Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz
Archduke Franz Ferdinand & the Platypus
On 17 May 1893, the newly launched SMS Kaiserin Elisabeth – a battle cruiser of the Austro-Hungarian Navy – steamed into Sydney Harbour. It bore a most distinguished passenger, no less a personage than the 29-year-old heir presumptive to the dual crown of Austria–Hungary, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand.
A 21-gun salute was fired, civic dignitaries went aboard to bow and scrape, and a large crowd gathered to witness the royal disembarkation.
His Imperial Highness waited until the fuss died down, then slipped ashore in mufti. Five months into a world tour, he was a man with a mission. Australia was home to many strange and exotic animals. The archduke was determined to kill as many of them as possible during his 10-day visit.
Accompanied only by his personal taxidermist, three counts, a major-general, the Austrian consul, the Archduke Leopold of Tuscany, a zoologist from the Vienna Museum and the NSW minister for public instruction, he set out by special train for Narromine, 450 kilometres west of Sydney. A local squatter laid on 20 horsemen to drive the game. The shooting began almost immediately. By lunchtime on the first day, the moustache-twirling, loader-assisted Franz had dispatched five kangaroos. At each kill, the archducal entourage dismounted, doffed their hats and shook his hand.
After some barbecued chops – “half-cooked meat burned on an open fire” – and a bottle of hock, the fusillade was resumed. Ducks, this time. Next day, it was kangaroos, pelicans, brolgas, eagles, hawks and parrots. With nothing left to exterminate, the party moved 100 kilometres to Mullengudgery where the archduke massacred bush turkey before breakfast and emu before lunch. To his great delight, the royal sportsman also brought down a pair of black swans. All told, he bagged about 300 head, including koalas, wallabies and possums.
Then it was back to Sydney for High Mass at St Mary’s Cathedral and a quick inspection of the meat preserving works before heading to the Wollondilly River to fulfil a “burning desire”.
At dawn the next morning, poised in silence on the riverbank, he trained his gun on a “narrow, black, moving line”.
The platypus was still an object of scientific fascination. The fact that it lays eggs had been confirmed only nine years earlier. But Franz Ferdinand wasn’t a scientist. He was a sportsman. With the “greatest joy”, he blasted it out of the water.
Franz Ferdinand loved a good slaughter. During his lifetime he killed an estimated 300,000 animals.
Eventually, in June 1914, he got a dose of his own medicine.