Scanning my way back through a lifetime of prints and slides I came on this set recording the making and launching of Wubbun Djabayena (the canoe called sawfish) at Maningrida in Central Arnhem Land. The Kunibidji people have salt water in their veins and know their seas and coastal waters intimately. In the 1980s the Australian Museum commissioned a working dug-out canoe from master craftsmen Jimmy Bungurru and Albert Wurridjal. They felled a large paperbark in a jungle outside of town and roughed out the shape there with axes and short handled adzes. The people of Arnhem Land have had increasing access to the steel tools essential for work of this sort for perhaps 400 years, the approximate date when it is believed that Macassan fishermen from Indonesia first started coming to Arnhem Land each wet season. They came to fish for trepang which they boiled and dried for the Chinese market. They came with canoes to use when gathering the sea slugs in shallow waters and often, fully laden at the end of the season, made presents of their canoes to the local people as rewards for assisting with their endeavours and to establish friendly relationships. The english colonists banned the trepangers in the first decade of the 20th century and so local people were now completely reliant on their own canoe-making skills, although no doubt many had begun making Australian canoes much earlier. Women weavers made sails from the fibres of the pandanus palm. In the Gulf of Carpentaria sails were of an Asian style, big rectangles extending both sides of the boat. In Central Arnhem Land some canoe makers began to follow European styles and Djabayena was more or less gaff rigged. Despite being mesh, the canoes could move at a good clip under sail. Notice the wake in the photo near the barge landing, when Jimmy and Albert needed only to sit back and steer. Canoes stayed fairly close inshore and used currents as well as wind. Canoes linked coastal communities and Djabayena Wubbunj demonstrated its sea worthiness with a trip from Maningrida along to coast to Warruwi, about 60km away before being loaded on a barge to eventual end up in Sydney. Leading the women weavers is Daisy Wurridjal, but I can’t recall the names of the other women. Aluminium dinghies have now replaced the dug-outs for hunting for turtle and dugong and for travelling along the coast. In the photo showing Albert standing in the prow he’s loaded for turtle with a detachable style harpoon fitted into the end of a long shaft and attached to a rope, hand-made from hibiscus fibre. The style was for the hunter to leap into the air to drive the harpoon deep and firmly into the turtle shell. After clambering back on board the turtle would be brought on board after it had tired. A tug of war would have resulted in the harpoon pulling out.

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