This unique marine compass was retrieved in 1876 from the shipwreck of the Cygnet, a schooner that sank in Port Phillip Bay on the southeastern coast of mainland Australia. It was likely crafted by clockmaker Joseph Hughes in London sometime between 1818 and 1845. It is currently held in the collections of Museum Victoria, Australia. As an artefact, it stands at the crossroads of numerous paths of history: the global spread of the Scottish diaspora in the heyday of the British Empire, the rise and fall of Jacobite rebels in the eighteenth century, and the fascinating intersections of radicalism, sedition, and material culture. There is more to it, then, than meets the eye.
The first feature to notice is that its lid has been inscribed with the words ‘James the Third’. James III, of the House of Stuart, was the son of James II of England (or James VII of Scotland), the Catholic monarch deposed in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. It was under James II that the Jacobite movement had its origins – ‘Jacobitism’ here broadly referring to the political movement between 1688 and the 1780s that sought to restore the Stuart kings to the throne of England, Scotland, and Ireland.
When James II died, King Louis XIV of France recognised James III – the ‘Old Pretender’ – as the rightful heir to the throne. His son, Charles III, or variously known as The Young Pretender and Bonnie Prince Charlie, took over the claim to the thrones when James III died in 1766. Charles is best known as the leader of the uprising of 1745, which saw the Jacobites crushed in military defeat at Culloden.
Throughout the eighteenth century, Jacobite rebellions and associated criticism of the British Crown were outlawed and punished under sedition and treason legislation. In this environment, a secretive Jacobite subculture emerged. While this culture included associations, networks, and espionage rings, because of the threat of punishment communication was often necessarily non-verbal. Thus, Jacobite culture contained a rich world of catch phrases, secret messages, tokens, signs, symbols, and objects.
The inscription of ‘James the Third’ on this compass is notable, because even after 1745 – and arguably even beyond the death of Charles III’s brother, Henry, in 1807 – the British government remained wary of another Jacobite uprising: the Highlands were effectively disarmed, the clan system was crushed, and traditional Highland culture outlawed. Even after the historic, tartan-clad visit of George IV to the Highlands intended to restore goodwill, the proclamation of ‘James III’ would have been a subversive act.
As far away as Australia this might also have caused concern. When the captain of the First Fleet, Arthur Phillip, was sworn in as the first Governor of the colony in February 1788, he was made to declare his allegiance to the Crown. According to historian Manning Clarke, on February 13, in the presence of the Judge Advocate, Phillip acknowledged George III as “the only lawful and undoubted sovereign of this realm” and declared that “he abjured allegiance to the descendants of the person who pretended to be the Prince of Wales during the reign of James II.” Bonnie Prince Charlie, the Young Pretender, had died two weeks earlier in Rome, just days after the First Fleet had arrived in Australia.
There are other features of the compass that suggest its place in the web of Jacobite ‘treacherous objects’. The north marker on the compass face is a Fleur-de-Lis. This is not unusual for a compass. In the world of the Jacobites, however, the Fleur-de-Lis symbolised the French Crown, which had supported the Stuarts and the Jacobite cause. Ships were also prominent in Jacobite iconography, as Neil Guthrie has demonstrated. Murray Pittock, another historian of Jacobite material culture, argues that ships were “symbolic of both worldly and spiritual deliverance” – think here of references to the exiled Stuarts as ‘Kings over the water’.
Along with ‘James the Third’, the Fleur-de-Lis, and the ship, what appears to be a crude five-pointed star has been inscribed into the lid. This often symbolised the birth of an heir and was particularly common on Jacobite glassware. It might also be a kind of flower, which had various meanings in the scheme of Jacobite iconography, or a shell, referring to the birthplace of Venus and, according to Pittock, “a reference to restoration and return or a journey to the promised land.”
The ominous poem, however, is more ambiguous: “WAKER / THAT IS THE WAY / TO DO IT MY LORD / IF YOU DON’T STOP IIT [sic] / I WILL MAKE YOU”. Furthermore, there is much else we don’t know about the artefact – who it first belonged to, and how it came to be on the shipwrecked Cygnet, for example.
What we can take from the example of this compass is the possibility of such treacherous objects and their attendant ideologies making their way across the seas with the spread of global diasporas. The fragmentation and ossification of diasporic culture frequently extended the life of political ideas long after they had diminished at home: indeed, a Melbourne newspaper described how one Theodore Napier kept Jacobitism and Scottish nationalism alive and well in Australia until the 1920s.
The history of a diaspora of Jacobite exiles beyond Europe is an exciting prospect, and one that could be enlivened by an understanding of the secretive, symbolic world of Jacobite material culture.
Ben Wilkie is Lecturer in Australian Studies at Deakin University. His research has considered many aspects of the relationships between Scotland, Australia, and the British Empire from the late-18th to the early-20th century. He is also an environmental historian. You can find him on Twitter as @historyben.