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edwards : aboriginal rafts and canoes, 1972 

Robert Edwards : Aboriginal Rafts and Canoes, 1972.

 Extracts, illustrations and photographs from
Edwards, Robert:
Aboriginal Bark Canoes of the Murray Valley.
South Australian Museum, Rigby, 1972.

Despite the definitive title, the book is illustrated with considerable material from the south east coast of Australia.

Page 6

For some years the South Australian Museum, assisted by the late Dr E. Couper Black, has photographed and catologued canoe trees within the State and created a new awareness of their importance to our nation's story.

When Europeans arrived in Australia, watercraft were in use in nearly all parts of the continent where large bodies of water existed.
When Abel Tasman visited the north-west in 1642, he reported them as crude and raft-like (Muller, 1898).
In addition to a range of wood, reed and bark rafts which varied from region to region, later explorers noted a number of distinct types of canoes.

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During their voyage of discovery in 1802 the French navigators Peron and Freycinet
found the Aborigines at Port Jackson, New South Wales, making extensive use of bark canoes
From a lithograph by Charles Lesueur.

The simplest craft consisted of a large sheet of thick bark stripped from a river red gum, Eucalyptus camaldulensis.
The two ends were pointed and the bark manipulated, while still fresh and pliable, to form a very crude boat which was used for crossing rivers and for fishing.
Usually it was propelled by punting with a long pole.
The fragile nature of these simple craft limited their use to the protected inland waters of the Murray-Darling basin, western Victoria, and the south-east of South Australia.
Immersion in calm waters for extended periods caused the bark sheets to become waterlogged.

On the rivers and creeks of coastal New South Wales and in south-eastern Victoria, explorers encountered a second type of canoe fabricated from large sheets of comparatively thin bark (McCarthy, 1944. pp. 184-187).
To make these canoes, the Aborigines removed a cylinder of bark three metres to five metres long from a tall straight eucalypt, usually a stringybark, Eucalyptus obliqua.
After the heavy sheet had been prised off, it was laid on logs.
The rough

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Tied bark c
anoes in use at at Port Jackson, New South Wales, 1802.

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outer surface was stripped and the ends thinned in preparation for tying.
A small fire lit under the sheet rendered the sappy bark pliable, and at the appropriate moment it was turned inside out and the ends bunched and securely tied with bark cord.
Thin saplings inserted at regular intervals across the canoe maintained the shape of the bark to the desired width.
Cord ties held the spreaders in place.
Further strengthening was achieved by forcing pliant branches into the body of the craft to act as ribs.
The tied bark canoe, although an unsophisticated type, was a decided improvement on the simple Murray Valley form because its greater depth and rigidity increased seaworthiness although it too became waterlogged after prolonged use. (Smyth, 1878, Vol. 1, pp. 407-410).

More advanced types of boats were encountered on the tropical northern and Queensland coasts.
These were of two basic types, the sewn bark canoe and the dug-out canoe, and were superior to those of the southern waterways.
They allowed fishermen to venture out to sea for long periods. (Roth, 1910, pp. 6-17).

The sewn canoe was constructed from broad strips of bark obtained from one or two species of eucalypt from whose trunks they were easily peeled in the wet season.
In some instances only a single sheet of bark was used, but this

This unusual floating wurly was a primitive watercraft seen on the Murray River about 1844.

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was unusual.
Most canoes were built by extending one piece of bark length-wise from bow to stern along one side, and sewing two sheets together to form the other side.
The two sides of the canoe thus formed were joined along the bow, stern and keel and then caulked with gum. To give added freeboard, the bow and stern were raised by sewing more strips of bark onto the sides.
A network of ties, stretchers, braces and ribs was employed to maintain the shape of the boat.
Small poles of mangrove wood were lashed along the gunwales to prevent the sides from collapsing.
When completed, pieces of bark were laid along the bottom of the canoe to give added strength and to afford a dry, protected floor.

A superbly made sewn canoe, collected in Arnhem Land by the anthro­pologist Sir Baldwin Spencer during his 1901 -02 expedition to North Australia, is displayed in the National Museum of Victoria.
This example, measuring five metres in length, was brought to the mainland by eight Aborigines from the Pellew Islands and navigated up the Macarthur River for a distance of over eighty kilometres.
Though the islands provided some shelter about thirty-two kilometres of open sea were negotiated during the voyage. (Spencer and Gillen, 1904, pp. 680-682, fig. 244).

The use of the dug-out canoe in northern Australia and Queensland was a result of Macassan influence during the regular visits by the trepang fleet out of the Celebes over several centuries.
The Aborigines were quick to note the advantages of the sturdy log canoes carried by the Bugis and Macassarese fishermen and obtained them initially by trade or theft.
Soon a new industry developed in the tropical forests and swamps of the north, aided by the metal axes obtained from the seasonal visitors.

The trepangers were responsible also for the introduction of the mast and pandanus sail, which became integral accessories both of dug-out and sewn bark canoes and which are so commonly represented in the cave art and bark paintings of Arnhem Land. (Davidson, 1935, p. 57).
To build a dug-out canoe, the Aborigines felled suitable softwood trees; usually the coral tree, Erythrina indica.

This was roughly shaped and hollowed out on the spot with steel axes, and the partly finished canoe was then carried or dragged to the water's edge.
Here, the final shaping was undertaken.
Careful chipping was necessary to work the sides down to a uniform thickness of about two to three centimetres.
The thickness was determined by tapping the canoe with a stick or stone, or by using the palms of the hands as a "precision gauge", placing one on each side of the area to be tested and moving them over it to judge its thickness. There was no keel on a dug-out canoe and its bottom was finished to a thickness of about eight centimetres.
Dug-outs could be six metres long and about three quarters of a metre wide. (Tindale, 1926, pp. 104-109).

The use of an outrigger in association with the dug-out canoe is a com-

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Tied bark canoes on Lake Tylers, Gippsland, Victoria, about 1888.
-National Library of Victoria, photograph by Mr. N. C. Caire.

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[Three illustrations, captioned] Canoes at Port Jackson, 1800.

a. Campfire and fishing canoes, Port Jackson, 1800.
b. Fishing canoe , Port Jackson, 1800.

c. Four bark canoes, Port Jackson, 1800.

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paratively recent innovation. It was used widely on the Queensland coast where it had been introduced from New Guinea by way of the Torres Strait Islands and Cape York Peninsula.

The Aborigines along our tropic coasts obviously learnt from their contacts with Melanesian and Indonesian navigators, but the indigenous groups along the stormy southern shoreline did not have this advantage — nor did they have trees suitable for the construction of seaworthy log canoes.
The large softwoods of the tropics were not to be found along the southern coasts or rivers.

In 1802 Matthew Flinders explored Australia's south coast. (1814, Vol. 1, pp. 53-193).
At King George Sound, Western Australia, he saw neither canoes nor trees from which bark had been taken for making them.
At Port Lincoln, South Australia, despite its fine harbour and numerous islands, he saw no sign of canoes.
Possibly the Port Lincoln area never grew trees of the types which are suitable to provide bark for canoes.
But the rivers and lakes of the Murray watershed and drainage system had an abundance of large trees and expanses of calm water, and this is where bark canoes were so common.
Explorers encountered canoes frequently in this region and found that the Aborigines invariably took to the water in times of alarm.
On one occasion, near Swan Hill in Victoria, a large group boarded twenty-four canoes and fled across a lake to a small island where they took refuge from an exploring party. (Mitchell, 1838, Vol. 2, p. 141).

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Bark canoes were seen wherever there was contact with the river people.
George French Angas, roving artist and chronicler of the early 1840s, and son of one of South Australia's founders, George Fife Angas, included two bark canoes in his superb watercolours of Aboriginal life (1846, Pis. 30 and 47) and also recorded a graphic verbal description of the simple craft (Angas, 1847, p. 54):
 "I crossed the river [Murray] in one of their canoes; which are made merely from a sheet of bark from the gum tree, warped up at the sides by the application of moisture and fire, and stopped at the ends with strong clay.
They are paddled by means of a long spear, having a sharpened kangaroo-bone fixed at one end, for spearing fish.
The spear is held in both hands, and the paddler wields it standing; preserving the most delicate balance, which a breath of wind is sufficient to upset.
During cold weather a fire is invariably carried in the canoe, raised on a small platform of clay, supported by wet weeds and mud; and by these fires they frequently cook a portion of their fish whilst on the water.
Two, or, at the most three individuals, can be conveyed in the frail shells of bark."

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According to several early observers, harpooning fish with the long propelling stick was by no means solely a night activity, Beveridge (1889, pp. 63-64), a pioneer settler in the Swan Hill District of Victoria, observed: "... they select a stretch of shallow water, full of reeds and other aquatic plants, over which the wary fisherman propels his canoe, using the plain end of the stick for the purpose.
Every now and then he thrusts the stick sharply to the bottom, thereby disturbing the feeding fish.
As a matter of course they rush away from the disturbance, shaking the plants in their hurry, which at once tells the keen-eyed fisherman the position of his prey.
After the plants have ceased shaking, the wily savage pushes his canoe gently up to within striking distance of the plants which were last in motion, he knowing right well that at the foot thereof his game is resting.
Poising his grained weapon but for a short space, he launches it with precision, and seldom fails to bring his scaley victim, quivering and glittering to the surface.

"When sailing over deep water, both ends of the stick are used; it is held by the middle then, and each end is dipped into.the water alternately."

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The Aborigines of Lakes Alexandrina and Albert, on the lower Murray, were particularly adept at spear fishing from a canoe as the shallow waters of the lakes were heavily stocked with fish which were an important part of the local diet.

This form of hunting required both patience and skill and on occasions during summer months one group would challenge another to a competitive hunt on some favoured ground.
Several days before a contest a large assembly would gather at the appointed place.
The two groups selected a number of their best huntsmen who were introduced at a "canoe corroboree" on the evening before the competition.
Canoes and spears were prepared before dawn and then competitors and spectators would make for the hunting ground in their bark canoes.
They ringed the appropriate site while the challengers took turns at spearing fish aroused for the purpose by a selected canoeman.
After two days of keen competition the most skilled huntsman was chosen and without any outward sign of elation he would be towed to the camping ground where he was received with excited approval by all concerned. (Smith, 1930, pp. 231-236).

These competitions were times of great enjoyment and occasions for meetings between different river groups.
Berndt (1941, p. 24) relates how the Moorundie people travelled down the river for such ceremonies, carrying possum and kangaroo skins and kangaroo sinews and bones for use in an exchange of gifts.

The canoe ceremonies of the lower Murray, said to be the most graceful of the traditional corroborees, extended upstream along well defined mythological lines.
Smyth (1878, Vol. 1, pp. 174-175) describes a "canoe-dance" at Moorun­die, and it was also one of the principal rituals performed by the Rufus people of Lake Victoria.
Both men and women joined in this ceremony, and were painted for the occasion with white and red ochre.
The performers are said to have formed themselves into a double row, each person with a stick herd behind his arms.
They moved their legs alternately to the time of the song.
Suddenly and simultaneously they would all remove the sticks from behind their arms, and hold them up in front, and then commence swaying their bodies alternately from side to side, in the most elegant manner, imitating in all their movements the paddling of their bark canoes. (Angas, 1847, pp. 101-102).

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A unique photograph of a Murray River bark canoe being made in 1962. [cropped]

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The time required to make a bark canoe depended upon several variables: its projected size, the number of people available to assist, the season of the year, and how urgently it was needed.
If the occasion warranted, a piece of bark could be removed from a river red gum with the aid of a stone axe and converted into a small canoe in a matter of half an hour.
Frail and perishable no doubt, but adequate for immediate use.
Hawker (1841-45, p. 96), who used bark canoes almost continuously while at Moorundie, had no difficulty in obtaining canoes at short notice in April 1844.
He instructed an Aboriginal to cut two small canoes, and returned on the following day to find them com­pleted.
The procedures involved in making these craft must have been expertly carried out, because he and a companion used them on the next day to go out on
a lagoon and shoot teal and geese.

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Such small canoes could be made rapidly, but a number of men was required to make a large and durable canoe.
After it had been shaped and tied, a seasoning period of two weeks and regular rubbing with grease and ochre were desirable if the canoe was to last for its maximum life of about two years.

Easy removal of large slabs of bark was possible only during the late spring-summer growth period, when the sap flowed freely between true bark and the hardwood core of the tree.
So this was another determining factor in the time taken to make a canoe.
The period of the year most suited to bark stripping for canoes varied according to the season.
The sap was not rising freely in trees along the Murrumbidgee River in October 1824 when Hovell and Hume wanted to obtain bark for a canoe (Hovell and Hume, 1831, p. 8) nor on the Darling River in October 1844 when Captain Sturt required a canoe for one of his party to cross the flooded river. Camboli, his Aboriginal companion, is reported to have had a "fatiguing task" in removing bark for a small canoe. (Sturt, 1849, Vol. 1, p. 138).

Hawker (1841-45, p. 79) appears to have had no difficulty in having canoes cut in June, August and September 1843, and in April 1844, but Le Souef in his description of canoe making at Swan Hill in 1848 (undated MS., p. 25), describes how the Aborigines had to strike the bark all over in order to loosen it.
It is interesting to note that Aborigines in other parts of Australia used the same techniques and encountered the same problems when removing pieces of bark for shields and carrying dishes.
The trees sought to provide bark for canoes varied with the district and also with the size of the canoe required.
Heads of families generally needed canoes sufficiently large to convey their families and possessions, while single men contented themselves with smaller canoes, finding them more suited to pursuing aquatic birds during the moulting season.
Generally, a two metre

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This picture of fishing canoes on the Murray River shows how Aborigines used their heavy spears to propel these simple craft.

canoe would carry two people: one of two-and-a-half metres in length would take three passengers, and a three to three-and-a-half metre craft sufficed for four travellers.
Large canoes of up to six metres could comfortably accom­modate six or more people.

The best canoes undoubtedly came from the river red gum with its thick bark, but the mountain ash, box, stringybark, some blue gum, and the white gums of the river valleys, and even Snowy River mahogany, were used, particularly in Victoria and New South Wales.
The red gum was plentiful along the Murray, and the most suitable trees had slight curves in their trunks.
Bark selected from such trees saved the Aborigines many hours of work, because if they used bark taken from a straight trunk, they had to curve each end by means of fire.

Hawker (1901, p. 3) recorded a comprehensive description of the river canoe-maker's techniques which he must have witnessed on many occasions: "... a good deal of judgement was required in the manufacture.
Several trees were carefully examined for the thickness of the bark — the gum tree is nourished entirely by the sap running through the bark. The centre of the tree may be burnt by bushfires, but so long as a strip of bark remains there will be foliage."

Page 32, facing.

Many centuries ago, the aborigines cut bark for
a canoe from this fine red gum at nor-West bend
station, near Morgan, South Australia

Photograph: Robert Edwards
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On the Darling River in 1844, Charles Sturt had assisted the canoe builders to move into the Iron Age.
Upon meeting an Aboriginal working diligently with a stone axe on ariverbanktree, Sturt (1849, Vol. 1, pp. 127-128) recounted in generous fashion: "With such an implement he would hardly finish his

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work before dark. I therefore sent for an iron tomahawk, which I gave to him, and with which he soon had the bark cut and detached.
He then prepared it for launching by puddling up its ends, and putting it into the water, placed his lubra and an infant child in it, and giving her a rude spear as a paddle, pushed her away from the bank.
She was immediately followed by a little urchin who was sitting on the bank, the canoe being too fragile to receive him; but he evidently doubted his ability to gain the opposite bank of the river, and it was most interesting to mark the anxiety of both parents as the little fellow struck across the foaming current.
The mother kept close beside him in the canoe, and the father stood on the bank encouraging his little son.
At length they all landed safely, when the native came to return the tomahawk, which he understood to have been only lent to him.
However, I was too much pleased with the scene that I had witnessed to deprive him of it, nor did I ever see a man more delighted than he was when he found that the tomahawk, the value and superiority of which he had so lately proved was indeed his own. He thanked me for it, he eyed it with infinite satisfaction, and then turning round plunged into the stream and joined his family on the opposite bank."

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One of the canoes issued by the Government of South Australia for use by Aborigines on
the lower Murray River and on lakes Alexandria and Albert.
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While the white man's axe enabled expansion of the canoe-making industry, his territorial claims cut the Aboriginal off from his raw materials.
This had drastic effects as the Aborigines could no longer fish in their traditional spots and obtain their own food.
The Government could provide them with food for the body, but as in so many other cases they were robbed of sustenance for the spirit when they were barred from such traditional cultural pursuits as canoe-making and all that they meant to their pattern of life.

The South Australian Legislative Council concerned itself with the plight of the Aborigines in South Australia, including the populous lakes and lower Murray, as early as 1860.
A Parliamentary Select Committee heard evidence from F. W. Howell, the Superintendent of Convicts, concerning Aboriginal problems.
He testified that the land had been purchased around the lakes and that the owners had barred the Aborigines from cutting bark from gum trees.
One of the greatest gifts the Government could give the people, he said, would be a canoe to each family.
When the Committee suggested to Howell that canoes for the lakes could be obtained from as far as 160 kilometres up-river, where gum trees flourished, he thought it was preferable to provide the bark

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thereby permitting the Aborigines to retain at least a part of their old occupation.

A sympathetic government was quick to respond, and canoes were made available.
But five years later the Protector of Aborigines (Walker, 1865, p. 266) was reporting on the need for further assistance: ". .. the Wellington blacks are also very badly off for boats or canoes — those which were supplied to them by the Government, about six years ago, are all worn out.
There are one or two bark canoes here which are very unsafe. One parted in the centre not long ago with two blacks in it, and one was very near being drowned in consequence.
The blacks cannot now procure bark canoes as they could in former years.
The want of boats is very much felt at Wellington where the tribes are divided, living on both sides of the river; and in bad weather I have known the sick, aged, and infirm to be almost starving for two or three days, because they had not a boat to come across to get their rations.
The boats are also required for fishing and shooting — they cannot use their nets without the assistance of a boat, and they cannot cross the swamp or lagoons to shoot duck or swan except in a boat.
The blacks on the Coorong are quite as bad if not worse off, as their living mainly depends on fishing and shooting; and they fish by nets there, and are seen to go into the water up to their armpits to set them, and the general consequence is that they get colds and die.
New boats could be made for about £4 each, strong and serviceable.
The blacks generally die from cold and privation, and very frequently their deaths may be attributed to their being obliged to go into the water in cold weather — being compelled by hunger to do so for want of a boat."

The last stronghold of the lower Murray people, known at the time as the Narrinyeri, was at Point McLeay where the Aborigines' Friends Association of Adelaide established a settlement in October 1859.
The first missionary in charge was the Reverend George Taplin.

The people at Point McLeay, like those at Wellington and on the Coorong, were dependent upon spear fishing from their bark canoes for a livelihood and Taplin (1874, p. 30) noted that: "The men are very expert in the use of them."

A special correspondent, who visited Point McLeay in the mid-1870s, noted that the settlement took advantage of the Government supply of boats.
He wrote: "The natives have an encampment on the shores of the lake, and near it are moored a number of strong roomy boats, in which they go out fishing or shooting.
These boats are provided by the Government for the use of the blacks, and constitute their most valued possessions.
It was a thoroughly sensible and practical idea to furnish the natives with these boats, because by their means they can obtain an independent living in a way closely associated with their former free mode of existence."

One of the last tenders called by the Government for canoes appeared in the Mount Barker Courier, of 23 and 30 September 1887. The tender of R.J. Blackwell,

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for the supply of twenty-six canoes for the Aborigines at the sum of £5.2.0 apiece, was accepted on 21 October.

In 1894 it was decided to establish a local boat building industry at Point McLeay to provide employment for the dwindling population and ensure the availability of suitable boats.
A visitor to the settlement describes the newly established enterprise: "Down in a big woolshed on the lake shore we found Edward Kropingrie and Bertie Tripp (half-castes), and Albert Karloan (full-blooded native) engaged upon a pram 15 ft. [4.57 m] long, clinker built, well and securely ribbed and fastened with copper rivets, carefully if somewhat too strongly constructed from stem to stern. It was the first they had built, and it did them infinite credit.

"The light-draught flat-bottomed boats and the round-bottomed flat-bowed pram, which requires some practise to manage as it wobbles, like a boomerang, are much used by the natives for fishing and shooting on the lakes, and a boat­building industry is not a bad idea."

By June 1895 seven boats had been completed and these were distributed mainly to those Aborigines living away from the Mission and earning their own living by fishing. (Hamilton, 1895).

Conventional pram dinghies were a standard type of government work boat until World War II and were used increasingly by the Aborigines for their nomadic river journeys

Today, those white men who still remember the Aborigines on the river can recall only these larger boats.
However, Aboriginal oarsmen scorned the conventional thwart seat.
They sat in the stern of the boat on an upturned box, facing the direction of travel, and pushing, not pulling, on the oars

The bark canoe vanished from the scene in the early 1900s.
One of the last examples is said to have had an inglorious ending as a feed box in a Morgan stable.
Of the many hundreds of canoes used on the waters of the Murray-Darling basin, in western Victoria and the south east of South Australia, only two survive.
One example, about three metres long and nearly a metre wide, was presented to the National Museum of Victoria in 1924 (Registered No. 29907).
It was used at Bolton in the Swan Hill Shire of Victoria.
The other canoe, a superb craft five metres long and nearly one metre wide, was made in 1904 at Avoca Station and used on the Darling River.
It was presented to the South Australian Museum by D. H. Cudmore (Registered No. A6443)

EDWARDS, CLINTON R.: Aboriginal Watercraft on the Pacific Coast of South America.

Edwards, Robert:
Aboriginal bark Canoes of the Murray Valley.
South Australian Museum,Rigby, , 1972.


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Geoff Cater (2013-2014) : Robert Edwards : Aboriginal Rafts and Canoes, 1972.