Revisiting inscriptions on the Investigator Tree on Sweers Island

Collins, S. J., Mate, G. & Ulm, S. (2020)


The Investigator Tree, so named after Matthew Flinders’ ship HMS Investigator, is an inscribed tree currently on display in the Queensland Museum. Before being accessioned into the Queensland Museum’s collection in 1889, the Investigator Tree grew on the western shore of Sweers Island in the southern Gulf of Carpentaria. The tree’s “Investigator” inscription, attributed to Flinders (1802), provided the catalyst for future and varied forms of European inscription making on Sweers Island, including a contentious additional “Investigator” inscription on the Investigator Tree carved by Thomas Baines in 1856. Previous researchers have speculated that Baines’ second “Investigator” inscription has caused the faded original “Investigator” inscription to be misinterpreted as either a Chinese or Dutch inscription predating Flinders’ visit to Sweers Island. For the first time, this study undertakes a physical examination of all markings on the Investigator Tree, including a second portion of the tree located at the Queensland Museum since 2009. In combination with a review of the archival and historical record, findings provide alternative interpretations regarding the (28) inscriptions to address outstanding questions. Archival documents demonstrate that there were at least three inscribed trees on Sweers Island. This paper also revisits the possibility of there once being pre-Flinders inscriptions on the Investigator Tree.