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Brothers in the realm of science

By: Michael Hugill, Category: At The Museum, Date: 08 Jul 2011

The Museum’s Shirase sword is a symbol of friendship...

There probably aren’t too many places in the world that would open their door to a group of men asking for their sword back. Fortunately for Mr Ishifune, curator of the Shirase Antartic Expedition Memorial Musem, and various other Japanese dignitaries and media, the Australian Museum was only too happy to loan them the Shirase sword.

In fact, it's the third time the Museum has sent Japanese explorer Shirase Nobu's sword back to Japan. Mr Ishifune will feature it in the centenary exhibition of Shirase's Antarctic expedition in his home town, Konoura, which will be opened by Princess Takamado.

Why is it a symbol of friendship?

In Autumn 1911, Shirase sailed into Sydney harbour to wait out the winter before reattempting an expedition to Antartica. Soon the press was running stories that suggested the Japanese party were on a spying mission, as it was camped near the South Head military establishment.

Professor Tannatt Edgeworth David, a Trustee of the Australian Museum, defended the group and assisted them in their dealings with the local authorities and businesses.

In spring that year, as the Japanese prepared to depart again for Antarctica, Shirase expressed his gratitude to Professor David by giving him his sword.

In 1979, the professor's daughter Mary Edgeworth David, after having first contacted Major Ian Brookes (an expert on Japanese swords) presented the blade to the Australian Museum. The sword is an excellent example of the work of Mutsu no Kami Kaneyasu, a master swordsmith who worked in the period 1600-1650.

The following is an extract from a letter written by Shirase to David:

When we first arrived in Sydney we were in a state of considerable disappointment, in consequence of the partial and temporary failure of our endeavour. To add to this we found ourselves, in some quarters, subjected to a degree of suspicion as to our bona fides, which was as unexpected as it was unworthy.

At this juncture you, dear sir, came forward, and, after satisfying yourself by independent inquiry and investigation of the true nature of our enterprise -- which no one in the world at the present day is better able to do -- you were good enough to set the seal of your magnificent reputation upon our bona fides, and to treat us as brothers in the realm of science.

For more information, please read conservation manager Colin MacGregor's article.