Stephen is a Curator at the Australian National Maritime Museum. In 2014 he developed the War at Sea - The Navy in WWI exhibition. He was previously responsible for the collection areas of Environment and Industry. In 2015 Stephen developed a display showcasing Australian and Indonesian maritime connections. He has research interests in early colonial Australian history, Pirates and Vikings.
Warning: This article contains some words and terms used in the past by non-Aboriginal people that would be considered inappropriate today.
In the 19th century, Aboriginal people in the Sydney region used rivers, creeks and waterways as places of refuge and survival after the devastation of colonisation. In the first decade of the British colony, waterways were also important in resistance warfare. From 1788 to 1810 there were numerous raids conducted in canoes, as well as attacks by Aboriginal warriors on British vessels. The role of nawi – the Sydney tied-bark canoe – in this conflict has been overlooked by historians.
Maritime archaeologists and technicians study the shipboard computer screens during the 3D photographic survey of submarine HMAS AE1, in early 2018. Image courtesy Navigea Ltd.
Expanding the Archaeologist’s toolkit
Once upon a time, the archaeologist’s toolkit was likely to consist of a shovel, trowel, bucket, brush, stakes and string. Today it includes a multitude of technological tools such as magnetometers, drones, ground-penetrating radar, 3D imaging and all sorts of acronyms including DGPS, LIDAR, ROVs, AUVs and many more. In the past, archaeologists were digging trenches in the ground or diving in shallow waters. These days even the roughest terrain and deepest of waters can be part of the archaeologists working environment. What was once thought impossible is increasingly possible – for example, the search for Australia’s first submarine AE1, lost in 1914 and thought one of the greatest unsolved Australian maritime mysteries, is now complete.
Today, an archaeologist can ‘look’ below the ground without even digging, they can send remote operating vehicles to incredible depths under water, and some are even investigating the potential for an ‘archaeology of the air’. And now with DNA analysis archaeologists can construct very human pictures from old bones.
On the 12th of June 1886, a crew member of the German barque Paula performed what was a routine task on voyages around the world at the time – he dropped a tightly sealed glass bottle, containing a piece of paper, overboard. The paper was a printed form letter that was filled out with hand-written details of the ship and its location. It included instructions for anyone who might find the bottle washed ashore: they were requested to send the note to the Deutsche Seewarte (German Maritime Meteorology Institute) in Hamburg, or to their local German Consulate.
In early 2018, 132 years after the Paula’s note had been dropped in the ocean, a Western Australian woman Tonya Illman was strolling along the sand dunes on a beach near Wedge Island, 180 kilometres north of Perth. She noticed something sticking out of the sand, it was the Paula‘s message in a bottle, still with the paper inside and with some hand-writing still faintly legible. Tonya had stumbled across the longest known unfound message in a bottle in the world.
A scene from the Remembering Mabo rooftop projection showing Australia’s numerous First Nations and their many languages. Image: ANMM.
In 1992 the landscape of modern Australian politics and society was unsettled by a ground-breaking High Court case that ruled against the idea that before the Europeans arrived Australia was terra nullius (or ‘nobody’s land’). The decision led to the native title Act of 1993, which transformed the nature of the long struggle by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people for the recognition of their land and ultimately, sea rights.
Statue of Yarri at Gundagai in southern New South Wales. Photo: Stephen Gapps.
On Friday June 25 1852 the small township of Gundagai, nestled on the river flats of the Murrumbidgee River, was completely destroyed when the flooded river burst its banks. Previous floods had not been this devastating and the early settlers ignored the advice of local Aboriginal people not to build on the low lying ground. Over two days around 80 people drowned from the 250 European residents then living in the township that had grown up around the river crossing. Nearly a third of the population were killed in what still remains as one of Australia’s greatest natural disasters. However another third of the township were rescued – plucked from rooftops or trees and ferried through the raging current to safety in bark canoes.
Able Seaman Thomas Fleming Walker in the uniform of the New South Wales Naval Brigade circa 1900. ANMM Collection 00054875. Gift from John Walker.
Moustaches were big in the late 19th century. Really big.
As the wielder of a reasonably large moustache, I thought I might look into the museum’s collection of photographs and see how many and what sorts of moustaches are there. My hunch was correct – there are hundreds and hundreds of them. From nice thick ‘chevrons’, to the simple ‘English style’, to the classic ‘handlebar’ and even a few ‘walrus’ and ‘toothbrushes’. So I thought I would create a display of Maritime Moustaches in time for that important event every year – Movember!
Nawi (Sydney tied-bark canoe) with fire at Nawi 2012. Photograph Andrew Frolows
On 9 November the museum will host the second national conference on Indigenous watercraft. Nawi 2017 – Travelling Our Watersbrings together traditional watercraft builders, community members, historians, students and others to share knowledge and culture about canoes and all the other incredible and diverse watercraft made by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
The one day symposium will feature talks by people from the Kimberley, Torres Strait Islands, Arnhem Land and Tasmania. The presentations are diverse. Djambawa Marawili AM will present on the story of the Blue Mud Bay Sea Rights Case. Jimmy Thaiday and Lynette Griffiths will talk about Ghost Nets in art. There will be talks about the heroic Yarri and Jacky who rescued dozens of people from the 1852 Gundagai floods in bark canoes, and an important focus on youth and Indigenous watercraft.
Uncle Moogy in his yuki at Nawi 2012. Photograph Andrew Frolows
There will also be traditional bark canoes being constructed through the day and an opportunity to see the Gapu-Monuk Saltwater- Journey to Sea Countryexhibition, as well as a host of other activities and displays about the maritime history and cultures of Indigenous Australia.
Registration details for this wonderful opportunity to learn about nawi tied-bark canoes, rolled bark ninghers, bardi rafts and more can be found here. You can view the full program here. Hurry – there are limited places and a special offer to attend the opening night of Gapu-Monuk on 8 November.
The blackbirding schooner Daphne was seized by HMS Rosario in 1869. Samuel Calvert (1828-1913) and Oswald Rose Campbell (1820-1887) – State Library of Victoria.
In 1847 Benjamin Boyd, an early colonial businessman better known for his whaling ventures, shipped 65 men from New Caledonia and Vanuatu to Eden on the south coast of New South Wales. Boyd’s experiment in finding cheap indentured labour among the Pacific Islands was a failure, but he had foreshadowed a labour practice that was in many instances to hold all the hallmarks of slavery.
Chinese junk from the David Waters collection, Royal Museum Greenwich, circa 1930.
Ningbo is a smallish city near Shanghai of just 7 million people. It was once one of the five ‘Treaty Ports’, when colonial powers were forcing China into trading concessions during the 19th century. Ningbo had always historically been an important juncture of trade networks between China, Korea and Japan – and beyond. Its maritime history was the focus of a conference I recently attended, exploring what is now called the ‘Maritime Silk Road’ – the incredible trade routes that stretched from China to Africa over the past one thousand years or so. The sight of Chinese junks and Sampans in the Indian Ocean is now reasonably well known and forming the basis of a possible World Heritage listing for the maritime silk road. However, there was little knowledge and some interest at the conference in my research paper on the history of Chinese junks and sampans that were built in Australia between 1870 and 1910.
Aalingoong. Riji (engraved pearlshell) designed by Aubrey Tigan Galiwa depicting the metaphiscal serpent Allingoong (commonly known as the rainbow serpent) as he deposits pearshell in the bays of King Sound (Kimberley, WA). Courtesy Peter and Sarah Yu
The museum has been fortunate to host a travelling exhibition on the history of pearling and the uses of pearl shell. The award winning exhibition – Lustre: Pearling and Australia – has been very well received by visitors but unfortunately will close soon. If you haven’t seen it yet, do yourself a favour and get along to the National Maritime Museum before August 13. Lustre is full of fascinating objects and interesting stories, particularly the long cultural importance of pearl shell in north western Australian Aboriginal communities.
船員と犬 A watercolour of a foreign sailor and his dog by Japanese Samurai artist Makita Hamaguchi in 1830. Image courtesy of Tokushima prefectural archive
In the early 19th century Japan had closed its doors to foreign ships in an effort to resist colonisation. One day in January 1830, a British flagged ship appeared off the coast of Mugi, in Shikoku, southern Japan. A low-ranking Samurai official duly recorded information about the ship and its crew before being ordered to send it away by firing cannon at the vessel. The ship, the brig Cyprus, was in fact a pirated vessel with a crew of escaped convicts from Tasmania under the command of the self-styled ‘Captain William Swallow’. Until now, this wonderful record of Australian pirates in Japan has been sitting, unrecognised in a Japanese archive.
Indonesian sailors in Sydney in 1945 listening to the proclamation of Indonesian independence, recreated for the 1946 film Indonesia Calling by Joris Ivens. National Film and Sound Archive, Australia
This weekend (25-26th February 2017) the President of Indonesia will visit Australia for the first time since being elected in 2014. President Joko Widodo will be talking with the Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Much of the discussion – typical of Australia’s long relationship with its northern neighbour – will undoubtedly be about maritime related affairs. As Indonesia furthers its policy of focusing on maritime development as one of fundamental importance in an archaepeligo of around 18,000 islands, the historical maritime links between the two countries should not be forgotten.
In honour of the President’s visit to Sydney over the weekend, the museum will display an exhibition that explores one of the most significant – and largely forgotten – periods of strong bonds based on maritime links in the two nations histories. The display Black Armada – Australia’s support for Indonesian Independence 1945-1949was developed for the 75th anniversary of independence in August 2015. The exhibition has been on display at the Museum Benteng Vredeburg in Jogjakarta, the ARMA museum in Bali, as well as here in Darling Harbour.
You can read more about this fascinating and important period of Australian links with Indonesia in the museum’s Feature Story.
Worimi man Steve Brereton paddles a nawi in Darling Harbour in 2012. Image: Andrew Frolows/ANMM.
On 26 January the museum has often sailed the HMB Endeavour replica in the Tall Ships Race on Sydney Harbour. This year, Endeavour will not be out, but another important vessel linked to the museum will be involved in the 26 January events.
At 7.30am on Thursday at Barangaroo Reserve a bark canoe – or nawi in the Sydney Aboriginal language – will bring ashore a small fire from the Tribal Warriorvessel. The fire will be lit as part of the WugulOra (One Mob) ceremony that will begin Australia Day events in Sydney by ‘recognising our shared history’. Previously held at the Opera House, WugulOra will be at the new Barangaroo parkland site for the first time this year.
A traditional Aboriginal woven eel trap made by Yvonne Koolmatrie in 1991. The trap is made from a bundle of sedge reed stems coiled with a loop stitch. Yvonne Koolmatrie is from the Ngarrindjeri community in South Australia. Traps such as these were used in conjunction with complex stone arrangements. Reproduced courtesy of Yvonne Koolmatrie ANMM Collection 00015871
Traditional owners will find out next month if their push for a 6,000-year-old network of eel traps in south-west Victoria is to be supported for inclusion on the UNESCO World Heritage List. The eel-farms were built by the Gunditjmara people in south west Victoria to manage eels in Lake Condah and nearby Darlot Creek. They are among the earliest surviving examples of aquaculture in the world.
The eel farms cover more than 75 square kilometres and include artificial channels and ponds for separating eels, as well as smoking trees for preserving the eels for export to other parts of Australia. Just to be clear, this industry and the complex of stone arrangements including houses began around 6,000 years ago – before Stonehenge and the Pyramids.
Some of the Tribal Warrior crew practising for the Sydney to Hobart Race. Photo courtesy Daniel Daley.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have thousands of years of maritime history. More recently, Saltwater people were prominent in early colonial Australian voyages, such as Bungaree, the first Australian to circumnavigate Australia, with Matthew Flinders in 1802-3. Now, a crew from Sydney and south coast New South Wales are attempting to make history as the first Indigenous crew to enter the Sydney to Hobart yacht race.