In November 1860 a ship arrived in Melbourne from Calcutta, India with a consignment of 287 weapons, a present to the Trustees of the Library and Museum by order of the Governor-General of India, Viscount Charles Canning.
The annual report of the Trustees for 1870-71 states they included: 53 muskets (matchlocks), 11 musket barrels, 2 muskets, 12 blunderbusses, 9 pistols, 11 spears, 2 battle axes, 9 daggers, 10 knives, 61 cavalry swords, 2 long swords, 10 powder flasks, 12 shields, 7 bows, 30 arrows, and 4 carved wooden staves.
What did Melbourne need with a parcel of weapons recently seized from mutineers against the British rule in India? Chairman of Trustees Redmond Barry, who had instigated the request for the weapons, felt that they 'would afford interesting illustration of oriental national customs and peculiarities.'
But there were other more immediate reasons. Many Victorian colonists (including Barry) had relatives in the British army and administration in India, and had anxiously followed the bulletins of the Indian Mutiny in the newspapers. The weapons were war booty, signifying the relief of Victorians that their fellow colonists in India were once more safe.
The weapons were displayed in the main stairwell of the Library, alongside Australian Aboriginal weapons. Here they became symbols of the defeat of local peoples as the British Empire expanded around the globe.
The collection was subsequently transferred to the National Gallery of Victoria, and thence in parts to the Industrial & Technological Museum during the early decades of the twentieth century. At each stage in its history, the collection has been gradually reduced in size through items being presented or disposed of. It now comprises 50 items.
Galbally, Ann & Alison Inglis (1992). The First Collections: The Public Library and the National Gallery of Victoria in the 1850s and 1860s, University of Melbourne Museum of Art.
Report of the Trustees of the Public Library, Museums and National Gallery of Victoria, 1870-1871, p.30.
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