Big Canoes

The centrepiece of this exhibition is a full sized replica of an Aboriginal canoe (nawi), cut in traditional style from stringybark (Eucalyptus obliqua). The Eora (Sydney coastal clans) possessed a canoe culture, and salt water, as much as the land, was their natural habitat.

The arrival of the First Fleet in January 1788 excited the imagination of the Eora and they quickly accommodated the presence of these new and gigantic ‘canoes’ into their language. They named the largest vessel, the 20-gun HMS Sirius, Murray Nowey (mari nawi) or ‘large canoe’, and the smallest, the eight-gun brig HMS Supply, Narrong Nowey (narang nawi) or ‘small canoe’.

In an unexpected way, the ships they had initially feared enabled the Eora to adapt to their new reality. Many would follow in the wake of Bundle, the first Aboriginal voyager, who sailed to Norfolk Island in 1791. Within a decade, Aboriginal mariners had journeyed to England, North America, Hawaii and India. Two would circumnavigate Australia — the first Australian-born people to do so.

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