A canoe culture

Keith Vincent Smith

Even before they could walk, Aboriginal children sat in canoes, clasped between their mothers’ knees and crossed ankles as they fished, the way in which, wrote Surgeon John White in July 1788, ‘they always carried their infants’.

Women and children sang while they fished, and laughed and joked with each other. Men and women skimmed across the water in their fragile bark canoes.

Saltwater, as much as the land, was the natural habitat of the Indigenous people of the Sydney coastal area, who called themselves Eora (‘people’).

The harbours, rivers, creeks and lagoons, sandy beaches and muddy estuaries were their natural highways and principal sources of fish and shellfish.

Although they burned and maintained pathways through the bush, the waters of the harbour of Port Jackson, Botany Bay to the south and the Parramatta River running  to the west were crowded with men, women and children coming and going by canoe. Long after the occupation of their land in 1788, Sydney’s Aboriginal clans had not relinquished these waterways, which were their true highways.

Their canoes (nawi) were about three to four metres long and about one metre in width, shallow and shaped from a straight sheet of bark bunched at each end and tied with cord or vines. Spacer sticks were jammed across the centre to hold the sides apart in tension.

Bark for canoes was taken from the stringybark (Eucalyptus obliqua) or from the goomun or ‘fir tree’ (Casuarina species).

Royal Navy Lieutenant William Bradley, who saw Aboriginal men making canoes and shields, noted that that they used a stone wedge to prise off the tree bark, with ‘a junk [chunk] of wood for a Mallet or Maul … they cut the bark round to the length they want & enter the wedges leaving it in that state sometime before they take it off altogether’.

Using prepared bark shaped over a fire, a nawi could be made in a day. The highest part of the canoe was seldom more than 15 centimetres above the water, yet the Eora skilfully navigated these simple craft.

‘They were by far the worst Canoes I ever saw or heard of ’, wrote Bradley, while admitting that they were paddled through heavy surf without overturning or taking in water. ‘Four or five people will go, in the small things, with all their Spears & Emplements for procuring their subsistence’, observed John Gardiner of HMS Gorgon.

Aboriginal women fished from canoes using handlines with shell lures. ‘In general, we observe the canoe occupied by the Women who fish with hook & line, which I never noticed any of the men to use’, wrote Bradley in October 1788.

Men usually caught fish in shallow water or from the rocks with a mooting, a long spear headed with three or four prongs, called a fizgig by the English.

The combination of these techniques, together with net fishing, yielded a wide variety of species.

Copyright Keith Vincent Smith 2017