This portrait acknowledges my great, great, great grandfather ‘Yankee Ned’ Mosby, a legendary American Jewish sailor who arrived in the Torres Straits after the close of the American Civil War in the late 1860s, having reputedly fought for Virginia under the southern Confederacy. Sailing from Baltimore, Maryland to Australia, little is known about his original intended destination, but it is clear he worked for a time whaling and later as a drover.
Having an eye for justice and an ear for trade, Mosby assisted native Australians during early settlement, providing a measure of security against oppression while at the same time developing career opportunities to others, particularly members of his adoptive family. He chose Iama (Yam) and Yorke Islands as his home and became a legend by thwarting an attack by northern insurgent warring tribes. By the end of his life he was a commercial success, owning a fleet of 5 luggers and two cutters, which are illustrated at the top of the picture.
The portrait of Kei Athe (Great Grandfather) is from one of several photographs of Ned, now in the collection of the Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Studies, Canberra. He is depicted with wife Kudin, the sister of the Kulkagal chief of Iama Island where they lived and raised a family of five children: Billy Dan, Barney, Tom, Lawrence (Kudin’s sister’s boy) and Nancy (1).
Second son Barney bore son Jimmy (illustrated just above Barney’s head), achieving attention as the most trusted and hardest working of the grandsons and given charge of the sailing fleet after Yankee Ned retired. Jimmy was my great grandfather, literally holding the air hose to his progeny. Jimmy’s daughter Elsie (Bin Awel), my great grandmother, my mother Elizabeth, and myself – depicted as a hammerhead shark – my totem.
Minarr is the Torres Strait (Zenadh Kes) name for totemic patterns used in art and craft objects. I use minarr that has been handed down to me by my family, some generic to Islanders across the Pacific and others I have designed myself.
(1) Named after Ned’s sister Nancy who regularly wrote to him, urging him to return to the USA and ‘stop living the life of a native’.