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organ : canoes se australia, 1797-1892 

Michael Organ (ed.) : Canoes of SE Australia, 1797-1892.

Michael :
A Documentary History of the South Coast Aborigines, 1770 - 1850
Including a Chronological Bibliography 1770-1990

Aboriginal Education Unit Wollongong University, 1990.

This paper was prepared as preliminary research for a workshop, under the auspices of the Lady Denman Maritime Museum, Huskisson,
to build a replica Aboriginal tied-bark canoe of the south-east coast of NSW.
Many thanks to the museum's curator, Graham Hinton, for bringing the book to my attention.

The extracts are largely taken from Michael Organ's excellent work, with the relevant page numbers, and some additional material.
Organ's comments are in standard font with the titles and original documents in bold.
Additional entries or illustrations are marked (Ad), inserted between lines, and with an appropriate reference.
My supplementary comments are
in [italics], inside square brackets.

Page 11

The Wreck of the Sydney Cove
March - May 1797:
During February of 1797, the vessel Sydney Cove was wrecked at the Furneaux Islands in Bass Strait.
On 27 February seventeen of the survivors set off in the ship's longboat towards Sydney for help.
Unfortunately the longboat was washed ashore near Cape Howe, and the party, headed by the supercargo William Clark and the first mate Hugh Thompson, was forced to walk north along the New South Wales coast towards Sydney.

The party of 17 set out from near Cape Howe on 15 March, and after a walk of almost two months -during which period many of the crew died from exhaustion and starvation along the way, and two

Page 12

were presumed murdered by Aborigines near Wollongong – the three survivors eventually reached Sydney in the middle of the year, {refer HRA, 1917, Series I, volvume II, p.82}.

There are various conflicting reports of the crews' adventures during their trek along the South Coast and through lllawarra.
Some state that the Aborigines encountered along the way were friendly and helpful, whilst others speak of their 'savage barbarity’.

The fullest account of the shipwrecked sailors' journey is contained in William Clarke's "Voyage of the Sydney Cove's Longboat from Preservation Island to Port Jackson''
{HRNSty'1797, volume III pp.760-768} compiled later from notes taken during the overland trek, and also from memory.

This account points to the general friendliness of the South Coast Aborigines, though there was obvious suspicion on both sides and some skirmishes.

Unfortunately Clarke's journal does not describe the final 15 days of the walk, during which period the survivors travelled through the Shoalhaven and lllawarra.
It was also during this period that Thompson and the ship's carpenter were supposedly murdered near Red Point.

Relevant sections of Clarke's account which describe the crew's encounters with Aborigines [and their canoes] between Cape Howe and the Shoalhaven are reproduced below:

William Clarke's Journal - Cape Howe to the Shoalhaven
18 March-30 April, 1797
[Travelling North from Cape Howe]

Page 13
30th [March 1797] –
Crossed a small river this morning, and walked about 8 miles through a country
interspersed with hills and covered with heath.

We came to a pretty large river, which, being too deep to ford, we began to prepare a raft, which we could not have completed till next day had not some of the native friends, from whom we parted yesterday, rejoined us and assisted us over.

We were much pleased with their attention, for the act was really kind, as they knew we had this river to cross, and appear to have followed us purposely to lend their assistance.

Page 14

13th April 

Came to a large river, where we met with a few natives, who appeared very timorous at seeing us; but in a short time we came to a better understanding, and they kindly carried us over in their canoes.

This was not accomplished without several duckings, for their rude little vehicles formed of bark, tied at both ends with twigs, and not exceeding 8 feet in length, by 2 in breadth, are precarious vessels for one unacquainted with them to embark in, though the natives, of whom they will carry three or four, paddle about in them with the greatest facility and security.

After crossing the river, and receiving a few small fish at parting, we walked 10 miles.

14th. - Met with no obstruction during a walk of 18 miles.

15th. - We were joined by our last friends, who ferried us over a very large river in their canoes.
Whether this meeting was the effect of chance or one of their fishing excursions, or that perceiving that we should find it difficult they had come to our assistance, we could not determine; but had it not been for their aid we must have been detained here for some time in making a raft.

The greatest part of the wood of the country being very heavy will not swim, unless it has been felled for some time and exposed to the sun, a fact which we had already been taught by miserable experience.

Having walked 9 miles after crossing the river, we rested for the night, and boiled a few shellfish we had picked up by the way like good economists, making them serve for both dinner and supper, for our little evening's cookery formed the only meal we could daily afford ourselves, unless we ventured to eat a few wild plants which we sometimes picked up.

16th. - Having walked about 12 miles we once more met with our friends, who, a third time, conveyed us over a large river at a shallow part, which they pointed out. On the banks of this river we remained for the night.

Page 19

Lieutenant Grant at Jervis Bay
10-14 March 1801:
Lady Nelson, under the command of Lieutenant James Grant, with Ensign Barralier and the naturalist George Cayley aboard, visits Jervis Bay to survey that port and investigate the surrounding area.

Lt. Grant’s diary (HRNSW,Sydney, 1897, volume IV, pp.478-481), which was sent to Governor King shortly after the vessel’s return to port Jackson, describes their encounters with the natives at Jervis Bay:

[Tuesday, 10 March, 1801]

At 5 a.m. St George's Head west 8 or 9 miles; being desirous of examining what shelter Jervis's Bay afforded, I worked into it, hoisted the boats out, and sent the chief officer to look out for a proper place to anchor; at 9 a.m. the boat returned, and one of the natives in her.
The officer informed me there was good anchorage in the southernmost cove between the islands which lays in the mouth of the harbour and the main.
Worked to windward and came too at 1/2 p't 10 a.m. with the best bower in 4 f'ms water, fine sand, and moored with the kedge.

Great numbers of the natives now came round to us in their canoes; some we allowed to come on board.
They seem a harmless, inoffensive people, but much more robust than those about Sydney.
They all wish to get their beards cut off.
They did not thoroughly understand Yeranabie, the native I have on board.

Page 20

[Wednesday, 11 March, 1801]…

It now blew strong from N.W. with considerable swell even here.
We got on board a boatload of excellent wood, which the natives assisted in carrying into the boat, from whence it was sent were cheerfully and of their own accords.

It still blowing very fresh from N.E., let go to small bonrer under foot.

Ends in ditto weather.

Friday, 13 March, 1801. - P.M.,

... having dined I wished much to survey the western side of the is a which lays in the mouth of this harbour, and shelters the cove from easterly winds, which for the sake of distinction I calld Ann's Island [Bowen Island].

I found missing the surveying chain, and on strict investigation found it had been left on shore through the neglect of the two soldiers whose hand it was always in during the first part of the day, they being employed in carrying it to measure the distances. I sent a boat with one of them in her to look for it, but without success.

On their return they were met by one of the natives in his canoe, holding up the chain in his hand, which he gave them directly and came on board with the boat.
Finding the chain complete, except the brass markers, which they had pulled off and kept, but which could be easily replaced, I rewarded the native with one of my blankets, which I believe was the greatest reward I could have bestowed on him, as he seemed infinitely well pleased.

Mr. Murray, the first mate, gave him an old hat and shewed him the looking-glass, before which he danced in his new accoutrements with great glee, searching for somebody behind it and making many odd gestures.

We went on shore and took the native with us in the boat, towing his canoe after us.

Page 21

A second version of the above account of the Lady Nelson's visit to Jervis Bay was contained in Lt. Grant's 1803 publication The Narrative of a Voyage of Discovery performed in His Majesty's Vessel The Lady Nelson.... in the years 1800, 1801, and 1802 to New South Wales (C.Rowarth, London, 1803, pp.104-120).

There are substantial differences between the two accounts, with this later (1803) version containing more detailed descriptions of encounters with the local natives, as will be seen from the blowing extracts:

Page 22

All the natives of this part of New Holland are more muscular and robust than those I had seen at Sydney.
In the management of their canoes, and some things belonging to them, they differed much from whatever I had seen elsewhere, particularly in paddling, sometimes making use of
an oval piece of bark, and at others of their hands, making the canoe go very swiftly by either means.
 When paddling with the hand they were apt, from it being immersed in the water, to throw more or less water in the canoe, which with a small calibash they dexterously threw out by a backward motion of the other hand without turning their heads.

At the heads of their canoes I observed two or three wooden pins, which I supposed were designed to steady their fish-gigs, or to receive the heads of their spears when they carry them from one place to another, or to serve in the same manner as a crutch for a harpoon or lance in one of our whale-boats.

Page 32

Three Sailors Murdered at Batemans Bay
Sunday, 15 May 1808.
{Sydney Gazette}
Report that 3 of the crew of the Fly were murdered by Aborigines at Batemans Bay:

On Tuesday the Resource government vessel came in with coals and cedar from Hunter's ~
She brought accounts of the arrival there of the Fly colonial vessel, on Monday 2d instant, with loss of three of her crew out of five, who were murdered by the coast natives at Bateman's bay few days before.

The Fly sailed from hence for Kangaroo Island some weeks since; but being overtaken by weather and contrary winds, was obliged to take shelter at Bateman's bay, and to send on for water.
The three unfortunate persons whose fate it was to fall under the barbarity of the natives, were sent on shore with a cask, having previously arranged a mode of giving an alarm from 9m vessel, in case of obvious danger, by the discharge of a musket.
Shortly after they landed, a body of natives assembled about the boat, and a musket was accordingly discharged from the vessel-the unfortunate men returned precipitately to their boat, without any obstruction from the natives.

Page 33

?? but had  sooner put off from the shore than a flight of spears was thrown, which was continued • three fell from their oars.

The savages immediately took and  maned  the boat, and with a number of canoes prepared  to attack the vessel; which narrowly escaped their fury by cutting the cable , and standing out to sea.

The names of the murdered men were, Charles Freeman, Thomas bay, and  Robert Goodlet.

Canoe of Jervis Bay,
New Holland by
(Francois-Edmond) Paris.

Pirogue de la Baie Jervis,
Nouvelle Holland par Paris, 1826.

Plate 112

Page 143

The French Meeting with the Aborigines at Jervis Bay
26-29 November 1826

November, 1826, a group of French sailors, soldiers, naturalists and artists - all members of the expedition under the command of Jules Sebastian Cesar Dumont d'Urville (1790-1842,  aboard the corvette Astrolabe- put into Jervis Bay, on the south coast of New South Wales.

This was the third port of call in Australia for the Astrolabe (after visiting King George Sound, Western Australia, early in October; and Western Port, Victoria, during early November) en route to Port Jackson, where the vessel arrived on 2 December 1826.

The stop-over at Jervis Bay, though relatively brief, was important for a number of reasons.

Firstly, the bay was accurately surveyed by the French; secondly, the visit was characterised by a very amicable encounter with the local Aborigines; and thirdly, an account of the visit was contained in Dumont d’Urville’s journal (published in 1830), and in sketches taken by the artist on board the Louis Auguste de Sainson (1801-1887).

The visit also allowed the expedition to study a group of Aborigines relatively uncorrupted by the European society then spreading out from Port Jackson, though not unaware of the ways and language of the whiteman.

Dumont D'Urville's Journal
The following extracts from the published account of the voyage of the Astrolabe, by J.C. Dumont d’Urville describe the Aborigines of Jervis Bay as observed during November 1826.

The translation is taken from H.Rosenman (Melbourne, 1988, pp.66-67), and begins with an account a of the arrival of the Astrolabe at Jervis Bay:

(Ad) For extensive extracts and illustrations, see Dumont d'Urville : Voyage of the Astrolabe, 1826.
(Ad) Robert Hoddle at Murremurrang, 1829.
In the late 1820s, surveyor Robert Hoddle painted a coastal scene, including an Aboriginal returning to the beach in a bark canoe, Wallinga Bay, NSW.

Robert Hoddle: Murremurrang and Walliga Bay, South of Jervis Bay, 1829.

State Library of Victoria
Catalogue notes:
Watercolour; 25.5 x 39 cm. on cream board mount 44 x 51 cm.
Inscribed in ink on l.c.of original mount: Murremurrang and Wallinga Bay, South of Jervis Bay New South Wales.
Drawn by Robert Hoddle. 1829.
Inscription on original mount cropped and adhered on l.c. of present mount.

(Ad) Canoes off Jervis and Twofold Bays, 1834.
In response to a discussion about native canoes in 1862,
O.W. Brierly wrote to the Sydney Morning Herald that he had witnessed Aboriginals at sea off the south coast of New South Wales of two occasions.

In 1834 I saw the natives using the large canoes outside both Jervis Bay and Twofold Bay, and the large fish which were brought in by them clearly proved to me that their canoes must have been very buoyant and strong.
Anyone acquainted with the strength and tenacity of stringy-bark would not wonder that a primitive people without metal tools should use it for boats in preference to wood, which could only be hollowed out in a rude manner, and with immense labour.

- The Sydney Morning Herald, 30 June 1862, page 3.

Note that Jervis and Twofold Bays are deep-water ports with easy access to off-shore fishing grounds in benign conditions, and also see Brierly, below.

Pages 276-277

Oswald Brierly at Twofold Bay
[1843] Oswald Brierly, artist and superintendent of Benjamin Boyd's establishments at Twofold  Bay, kept a number of diaries and journals during the 1840s, including a "Journal of a Visit to Twofold Bay, Maneroo and Districts beyond the Snowy River" {Mitchell Library manuscript}

Brierly was a competent artist, and Twofold Bay works by him with Aboriginal subjects include:
(1)  Australian Gin Twofold Bay June 29th 1843 Pencil MLPXD81L5
(2)Char-ree-uerro Twofold Bay Sept 5th1843 Watercolour
(3) Twofold  Bay Canoe

Pencil MLPXD81f.8
(4) Budrooro, Chief of Twofold Bay Tribe, N.S.W.
Reproduced: Dutton (1974), plate 54, b/w.

(5) Twofold Bay - Native Canoe

Watercolour MLPXD81f.10
(6) Mur-rowra Esqr. Bundyang

Pencil MLPXD81f.11
(7) Aborigines seated in a canoe
Pencil MLPXD81f.12
(8) Aboriginal woman in canoe offering fruit.

Pencil MLPXD81f.13

(Ad) 1844
Number 8: Twofold Bay Canoe.
An almost identical design to that of Jervis Bay, above.
Brierly's notes read, in part:
 b_ of sitting - kneeling and sitting on their heels
Oars mer(e)ly a small bit of bark about the size of a china plate
at the bow are a m_ of wooden skewers r_ in which the spears rest
two half hoops keep it in shape
- 9ft long, 6 in deep, 14 inches beam
made from the inner rind of gum tree, gathered togr. (together) at each P_

Brierly O.W.: Sketches made in Australia, and during the voyage of the H.M.S. Maeander, in New Zealand, Tonga, and South America, 1842-1844, 1850.
State Library of NSW

(Ad) 1844
Number 10a: Native [Aboriginal] and canoe, Twofold Bay, NSW.

Brierly O.W.: Sketches made in Australia, and during the voyage of the H.M.S. Maeander, in New Zealand, Tonga, and South America], 1842-1844, 1850.

State Library of NSW

Page 279

G.A. Robinson at Bega & Twofold Bay
August - September 1844:
George Augustus Robinson, Official Protector of Aborigines, visits the Aborigines of the Bega and Twofold Bay areas.

The following journals in the Mitchell Library collection record these travels:
Journal from Twofold Bay to Cape Howe, Ram's head (30 miles) thence to Twofold Bay, Friday 13 July -13 August 1844.
Journal from Twofold Bay on board the Wanderer Schooner Wednesday 14 August -Tuesday 27 August.
Journal from Pambuller to Biggah Country Wednesday 28 August -15 September 1844.

The following quotes from his published journal refer to the Aborigines of the far South Coast {Mackaness, 1941, pp.23-4}:

The Messrs Imley were the first and for some years the Exclusive Settlers at Twofold Bay and much to their credit lived on peaceable terms with the Aborigines.

The Natives at their establishment were encouraged to habits of Industry and employed in Whaling, Stock-keeping, Shepherding, Bullock driving and other useful pursuits.
Dr. Imley from whom I received every requisite assistance and attention, spoke in commendable terms to the Natives and I was happy to find that the other Aborigines along the Coast were equally well spoken of several persons by their instrumentality had been saved.
The most striking instance (brought under notice) was the Wreck of a Steamer in a Storm at Broole when all hopes of saving the white persons were given up, and when no Individual would venture, two Aboriginal natives at the imminent risk of their own lives boldly plunged into the Breakers and rescued suffered who but for them must have perished.
For their humane and heroic conduct the Settlers in a Memorial to the Government recommended them for consideration

Page 352

The Egg Feast of Wagonga
5 February 1892: {Moruya Examiner}
Reminiscences of the Wagonga Aborigines, by Reginald Herbert Barlow.

The Wagonga people referred to below appear to have inhabited the area around present day Wagonga and Narooma, south of Moruya. Montague Island, also mentioned in the account, is located off the coast of Narooma:
[Compare Rapa Nui]

(From an Aboriginal Tradition)

In remote days when the population of the coast was very great, the tribes had at times a difficulty in obtaining the food they required, not that there was an abundance of one kind or another, but like the white man they preferred a change of diet.

They had their seasons for the various kinds of flesh both of fish and animals, also of different kinds of vegetable products.

The little spade at the end of the wimmera was used by them to dig up the small native yam, and the well made but small meshed bag might at certain times be seen in the running stream filled with pounded nuts of the burrowang after having gone through some process to extract the poison much in the same way as we prepare arrowroot.

Immense quantities of this article were consumed each season, the time being when the nut was in and fell out of its red jacket onto the ground.

The spring brought round with it ‘the egg feast', a great time for young and old when from the little rich egg of the plover to the large one of the swan or the stronger tasted one of the sea bird the camp fire had its work to do in roasting them in vast quantities.

Then as now eggs were in great request, but not having a fowl of a domestic kind they could only obtain a supply during a very limited period, and so "the feast" was a time very much looked for, and the young lad doubtless

Page 353

asked his father, as we read in a certain book for an egg and the fond parent would very likely risk much to obtain this annual delicacy.

The tradition from which we quote tells us that the headlands of Wagonga had in those days a large population.

They were men of grand physical proportions and of great activity in the chase, as also in the use of the spear, in fishing both standing on terra-firma or kneeling in the frail bark canoes.

An Australian bark canoe such as is used by the natives of the South Coast is certainly a most unique article.

A large sheet of stringy bark is taken off a tree and after being well examined to see that there are no twig holes in it, its outside is taken off to be more pliable to form into a canoe, the two ends are then thinned down to a thickness of not more than the three sixteenths of an inch, and commencing from the centre the "boat builder" gathers the ends together the same way as a seamstress pleats the skirts of a dress, then with two or more wooden pins of a few inches in length which he passes through the pleats and binds together with cord of some kind or another, performing the same to the other end.

Two or three sticks are then placed across the canoe to keep it open and they are kept there by cord also.

The canoe is completed.

It may be large enough for two or more.

The mode of propelling is simple in the extreme.

Two small blades of thin bark about twice the size of the human hand are held one in each and the paddler kneels with his face towards the bow.

Should water get into the canoe he simply uses his small paddles and bales out by throwing the water behind him into the sea or lake, much as we notice the musk-duck splash the water behind her.

Well, to come to the tradition.

The season was "the egg feast" one about September, and the Wagonga tribe had arranged for a monster picnic to Montague Island, in search of sea bird eggs. For days and days before, new canoes of large size had been constructed, and the greater part of the tribe, both men and women, intended to go and have a high time of it.

Making all allowance for the increase that most traditions are allowed, the number that left for Montague could not have been less than 150 adults, the children and many old women staying behind. It was a lovely morning just at the break of day with the sea as smooth as a sheet of glass and every prospect of a quick return that the young and strong, and elders to advise and guide, stepping into the seventy or eighty canoes at the beach just below Mr. Flanagan's Hotel that is now.

What merry sounds there were to be heard, well nigh mad with delight at the prospect of the sport before them, they jumped in the air or dived in the water and flitted about in their canoes as if they were a portion of their very bodies.

Some of the canoes were lashed together for greater safety, but no young fellow allowed this sort of thing for fear the girls would laugh at him; the three or four miles between the land and island was not such a dreadful distance, even did he loose his canoe, and so the whole party got out to sea in grand style amid the cheers and dancing of those left behind.

Great were the expectations of those left on the land, and the whole remaining camp sat on the southern headland the live-long day watching the little fleet go and its returning shortly before sun-down.

The canoes kept well together both ways and the merry laugh could be heard from the shore when they approached within half a mile, and excitement ran very high and speculation too as to who would first land and the number of eggs they would bring.

But suddenly a change came over the whole scene, a dark cloud which had for some few hours been seen to the south suddenly came up with great swiftness and burst, "the winds blew and the rain came" and swept down upon our voyages with terrible force.

The poor terror stricken watchers knew what must be the issue, they could see one canoe after the other disappearing until the night closed in and not a living soul landed to tell the fearful tale.

Page 354

Can the gentle reader imagine the feelings of the helpless band left upon the headlands, scores of young children and many aged mothers left to the mercies of the world, but if the tradition is to be credited, there was one who rose up and took in the situation at a glance, and by sheer dint of pluck, energy, and determination made provision for those left behind which if it could be all proved would mark the man as one of the most wonderful men ever known.

He divided women, old men and children to groupes to seek for food suitable for their ages, &c, himself taking the duty of stalking for large game, being attended by a party of the strongest lads to carry it to the camp.

In the course of a few years the young had come to manhood, and once more the Wagonga tribe was on its old footing. To those who remember Wagonga a couple of decades ago it may be interesting to learn that this man was the father of "Wagonga Frank", a true and trusty black who went to his rest some years ago and was buried by his tribe on the sea beach to the south of Mummaga Lake.

[1892] 'Aborigines - Report of the Board for 1892', NSW Legislative Council Journal, (Session 1892-3), Sydney, 1893, vol 50, pt 2, pp327-..
The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser
27 October
1805, page 2.

On Thursday three persons who left the Cove with three others in a whale boat: about three weeks  ago for King's Island under the direction of Mr Joseph Murrell, came in overland from Botany Bay with the unpleasant information of the crew being assaulted by the natives at Jervis Bay, and Mr Murrell dangerously wounded in the back by a spear.
The account given by these people is as follows ; --
That every where along the coast the natives wore a menacing appearance, and manifested a wish to attack them : that upon making Two-fold Bay they perceived a small group round a fire, who greeted them in a very friendly tone ; trusting in which they landed, and proceeded with buckets towards a watering place, but before they reached which, a flight of spears was thrown without mischief; but being speedily succeeded by a second, one of the weapons, most dangerously barbed, lodged in Mr, Murrell's side, which was transpierced ; and as the whole of the barb appeared, it was broken off and readily extracted.
They made to the boat, leaving their inhuman assailants to express their joy of the barbarous event by re-echoed peals of mirth, were soon out of their reach.
The travellers next set down on a small neighbouring island.
The morning following, four natives visited them, and having begged a jacket or two, left four boys as hostage of their return with fish ; but heedless of its consequence, these wretches soon returned accompanied by a vast number of others armed in their canoes, and a determination was formed to resist their landing :--the blacks in consequence commenced a new assault with their spears, which were answered with muskets, and at length retreated with the loss of two killed, besides several being wounded.
They returned the same day from the back of the island unperceived ; and in increased numbers taking the little party by surprise, they were obliged to take precipitately to their boat as the only means of preservation : but leaving their provision and necessaries, upon which they left their adversaries voraciously regaling.
Unable to proceed for their destination they reversed their course, but could only reach Botany Bay, on account of contrary wind, and have there received from the owner every comfort and assistance.

1805 'SYDNEY.', The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (NSW : 1803 - 1842), 27 October, p. 2, viewed 23 August, 2015,

Organ, Michael :
A Documentary History of the South Coast Aborigines, 1770 - 1850
Including a Chronological Bibliography 1770-1990
Aboriginal Education Unit Wollongong University, 1990.


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Geoff Cater (2014) : Michael Organ : Canoes of SE Australia, 1797-1892.