Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Joel Polack, trader, artist, adventurer

Joel Polack was born in London in 1807, son of Solomon Polack, a well known miniature portrait painter and engraver, The family came from The Hague, Holland, Solomon Polack himself was the son of a portrait painter, From Holland the family moved to Ireland then to London. The name suggests that the Polacks were originally from Poland, possibly moved to Holland in the wake of the Jewish persecution in the seventeenth century. They were part of a constantly shifting Jewish diaspora, footloose, making the most of opportunities wherever they went. Joel Polack received a broad education, possibly some of it on the continent. He could read, and presumably speak French, he was at home with Jewish texts, and like his father, he was a competent painter, painting miniatures by the time he was sixteen. One of his pictures is in the Victoria and Albert Museum. He was clearly a restless and adventurous spirit, because still a teenager, he joined the Commissariat and Ordinance section of the War Office serving in South Africa and Mauritius for four years. His skills as a draftsman and painter would have been useful. Perhaps the conviction of his older brother, Abraham  or 'Grand larceny' in 1820 had something to do with his wish to get away. Abraham was convicted of the theft of a watch form a woman of dubious repute and was transported to Australia for a term of seven years. The circumstances were somewhat odd, and there is an implication that there might have been more to the case than appeared on the surface, that Abraham Polack was set up, possibly because of his Radical connections or sympathies. They were tough economic times, the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester occurred the year before, the Radical War in Scotland had happened just recently, there was unrest in Ireland. Abraham Polack claimed that he was in Gibraltar when the alleged theft took place, although this was disputed and perhaps disproved, it is quite possible that there were political motives behind the accusation. Joel Polack might have thought that leaving a radicalized England behind and seeking his fortune in other, less divided parts of the world had appeal. After four years in Africa he left to travel in America, and ultimately sailed to Australia to join his brother, Abraham, who by then was a prosperous businessman, publican and auctioneer. Joel,soon after landing in Australia, requested a grant of land in N.S.W. amounting to 2560 acres but he didn't stay around to hear the outcome of his application. In 1827, aged 20, he accepted the position of Painter and Designer for His Majesty, the King of Madagascar and sailed back to Africa. The King however died the following year and Joel Polack went back to Sydney.There the Polacks were part of the small but successful Sydney Jewish merchant community, and Joel could see business opportunities for an independent adventurous young man.