Last year we came across this cartoon from Sydney Punch in 1868 of Henry Parkes titled ‘The Modern St Patrick; or, Parkes’s “man-goose” at the Museum’.
As St Patrick is traditionally credited with the removal of all the snakes from Ireland, we initially assumed that casting the anti-Catholic, anti-Irish Parkes in that role referred to him driving out some kind of metaphorical political or religious snakes from New South Wales (especially given his government’s recent unpopular declaration that St Patrick’s Day would not be proclaimed as a public holiday), and that the “man-goose” reference was probably a rude one to some connected controversy involving the Australian Museum’s curator and snake-expert Gerard Krefft and the theories of Charles Darwin which he was disseminating in the 1860s.
In the way of political cartoons, the drawing may indeed be referring to public perceptions of politicians, scientists, religion and Darwin’s theories amongst other things, and if anybody can provide any further information into that, we’d be very grateful, but the main inspiration for the drawing was far less theoretical.
During Prince Albert’s visit to Sydney in 1868, he made a formal visit to the Australian Museum at 3 pm on Friday, 14th February (well before the assassination attempt on 12 March). He was accompanied by the Earl of Belmore, Mr Haig & Mr Brierley and was received there by Henry Parkes, the Colonial Secretary, Gerard Krefft, the Curator of the Museum, Dr Cox & Dr Bennett, and E Deas Thomson who arrived a bit late. There were, in the words of the Sydney Morning Herald the next day, “but few visitors in the museum at the time, and these had the good taste to leave the Prince and party to themselves; consequently his Royal Highness was enabled to spend a quiet hour looking through the building”.
After the Prince and this party had wandered around the museum for a while, examining some of the highlights of the collection and asking questions about Australian animals, Krefft produced a case with live snakes, took one out and placed it on the floor.
Krefft then brought out a tame ‘Timor mongoose’, which walked around the snake, sniffing it, but left it alone. At this point, Parkes, the Colonial Secretary, produced from a bag he had brought with him a ‘Ceylon mangouste’, or mongoose, which, after initially trying to escape the room (the bag was, again according to the Herald “a mode of locomotion to which it was not accustomed”) fought with and killed the snake.
Parkes & Krefft had obviously planned the demonstration and deemed it to be a completely appropriate entertainment on the occasion, but it’s difficult to imagine an Australian prime minister or New South Wales premier today carrying round a bag containing a mongoose when accompanying a Royal Visitor on a formal visit of one of Sydney’s major institutions.
The Ceylon mongoose itself was presented to the Prince and went with him, part of a “large and varied collection of colonial birds & animals”, when he departed the colony on the Galatea in May 1868. The mongoose was described as “docile and playful as a kitten”.
In 1883, he was recommending the gentle natures of the mongoose in parliament when the importation of mongoose was being debated as a possible solution to the rabbit problem. His family kept a pet mongoose at their home in Balmain until at least the 1890s, which was said to have been particularly fond of his wife Lady Parkes. The animal’s ability to clear the house of the deadliest of reptiles was undisputed.
The same article (Sir Henry Parkes at Home. (1891, January 31). Australian Town and Country Journal 31 January 1891, p31) tells us that “It may not perhaps be generally known that the Premier has a passion for pets, chiefly of the feathered tribe.” In the grounds surrounding Hampton Villa, he had a Brazilian macaw, several silver pheasants, English blackbirds and thrushes, a golden opossum, three ibis, some curlews, a cage of pretty little birds from north Queensland and a kangaroo.
Listen to Lisa Murray talking about Parkes and his mongoose on 2SER here!