Guest Post – From the Margins of Maritime History: Exploring Australia’s Indigenous Watercraft

The following is a guest post kindly contributed by Stephen Gapps from the Australian National Maritime Museum. ‘Nawi – exploring Australia’s Indigenous watercraft’ conference  will take place in Sydney, Australia from 30 May – 1 June 2012.

Historical justice is often constituted as reparations, compensation, truth commissions, reconciliation and apologies for past injustices. Yet these sanctioned sites of restitution are only part of any more complete project. Historical justice also lies in unraveling the shrouded historical record and, for museums in particular, addressing the imbalance of the politics of historical representation.

This is nowhere more evident than in the construction of a display of national maritime history – tasked to the Australian National Maritime Museum when it was opened in 1991. How could dugouts, rolled-bark canoes and rafts compete with the global journeys of explorers, the age of sail and the development of steamships?  Typical of many historical descriptions of Aboriginal technologies, the visiting French Admiral Francois Paris in 1830 pronounced that bark canoes were the ‘most primitive of all watercraft.’ Any meaningful future historical understanding of the socio-cultural and technological role and importance of Indigenous watercraft was always bound to be mired in the colonisers’ accounts.

A top and side view of a Tasmanian rolled-bark canoe drawn by David Payne, curator of Historic Vessels, Australian National Maritime Museum.

While there has been a deal of anthropological study of Indigenous watercraft since the 1970s and the 2006 film Ten Canoes created great public interest – there is only one published book on Aboriginal watercraft, and this is specific to the Murray River region. Compare this to the hundreds of metres of library shelves of books on European-Australian boats and boat-building.

In 2011 this imbalance spurred curators at the Australian National Maritime Museum to propose a conference on Australian watercraft. Up to this point the museum had collected and commissioned significant contemporary artworks and a couple of examples of Indigenous craft – but comparatively little attention had been paid to the maritime history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island peoples.

The inclusion of several canoes on the museum’s Australian Register of Historic Vessels – usually the terrain of noted yachts or restored fishing vessels – was an important shift in the recognition of a continuity in an Australian maritime history that was thousands of years old. It is also recognition of the unique, sustainable and complex designs that form an overlooked historical diversity of watercraft around Australia. And they were not just canoes.

A technical drawing by David Payne of a rra-muwarda or dugout canoe in the Australian National Maritime Museum collection, built by Annie Karrakayn, Isaac Walayung Kuma and Ida Ninanga in 1987 at Borroloola in the Northern Territory.

Early colonial European accounts of Indigenous watercraft simplified what are incredibly complex craft. They also ignored their diversity – of form, construction and use. While early nineteenth century travelers and squatters were quick to use Aboriginal craft to cross rivers, move supplies or rescue stranded stock, they could not replicate their manufacture. The process of securing and treating bark for example, is a highly skilled affair.

Australian watercraft were adapted to their local environments. Dugouts were constructed from logs in northern Australia – many traded from the forests of Papua New Guinea. On the Murray River, hard bark canoes were not formed as the softer Sydney bark canoes were. In Tasmania, bark was rolled into tubes and although they seem more like rafts, sections were cleverly bundled into a canoe shape.

Along the Kimberley coastline, double-ended fan-shaped rafts made from a series of poles were important platforms for turtle and dugong hunting. These were perfect in their utility – being able to separate into two halves – one becoming a float attached to a harpooned dugong. In Torres Strait, outriggers were added to dugout canoes and woven mat sails were used. Many of these craft could travel great distances in open seas.

An important outcome of the conference has been the opportunity for many Indigenous communities involved in canoe making across the country to connect their projects and meet for the first time. Some are involved in sustaining traditional practices while others are re-learning traditional skills. Several projects are fostering ‘well-being’ among dispossessed communities. In Sydney, the Tribal Warrior Association, with assistance from maritime museum curator David Payne, is currently making two bark canoes – to be used on the water at the conference – as part of its Indigenous Youth Mentoring Program.

Nawi is the Sydney Aboriginal word for canoe. The early colonists recorded how in the first two years of settlement at Sydney Cove, the harbour at night was always dotted with the small fires aboard canoes, mainly used by Aboriginal women for fishing. At the conference, along with talks by academics, museum workers, community members, canoe builders and canoe making demonstrations, a small fleet of nawi will return to the harbour for the first time in 200 years.

Further information about the Nawi – exploring Australia’s Indigenous watercraft conference 30 May – 1 June 2012:

Historian Dr Stephen Gapps is curator of Environment, Industry & Shipping at the Australian National Maritime Museum and on the steering committee for the Nawi – exploring Australia’s Indigenous watercraft conference.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *