aboriginal rafts and canoes, 1878.
Brough Smyth : Aboriginal Rafts and Canoes, 1878.
Smyth, Robert Brough
The Government of
Printer, London, 1878.
the specific title, Syth's comments widely on watercraft from King George's Sound, in Western
Australia, to Tasmania.
NOTES AND ANNEDOTES.
They have a variety of methods of
At King George's Sound
I have seen them take a quantity of whiting in the following
Two or three women
watch the shoal from the beach, keeping opposite to it,
while twenty or thirty men and women take boughs and form a
semicircle out in the shallow bay as far as they can go
without swimming, and then, closing gradually in, they hedge
the fish up in a small space close to the shore, while a few others go in and throw
them out with their hands.
By this primitive
method, skillfully executed, I have seen a large quantity of
At Swan River, I have
watched them drive a shoal of large schnappers into water *
*See Fig. 253, from a
native drawing. Native of King George's Sound.
too shallow for them
to swim in and spear and catch a great number of fish weighing from ten to fifteen pounds
On the Murray River they use
boats made of a single sheet of bark, and on the north-west
coast of Western Australia they make rough log canoes for
In South Australia I
have seen them take out to sea a beautifully- made net, five
or six feet wide and fifty or sixty feet long, weighted at
one edge so that, while treading the water and holding it
out at full length, parallel with the shore, it is in a
vertical position six feet deep.
Others men and women
would then swim out for a quarter of a mile or more, and,
closing in, drive the fish against the net and then spear
The Murray River
natives use spears for fishing made of the reed which grows
in vast beds from Swan Hill downwards for thirty miles, and
also at Lake Moira above the confluence of the Goulburn River.
These spears are
pointed with bones of the emu, or such substitute as they
may be able to procure.
They also use heavy
jagged spears made of miall (sic) or other very hard wood for
Much ingenuity is displayed
in the manufacture of nets by the Coast tribes and the
natives of the Murray River, from string which, where
bulrushes grow, is made from the fibrous root of that plant, called on the Murray Balyan.
They peel off the
outer rind of the root, and lay it for a short time in the
ashes ; they then twist and loosen the fibre, and by chewing
obtain a quantity of gluten, somewhat resembling wheaten
flour, which affords a ready and wholesome food at all timed
to the tribes which inhabit the vast morasses in which the reeds and bulrushes abound.
They chew the root
until nothing is left but a small ball of fibre, which
somewhat resembles hemp.
These balls are then
drawn out, and rubbed with the palm of the hand on the bare
thigh of the operator, while a small wooden spindle twirled
with the fingers of the other hand twists and receives the
Among the few
specimens of art manufactured by these primitive people none
are more like our own than the nets of South Australia and
Fishing with nets
seems to have been a very ancient practice in different
Suetonius states that
Nero was accustomed to fish with a net of gold and purple.
corks and leaden weights as an addition which nets had
Homer supposes that
nets were not used by the ancient Egyptians.
The Egyptians did,
however, use weirs and toils in their fisheries.
The use of fish-spears
appears very clearly in the paintings of ancient Egypt.
The annexed plates (Figs. 253
and 254) are from drawings with pen and ink by an
untaught Aboriginal lad of the Upper Murray, known as
No. 1 gives a
good idea of a war-dance at the top and a corobboree
beneath, in which the dancers wear girdles round their
bodies, and fillets of emu feathers or of small boughs
round their legs, and hold waddies in their hands, which
they energetically strike together, keeping time with
fourteen in number, sit together, with their hands
uplifted, in the act of beating time on stretched skins,
while behind them is a tree with a bird on the top of
In the same
picture the artist indicates the method of emu-stalking
and of fish-spearing.
No. 2 also
illustrates a variety of subjects : a native man in a
canoe catching a turtle; a pair of emus standing by
their nest, and a man throwing a spear at one of them ;
another man throwing his dowak at a large lizard ;
another in a canoe spearing a fish, which is very well
drawn; nine men are engaged in a mimic war-dance for the
amusement of a squatter and his wife, who are looking on
; they are brandishing boomerangs, clubs, and shields,
and one has a pipe in his mouth.
A tame emu is
standing by, doubtless belonging
* Paper read
before Anthropological Institute, 17th April 1871.
Fish-spearing, Figure 253,detail.
Man in a canoe
catching a turtle, Figure 254, detail.
to the station,
which stands in the background.
There is much
spirit in these drawings, the attitudes of some of the
figures, and the faces of some of the women, are very
examined, I think we cannot avoid the conclusion that
Tommy Barnes is a close observer, and is
possessed of some artistic skill, which, if cultivated,
would have enabled him to draw well.
were hastily drawn, with no particular object in view,
and probably only for his own
They are also expert
in spearing fish at night from their canoes.
The canoe -which is
simply a sheet of bark cut off a tree with a bend in it is
allowed to drop silently down the stream ; a small fire is
lighted in the bow, on a raised piece of clay, of a peculiar
resinous wood, which bums with a clear, bright flame; the fish, attracted by the light, swim up to it,
and are immediately speared.
The canoes, being so
frail, require great steadiness in their management, though
on the Lower Murray I have seen them large enough to carry a
dozen men at once.
These large canoes are
cut off the giant swamp-gums.
They also snare the
wild turkey or bustard.
They approach as they
do when stealing on an emu ; but instead of a spear, they
carry a long light stick, at the extreme end of which is
tied a fluttering moth, as well as a strong running noose
hanging just below.
The bustard is so intent on
looking at the moth that he does not notice the noose, which
the cunning black at last succeeds in slipping over his
They cook their large
game in ovens made in the following manner :
A hole is made in the
earth, and lined with stones ; in it they make a fierce
fijre, until the stones become almost red hot ; the
kangaroo, or what they intend to cook, is then placed in the
oven, on the top of which some more hot stones are placed,
and the whole covered with earth ; the heat of the stones
and the confined steam together cook the meat.
The natives, as a rule, are splendid swimmers, though there
are tribes living in dry country who will not go near the
water, and cannot swim a stroke ; but among River tribes
water is second nature children hardly able to walk swim
It is strange to watch a blackfellow catching ducks by
He drops down the
stream with merely a small portion of his head above water.
When he is close to
the flock, he quietly dives, and draws
one or two birds under the surface ; these he at once kills
and tucks them under his belt ; he then rises to the
surface, but only shows his nose ; in a moment he is down
again, and another duck or two disappear.
I have seen a black
take seven ducks in this manner without creating any
suspicion in the flock.
They are also expert
in noosing wild-fowl.
Notes on Coopers
A small family of the
Yantruwunter go from the end of Strezelecki's Creek down to
Flood's Creek, and there meet natives of the Darling back
I think that the native mentioned by Sturt as coming to his
camp (I think at Fort Grey) was probably one of this family.
Capt. Sturt mentions that he made signs of great waters to
the west or north-west, and also represented the paddling of
canoes ; I think this really represented the hauling in of a
net or "Yammcu."
I have seen such a pantomime, but I never saw a canoe or any
place where bark for a canoe had been stripped in Central
The largest article in the shape
of a covering of any sort which I have known them to
manufacture with the exception of the opossum rug
is a circular mat, about three
feet six inches in diameter, made out of rushes by the
lubras, on the banks of Lake Alexandrina, into which the
Murray empties, and used by them and not by the men.
These lubras also make
rafts out of the reeds which grow on the banks, and on them
go out sometimes miles on the lake to fish with nets. Both
men and women are very expert at diving and catching the
large fish, which lurk amongst the stones and timber at the
bottom of the
On the coast it was quite a
picturesque scene of a night, when the waters of some little
bay were lit up with scores of lights, which were
continually moving and forming a variety of fantastic
These lights were
pieces of blazing bark, carried by men, women, and children,
who, each armed with a spear formed of a straight pointed
young sapling, waded about the shallow waters in pursuit of
the fish brought in by the rising tide.
The blacks appear to
enjoy a certain immunity from the sharks ; for although I
have known numbers of men and women to swim in and out off a large quantity of fish from the schools of
schnapper, extending sometimes more than a mile each way,
which visit these coasts about December, and which schools
are invariably followed by a host of sharks, ever on the
watch to pick up the weakly fish, yet I never knew of an
instance where a black was injured.
That may, however,
most probably be owing to the sharks being in a manner
gorged at the time, as I have also known the blacks to swim
off to the stranded carcass of a whale to get the coarse
meat or Ereng as it is called when the sharks
have been almost as thick round it as flies on meat during
The blacks are very expert in
getting the schnapper alluded to.
For days previous,
scouts are posted on the various look-out places to give
notice of the approach of the fish ; and as soon as the
alarm is given, the greatest excitement prevails men,
women, and children rush recklessly into the water, swim
towards the school, cut off a lot of the fish, and then,
forming a semicircle, swim behind the fish and drive them
into shallow water, where they are dexterously and quickly
To give you an idea of
the quickness of the blacks, I can mention an instance in
which three blacks, another white, and myself, speared
upwards of thirty large schnappers in about twenty minutes.
Another common way of
catching mullet and whiting, and such sized fish, is, at the
time the tide is coming in, for a black to take a bough in
one hand, a spear in the other, and a piece of lithe
sarsaparilla root which abounds on the coast round his
neck ; he then gets behind a school of fish, moves the bough
with his hand, causing a shadow to fall on the water, before
which the fish rush away in terror, till he gradually gets
them into water from two to three feet deep, where he can
deal with them to a certainty, for every time he darts his
spear he is sure to strike a fish.
The black gives each a
bite at the back of the neck, and strings it through the
gills round his neck till he gets enough, when he walks
ashore, broils his fish, takes his meal, and under the shade
of a tree rests from his labors.
I knew another instance where a
lubra called Charlotte, who had been taken away off the
coast when a girl by a party of sealers, and was living with
a man named Manson on an island called St. Peter's, about
fifty miles from Coffin's Bay, was on one occasion
proceeding in a boat on a sealing expedition to another
island, with her man, her two children, and another white
Jackson, when the boat
was upset by a sudden squall, and sank.
Charlotte and Jackson
rose to the surface, but neither Manson nor the children could be seen.
Charlotte swam about
for a considerable time in search of Manson and the
children, whom she was to rescue, if possible, at any
sacrifice ; but finding no signs of them, she turned to
Jackson and said " I will take you on my back and swim
Jackson, however, was
equally generous ; and, although they were then out of sight
of land, refused her offer, saying that he would do the best
he could for himself.
Charlotte then got one
of the oars, which was floating close by, and stripping
herself of the woollen and cotton shirts which she had on,
she rolled them round the oar for Jackson to lay his breast
They thus floated on
for some time, till the distance between them gradually
lost sight of Jackson, and never saw him again.
On nearing the
coast, near Avoid Bay, where the surf breaks with awful
violence and a noise like thunder for miles off the land,
she met with great difficulties, practised and wonderful
swimmer as she was, and had to dive time after time
repeatedly, to prevent being dashed to pieces against the
She succeeded at
length, after almost superhuman efforts, in reaching the
land about dusk, after being in the water from the early
part of a summer's day till then.
She assured me, and I
did not wonder at it, that when she made the land, and
attempted to walk up the beach, she fell down quite
To increase her
troubles, she shortly afterwards saw at a distance some of
the blacks belonging to that part of the coast, and being
afraid of being captured by them, concealed herself in the
scrub, and remained there all night.
Next morning she
started, and travelled cautiously on, till, finding some
cattle tracks, she followed the tracks till she came to the
herd, which were in charge of a white man, who kindly took
her to the hut, and clothed and fed her ; and, when suffi-
ciently recruited, she went into Port Lincoln, where I saw
her, and listened to her recital of the loss of her husband
and children, and her own narrow escape.
THE ABORIGINES OF
The natives of this place probably drew the principal part
of their food from the woods ; the bones of small animals,
such as opossums, squirrels, kangaroo-rats, and bandicoots,
were numerous round their deserted fire-places ; and the two
spears which they saw in the hands of the man were similar
to those used for hunting in other parts.
Many trees, also, were observed to be notched.
No canoes were ever seen, nor any trees so barked as to
answer that purpose." *
* An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, by
Lieut.-CoL Ck>Uiiu, p. 480.
The character of the weapons
made by the natives of Tasmania, the absence of ornament,
their using their clubs as missiles, and throwing stones
at their enemies when all their clubs were hurled, or when
they desired to keep their clubs for protection, indicate
a condition so much lower than that of the Australians,
that one is not unwilling, with Dr. Latham, to seek in
other lands than those from which Australia was peopled
for their origin.
Their implements were a vessel of bark, very neatly made,
for holding water, and baskets of different forms, like
those used by the natives of Australia.
The native names of the baskets were Treena, Tillti, and Trugkauna.
Large shells were kept for holding water and for conveying
it to the sick.
The natives necessarily had occasionally to cross rivers and arms of the sea.
Dove says that "the
contiguous islands of the Straits were frequently visited by
the tribes located on the northern coasts of Tasmania.
A species of bark or
decayed wood, whose specific gravity appears to be similar
to that of cork, provided them with the means of
The beams or logs were fastened
together by the help of rashes or thongs of skin.
resembled, both in shape and in the mode by which they were
impelled and steered, the more elegant models in use among the Indians of America.
Their peculiar buoyancy secured them effectually against the usual
hazards of the sea."
From another source I
learn that when, during their excursions in the autumn,
which were supposed to be from west to east, and in the
spring from east to west, and they came to an arm of the
sea, or a large river, or a lake, they made a kind of raft,
somewhat like the catamarans of the people of Torres
This raft was formed
of the trunks of two trees, about thirty feet in length, and
laid parallel to one another, and at a distance of five or
The logs were kept
together by four or five smaller pieces of wood, laid across
at the ends, and fastened by slips of tough bark.
In the middle was a
cross timber of considerable thickness, and the whole was
interwoven with a kind of wicker-work, this raft was
propelled by paddles with amazing rapidity.
Such a vessel if
vessel it can be called would carry six or ten persons.
When it had served its
purpose, it was usually abandoned; and when Tasmania was
first colonized, the whites not unfrequently discovered
these rafts or their remains on the sea-shore, or on the banks of the rivers and lakes.
The names of the
canoes were Malanna,
Mungana, and Munghana.
Mr, Hull says that
there were formerly many accounts of the drowning of natives
who embarked in these catamarans for the purpose of visiting
the neighbouring islands.
Their bodies were
found on the beaches.
Geoff Cater (2014) : Robert Brough Smyth : Aboriginal
Raft and Canoes, Victoria, 1878.