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Glass plate negative - Fish-tail bark and dug-out canoes, Melville Island, Northern Territory, in the background, photographed by Herbert Basedow, 1911

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Boys in a dugout and two bark canoes, 1911


This is a photograph by Herbert Basedow of three canoes just offshore. The foreground two are made of bark and hold two boys each; the farthest has been dug out from a tree trunk and holds five boys. There are two paddles for each canoe. Across the water is a well-vegetated landmass.

Educational value

Where there is water Aboriginal people often use watercraft. Over much of mainland Australia men made canoes out of bark, usually from a eucalypt. This photograph was taken on Melville Island. Bark canoes on Melville and Bathurst islands were distinctive in shape. They are long and thin with a supporting wooden rod on either side and characteristic 'fish-tail' ends. The canoes were used for moving between islands and for fishing.

On Melville and Bathurst islands, people used not only bark canoes but dugout canoes as well. Dugout canoes were made from the hollowed-out trunk of a softwood tree. Aboriginal people learnt to make them from Indonesian visitors who probably first came to Australia's northern shores in the mid-1700s. The canoes were propelled using wooden paddles and often sails as well. Sails were made from woven pandanus and more recently cloth.

Herbert Basedow was a doctor, anthropologist and explorer. From 1903 to 1928 he ventured to remote regions of central and northern Australia - places rarely seen by Australians even today. Aboriginal people often feature in his photographs. Basedow wanted to document Aboriginal cultures as they had been before British colonisation, and often went to some lengths to craft his photographs to appear as such.

This photograph was taken during a trip to Bathurst and Melville islands to inspect the health of Aboriginal people.

© Education Services Australia Limited and the National Museum of Australia 2010

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