The secret maritime history of the Aborigines in settling of Australia

Kathy Marks on new findings of how native people fared in Australia after their terrifying initial contact with Europeans

When the First Fleet appeared in Sydney Cove in 1788, carrying British convicts and settlers, coastal-dwelling Aborigines were terrified. They thought that the tall, square-rigged ships must be giant birds or monsters, and that the figures climbing the masts were devils or possums. One naval officer wrote that "the natives, alarmed, ran along the beach in seeming great terror ... they took their canoes out of the water upon their backs and ran off with them into the country, together with their fishing tackle and children".

But within a few years, and despite a smallpox epidemic that wiped out half the indigenous population, Aborigines in the Sydney area had adapted to the new reality. Having never ventured outside Sydney harbour before, they accompanied the English on globe-trotting voyages, witnessing the founding of new settlements and helping to explore new frontiers.

This little-known aspect of early Australian colonial history has been pieced together for an exhibition at the New South Wales State Library that provides a fresh perspective on the impact of European occupation. "It shows how Aborigines participated in colonial society and made a life for themselves," says Dr Keith Vincent Smith, the curator. "It also shows their incredible resilience."

Vincent Smith has uncovered the identities and stories of 80 men and women who travelled the world with British settlers and naval captains, starting with Bundle, a 10-year-old orphan who sailed to Norfolk Island with Captain William Hill, of the New South Wales Corps, in 1791.

Among those who followed in Bundle's footsteps – many of them on whaling and sealing expeditions – was Tom Chaseland, who married the sister of a Maori chief and became the most famous harpooner on New Zealand's South Island. The energetic Chaseland, son of an English settler and an Aboriginal woman, was a veteran of more than 20 voyages, more than any other Aboriginal sailor. Chaseland was said to have eyesight so keen that he once spotted a whale that could not be seen through a ship's telescope.

He survived two shipwrecks: one off the remote Chatham Islands, south-east of New Zealand, the other off Stewart Island, just below the South Island. He married Puna, sister of a prominent chief named Te Matenga Taiaroa. He also discovered, near present-day Dunedin, the fossilised leg bones of a moa, the extinct flightless bird, which were sent to London and are still in the Natural History Museum.

For millennia, coastal Aborigines had been skilled canoeists and dry-land subsistence; in fact, the centrepiece of the exhibition – called Mari Nawi: Aboriginal Odysseys 1790-1850 – is a full-size replica of a traditional Aboriginal canoe, constructed from the stringybark tree. With the advent of Europeans, they demonstrated a natural seafaring talent.

Australia's first inhabitants were also valued for their knowledge and expertise as guides, go-betweens, fishermen, pilots and trackers. At sea, they workedwith the British crew, and the two groups learnt about each other's language and customs. "There was definitely cross-cultural stuff," says Vincent Smith. "The Aborigines drank, swore and hung out with the British sailors."

The indigenous people had given the name mari nawi, meaning large canoe, to the biggest vessel in the First Fleet, the 20-gun HMS Sirius, and called the smallest, the eight-gun brig HMS Supply, narang nawi (small canoe). For some years, old and new co-existed: an 1804 watercolour attributed to the former convict John Eyre shows Sydney Cove teeming with both ships and canoes.

Sydney's coastal clans also helped to create colonial Australia's first, lucrative export trade: in sealskins, seal oil, whale oil and whalebone. With their fine eyesight, physical strength and spear-throwing skills, Aborigines were particularly well-suited to whaling. They were also tough. One seafarer, Boatswain Maroot was stranded on Macquarie Island, in the sub-Antarctic Ocean, for 18 months without food rations; he survived by killing seals, penguins and mutton-birds.

Aborigines accompanied the British on epic journeys, including to South America, India, Canada, the South Pacific, California and England. The adventurers included a husband and wife, Yeranabie and Worogan, who spent 11 weeks at sea, and Bungaree, who joined an expedition by Matthew Flinders to circumnavigate the continent aboard HMS Investigator. As well as being the first Aborigine to sail round Australia, Bungaree also visited Timor and Mauritius. Another notable sailor was Bennelong, who accompanied Governor Arthur Philip to England in 1792, where, by some reports, he was presented to King George III. Bennelong spent two years in London, but on his return he found it difficult to reintegrate into colonial society and started drinking. His wife, Gooroobaroobooloo, had gone off with another man while he was away.

Aborigines, who were prized for their ability to find water, catch fish, trap kangaroos and track runaway convicts, also helped to explore new frontiers and establish new colonial settlements. They helped founding settlements at Hunter River (near today's city of Newcastle, north of Sydney), Derwent River (now the Tasmanian capital Hobart) and Port Dalrymple (Launceston, in Tasmania). Mainland Aborigines were recruited to track and capture Tasmanian Aborigines. Some acted as go-betweens, smoothing the way in encounters between Europeans and indigenous people.

In recognition of their part in Australia's early maritime exploits, some Aborigines were given fishing-boats, land grants and metal breastplates. But they were also unwilling sailors in some cases, with resistance leaders such as Bulldog and Musquito transported to the Norfolk Island penal colony, in the South Pacific, in 1805 and later to Tasmania, then known as Van Diemen's Land.

The exhibition, which features old books, ships' musters, logs and journals, as well as paintings and lithographs, lists the 80 Aboriginal voyagers who sailed on a total of 123 expeditions in the first 60 years of European settlement, together with dates, vessel names and destinations.

Vincent Smith says: "This is an unwritten chapter in the cross-cultural shared history of New South Wales, and it shows Aborigines were accepted, at least in that part of society. It also shows they had the will and skill to survive. They had had their land taken away; they had suffered from the smallpox. What they did was make a life out of what had been a bleak picture of defeat."

The fall and rise of a people

1700 Captain Cook's ship 'Endeavour' arrives in Australia

1789 First recorded smallpox epidemic among the Aboriginal population. Smallpox diseases became the single greatest cause of mortality among Aborigines

1957 Atomic bomb tested in South Australia in an area with an Aboriginal population

1962 Commonwealth Electoral Act amended to give all Aboriginal people the vote

1967 Referendum is passed amending the constitution to remove negative references to Aboriginal people

1993 Ayers Rock is officially renamed Ayers Rock-Uluru. In 2002, the name is reversed to Uluru-Ayers Rock.

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