In 2007, Brendon (Buck) Brown, Tony Burgess, Sheldon Thomas and Shayne Hughes revived the tradition of canoe building, constructing this canoe – the first in nearly 170 years – for TMAG’s ningina tunapri exhibition. The skills of the men were put to the test when their second canoe was successfully launched in the sheltered waters of Cornelian Bay on the River Derwent. Since that historic moment, several more canoes have been constructed. One has even been paddled across the D’Entrecasteaux Channel from Bruny Island proving the craft to be stable and seaworthy.
These remarkably stable and sturdy canoes were used by Tasmanian Aborigines to journey to offshore islands to hunt seasonally plentiful food, such as mutton birds and seals. In 1831, Aboriginal leader, Wurati (Woorrady) , told of long and dangerous voyages to islands as far as Eddystone Rock and Pedra Blanca, up to 25 km off-shore:
“Their catamarans was large, the size of a whaleboat, carrying seven or eight people, their dogs and spears. The men sit in front and the women behind”
– Woorrady, as told to G.A. Robinson
Materials used in the manufacture of these canoes varied with the region: stringy-bark in the south; paper-bark in the north-west; reeds in the east. Their resourceful construction, however, remained the same: three to five bundles of bark or reed, lashed together with fibre cord and tapered at the ends so that the bow and stern rose high out of the water. Fire was carried on a bed of clay and the canoe was propelled by a pole, or by a person swimming alongside.
The revival of these ancient skills is testament to the enduring and adaptable nature of Aboriginal culture, and can be largely attributed to five small canoe models that were made in the 1840s, and held at TMAG. These models now serve not as a memorial to a lost tradition, but as a way to impress the object’s importance on the generations of today and tomorrow.