Ville de Bordeaux' Figurehead


South Australian Maritime Museum

South Australian Maritime Museum
Port Adelaide, Australia

This figurehead depicts a bearded sailor wielding a whaling harpoon. He is wearing a rust-coloured shirt, brown trousers, and has a green scarf tied around his neck.

Figureheads, carved wooden sculptures which ornamented the bow of a sailing ship, embodied the 'soul' of the vessel and were believed to offer the crew protection and safe passage on the seas. They were also used to identify a ship, reflecting its function or paying tribute to a person connected with the vessel.


  • Title: Ville de Bordeaux' Figurehead
  • Date Created: 1836-01-01/1836-12-31
  • Location: Port Adelaide, South Australia
  • Provenance: Ville de Bordeaux was a three-masted wooden ship off 822 tons built in Bordeaux, France for the French Navy in 1836. Due to a lack of funds, the vessel was sold to a group of merchants who intended to us it as a whaler. While fitted out as a whaler, the vessel was never used for this purpose. The French trader ‘Ville de Bordeaux’ arrived in South Australia in January 1841, indulging in some coastal trading while it waited for a shipment of sheep to take back to France. Only British ships were allowed to carry cargo between Australian ports. When Customs Officer John Anthony boarded for a routine inspection and became suspicious, Captain Symers fled with Anthony on board. Harbour Master Thomas Lipson and police gave chase in the paddle steamer ‘Courier’—the local constabulary forced to 'walk the paddles' when the steam failed. Returning to Port, Lipson found that the ship's crew had mutinied and Ville de Bourdeaux was moored off the entrance to the harbour. Impounded by customs, a court battle ensued and Captain Symers was found guilty of one of three charges. Ville de Bordeaux was anchored in the Port River as a lightship between 1848 and 1869 and later served as a coal hulk. Port Adelaide Nautical Museum curator, Vernon Smith, discovered the figurehead on the basement floor of the Art Gallery of South Australia. A transfer was negotiated between the two museums and the figurehead is now a part of the Port Adelaide Nautical Museum Collection. Established in 1872 it is the oldest maritime collection in Australia and represents the Port Adelaide community, businesses and seafarers - some returning home from abroad and others passing through. Formerly located in the Port Adelaide Institute, established 1851, it was a part of the 19th century movement for self-education that led to the establishment of public libraries, schools and museums. The collection is now held by the South Australian Maritime Museum. The figurehead was restored and painted in this colour scheme in July 1987.
  • Rights: History Trust of South Australia, CC-0, photographer: Kylie Macey

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