The Girl Who Survived

The Girl Who Survived
A family history find in our Special Collections
10 May 2018

Last Friday we were honoured to welcome the great, great, great grand-daughter of a famous Australian to the Library.

Julie Chandler is a descendant of Elizabeth or ‘Betsey’ Broughton, the subject of a famous Australian colonial painting and a woman with an incredible life story. At the age of two she was a tiny survivor of the infamous General Boyd massacre in Whangaroa, New Zealand in 1809. In this notorious incident, the ship’s entire crew and passengers were killed (and most eaten!), with the only survivors being Betsey and three others. Having lost her mother at the young age of two, for three weeks Betsey lived with the Maori barely surviving on their ‘unwholesome food’ but was eventually freed, ‘in a very emaciated state’ by Captain Berry of the City of Edinburgh. (Quotes from Broughton, 1814)

Julie Chandler and her husband Ian in the Library's Special Collections Room

Berry, a friend of Betsey’s father captured and ransomed two Maori chiefs to engineer her release and she travelled to Lima, Peru where she was taken care of by a local family. Eventually the tiny adventurer made her way back to Sydney two and a half years after first departing. 

Her father, William Broughton, was overjoyed with her return and commissioned a portrait by Richard Read dedicated to those in Lima who cared for Betsey. It was possibly the first such commission in the colony and later became a treasure of Rex Nan Kivell’s extensive portraits collection and was acquired by the Library. The painting has been on display in the Library's Treasures Gallery, and is currently on loan to the National Gallery of Victoria for their exhibition Colony: Australia: 1770–1861.

Richard Read (c. 1765–1828?), Portrait of Elizabeth Isabella Broughton, about seven years old, 1814, nla.obj-135177139

Later, Nan Kivell was surprised to discover a letter from William tucked into the back of the painting. Herein lay the purpose behind Julie’s visit. She wished to view first hand the letter of gratitude to those who cared for her great, great, great grandmother. There was a special atmosphere as Treasures Curator Nat Williams retrieved and opened the folder for Julie. A 200-year connection through a blood line was made very tangible in that moment.

William Broughton (1768–1821), Letter concerning Elizabeth Broughton's Seizure by Maoris Off the New Zealand Coast and Her Stay in Lima (detail), 1814,

The letter closes with the following:

'…to Don Gasperde Rico and the other Spanish gentlemen and ladies as a tribute of respect and grateful remembrance for as nobly distinguishing themselves by their humanity in their protection and benevelont treatment of the child during her residence at Lima for eleven months; and deems himself honoured in subscribing himself the most obliged grateful obedient and devoted humble servant.'

Certainly, a touching expression from a grateful father who no doubt thought at times that he might never see his daughter again.

Chatting with Julie, she told me it was only about 4 years ago that she realised this famous connection in her family through online research. Who knows? Perhaps there is a similar connection in your family history. You can start your own research journey using the library’s wealth of family history resources.

Many thanks to Treasures Curator Nat Williams for arranging this encounter and for providing much of content for this blog post.

Find out more about the story of Betsey and others in the 2015 exhibition catalogue for Portraits of the Famous and Infamous: Rex Nan Kivell Collection.

This Monday 14 May Nat Williams will give a lecture on the Library's contribution to the exhibition Colony: Australia 1770-1861. It will be live-streamed for those who can’t make it on the day. Further information and bookings.