Mari Nawi | State Library of New South Wales

Mari Nawi: Aboriginal Odysseys 1790 - 1850 Mari Nawi: Aboriginal Odysseys 1790 - 1850

The first sailing ships that entered the world of the Aboriginal people of Botany Bay and Port Jackson in 1788 caused fear and wonder. They thought the ships were giant birds, monsters or floating islands and that the figures climbing the masts were devils or possums. The arrival of these ships changed their lives forever.

Big canoe Colonists Explorers Exiles Sealers and whalers Rovers

Aboriginal people embarked on voyages across the globe and played a significant role in Australia’s early maritime history. With remarkable resilience, they became guides, go-betweens, boatmen, sailors, sealers, steersmen, whalers, pilots and trackers, valued for their skills and knowledge. They were present at the establishment of new settlements, survived shipwreck and being marooned for years and participated in the first lucrative export industries. On occasion, they were unwilling voyagers transported as convicts.

These Aboriginal mariners crossed conventional social boundaries. Aboard ship all members of the crew worked, ate, slept, talked, smoked and drank together and learned something of each other’s languages and customs. In later years, some achieved the status of leaders of their people and a few were officially created ‘chiefs’ and given fishing boats, land grants and metal breastplates.

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