Indigenous Watercraft of Australia
The home of the Australian National Maritime Museum is on the waters of Sydney Harbour, and the museum acknowledges the Gadigal people who are the traditional custodians of the land and waters of its site at Tumbalong, Darling Harbour. The museum also acknowledges all traditional custodians of the lands and waters throughout Australia, and pays its respects to them and their cultures; and to elders both past and present.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander watercraft are Australia's original boats. Designed and built by local communities with tools they made themselves, using the materials of their region and having a shape that responds to the craft's use and to the capabilities of the materials. They are unique to this country.
They could also be surviving examples of one of the earliest forms of boat. Their simple and in many cases elegant structure often contains just the essential components needed to make a craft that can be navigated with purpose and control, in a variety of sea conditions. Even many of their rafts are navigable craft and not just platforms controlled by the whim of the current and wind. These Australian Indigenous watercraft could be living examples of the origins for the evolution for boats.
Not every community used watercraft, however many used the water for travel and as a means of sourcing food, and they often developed quite specific craft for the task. A canoe based culture could have existed in a number of places where the boat was a primary means of fishing, hunting and transport. Their vessels were used on all types of waterways from billabongs, rivers, lakes, and estuaries through to bays, island groups and the open sea along Australia's coastline. This range of conditions in combination with the varied communities and their own distinct natural resources has allowed a huge variety of different canoes, rafts and devices to be developed.
Although the primary type used in numerous locations around the continent is a bark canoe, other types of canoe construction such as dug-out logs, bundled reeds and layers of bark are also employed. Rafts and even simple flotation devices are also used by many Indigenous communities. In the Torres Strait and Cape York areas, outrigger craft were common.
The known distribution shows that craft were used around the coastline and adjacent rivers and lakes from Victoria up to Queensland and across the top of the continent as far as the Kimberley and north-west Australian coast line. It appears there were no craft in the south west quadrant of the continent. The major inland waterways formed by the Darling and Murray systems also had many craft.
Physical evidence of many of the regional variants within the craft types has probably been lost with the erosion of Indigenous groups and their culture since European colonization. The nature of their construction using natural materials also resulted in vessels with a short lifespan before they were abandoned and left to decompose.
It is evident from a study of those craft that have survived along with craft still being built and used is that the craft's use, design and construction relate very closely to the area. There is also evidence that where Indigenous groups had contact with external communities such as the Macassans from SE Asia, and Papuan or Melanesian cultures from the north, this contact brought further development to the design and construction of some of the Indigenous craft. The relatively recent colonization by Europeans was also another source of influence and short term evolution in some areas.
When Europeans made contact with Australia, having sailed across open oceans in relatively complex sailing ships that were one of their pinnacles of technology for the period, the Europeans assessed the craft of the Indigenous Australians as relatively crude and simple, a view that persisted with colonization from the late 1700s.
The relatively rough and basic appearance of these craft masks a much more sophisticated series of steps in their design, construction and use. An examination of Indigenous water craft reinforces how Indigenous Australians shared an extremely close association with their local environment. What appears to be a simple craft quite often has a much more complex background. As well as a thorough understanding and empathy for the environment in terms of the materials for construction, the purpose of the craft and where it was to be used, the building and use might also incorporate aspects of a community's hierarchy and structure.
There are no drawn plans for the design of these craft. The materials, the sequence of construction and the proportions of the craft were not recorded in any written form by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, this information was held as knowledge by people within the community. This knowledge was the plan, and was continually passed on from the older to the younger generation, through the process of building new craft, and even with model making and toy canoes. This was a regular cycle or occurrence as new craft were needed to replace older craft that had deteriorated as a natural process. Over generations the short lifespan of many craft often meant that the knowledge was practiced every year and perhaps even more than once each year. Therefore the 'plan' for the craft remained in regular use. This ensured continuity and meant that the knowledge was always maintained and recorded.
The construction of the craft was often seasonal, relating to the best time to collect the resource used. The bark canoes were usually very dependent upon the right time of the season for peeling the bark from the local tree species that was used. In some case it could be taken so that it limited damage to the tree's growth, and at the right period it was also flexible enough for shaping. Eucalypt species were commonly but not exclusively used. Melaleuca and other similar loose bark trees were also a source of material. The shape was marked out to the size required, then cut and peeled from the tree with axes and wedges.
The shaping to form a canoe from one piece of bark is often done by heating it with a combination of soaking in water and the use of fire, the same principle used in traditional and modern wooden boat construction where steaming a timber section is used so the wood can be heated and shaped. The heat made the bark more pliable and what began as a flat or part cylindrical sheet of bark could then have curvature and shape moulded into it, often to help form the bow and stern ends.
Fire would also be used to burn away loose bark and debris, or dry out the damp, green wood. A typical fastening at the ends or between panels is fibre strands, again chosen from the right plant source. Branches used for reinforcing the edges or joints were also specifically shaped or located to be the right size and stiffness. Pegs were an alternate method of connection, fashioned from another appropriate wood source. Some canoes are made of more than one piece of bark. The joints are sewn together with fibre strands. Clay, mud and natural resins from trees, plants and even insects are used to seal some joints, or additional bark material is sewn to help make the craft watertight. Many of the construction techniques can be seen in use in the construction of other implements used by Indigenous people, even simple items such as a bowl.
The proportions and shape are a combination of the material's properties and capabilities, combined with the purpose of the craft. A good example is the bark canoes called gumung derrka or nardan and used on the Arafura Swamp wetlands in eastern Arnhem Land by the Yolngu people, and in particular the Ganalbingu and other neighbouring clans. Their purpose was to allow the clan to hunt magpie geese and collect the bird's eggs in the swampy grasslands during their nesting season. Anthropologist Donald Thomson had visited the area in 1937 and described the canoes and the hunting. These craft were featured in the recent movie 'Ten Canoes' which was inspired by Thomson's image of the canoes being poled through the wetlands grass.
The half cylinder section of stringy bark is soaked and treated with fire, inverted so the smooth surface is on the outside of the canoe, and then set up between two posts driven into the ground acting as a simple jig or former. At the aft end the edges are fastened together with fibre strands. The bow is more detailed and became a distinctive feature. It is cut back and sewn together along the top edge to form a long, sharp reverse raked prow which is better shaped to part and push through the wetlands grass. With the addition of branches located across the hull to spread the sides and act like beams, and fibre strands from edge to edge holding the sides against the branch beams, a relatively stable hull is created with a buoyant forward end that was ideal for storing the magpie geese eggs and speared geese.
A similar pattern of design requirements is repeated on other indigenous vessels. The kalwa double raft from King Sound area in the north west of Western Australia and used by the Bardi people is a two part structure of logs and stands out as another intriguing example of the use of available materials. It is built of mangrove wood, and these trunks taper with a significant swelling at their base. The cleaned and shaped logs are fastened together with wooden pegs, and arranged with the larger ends beside each other, giving each of the two parts a distinct fan shape. The aft section is then lapped onto the bow section.
The craft are well adapted to their purpose. Although they float in what appears to be a semi-submersed state, the arrangement remains seaworthy due to the distribution of the buoyancy or flotation of the logs. In the middle, lapping the two ends gives a double layer of logs that puts flotation where it is needed to support the weight of the person or persons aboard. The fore and aft ends have considerable buoyancy by themselves due to the volume of the larger ends of the trunks. The waves will still pass through the craft in the narrow space between each log, but the buoyancy in the thicker ends helps the raft negotiate the waves instead of pushing straight under them.
There is another part to the Bardi raft's story. The lapped arrangement of the two halves becomes a vital element when they are used for hunting dugong. Dugong are speared from the raft, and the point has a tether attached so that it is perhaps more accurate to describe it as a harpoon. Once a dugong is speared and then dives in a frantic effort to escape capture, the hunter can tie off the point to one half of the raft, and separate this half from the other one. While the hunter remains on his half, the dugong tires itself swimming away tethered to the other half of the raft, and eventually the exhausted creature can be recovered.
The evolution of each design must remain speculative. The first inhabitants of the mainland arrived by some sort of watercraft 50,000 to 60,000 years ago, so the concept of a watercraft was already in their background.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures feature a detailed and accurate observation of their environment and the particular cycles of nature within that environment. This guided them in their quest for food, shelter and in their patterns of movement around their territory. Observing the nature of local waterways and the qualities of materials available and sharing this knowledge as a group could lead to the genesis of very simple craft such as floatation devices used to assist them as they swam in the water. Perhaps simple items like this these were then refined by experience and observation until they became a basic vessel that could completely support a person. Finally it became a boat which could be navigated with purpose to where the person wanted to go, rather than relying on a current or conditions to take it along. Further steps in the development would improve the simple vessel until a standard pattern emerged. This then remained in use, unchanged. It must be unlikely that the examples seen today were created in their first instance in their final and complete configuration. Some process of development starting from a more basic item is likely to have occurred, and over an unknown length of time the more complex craft evolved until it was satisfactory for its purpose.
The construction of Indigenous canoes often shows an arrangement of panels and support common to craft throughout the world. On many canoes the bark skin will have its edges reinforced with branches that form a gunwale or inwale timber, while further branches can be used to form beams or even a triangular cross-bracing configuration. Some items work in tension, others in compression. The Yolngu derrka canoes have four or five fibre strands from gunwale edge to gunwale edge in line with the beams, and these strands are a near equivalent of tie-rods found on many modern wooden vessels. The strands are cleverly secured so that that can be easily tightened.
The inside of a canoe may be stiffened along the bottom with additional bark panels, and joints between pieces of bark can be sealed with natural resins, gum or other material. All these individual parts may have names, and while the craft will have its own name as a type specific to each community, there is evidence that in some groups it may be given its own individual identity as well.
The simplicity of some of these hull structures which have been made from a single sheet of bark with as little as one internal brace shows that the Indigenous Australians were in fact well acquainted with monocoque or near-monocoque forms of construction. Monocoque, (French for single shell) is a technique where the panel of an object is made strong enough to absorb the structural loadings with minimal or no internal supporting structure. It is generally seen as a modern construction technique initially linked to aircraft and car construction in the 20th century. Recent developments in composite fibreglass construction have seen the method successfully adopted in vessel construction. However it could be that for hundreds and perhaps thousands of years the Indigenous Australians were building monocoque watercraft by forming bark with heat and water to produce a hull shaped shell that only needed two or three beams working in compression to hold the sides apart.
The outrigger craft from Cape York and Torres Strait are quite distinct and relatively complex, and show a close association with craft from Papua New Guinea and the Louisiade Archipelago at New Guinea's south east tip. The main hull is a hollowed-out log, while the double or single outriggers, their beams and connections are smaller logs or tree limbs, held together with rope made from fibres. Throughout Cape York the craft within each community share many features but also show detailed variations on the eastern and western sides of the cape. The outriggers found in the islands in the Torres Strait are quite large. A number of them were decorated with carvings, feathers and paint. Some carried sails, and were capable of long passages on open water in the area.
Indigenous craft are poled or paddled along, by one or more people. Poling is done standing up, and sometimes the pole is also the spear to be used for fishing. Paddling is done seated or kneeling, using a typical blade and handle, a hand held blade without a shaft, or just hands, and sometimes a combination of both. Many craft carried a small fire built up over a base of wet mud or clay. The fire was used to cook fish as they were caught and provided warmth.
A casual observation of the craft suggests many were only capable of being used in enclosed and relatively calm waters. However many craft including those made of bark were capable of going offshore for short or long passages of many kilometres in the skilful hands of the Indigenous paddler. There are many reports from early European explorers and colonizers noting that the craft were seen some distance out to sea along the eastern seaboard.
Craft could have many uses rather than being specifically related to one task only. Clearly hunting, fishing and food gathering is often a priority, and some craft are built and used solely for that purpose, perhaps even only for a brief period each year. However the nature of the indigenous lifestyle for many generations would see groups moving within their own territory or beyond their normal boundaries, often in accordance with the fluctuating seasons and food sources. Voyages could be short regular transits or longer and almost migration style passages, undertaken as groups or individuals. This travel and transport would use one of the obvious pathways available, the different waterways and waterway systems throughout the country, and were not just restricted to the coast and major rivers. The wet season or prolonged wet periods throughout the country would fill swamp and perennial creek systems for long periods, making them accessible. These routes and the map of the landform were also maintained as knowledge, paintings and ceremonial practices.
Indigenous people on other continents and island groups throughout the world created their own simple but effective watercraft, which later became quite complex and refined structures. Many of the concepts and details used in their creation are common to craft around the world, but created without necessarily having had any contact with other people to influence their construction.
The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are understood to have one of the oldest histories of civilization, and migrated to Australia through South East Asia following a route that inevitably involved short sea passages between islands made on unknown rafts or other vessels. Having reached New Guinea they could move overland to Australia as there was a land connection at this time, which is about 50 to 60,000 years ago. However there is speculation that some early arrivals may also have made what was then a shorter passage from Timor to the Kimberley coastline by raft. Once people had reached the continent they moved to all parts of the coast and inland. As far as can be ascertained they remained isolated from other influences with the exception of the Torres Strait, Cape York and North West Australian areas.
It is therefore possible that Indigenous Australians came to the country with a background of very simple marine vessel construction and use, developed in the course of their migration. They may have one of the oldest histories of the construction and use of watercraft, created largely in isolation from other developing civilizations, and practiced over countless generations as the many Indigenous communities lived within the changing Australian environment. When the first people arrived and populated the land around 50 to 60,000 years ago the coastline, environment, flora and fauna were quite different to what now exists. From that time onward until the end of the Ice Age there was a continual change to the environment, which was quite dramatic in some instances. The population moved in response to these changes which stabilised around 7,000 to 10,000 years ago. The diversity and nature of watercraft that existed earlier still remains largely unknown.
The Indigenous water craft that can be identified now are suited to the resources and characteristics of this relatively recent environment, and maybe they are only a product of this environment as well. However age is not their primary quality. It is the simplicity and elegance of their design and construction and the cultural story they tell that stands out, especially where they continue to be made by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and so maintain their rich traditional stories, skills and culture into the future.
'Aboriginal Bark Canoes of the Murray River' by Robert Edwards (South Australia Museum) 1972,
'The Yanyuwa Bark Canoe' by John Bradley 1988,
'Donald Thomson in Arnhem Land' compiled by Nicholas Peterson 1983,
State Library of New South Wales, paintings by Oswald Brierly 1848/49 of Cape York and Torres Strait water craft
'The Original Australians' by Josephine Flood 2006
Reference material from Indigenous Vessel files at the ANMM.
Comment or observations on the design and structure are by the author, David Payne, Curator ARHV, ANMM.