Waters of the Past is the title of a chapter of the Words for Water project initiated in 2016. The project is focused on creative research and exploration through a journey to the Faroe Islands, Iceland and Norway. The journeys are part of three artist residencies – one with the Clipperton Project, the Association of Icelandic Artists (SIM) in Iceland both in 2016 and a three month residency with Drammen Kommune in Norway in 2017.

The research explores recurring themes in my work related to memory, history, cultural identity and connection to place. It is also an opportunity to explore my migrant heritage directly by spending time learning more about the culture of my Norwegian ancestor, merchant seaman Anton Benson (1855-1929).

Related posts:

About Anton

Anton’s sea-faring past fascinated me as a child, as did hearing stories of the long journey by boat made by my grandmother and great-grandmother. I have memories of my great-grandmother travelling to England by ship around 1972.

The landscape of my ancestors was richly imagined as a child; a place of fairy tales, of cold winters, of magic in the forest and of sea faring adventures.

The Carta marina (Latin "map of the sea" or "sea map"), drawn by Olaus Magnus in 1527-39, is the earliest map of the Nordic countries that gives details and place names.
The Carta marina (Latin “map of the sea” or “sea map”), drawn by Olaus Magnus in 1527-39, is the earliest map of the Nordic countries that gives details and place names.

As an artist, connections to place, memory and land have been central to my work as well as ideas of belonging/unbelonging. This project offers the potential to create new imaginings of how ancestral ties in the migrant context can be understood. Part of my quest as an artist and human has been to understand the layered and complicated history of the land of my birth and my place within it. The Big Banana Time Inc project was all fun and tongue-in-cheek, but it was also referring to the western eye of consumption existing through representations of the landscape.

In this project I am seeking to find connections between cultures – the shared stories that bind us together as humans. What are some of the creation stories from the lands of my ancestors, what marks did they leave? In Australia, we have such a rich diversity of stories about country, stories that are part of living cultures that reach back to pre-history. One writer, Dan McCoy has been a great source of information on Norse culture, an area I am keen to learn more about though this project.

Like many of migrant heritage, my stories have been lost on the waves – our family have not been able to learn much more about Anton before he came to Australia. I wonder if these fragmented stories could be pieced together to create new narratives that traverse time and space?


In an earlier post about the project, I talked about the links to migration, ancestors and genealogy. As earlier mentioned, my paternal great-great grandfather Anton Benson was Norwegian, a merchant seaman from Drammen. He arrived in Australia in the late 1880s, listed as a deserter from a US.

Deserter list
Deserter list, Victoria, Australia, Deserter, Discharged, and Prisoner Crew Lists, 1852-1925, Public Records Office of Victoria

Here is some information about the crew list from Ancestry.com

About Victoria, Australia, Deserter, Discharged, and Prisoner Crew Lists, 1852-1925
This collection contains lists of crew members who deserted or otherwise left employment on a particular ship. While the two types of records overlap in the years covered, the imprisoned crew records are primarily from the 1850s and the desertion or discharge records primarily from the 1880s.
The Public Record Office describes them as follows:
The purpose of the Registers of Seamen Prisoners was to record details about seamen who were imprisoned on the hulks. Information about the prisoners includes a personal description, name of ship, offence, sentence, date of conviction, the name of the hulk where confined and the date when discharged from custody.
The Registers of Deserters and Discharged Ships’ Crew recorded the date of desertion, the name of the ship and its origin, the name of the seaman and his place of birth, age, height and colour of eyes and hair. Additional details were sometimes recorded. The Registers are arranged chronologically by the date of report of the desertion. Each volume contains an index to ships from which the seamen have deserted.

The records show that Anton was not a prisoner and it is not clear whether he was discharged or a deserter.

The image below highlights the entry about Anton and the below clipping could also be about him but it is not clear. The news clipping certainly describes him physically.

Reference to Anton Benson
Reference to Anton Benson

In 1888, Anton married Johanna Carolina Wurst, the daughter of German immigrants. They lived in the Toowoomba region and had 13 children including my great grandfather Johan Friederick.

Anton left this world in 1929 with Johanna following him in 1931. Here is their gravestone from Drayton and Toowoomba Cemetery.

Anton and Johanna headstone (Drayton and Toowoomba Cemetery Row:8, Plot:20)
Anton and Johanna headstone (Drayton and Toowoomba Cemetery Row:8, Plot:20)

Anton’s life and travels have long-held a fascination for me in terms of family history, mainly because there was so much mystery about our Scandinavian heritage. As a child I heard many stories – we were Swedish, that our name was Benston, Swenson, Bensen or Bensonn. The family thought perhaps Benson was anglicised like so many names of non-English migrants at the time. For example, my paternal grandmother’s family name was Felsman, originally Felsmann. The story of Anton jumping ship was also a big question mark, only partly solved by the PROV records.

This project is about both giving time to learning more about the places that would have been familiar to Anton as well as spending a significant amount of time on the water, travelling by sea as he once did.  As participants in the Clipperton Project, we will be on board a vessel that would have been built around the time Anton came to Australia. In a practical way, I am interested in building knowledge of the history and cultures of the part of the world documented by the Carta marina.

Here is a screenshot of a map of Drammen around the time he would have been there.

Drammen - detail from map - Denmark, S.Norway, Scale: 1 : 1774080, Letts, Son & Co 1883 (David Ramsey Map Collection)
Drammen – detail from map – Denmark, S.Norway, Scale: 1 : 1774080, Letts, Son & Co 1883 (David Ramsey Map Collection)

It is worth noting that Oslo in this map is called Christiania. Oslo was called Christiania from the 1620s and then renamed Kristiania from 1877-1925, after which the original name was restored.

2 thoughts

  1. Brilliant Tracey, what a great survey of our shared history!

    Thanks so much darlin’, I really enjoyed it. I’m sure you noticed his discharge paper in the first page of your birthday book.

    Hope you got the Black Sails and Ara Winki DVDs OK.

    Lots of love.

    Gazza PS I copied this to Bev, I’m sure she’ll love it!

    Garry Benson Tread Softly Publishing, Dragon Design & Tao Arts ABN: 89 053 812 580 Video & DVD Production, Photojournalism & Book Editing Services PO Box 433 Yankalilla SA 5203 0429 196 924


    Check out Instagram for some of my photos: http://instagram.com/garrybenson

    😎 Check out my stories on Geokult-travel.com

    ‘There are two ways to live: you can live as if nothing is a miracle; you can live as if everything is a miracle.’ Einstein

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