This is obviously a cool painting in its own right, but there’s more to meets the eye here. This is the S.S. Dunedin–in this context S.S. means sailing ship, not steam ship–a windjammer constructed in 1874 in Scotland, principally to carry immigrants from Great Britain to New Zealand, which was a pretty long trip in the late 19th century. This beautiful view of the ship with sails unfurled dates from 1875, shortly after her construction, and was painted by veteran nautical artist Frederick Tudgay. Reportedly this picture was long in the possession of the ship’s captain, a man named Whitson, for many years.
The Dunedin‘s historical claim to fame, however, occurred after this picture was made. In 1881 Dunedin was fitted out as a refrigerated cargo vessel–one of the very first on the high seas after some initial British and American attempts. Her new mission was to carry fresh meat, mostly mutton, from New Zealand to England. The idea of shipping raw carcasses preserved with refrigeration was a relatively new one at this time because refrigeration technology had only just been developed. Previously, if you wanted to export meat by ship, you either had to can it first, or else try to transport livestock which is disastrous. Would you want to be on board a sailing ship with a cargo hold full of seasick cows?
Dunedin solved this problem, and quickly revolutionized an industry. With refrigeration of meat now a commercial possibility, both in ships and also in new refrigerated rail cars pioneered in the United States, meat could become an item on the tables of consumers all over the world, not just those who had access to their own livestock. New Zealand became a major world exporter of meat. Ultimately this industry would be a pretty big contributor to climate change, as the raising of livestock for meat, especially cattle, is a large source of carbon emissions.
For serving her country as a floating refrigerator, Dunedin earned a place in the commercial and economic history of New Zealand and the world, continuing to make chilly crossings until she vanished, presumably sunk, off the coast of New Zealand in 1890. Frederick Tudgay died in 1921. This painting eventually came into the hands of the Hocken Library in Dunedin, New Zealand, where it hangs today.