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Cairns Aboriginal Single Outrigger Canoe

Vessel Number: HV000673
Date: c1920
Vessel Dimensions: 4.64 m × 1.7 m (15.22 ft × 5.58 ft)
Classification:Vessels and fittings
The Aboriginal single outrigger canoe at the National Museums of World Culture in Stockholm, Sweden is an example of the type used by Aboriginal communities in the area from just north of Cooktown down to Yarrabah (Cape Grafton) on the eastern side of Cape York Peninsula in northern Australia. It is a very rare example of indigenous craft of North Queensland and one of just a handful of early, original examples of this type of outrigger held in institutions and the only one known to be held outside of Australia. It has an indexing date of 1918/1920, but was probably collected by Eric Mjöberg in 1912/13 during an expedition to Queensland. He was a Swedish zoologist and explorer who led the first Swedish scientific expedition to Australia in 1910-11. He wrote “Among the Stone Age people in the Queensland wilderness” which was published in 1918 and the canoe is depicted in this book.

The vessel has research significance in the science of anthropology as evidence of the evolution of indigenous craft of the Asia Pacific region and more specifically of northern Australia. It demonstrates the importance of the marine environment to the indigenous peoples of that region. Mjoberg’s two scientific expeditions to Australia in the early 20th century are significant for documenting the lives of the indigenous peoples just prior to the post-WW1 modernisation of vast tracts of regional and inland Australia.

DescriptionThe Aboriginal single outrigger canoe has a main hull and one outrigger. The main hull is 4.64 m long and about 330mm wide and deep. The dugout construction of the hull has a narrow opening along the top. The outrigger is 4.20m long and around 85mm in diameter. The outrigger is about 1.45m outboard from the main hull and connected by a series of four cantilevered beams unevenly spaced along the canoe hull length. Each beam is made of two branches that pass through the topsides of the hull. They are connected to the hull of the outrigger with two vertical sticks that are wedged into the outrigger, and lashed to the beams.

The tree species used have not been identified, but it is possible a light weight tree such as cochlospernum (cotton tree), bombax- (silk cotton tree), erythrina vespertillo (bat’s wing coral tree) and Hibiscus tiliaceus (Cottonwood,) could have been used for the hull and outrigger. Over time the hull has twisted at least 20 degrees along its axis, but despite this it still retains all the features and characteristics that identify this particular type of Aboriginal outrigger canoe, in particular the squared ends with extended tongues or platforms.

The Aboriginal single outrigger canoe is part of the Mjöberg collection at the museum with the number 1920.14.0120. Eric Mjöberg was a Swedish zoologist and explorer who led the first Swedish scientific expedition to Australia in 1910-1911, where they worked in the Kimberley region of north-western Australia. He led a second expedition to Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria from 1912 - 1913 where it is likely he acquired the canoe along with other artefacts. Mjöberg was an assistant at the Swedish Museum of Entomology department between 1903 and 1910. He wrote “Among the Stone Age people in the Queensland wilderness” which was published in 1918 and the canoe is depicted in image number 218 (p. 484) and noted in the adjacent text.

This single outrigger type was first described in detail in the 1770 journals of Cook's Endeavour expedition during the period they were repairing Endeavour after their grounding on the Great Barrier Reef. Artist Oswald Brierley made a water colour of one he recorded on Fitzroy Island when he passed through on HMS Rattlesnake in the late 1840s.

The type was also documented in detail by anthropologist Walter Roth when he was in the area in the late 1890s. His paper was published in 1910: North Queensland Ethnography Bulletin No 14, Transport and Trade. Roth observed various outriggers down the east and west coasts of Cape York, and recorded sketches and descriptions. There were distinct changes as he moved south, and this example is a type he observed from Mossman River down to Cape Grafton or Yarrabah.

The main hull is a dugout with the hollowed out inside shaped from a single log. The more or less circular cross section has a narrow opening at the top and expert craftsmanship would have been needed to work in the concave areas at the sides of the interior. On the outside, the ends have a unique form. Both ends are cut square to the axis, and have a flap or tongue extension of the bark and trunk remaining at the top, protruding around 400 mm or so beyond the cut. This extension is seen on other types further north but is usually restricted to the bow. Roth recorded that it was used as a platform for a hunter, from which he could spear turtle or dugong. Any other use or perhaps what they could symbolize is not recorded, however it is conceivable that they would also act as a spray deflector when heading into choppy seas, keeping water out of the hull

The outrigger hull is a much smaller diameter solid log, shaped a little at the ends. Roth's notes indicate that the float or outrigger is called 'bunul' by the Gunggandji people of Yarrabah. Bunul is the term used for the mullet fish and would reflect the outrigger's ability to easily glide or skim across the water surface. It is connected to the main hull with four sets of double beams and twin sticks forming an 'X' shaped cross. The sets of beams are lashed through holes to the main hull on both sides and gunwale edges of the opening in the main hull, and the branches on each pair are about 100 mm apart. The outer ends of the beams are then tied to the centre of the X, one above and one below the crossing of the sticks. The sticks are driven into holes in the outrigger. The double arrangement of beams, their spacing and securing at either end provides a degree of cross bracing and stiffness to the complete structure, which is basically a simple and effective cantilever operating in two planes; fore and aft, and vertically.

The craft could accommodate five or six people according to a report from anthropologist Walter Roth. He noted that they sat on the double beams passing through both gunwales, with their legs crossed over due to the narrow gap cut in the log. They were used along the shore and amongst the islands just offshore of this coastline. It is not recorded if they went further out to sea. The type is believed to be the most southern outrigger and dugout type used by Indigenous communities on the eastern coastline. The concept of the structure can be compared to the more sophisticated and detailed outriggers of Torres Strait, which would have been an influence on the development of the various mainland types of outrigger.

The Gunggandji Indigenous outrigger canoe (HV000443) from the Queensland Museum collection is another example of this single outrigger vessel. It is one of very few examples of the type that exist in other Australian collections and was donated to the museum in 1915 by Dr Ronald Hamlyn-Harris. It is currently on loan from the Queensland Museum and is on display at the Menmuny Museum at Yarrabah. One other example is known to be held by Museum Victoria in their collection. The Guugu-Yimidhirr community in Cooktown have built two new examples in the last five years.

Vessel Details
Current status:inside building
Current status:non-operational
Hand propulsion/steering mechanism:paddle
Hull material and construction:indigenous materialsnative materials
Alternate Numbers

registration number: 1920.14.0120

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