By Dave Rickard, Migration Museum Volunteer
You can’t help looking at this wonderful object, which forms part of the Migration Museum’s Historical Relics Collection, without thinking it raises an interesting question.
Did James Cook once use the chest personally or not? Quite probably he did. After all, it came from his home. But, if this was the case, did the 18th century English navigator take it with him on any of his three epic voyages of discovery into the Pacific? The answer is probably not. Normally, sea chests were of a more robust nature, to resist the rigours and dampness of long voyages and harsh conditions onboard the Royal Navy’s sailing ships.
But, whatever the case, we do know that the chest spent a good deal of time at his residence in England, looked after by his long-suffering wife, Elizabeth. Elizabeth Cook lived to the age of 93. After her marriage to James, she saw little of her husband, who, up until his death, spent most of his married life at sea.
Elizabeth died in Clapham on 13 May, 1835. At this time, many of her possessions, including her late husband’s travelling chest, passed to her cousin, as Elizabeth, sadly, survived all of her six children. Luckily for us, the chest’s later movements can be traced.
Elizabeth’s cousin was the great-grandmother of Mr Rickman-Adams, who was the vendor when the chest was sold by Christie, Manson & Woods, London, on 21 February, 1967. The chest was, in turn, bought by Mr Jim Elder, an Adelaide antique dealer, at the Leonard Joel auction at the Malvern Town Hall, Melbourne, on 9 November, 1974. Mr Elder purchased the chest for $3,200, outbidding the Australian Government, which had a $3,000 limit. Mr Elder donated the chest to the Art Gallery of South Australia, in celebration of his tenth year in the antique business. He had made the purchase to ensure the historic object stayed in Australia. During the 1980s, the travelling chest was transferred from the Art Gallery to the History Trust of South Australia (now History SA) as part of the Historical Relics Collection.
The travelling chest is now on display at the Migration Museum. It appears to be made of a fruitwood, either cherry or apple, and is covered in leather and lined with ornate paper. It features brass edges and brass nails in a decorative pattern.
Peering into its empty interior today, it is difficult not to wonder just what intriguing items Captain James Cook might have neatly stored in this beautiful chest, well over two centuries ago?