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SEI Publications: Ann Elias on Frank Hurley and Black Diamonds Beneath Sydney Harbour

SEI Key Researcher Ann Elias has published two new journal articles exploring the hidden histories and worlds beneath Sydney Harbour.

Neilsen Park, image credit NPWS

The two articles extend on Ann Elias’s research project The Floor of Sydney Harbour and follow the recent launch of her book Coral Empire: Underwater Oceans, Colonial Tropics, Visual Modernity.

The Black Diamonds of Sydney Harbour“, published in Environment and Planning E: Nature and Spaceexplores the history of a coal mine that was tunnelled under Sydney Harbour in 1897, examining the intersection of aesthetics, race, colonialism, and Indigenous dispossession.

Centred on the story of an English mining company that first sought a mine site in a pastoral area of the city, but under public pressure was forced to select instead a grimy working class suburb on the opposite harbour shore, the article argues that environmental aesthetics and tastes in beauty collaborated with extractivism. Elias argues that economics, art, and aesthetics are inextricably linked in this history and further, that while the mine excited the industrial imagination through the aesthetic of the sublime, and associations with darkness and vastness, it conflicted with colonial pastoral ideals. The article discusses the context of a settler economy in lands stolen from Indigenous peoples, and how conceptualisations of the sublime and beautiful, as well as dark and light, were aligned with the racialisation of the properties of coal and space above and below ground.

Alien Harbour: Frank Hurley, Jules Verne, and the Early Dress-divers of Underwater Sydney” appears in Australian Historical Studies, focussing on explorer Frank Hurley (1885-1965) and his accounts of diving at Shark Island in Sydney Harbour in 1921.

While the harbour shore was often represented by European colonisers through literature, cartography and art, the otherwise alien world beneath the waves was only accessible via the imagination. When technology finally did reveal the mysteries of the sea floor to submarine explorers like Hurley, the ‘science fictionalisation’ evocative of Jules Verne remained in many accounts. Elias compares Hurley’s vivid and dramatised and often fabricated records of Sydney’s submarine realm with other experiences of the harbour’s professional dress-divers, ultimately finding that even in such inhospitable and non-terrestrial environments, words, language and imagination had just as much power to conquer and colonise.


Ann Elias is Associate Professor in Critical Studies at Sydney College of the Arts, the visual art school of the University of Sydney. Research interests include: camouflage as a military, social and aesthetic phenomenon; flowers and their cultural history; coral reef imagery of the underwater realm. Books include Camouflage Australia: art, nature, science and war (2011), Useless Beauty: flowers and Australian art (2015), and Coral Empire (in preparation for Duke University Press) which is concerned with photographic representations of the underwater at the colonial tropics in the early twentieth century. Her extensive research on camouflage involving Australian artists and scientists in the Second World War was aired in an ABC television documentary produced by Johnny Morris, titled Deception by Design. She is a Key Researcher with the Sydney Environment Institute, a serving member of the International Committee of the College Art Association of America, and International Liaison for the Art Association of Australia and New Zealand.