The HMB Endeavour was not the first boat the First Peoples of Australia had seen.  Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander watercraft are Australia’s original boats and one of the earliest surviving examples of watercraft in the world.

Old footage, ancient knowledge

Towards the middle of the 20th century, researchers documented traditional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ways of life on film. The short documentary Aborigines of the Sea Coast (1948) is undeniably of its time, but nevertheless offers rare footage and insight into traditional practices such as canoe-making in Arnhem Land.

Caption: Aborigines of the Sea Coast, 1948. Produced by the National Film Board, directed by Charles P Mountford. From the collection of the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples please be aware this footage includes images and voices of deceased persons.

In the video, we see Yirrkala locals at home on the coast. Children play in the shallows while adult men go out in a four-person dugout canoe in search of turtles. Meanwhile, other members of the community use products in their natural environment to construct a bark canoe, share knowledge and build shelter.

The canoe-making recorded in the film is striking, not least for the insight it gives into Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander customs and attitudes. The narrator explains how different trees belong to different groups, highlighting the respectful relationships between people and access to one another’s land and sacred sites. Consequently, when choosing trees to utilise in canoe-making and shelter-building, the people on film chose carefully.

Bark canoe-making begins with choosing a good tree with no knots or holes in the bark. The tree typically used, the narrator tells us, is a eucalyptus tree. Bark is stripped from the tree using stone and metal tools, the latter having been acquired through trade with Malay sailors. The video helps bring this process to life: we see a man lifting an enormous strip of bark from a tree, with the bark standing at nearly two and a half times his height. 

The bark is then drenched in water before being moulded into shape using wooden stakes and weights. Fire and weaving, with the use of natural fibres, helps close and shape the ends of the canoe. The craft is then covered in sap in order to seal it and render it seaworthy. Remarkably, this entire process takes only a few hours. 

This is presumably similar to the method used for hundreds, if not thousands of years by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Tupaia, a Polynesian navigator on board the Endeavour, drew some of the earliest known pictures of these bark canoes.

Australian aborigines in bark canoes. Tupaia, watercolour on paper, 1770. Source: The British Library
Australian aborigines in bark canoes. Tupaia, watercolour on paper, 1770. Source: The British Library

James Cook recorded notes in his journal about the bark canoes for one or two people that he saw at Botany Bay and the dugout canoes with outriggers that he saw further north, including at Waalumbaal Birri (the Endeavour River). Cook comments with some sense of wonder that the outrigger canoes must have been used to journey

to the most distant Islands which lay upon the Coast, for we never landed upon one but what we saw signs of People having been there before. We were surprized to find Houses, etc., upon Lizard Island, which lies 5 Leagues from the nearest part of the Main; a distance we before thought they could not have gone in their Canoes.

Dugouts and canoes

While there are many varieties of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander watercraft, they can be divided into two broad categories: dugouts and canoes. Bark canoes were made using the process seen in the documentary film. Dugouts were more suitable for ocean going voyages and were stronger, made by carving out a whole trunk of a tree and shaping it inside and out to provide buoyancy and stability. This was a specialist craft involving great skill.