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Kimberley Coast Indigenous Raft

Vessel Number: HV000513
Previous Owner:
Vessel Dimensions: 3 m x 0.9 m (9.84 ft x 2.95 ft)
Classification:Vessels and fittings
The West Australian Kimberley Coast Indigenous raft from Western Australia Museum was acquired in 1910. It is either a single part raft, or else it is one section of the double part, kalwa raft used by the Bardi or biel-beil by the Jawi communities in the Kimberley region. The age of this raft indicates it is an original craft made as part of the traditional life in that time, and is an important object to study and compare with recently made rafts of the same construction, in particular it shows the evidence of use and wear and tear on the structure.
DescriptionRecords of early acquisitions for the watercraft in the Indigenous collections at Western Australia Museum show that this is E3834, collected by Henry C Prinscep and registered on 3rd March 1910 at the museum. From 1898 to 1907 Princep was Chief Protector for the Department of Native Affairs in WA.

It is understood it came from Yampi Sound on the Kimberley coastline of WA. Yampi Sound lies to the north east of King Sound, and is the location for the Buccaneer Archipeligo, home for the Mayala community. At that time the traditional lifestyle was being maintained, although under threat from European expansion along the coast.

The raft is a typical fan of seven logs attached to each other with pegs, and probably made from mangrove wood. It is about 3 metres long. The larger bases of each log are all at one end, giving rise to the fan shaped outline of the raft. The double raft or kalwa that uses two almost identical fans of this style is very well known, and this could be one part of a double raft. There are remnants of small wooden uprights at the larger end, consistent with the original presence of a ‘pen’ which held travellers’ gear. Pens like this were constructed on the upper or stern fan of double rafts. An alternative possibility is that it was only ever a single part raft. This type is less well known, but has been documented, and featured prominently in W Saville-Kent’s book ‘The Naturalist in Australia’ (1897). It is the only raft he describes in detail from the area, suggesting he was unaware of the double version, and the image shows a pen at the wider end.

These rafts were used for transport, fishing or hunting turtle and dugong. Passages between islands and bays meant travelling on the rough tidal waters in the area. The huge tidal range gives rise to very strong currents and even whirlpools. The communities used these currents to their advantage, travelling with the current direction to go where they wanted to, and then returning on the opposite tide and current direction. A paddle or pole was used, and harpoon or spear could be carried as well.

Whilst no specific details of the builders are known, its age indicates it is one of a few original examples in Australian collections. Therefore its construction was typical of the traditional type during a period they were still in common use by the Indigenous communities.

Vessel Details
Hand propulsion/steering mechanism:paddle
Hand propulsion/steering mechanism:pole
Hull material and construction:indigenous materialsnative materials

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