Walga Rock is often claimed to be the second largest monolith in Australia after Uluru although there is not general agreement on this matter. It is a 1.8 km long, post-tectonic granite ‘whaleback’ located in the Yilgarn Craton about 50 kilometres south-west of Cue.
It contains a cave like overhang with an extensive gallery of indigenous art. A painting of what appears to be a sailing ship is superimposed over some of the earlier works and underneath there are lines of what appear to be Cyrillic or Arabic script, however, they have not been conclusively identified.
There has been a great deal of speculation about the painting, especially considering it is located 325 kilometres from the coast. It has been postulated that it was drawn by survivors of the heavily armed three-masted Dutch East India (VOC) ships Batavia or Zuytdorp; or that it represents a ‘contact painting’ by indigenous Australians who saw a ship on the coast and then moved inland.
Proponents of the three-masted armed sailing ship theory considered that the middle (or main) mast of the three shown in the Walga Rock image had broken and fallen overboard. Though none of the underwater detail (for example, the rudder) is evident, ratlines (to enable the crew to scale the rigging), and some stays (holding the masts vertical) are depicted. The hull appears to have seven gunports along the side. It should be noted that Colonial-era steamers also carried sails.
It is now considered that the image is that of a colonial steamship – possibly the SS Xantho. It is flush-decked (that is, no superstructures) with the tall feature midships being a long, segmented funnel characteristic of the era (tall funnels produced a greater draft for the boiler fires). A sail appears set on the mizzen mast and if this is correct, the bow is to the right of the image. To set a mizzen sail while at anchor in order to keep a vessel’s head into the wind is a common practices to this day. Further it is almost certain that the vessel depicted was not armed, for rarely were steamers armed with a ‘broadside’ and false (painted) gunports were a common feature of vessels in the late 19th century. The barque City of York wrecked on Rottnest Island in 1899 is one example. The similarities between the Walga Rock image and a 19th century two-masted steamer with a long segmented funnel, with its mizzen sail up (to keep its head into the wind) and with false gun ports are remarkable.
Of the two-masted, flush decked (with no bridge or superstructure) colonial steamships operating in the north west of Australia, the SS Xantho, owned by the controversial pearler and pastoralist Charles Edward Broadhurst, is a likely possibility as the inspiration for the Walga Rock painting.
Further, independent research conducted by Mid West historian Stan Gratte, OAM indicated that the Walga Rock painting was produced around 1917 at the time when his records show that Sammy ‘Malay’, also known as Sammy Hassan, arrived there from Shark Bay.
While there are many examples of indigenous art depicting vessels on the Western Australian coast, including others showing what appears to be the SS Xantho and possibly another steamer at Inthanoona Station east of Cossack, the Walga Rock painting is one of the most inland examples.
© Kim Epton 2018-2022
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