From piracy to professor

Archibald Watson’s life could have been so different.

The eminent Professor of Anatomy is well known for his contribution to the development of anatomy and surgery in Australia.

But the man described as an ‘’erratic, histrionic genius’’  was embroiled in controversy  early on in his adult life when he took a trip on a blackbirding venture on the Carl in 1871-72. The murder of many Pacific Islanders during that trip resulted in a charge of piracy – while others on the boat were charged with murder.



The naval ship Rosario intercepting the Carl in the seas off Vanuatu. Image National Library of Australia.

While two of the men charged with murder were convicted and sentenced to death,  Watson, having paid a recognizance of one thousand dollars, saw it conducive to his future to flee from Fiji to Melbourne and then on to Europe.

There, he studied medicine, returning to Australia as a professor of anatomy. There appeared to be no repercussions from his failure to take part in the due proess of law, a fact attributed to the prominence of his grazier family.

From here, his academic career flourished.

“He flouted convention and dressed in an old canvas coat. Short, bearded and bespectacled, he spoke six languages and had a firm voice, acid wit and racy vocabulary.’’

Australian Dictionary of Biography

“As a lecturer, using vivid language and rapid blackboard sketches, he taught with dramatic intensity.”

He compulsively recorded his professional life, leaving a rich legacy. He also compulsively recorded his personal life, but ordered those records destroyed.

 “He had developed the habit of recording daily the details of patients seen and operations witnessed; his style was terse, his descriptions precise; his diagrams were finely drawn in pencil, black ink, crayons and water-colours.

“He also kept daily accounts of expenses. Most of his accounts and surgical notebooks have been preserved.

Despite having travelled the world, he is said to have been determined to end his days on Thursday Island, which he loved. He never married, had no known children, but “recorded details of his paramours in his personal diaries: he entered the names in Greek, his sexual experiences in Fijian and his actions often in variations of a coloured Maltese cross.’’

His life and legacy is much too complex to cover in this short blog, but more can be found about this incorrigible character in the book Painting the Islands Vermilion by Jennifer MT Carter.

His gravestone lies at the highest point of the Thursday Island cemetery, just behind that of the state’s seventh premier, John Douglas.


Allen PW. Adelaide’s blackbirding pathologist. Ann Diagn Pathol. 1998 Jun;2(3):208-11. doi: 10.1016/s1092 – 9134(98)80008-7. PMID: 9845740.

Morning Bulletin, Thursday 30 July 1936, p 7

The Northern Miner, Friday 30 August 1940 – p 4

Townsville Daily Bulletin, Thursday 1 August 1940, p 4

State Library of South Australia, photographs B47714 and B3528

Published by Sharyn Moodie

Travelling around Australia for work, I've found so many amazing headstones. But what is more amazing is the stories behind some of these deaths, and the way newspapers of the day reported them.

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