aboriginal rafts and canoes, 1972
Edwards : Aboriginal Rafts and Canoes, 1972. Extracts,
and photographs from
Edwards, Robert: Aboriginal Bark Canoes of the Murray
South Australian Museum, Rigby, 1972.
Despite the definitive title, the book is
illustrated with considerable material from the south east coast
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
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.
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
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.
Tied bark canoes in use at at Port
Jackson, New South Wales, 1802.
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,
This unusual floating wurly
was a primitive watercraft seen on the Murray River about
Page 10 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
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.
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.
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- Page 11
Tied bark canoes on Lake Tylers, Gippsland,
Victoria, about 1888.
-National Library of Victoria, photograph by
Mr. N. C. Caire.
captioned] Canoes at Port
a. Campfire and fishing canoes,
Port Jackson, 1800.
b. Fishing canoe , Port
c. Four bark canoes, Port
Page 14 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).
Page 17 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."
Page 20 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
Page 22 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
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.
These competitions were times of
great enjoyment and occasions for meetings between different
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
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.
A unique photograph of a
Murray River bark canoe being made in 1962.[cropped]
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
Frail and perishable no doubt, but adequate for immediate
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 ona lagoon
and shoot teal and geese.
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
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."
centuries ago, the
aborigines cut bark
a canoe from this fine
red gum at nor-West
station, near Morgan,
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
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."
One of the
canoes issued by the Government of South Australia for
use by Aborigines on
Murray River and on lakes Alexandria and Albert.
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
A Parliamentary Select Committee heard evidence from F. W.
Howell, the Superintendent of Convicts, concerning
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,
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
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,
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
Today, those white men who still remember the Aborigines
on the river can recall only these larger boats.
However, Aboriginal oarsmen scorned the conventional
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
Museum,Rigby, , 1972.