Good day, dearest reader!
Today we’re taking a trip to Van Dieman’s Land, Tasmania, in search of a man with a tattoo.
It was during sailor’s first contact with the aboriginal tribes of Australia that tattoos first started worming their way into 18th century society. Although, it wouldn’t be until the 1870’s¹ that the first forms of professional tattooing start to become common place. Mostly performed in jails or on ships, these tattoo’s were produced by repeatedly pricking a pin or needle into the skin before rubbing dust, coal or ink into the new wound to highlight the design.
Which isn’t a world away from how tattooing is performed these days – except a lot more sterilised, of course.
Convict tattooing in the 19th century was remarkably popular. A fact we know due to the extensive convict logs kept on those transported for their crimes. In these logs, convict’s had their names, crimes, punishment and physical appearance recorded for identification purposes – including any tattoos they may have had.
In 1850 James Falconer of Stirling, Scotland (who just so happens to share my surname!), was sentenced to 10 years transportation for housebreaking. His crime found him disembarking from Portland on the ship Rodney, bound for Van Dieman’s Land².
It is because of this fact and thanks to his convict record that we know James Falconer had a tattoo of an anchor on the inside of his left arm.
The Anchor then and Now
The anchor as a symbol can be traced back to the Roman persecution of the Christians, where it took on a form of biblical symbolism³. The anchor was known to symbolise ‘hope’ and a ‘firm and secure’ belief in a God that would protect the soul. This meaning could have been echoed in James’ tattoo as he is recorded as a Presbyterian and would have prescribed to similar beliefs.
The 19th century brought about a new meaning for the anchor. Here we find it associated with sailors, specifically, as a means to symbolise stability while at sea; just like an anchor would provide to a ship⁴. Interestingly, we also see a number of convicts adopting the anchor as a tattoo while sailing from Britain to Australia – presumably for similar reasons.
Now, in modern times, the anchor is still as popular as it was back then and is still associated with maintaining stability through rough times, a sense of grounding or bringing one ‘back to Earth’ and strong ties to faith.
So maybe, some things haven’t changed too much.
Next Week: We’ll be revisiting someone we’ve met before, as we look into the trial that condemned William Probert, the horse thief.
But, as always, I’ll depart with a question.
What do you think?
How important were convict tattoos and their meanings to the convicts who wore them?
1. Rogers, H. (2013). ‘Tattooing in Goal’. Conviction Blog.
2. James Falconer, Convict Log – Tasmanian Libraries.
3. Coffman, E. (2008). ‘The Anchor as a Christian Symbol’. Christianity Today.
4. ‘Maritime Tattoo’s – War Culture’. (2012). Military History.