ross died in 1854; his descendants continued to control the islands until the late twentieth century.

Alexander Hare (c.1770-1834) was a British merchant who spent most of his life in the East Indies. He was the eldest son of a watchmaker, and with his brothers, formed a trading company based in London. He spent time variously in Calcutta, Batavia and Malacca and Java as British power grew in the region in the early nineteenth century. As the British seized Dutch colonies in order to forestall Napoleon’s ambitions to threaten India, Hare’s local knowledge became valuable to the new British Lieutenant-Governor of Netherland East Indies, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles. Raffles encouraged Hare’s project to deepen the British relationship with the Sultan of Banjarmasin, and in 1812 Hare settled there with an estate, named Moluko, and a title as British Resident of Banjarmasin. His land was cleared and developed by convict labour from Java. Hare met Ross the same year he obtained Moluko, and in 1815 Hare took on Ross as overseer of his property. This  was no minor responsibility as the projects for the estate included planting rice and pepper, constructing a canal, building a ship and defending the settlement against pirates. At the end of the Napoleonic wars, however, a treaty returned all land seized by the British to the Dutch, leaving Hare’s Banjarmasin settlement in limbo. Eventually Dutch soldiers arrived to occupy Moluko, and by 1819 Hare was expelled from the Netherland Indies altogether. Hare’s response was to take his entourage to the Cape of Good Hope, where he lived from 1820 to 1826, while pressing the British and the Dutch authorities for compensation for his properties in Java and Borneo. Hare then arranged for one of his brothers’ ships, the Hippomanes, to take him and his party to Cocos Keeling. Hare thus came Cocos-Keeling in 1826, after Ross’ initial visit but before the latter’s arrival with his family in early 1827. Ross seems have been aware of Hare’s intent to settle there, but the relationship quickly soured. Although we have little but Ross’ account of the situation from 1827 to 1831, it seems clear that the two men had very different ideas for the settlement. Hare wanted solitude, and control of his people; he was not interested in developing the remote islands as a shipping depot. Hare reputedly kept the captive women and children of his household separated from the men, and his sexual relationships with the women were well known. Ross thus makes frequent reference to Hare’s ‘Seraglio.’ Leaving the field in 1831, Hare died in Bencoolen in Sumatra at the end of 1834.

Robert FitzRoy (1805-1865) FitzRoy had a multi-faceted career as highly successful naval officer and hydrographer, a failed statesman, and controversial head of Britain’s first national meteorological office. Born in 1805 to Lord Charles FitzRoy, and grandson of the duke of Grafton, he was educated at Harrow and the then-new Royal Naval College at Portsmouth. He went to sea as in 1819 and made lieutenant in 1824, serving in South America. He took command of Beagle in 1828, during her first South American survey led by Capt Phillip Parker King in HMS Adventure. The second Beagle voyage was a solo affair, with most of its five-year journey spent charting South American coasts, a feat which earned her captain lasting professional fame. The visit to Cocos-Keeling took place towards the end of that Beagle voyage, over twelve days in April 1836 before the Beagle headed home via Mauritius and Cape of Good Hope. The Cocos-Keeling visit was designed to gather information on coral islands as indicated in FitzRoy’s instructions from “Headquarters” (i.e. the Admiralty) drawn up by Francis Beaufort in 1830. FitzRoy’s account of the voyage appeared as the second volume of Narrative of the Surveying Voyages of HMS Adventure and Beagle, titled Proceedings of the Second Expedition 1831-1836. It was accompanied by an Appendix volume. Ross also refers to the second stage of FitzRoy’s career. In 1843, FitzRoy became the second governor of New Zealand, and arrived in December of that year. He was seen as too sympathetic to Maori interests, as opposed to those of the settlers, and his superiors in government found his manner of governing arrogant. The British press was decidedly unsympathetic. Recalled in 1845, he returned home in humiliation as John Murray’s publication of the new edition of Darwin’s Beagle journal was achieving success and Darwin’s renown was growing fast. In 1848, he briefly captained an experimental steam frigate before resigning abruptly from active service in 1850. The third major phase of FitzRoy’s career (1853-65) saw him leading Britain’s efforts to develop meteorological science, including the inauguration of newspaper forecasting. Ross had died by this time, but, as the jibes about weather theories in this ms. show, FitzRoy’s interest in meteorology was longstanding, growing from his maritime service. FitzRoy was prone to depression and died by suicide in 1865.

Charles Darwin (1809-1882) A young naturalist, Darwin was FitzRoy’s companion on the Beagle voyage. Although he mentions Darwin’s interest in “bones”, and even refers once to evolutionary ideas, Ross most often refers to him as a geologist prone to rash speculations. Ross was conscious that Darwin was a rising star in the scientific world, and had copies of both the 1839 Narrative and the 1845 second edition titled Journal of Researches into the Natural History and Geology of the Countries Visited in the Voyage of HMS Beagle Around the World. At Cocos Keeling, Darwin was keenly interested in the questions of coral formation, and a much more careful observer than Ross implies. Yet some part of Ross’s criticism of his account of Cocos Keeling seems fair: Darwin did write in a highly conventional manner about the wonders of a tropical island and its “wonderful polypii.” Ross promised a further discussion of Darwin’s coral theories, which seems to refer to a posthumous publication in Natuurkundig Tijdschrift voor Nederlandsch Indie.

Captain Edward Belcher (1799-1877) Belcher was, like FitzRoy, one of Beaufort’s scientific naval officers in the extensive hydrographic surveys of the 1830s and 1840s. He was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, the son of a merchant. After service in the Napoleonic wars, Belcher joined HMS Blossom as assistant surveyor to Captain F.W. Beechey on a Pacific voyage of 1825-28. In HMS Aetna, Belcher then surveyed coasts of west and north Africa before replacing Beechey as commander of HMS Sulphur in 1836. In Sulphur, he spent nearly seven years surveying coasts in North and South America and the Far East. He was subsequently commissioned to survey in China, Borneo, and the Philippines in HMS Samarang from 1842 to 1845, and ended his naval career with an unsuccessful Arctic expedition in 1852. Belcher visited Cocos-Keeling more than once, but Ross strongly objected to Belcher’s description of Cocos Keeling that was published in 1848 in Belcher’s account of the Samarang voyage. Capt. Belcher was knighted in 1843, and in the ms. “FitzRoy” usually refers to Belcher as “my brother Knight” or “the Knight.”

Mr. William C. Leisk ( ?-1867) was one of the apprentices Ross brought with him to Cocos-Keeling in 1827. He was from Shetland, and so, as Ross pointedly remarked in this ms., not an Englishman. Leisk married the maid of Mrs. Ross, Anna Andrews, shortly after the Ross party settled in the islands, and he eventually became Ross’ leading assistant. Leisk was present when the Beagle visited the islands in 1836, and FitzRoy baptized the Leisk children. Ross held him responsible for sharing surveys and other information too freely with FitzRoy and, more importantly, for encouraging discontent in 1837. Leisk and his family “decamped” from Cocos Keeling about April 1837 according to Ross, before Capt Harding’s visit. He settled in Singapore from 1846 to his death.

Capt. Alexander Albert Sandilands, R.N. (c.1786-1832) of HMS Comet visited Cocos Keeling in 1830 (Ross says 1829 in this ms., but other records indicate March 1830) and wrote a largely favourable report on the settlement for the British authorities. This report became the basis for an October 1830 article in the Calcutta journal, Gleanings in Science.

Capt Francis Harding, R.N. (1799 - 1875) In HMS Pelorus, Harding visited Cocos-Keeling in December 1837, having been sent to investigate the disturbance at Cocos- Keeling islands at Ross’ request. Ross considered the visit and the written agreement brokered by Harding as a kind of legal proceeding, and thus a step towards more official recognition of Cocos-Keeling as a British possession, whereas the Admiralty formally considered the visit as a simple arbitration of a local dispute between Malay labourers  and a British citizen. About 50 people left the settlement after this arbitration, either in Pelorus, or transported by Ross to Bencoolen in his ship Harriet.

Joseph C. Raymond, a seaman from a British ship that stopped at Cocos- Keeling in early 1836 en route from China to London; according to Ross, he was a chief instigator of the resistance to Ross’ authority in 1837. In this ms., Ross sometimes refers to Raymond darkly as the ‘American’ with this supposed origin being part of the explanation of his treacherous character. Raymond agreed to leave after Capt. Harding’s visit.


Selected Further Reading

Ackrill, Margaret. “The Origins and Nature of the First Permanent Settlement on the Cocos-

Keeling Islands.” Historical Studies 21(1983): 229–44.

Akrill, Margaret. “British imperialism in microcosm: the annexation of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands.” LSE Working papers in economic history, March 1994, 18/94, pp. 1-40,

Anderson, Katharine. “Reading and Writing the Scientific Voyage: FitzRoy, Darwin and John Clunies Ross.” British Journal for the History of Science 51 (2018): 369-94.

Armstrong, Patrick. Under the Blue Vault of Heaven: A Study of Charles Darwin’s Sojourn at the Cocos (Keeling) Islands. Indian Ocean Centre for Peace Studies, 1991.

Gibson-Hill, C. A. (ed). “Documents Relating to John Clunies Ross, Alexander Hare and the Early History of the Settlement on the Keeling Islands.” Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society 25 (1952): 5–306.

Mowbray, Martin. “The Cocos (Keeling) Islands: A Study in Political and Social Change.”

Australian Journal of International Affairs 51(1997): 383–97.

Oats, David.  “Alexander Hare in the East Indies: A Reappraisal.” The Great Circle 21(1999): 1-15.

Sponsel, Alistair. Darwin’s Evolving Identity: Adventure, Ambition and the Sin of Speculation. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2018.

Ross, John Clunies. “Review of the Theory of Coral-Formation Set Forth by Ch. Darwin in his Book Entitled Researches in Geology and Natural History” Natuurkundig Tijdschrift voor Nederlandsch Indie 8 (1855) 1-43.

Vargo, Gregory. “‘Outworks of the Citadel of Corruption’: the Chartist Press Reports the Empire.” Victorian Studies 54 (2012): 227-53.

[i] Russell Jones, “Earl, Logan and ‘Indonesia,’” Archipel 6 (1973): 93-118.



In this section:

Read the Satire


This edition of British Library Add MS 37631 1824-1854  - # 4 is made available courtesy of Dr Katharine Anderson, York University, Toronto. Dr Anderson thanks Brendan Wallace for his assistance with the transcription; thanks also go to the British Library and the National Library of Australia, and of course to John Cecil Clunies Ross, as rights holder for the Papers of the Clunies-Ross family held at the National Library of Australia.

Images of the manuscript are available through the Australian National Library.