Friday, 1 August 2014

Black Swans - and a Coat of Arms

In the 1920's, our Australian navy decided to call one of its new warship 'Canberra' after our capital city (which at that stage was a couple of huts in a big sheep paddock).  Canberra didn't have a Coat of Arms, which the navy wanted to put in the new bridge of the warship, so a competition was held to design the Coat of Arms.  

A local artist came up with a design with a shield supported on either side by black swans, because they breed locally.  

The design was sent to the imperial government in England for approval. In those days, everything went to London for English consideration. A bit embarrassing actually, but in this story it turns out ok.  

It was passed to the office responsible for Colonial matters and a young civil servant disagreed with the design.  He said that one of the swans on the Coat of Arms should be white and one black.  He thought that this would establish a tension but also a reconciliation between the ancient and the new civilization in this land, as well as between old and new, and any form of difference generally.  He spent about 5 minutes writing out his advice and sent it back.  

In due course the Coat of Arms was designed with a black and white swan, as it is today.  The navy ship got its Coat of Arms, specially minted in bronze, and eventually the bronze Coat of Arms was passed to its replacement with more guns and a faster motor.  it is still in the ship where it sank during the war, off the Solomon Islands.  A summary of the action is here.

Today, the Coat of Arms has become a part of the community, locked in place by war tragedy, but more because the people in the Territory are proud of the two different colored swans and, where they are aware of the story,  because of what the symbols mean.  

This time last year I was invited by the ACT Government to the ceremonial transfer of the coat of arms from Commonwealth stewardship to the ACT.  The insert is from a photo of the original grant back in 2006 when the Commonwealth Archives Office first showed me it.

Thanks to +marilyn David for reminding me of this story.

Peter Quinton
July 2015

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