Culture and heritage

Maritime heritage

Diversity in Aboriginal maritme heritage

Traditional watercraft used by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people

Aboriginal people built a wide range of watercraft for specific environments and to collect different types of food. The people of the Sir Edward Pellew Islands in the Gulf of Carpentaria had a particularly strong maritime culture and built complex stitched bark canoes. Later, new ideas grew from partnerships with the Macassan traders who visited the north Australian coast and the Yanyua people began building canoes dugout from tree trunks.

Dugout canoes were used along much of the north coast of Australia. However, the dugout canoes used by the Torres Strait Islanders were not influenced by the Macassans. These were built with double outriggers and other modifications that suited the strong currents and other seas in the Torres Straits. Along the east coast of Australia, Aboriginal groups developed a number of versions of the dugout canoe. Some had double outriggers and some had a single outrigger depending on their particular uses, preferences and sea conditions.

In areas with swamps, slow flowing rivers or protected harbours, a choice was made for lightweight, bark canoes. These could be made quickly, were transportable and had shallow drafts. Variations of this type of Watercraft were used in New South Wales, Victoria and the Northern Territory.

In Tasmania, a unique form of reed canoe/raft developed while in the north west of Western Australia wedge shaped rafts were made from the trunks of mangrove trees. These could be a single wedge or two wedges overlapped end to end. By means of poles, the rafts were navigated long distances along the coastal waters.

In the south west of Australia there does not appear to have been a need for watercraft of any type. This may simply be a gap in the record kept by early European explorers and settlers or a response to the land, rivers and food resources in this area.

Research project

Find out what you can about traditional Aboriginal watercraft orfishing practices in an area of interest to you. This could be

  • locally if you live near a river, a lake or the coast, or
  • in another part of New South Wales or Australia.

A good place to start could be your school library orlocal library. You may also need to look further afield to a museum, major library or a major museum.

Try to find out information about:

  • current Aboriginal use of riverine, lake or coastal fishing resources in or near your area?

What similarities and differences would you expect to find between current and traditional practices?

Page last updated: 03 September 2012