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Saturday, 6 April 2013


George Fife Angas, an English banker and businessman and a cousin of my 3x great uncle Joseph Angus, is credited in large part with establishing South Australia as a formal territory. While remaining in London he founded the South Australian Company in 1836 and promoted the early colonisation of the region, some of it at his own expense. His commitment to the settlement of South Australia left him in financial difficulty and in early 1843 he sent his son John Howard Angas to Adelaide to revive the family fortune. Towards the end of the year John’s older brother George French Angas followed, arriving in January 1844.

George French Angas (1822-1886)
the frontispiece to his third folio, Kafirs Illustrated, published 1849
(engraving by Charles Baugniet, who incidentally also designed the first Belgian postage stamp)

George’s father had encouraged him to enter the family business, but from an early age he showed an interest and an aptitude for art and natural history. He travelled far and wide in Australia and New Zealand over the next eighteen months making watercolour sketches of local flora and fauna and the native populations. By exhibitions in Adelaide and Sydney he raised the money to publish two collections of hand-coloured lithographs on his return to London in 1847 – South Australia Illustrated and The New Zealanders Illustrated.

He was an accurate observer, an instinctive naturalist and ethnologist; and the two collections are today rich records of indigenous antipodean cultures. In his respect for local traditions he reflected the attitude of his father, who pursued legislation to protect aboriginal rights. His encouragement of Christian missionary work amongst the native people of South Australia may seem paternalistic now but in his day he was progressive; George Angas senior regarded William Penn’s treaty with the native North Americans as a model for fostering good relationships between local and European populations.

Illustrations by George French Angas from The New Zealanders Illustrated (1847) and Kafirs Illustrated (1849)

George junior now turned his attention to southern Africa and the results were published in a third collection, Kafirs Illustrated, in 1849. It contained the now successful mixture of illustrations – native costume and accommodation, vegetation and wildlife. Amongst the new batch of images were two of particular personal interest and satisfaction to George.

George French Angas’s descriptions of the male and female nyala antelope were the first, of a species previously unknown to European natural science. As the nyala it had of course been known to local hunters for thousands of years. By the scientific community it was now named Tragelaphus angasii, the Angas antelope.

The male Tragelaphus angasii, painted by its western discoverer George French Angas in 1849

George claimed modestly that John Edward Gray, the Keeper of Zoology at the British Museum at the time, had so named the new animal in honour of George’s father. But there is no evidence for this, and no sense in naming an African mammal after an Australian enthusiast. The honour surely belongs to the son and discoverer.

The nyala is a shy herbivore, preferring to live not in open countryside but in thickets within woodland, from which it emerges cautiously to drink at waterholes. As Angas observed and depicted, the male and female of the species are extremely different in appearance, more so than any other antelope. Unfortunately the magnificent twisted horns of the male make it a highly prized game trophy, but at the moment the nyala is not considered endangered. Just as well, because although George only discovered it 165 years ago, fossil records suggest that it has surivived as a distinct species for some 5.8 million years.

The female and young Tragelaphus angasii, painted by George French Angas in 1849

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