Native ‘sailors’ in the Southern Ocean
‘Severe cold during the night’ complained George Robinson who travelled with a group of Aborigines through the bush near Mount Direction in northern Van Diemen's Land – now Tasmania. That night, on 15 July 1831, Wouraddy - whom Robinson called ‘my old and faithful companion’ – gave the most vivid account of his nation’s maritime enterprise.
Wouraddy talked about men who in the old days travelled to the Maatsuyker Islands - in southern Van Diemen's Land - to hunt for seals. De Witt, the largest in the group of islands is 10 km off shore. ‘The seas around the Maatsuyker Group take the full brunt of the southern gales and are dangerous even for modern craft. The voyages to these islands – says archaeologist Rhys Jones - must rank high in the maritime achievements of any hunting and gathering society.’
Many hundreds of people have been lost on those occasions - asserted Wouraddy and he continues: ‘Those nations to the southward of the island was a maritime people. Their catamarans was large, the size of the whaleboat, carrying seven or eight people, their dogs and spears.’
Wouraddy knew what he was talking about as he was a skilled boat-maker. Typically, rolls of eucalyptus bark or dry reeds or rushes were made into long bundles. Each vessel was made of three such bundles tied together with both ends upturned to form stem and stern, while the middle was slightly hollow. These canoes, or catamarans as Robinson calls them, varied in size from 3 to 5 metres in length. They were uniquely Tasmanian.
Just a month later, on their journey westward, Wouraddy made such a canoe for Robinson’s party to cross the river. First ‘all hands was put in requisition to procure bark’ and then Wouraddy ‘commenced manufacturing the machine, assisted by his wife [Truganini] and Pagerly.’ Normally he preferred to make a canoe alone, as long as others collected the materials. Such a canoe took ‘a large portion of one day’ to make.
The Tasmanian canoe is ingenious in its simplicity and an ‘organic’ construction. And, indeed, it has a conceptual element of a catamaran or outrigger canoe, where a central bundle of reeds is stabilized by a bundle on each side.
I contemplate the possibility that this design may represent the oldest maritime boat known to humans. If such watercraft were known in the tropics and constructed of bamboo – long before dugout or bark canoes with an outrigger were used - it could have supported the earliest maritime migration of people from Southeast Asia to New Guinea, Australia and near Pacific islands about 45,000 years ago.
George Augustus Robinson (1791 – 1866) was a builder and untrained preacher as well as Protector of Aborigines in Port Phillip District – now Melbourne – from 1839 to 1849. In the early 1830s he captured nearly all the indigenous Tasmanians who were then imprisoned on Flinders Island where he also was engaged as Superintendent. All but one of the above quotes are from his journals edited by Brian Plomley in 1966.