Contested waterways – Aboriginal resistance in early colonial Sydney

Acknowledgement to Country

The Australian National Maritime Museum acknowledges the Gadigal people of the Eora nation as the traditional custodians of the bamal (earth) and badu (waters) on which we work. We also acknowledge all traditional custodians of the land and waters throughout Australia and pay our respects to them and their cultures, and to elders past and present.

The words bamal and badu are spoken in the Sydney region’s Eora language. Supplied courtesy of the Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council.

Cultural Warning

The Museum would like to advise visitors that this content may contain the names and artwork, by deceased Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

<em>Black Bastards Are Coming</em> © Gordon Syron, 2013. This work re-imagines European contact from an Indigenous perspective. The artist reverses the roles of first contact by depicting black soldiers in military red coats, approaching shore and firing guns at the white people standing in the shallows. ANMM Collection 00054536, reproduced courtesy Gordon Syron.

Black Bastards Are Coming © Gordon Syron, 2013. This work re-imagines European contact from an Indigenous perspective. The artist reverses the roles of first contact by depicting black soldiers in military red coats, approaching shore and firing guns at the white people standing in the shallows. ANMM Collection 00054536, reproduced courtesy Gordon Syron.

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.

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Workshop on model watercraft

Flinders University, 29/30 March 2012

I am recently back from coastal Port Noarlunga on the Onkaparinga River south of Adelaide, where I held a two day workshop building models of Australian Indigenous watercraft.

Sponsored by Flinders University and coordinated by lecturer Jennifer McKinnon, I worked with 10 archaeology and maritime archaeology students, exploring the construction of different types of watercraft at scale and using this to discuss the background of the craft, plus the many aspects of indigenous  culture that are expressed through their diverse variety of canoes and rafts.

Participants of model building workshop in backyard

This was a workshop with a few differences; it was outside the classroom in a backyard, it was hands-on, it had fire, there were scones and Arnott’s assorted biscuits,  and there were no handouts or notes to take home.

One the key concepts of  Indigenous  watercraft construction was that the knowledge of their design and construction was handed on by word of mouth and demonstration, so I kept to that process, and the students took home the information in their heads and in their models.

We started sitting in a circle and talking about the background to the craft, the loss of the ‘canoe culture’ that once existed on many waterways, the diversity of craft around the country, and how I had got involved in all of this. Then we went to work using the samples of bark that Keryn Walshe, from South Australian Museum, had been able to source some days beforehand. Each model type began with me demonstrating the construction method then everyone had a go themselves.

Two workshop participants building model bark canoe

The process worked – watching, listening and questioning. The students took in the ideas and quickly produced models, sometimes taking them apart and improving them at a second go.   Throughout the two days we learnt about using materials in sympathy with what they could do, and we learnt about using and adapting what was around us too, seeking plants and parts of them from our backyard and kerbside surroundings to make ties, ropes, caulking and support structure.   We put them over a fire to dry them out and singe off the loose fibres,  used the spikes off Phoenix palm fronds as needles, saved twigs and branches form the fire wood pile to build rafts, all the time  sharing ideas and results.

Seven model bark canoes

As the workshop drew to a close we had five different types represented;   nawi or tied-bark canoes from south-east Australian coast, derrkas from Arnhem Land made famous by 10 Canoes, a walba raft from Mornington island, a rolled bark canoe from Tasmania, and a ‘shopping trolley’ type of towed raft based on an example I had seen in the National Museum of Australia’s collection.  We also had ideas forming for the next time- more model types, maybe larger ones too, and additional materials that could be useful.

Workshop participants with model bark canoes

To wrap up the two days I did a lecture in the city on Friday evening about the Australian Register of Historic Vessels ending with its focus on Indigenous watercraft and the forthcoming Nawi conference. Hope to see you all there!

David Payne
Curator, Australian Register of Historic Vessels

Admiral Pâris’s amazing encyclopedia

It may seem unlikely that a naval officer who fought in the Crimean War and who led the introduction of steam engines and ironclad warships into the French Navy would possess a delicate painterly hand. It also seems unlikely such a man would  favour rustic scenes of Malyasian dock workers or Indian fishing boats and their crews.  Yet Admiral François-Edmond Pâris was no ordinary nineteenth century French naval officer.

River boats at the Bay of Touranne in Indo-China

Admiral Pâris has to be one of the most fascinating characters in French maritime history. As a young man he was involved in the last of the grand French scientific expeditions to collect and classify the curiosities of the newly explored lands of Asia and the Pacific. He circumnavigated the globe with renowned French captains Dumont d’Urville and Laplace three times between 1826 and 1840.

Yet Pâris was also at the forefront of the introduction of steam ship technology into the French Navy and then later, was an important influence in the development of the great didactic museums of Europe. In his ‘retirement’ from the French Navy in 1871, Pâris became Conservateur or curator of the Musee de la Marine – the French Maritime Museum – until his death in 1893. During this time he ordered the construction of over 120 models of Indigenous watercraft based on his drawings and plans.

Pâris is best known for his fascination with Indigenous boats. During his Pacific voyages – where he visited Australian shores three times – the energetic Pâris documented what must have been every type of vessel he encountered. He drew plans and scenes of watercraft in such places as Senegal, the Seychelles, India, Malaysia, the Strait of Malacca, Vietnam, China, Singapore, the Philippines, Indonesia, Australia, Chile and Brazil. He drew canoes from Greenland, Arab dhows, Chinese junks, Malay proas and Pacific outriggers.

Ceremonial boat of the Burmese Emperor

Plan of an Arabian dhow

Pâris’s obsessively ambitious work culminated in an astonishing encyclopedia of non-European vessels that was published by the French Government in 1841-3. The Essai sur la Construction Navale des Peuples Extra-Européens  or Essay on Non-European Naval Architecture, includes a wonderful series of lithograph plates of images and engraved vessel plans and cross-sections.   

Pâris’s maritime ethnography of indigenous water craft is quite unique. His documentation of these vessels included meticulous plans of their structure and rigging that enabled accurate models to be made, yet he also painted some quite accomplished and vibrant scenes of these craft in use.

The lithographs produced from Pâris’s sketches and watercolours of busy waterfronts and working boats show different views of fishing vessels, lighters, sailing ships, canoes and barges. Not only do we see precisely how these vessels worked, but combined with his accompanying observations, Pâris provides us with a rich record of information about the Indigenous peoples who worked them.

Burmese war vessel

Pâris’s Essai sur la Construction Navale des Peuples Extra-Européens ranks as one of the greatest of all works on naval architecture. In 1994, with the assistance of the Louis Vuitton fund for collecting items relating to French exploration in Australia, the Australian National Maritime Museum acquired a copy. The sumptuously published folio is in two volumes, in thirteen parts, comprising 132 plates of lithographs and engravings as well as accompanying pages of explanatory text. It was a limited edition at the time and this significant publication is now quite rare.

As part of continuing the expansion of online access to the museum collection, over the coming weeks a selection of images and text from Admiral Pâris’s amazing encyclopedia will appear on the ANMM website.

Cantonese pleasure boat