Skip to main content

Henry "Seaman" Dan
, 2009

by Nathan Kelly

type C photograph (sheet: 61.0 cm x 50.7 cm, image: 56.0 cm x 40.5 cm)

Henry Gibson Dan, universally known as Seaman Dan (b.1929) grew up in the Torres Strait region of tropical far-north Queensland. His grandfather was a boat captain from Jamaica and his great-grandmother a chief’s daughter from New Caledonia. He began singing along to Tex Morton on the gramophone in the 1930s. While he worked as a boat captain and diver for pearls and trochus shells in the Coral, Arafura and Timor Seas he sang regularly at parties and hotels; gradually, he found himself in demand at concerts, festivals, schools and community events. When he was nearly 70, a musicologist visiting Thursday Island, Karl Neuenfeldt, encouraged him to make a record; his first album, Follow the Sun, was released on his 70th birthday. His music, a mixture of blues, hula, slow-jazz and pearling songs, is said to reflect the diverse cultures and traditions of the Torres Strait and various other places he has lived, including Darwin, Broome and Papua New Guinea. Saying ‘Thursday Island is a multi-cultural society, and through the pearling industry there were songs from all over the world . . . you listen to all these elderly people as they sing and you add bits and pieces to your own song as you go on’, he won an ARIA award for his album Perfect Pearl in 2004 and the Red Ochre Award in 2005. In 2009, at the age of eighty, he won another ARIA for Sailing Home, which he expected to be his last album – but he has released two more since then.

Collection: National Portrait Gallery
Purchased 2010
Accession number: 2010.23