ningher canoe

The story behind building a traditional Tasmanian Aboriginal canoe – Dark Mofo 2014

Canoe Masters

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Brendon (Buck) Brown tends the fire that is an intrinsic part of the ceremony of canoe-making. Image courtesy Fiona Hamilton

When Francois Péron published the first detailed European account of a Tasmanian canoe in 1807, he described a vessel just like the one now taking shape at MONA. On the morning of arriving with Capt. Nicholas Baudin in the corvette Géographe, Péron was making his way overland to Port Cygnet in search of a watering place for his ships when he stumbled on two canoes laid up on the shore. Made of three rolls of bark, bound together with string, each was equipped with a clay hearth containing a smouldering fire.

The Frenchmen had no clue to the identity of the makers of these canoes. It probably did not even occur to them that this might be important.

Yet only a few hours before, Péron had his first meeting with a young Tasmanian Aboriginal man. He wrote in his journal:

(13 January, 1803)

‘…our chaloupe (ships boat) seemed to attract his attention still more than our persons, and after examining us some minutes, he jumped into the boat: there, without troubling himself with, or even noticing the seamen who were in her, he seemed quite absorbed in his new subject. The thickness of the ribs and planks, the strength of the construction, the rudder, the oars, the masts, the sails, he observed in silence, and with great attention, and with the most unequivocal signs of interest and reflection …he made several attempts to push off the chaloupe, but the small hawser which fastened it, made his efforts of no avail, he was therefore obliged to give up the attempt and to return to us, after giving us the most striking demonstrations of attention and reflection.’

Who would take so much detailed interest in the construction of the french chaloupe, except a boat builder? Péron did not realise it, but he had probably just met his first Tasmanian Canoe Master – who was clearly keen to give this strange boat a sea-trial! Sadly, Péron did not find out this man’s name.


A sketch of the canoe found by Peron. Image courtesy of the Museum of Natural History, Le Havre.

It took until 1829 for another European, George Augustus Robinson, to finally record the name of a Tasmanian Canoe Master. Robinson describes him as possessing ‘a first rate characteristical skill in nautical affairs and is esteemed a superior navigator. He has occasionally made comparatively long voyages extending a long way up the Huon River and is a perfect adept in constructing catamarans.’ This man, Mangerner, was the father of Trucanini. A countryman of Mangerner’s, and the husband of Trucanini, was also an expert canoemaker. His name was Woorrady.


Woorrady. Image courtesy of the British Museum.

Woorrady is known to have made dozens of canoes, using paperbark, stringybark and rushes. He told Robinson of the great seafaring nations of southern Tasmania:

‘Tonight WOORRADY entertained us with a relation of the exploits of his nation and neighbouring nations or allies. Said that the NEEDWONNE natives-as also the Brune, PANGHEININGH and TIMEQUONE -went off in catamarans to the De Witt Island and to the different rocks, and speared seal and brought them to the mainland. Also went to the Eddystone  and speared seal: this rock is miles distant and is a dangerous enterprise. Many hundred natives have been lost on those occasions. Those nations to the southward of the island was a maritime people. Their catamarans was large, the size of a whaleboat, carrying seven or eight people, their dogs and spears.


Boats of the kind built on Cape Barren, off Babel Island, 1893. Image courtesy of Museum Victoria.

Woorrady learned his skills in his home country – Bruny Island. He built canoes as he travelled throughout the south west and west coasts of Tasmania – travelling with Robinson in an effort to bring an end to the war between Aborigines and the invading British settlers. When Aborigines were removed by the Governor to the islands of Bass Strait, Woorrady continued to make canoes as he needed them.

Buck Brown continues this tradition as one of a small number of today’s Tasmanian Aboriginal Canoe Masters. Like the un-named young man who inspected Péron’s boat, like Mangerner and Woorrady, Buck comes from a family of master boat-builders. Since the late 1800s, Buck’s family has been building boats on Cape Barren Island – in the same waters that carried Woorrady’s watercraft. From sleek, fast cutters, to luggers and other fishing boats, Cape Barren boats have met the needs of the Aboriginal community up to the present day.

In 2014, the culture of Tasmanian Aboriginal boat building comes to MONA.


Author: tawatja

cultural history and heritage researcher, Tasmania

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