John Cleveley (c.1745-1786), Discovery and Resolution at an Island in the Pacific, 1777, 1780's,
Recording date:


Victor Briggs takes us on a navigational journey via the stars, sharing the essence of the connections with both land and sea people. 

Image: John Cleveley (c.1745-1786), Discovery and Resolution at an Island in the Pacific, 1777, 1780's,

Sailing & Navigation: Indigenous Seafarers


*Speakers: Susannah Helman (S), Victor Briggs (V)

*Audience: (A)

*Location: National Library of Australia

*Date: 19 January 2019


S:         Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. For those of you who were not in this morning’s talk welcome to the National Library of Australia. My name is Susannah Helman and I’m one of the Curators of our Cook and the Pacific exhibition.

As we begin I’d like to acknowledge the first Australians on whose traditional lands we meet, I pay my respects to the elders of the Ngunnawal, Ngunawal and Ngambri peoples past and present for caring for this land we are now privileged to call home.

This afternoon we’re privileged to hear from Victor Briggs, a Gumbuyah Gamilaroi man whose research was inspired by a family story about indigenous Australian seafarers who sailed to Hawaii. Victor’s research aimed to determine the extent of indigenous Australian seafaring in the Pacific and to provide a new perspective of indigenous culture to counter prominent European colonial history views.

Victor’s research explored oral histories from New Zealand and Hawaii and analysed rock paintings which depict innovative seagoing canoes. Please join me in welcoming Victor Briggs.


V:        Thank you, everyone. I'm a Gumbuyah Gamilaroi man and I hail from northern New South Wales. I did some research at the University of New England in which I wrote a thesis called Canoeing Ancient Songlines. Today I’d like to share with you this story but before I begin this story I too would like to pay my respects to my elders both past and present, to Ngunnawal and Nganbury people who are the custodians of this country and also to the next generation of youth who are the future of tomorrow.

This story is of reciprocated knowledge systems, a story of culture, an erudite culture that connects people, people who once networked and communicated with each other, a people who held intergenerational knowledge systems. This extraordinary culture is deeply rooted in environmental consciousness, total avatar, connection to country, connection to mother, connection to both land and sea, connection to the metaphysical reciprocated in altruistic, a culture submerged in deep ecology where the dreamtime and the metaphysical are one and the same. This is Australia’s Aboriginal people, the world’s first chemists, astronomers, botanists, herbalists, zoologists and explorers.

Aboriginal culture is about astronomy, kinship systems, religion, ritual, ceremonies, languages, laws, totems, sustainability, spirituality, conservation and the environment which reveals to us the nexus of what it means to be a cultured being. This slide shows two men walking in the Australian outback. This represents the image that most people have of Aboriginal people but I want to tell you today that this is not only part of the story, you might be surprised to learn that Aboriginal people from northern Australia were master navigators who traversed the Pacific Ocean. In fact some historians believe that Aboriginal people came here from elsewhere in the beginning, consider them to have been the world’s first serious sailors.

There is a very important picture I want to show you to begin my conversation today. This piece of rock art comes from the Gwion series of paintings located in the Kimberley region of Western Australia. This artwork is 17,000 years old and you can clearly see the four men in the canoe with three of the men holding paddles. What is striking about this canoe is its high stern and prow. Its design is for a vessel of pelagic deep sea ocean faring.

Not far from this piece of rock art was found is another painting of Asiatic antlered deer. In Australia there is no native deer so the story has travelled some 100km home from Indonesia where it was later painted on a rock formation to reveal those memories of indigenous exploration. The significance of this piece of art from the Gwion Gwion series is that western historians have always insisted that Aboriginal people were never an oceangoing people. This painting shows us otherwise. In the 21st century the old view is now being overturned by new research and studies about indigenous Australia.

This is a clearer picture of the Kimberley Gwion Gwion. From this you can see a small keel at the rear to guide it through the ocean swells.

During the Pleistocene Australia and Tasmania were joined. There was a large lake in between later called Lake Bass and named after Matthew Flinders’ comrade and first mate, George Bass. Papua New Guinea was joined to Australia, connecting swamps and tidal zones with a large lake there as well called Lake Carpentaria. The magpie geese here continued the annual migrations from as far as New Guinea around – down around Lake Carpentaria, past East Arnhem Land and back to New Guinea at later timelines.

The Holocene had some massive environmental changes. The sea levels rose some 100 plus metres. The continental shelf went some 13 to 33 miles out to sea which tells us when the sea levels rose land went so many kilometres out to sea where songlines today are still relevant, where story today still stand. Greater Australia was fertile, covered in vast ecosystems such as forests, bushlands and deserts, oceans, rivers, lakes and swamps. Large megafauna roamed here. Aboriginal people hunted these creatures and burnt off the country. For thousands and thousands of years Aboriginal people firestick farmed Australia, killing off life to bring on new life.

Aboriginal people had always lived with canoes. Aboriginal people lived off the land, what was on the land was theirs and it was shared and reciprocated. Earliest European reports on indigenous Australian canoe-making, modifying their canoes from bark to dugouts with shared ideas goes back to the written records of the 17th century by early Europeans around 1669 to 1763 by Dutch and Portuguese sailors where they viewed multiple Makassan navigators, Torres Strait Islanders and Papua New Guineans. Aboriginal people were able to quickly share canoe technology and it spread across northern Australia with dugout technology mainly spreading across the north of Australia while bark canoe knowledge spread rapidly across the south of Australia.

Makassan influences were very high due to intermarriages and interisland seasonal trade. Rituals were performed when cutting down trees to make canoes. This involved ceremonies where all the men would dress up and dance and compel the spirit of the tree to find a new home as this particular tree was specifically chosen to be cut down for canoe-making for the benefit of the tribe or clan.

With 17th century Makassan influence, Torres Strait influence and Papua New Guinea influence indigenous Australians’ trade in economic systems improved. So did the networking and marriages, cultural influences shifted right across the north of Australia from the Kimberleys to Rockhampton. Double outrigged canoes were witnessed out at sea island hopping from one island to the next.

With the new designs in canoe-making, with modifications and lashings and even sails and paddles Aboriginal people used the stars to navigate and they worked with the seasons at night time all around. Sydney Harbour canoes were witnessed on the ocean with fires lit aboard. Men were fishing at night and this was common right along the eastern seaboard.

The canoes made trade possible. Canoe also made marriages possible which then made the many kinships possible. Without canoes these interactions and communications were never possible. People traded everything from spears and shields to ochre, to all types of feathers for ceremonies and ethnobotanical knowledge uses in communities.

Aboriginal people had to understand the trade winds. This observation took time and is from sitting down generation after generation watching the seasonal shifts in the weather. For hundreds and hundreds of years Aboriginal people have watched the storms, winds, ocean swells and tidal surges. They knew when to moor a canoe when the storms were coming. Aboriginal people were masters at reading seasonal variations, when the north wind would come right after the southerly trades were finished, when highs were around and lows pointed out cyclone seasons. Bird behaviour and migrational patterns for flying both north and south, they knew when to plant certain plants at times of the year and when to fish at certain times of the year. This picture gives you an all ‘round emphasis on how the trade winds operated.

This picture shows you how the trade winds work in coordination with its opposite. Where the north and south pole are, with the earth slightly tilted on its side at 23.5 degrees known as the obliquity of the ecliptic giving us our four seasons. From south easterlies you have north westerlies and so forth. As a result northeast and northwest at two times a year while south-east and southwest at certain times of year, every four to six months or so. The knowhow of this reveals how Aboriginal people made return journeys according to the seasons, operating under systems at night using Polaris, the north star above the equator and the southern cross below the equator. The next couple of slides will explain this science.

This slide shows us that once indigenous people have reached the Humboldt current named after the German naturalist and explorer, Alexander von Humboldt. Off the coast of South America they can catch the south westerlies back across the equatorial belt at certain times of the year. If they had to sit it out on land or on an island they had to do it and wait for those trade winds to come so the equator is important because it distinguishes if you are travelling above it or south of it, how to find this out. Polaris, the north star, will be high on the horizon. If he is on the north – on the horizon you can tell what a manoeuvre - your vessel and make a direction for southwest, south-southwest or south-southeast according to the vessel’s fixture.

So let’s have a look at these pictures. The star system shows us Polaris high in the night sky. You can see it on the third slide across. From this picture you can see the big dipper and the little dipper. Both [earths] 15:01 are major and minor. If you’re in the South Pacific and you see Polaris you’re only in Micronesia and Polynesia, if you are below the equator in your night sky it will show the southern cross. From this you will know you’re in southerly waters. Southerly waters means Polynesia and also Melanesia.

From looking at this slide Aboriginal people used all of these methods to understand and read the environment. At night time using the star system such as the southern cross if you are below the equator and Polaris to go north of the equator. The migration patterns of birds, birds tell you where land is and also fish. If the stars trickle that tells you big storms are coming. Keep your boat moored on land and don’t go deep sea voyaging.

If you’re at sea and a storm hits don’t go near land. Wait it out because of rocks and coastal [shells] 16:02. When the days [seeun] 16:04 take advantage but beware of tidal swells. This only comes with sound knowledge of the seas and from what is taught from generation to generation as master navigators. So all these tools that Aboriginal people used to safely island hop and continue on trade and cultural ties.

This slide tells us how indigenous people used forms of compasses to their advantage so the night sky had names and culture. For Polaris and the southern cross Melanesians, Micronesians and Polynesians had the same star fixture names but in different languages. From this third picture you can see the boat is fixed at a north-north-westerly so the boat is heading north on its port side. If it turns far right it’s on its starboard side, the stern is at its rear. The next picture shows us the north star in all its beauty, big and bright.

This fourth slide shows how people traded from Indonesia right across to Tonga and Fiji. This is a trade route where marriages have taken place, chickens and pigs were traded as well as canoes traded. The next picture is the southern cross far in the night sky.

This slide shows a vessel’s trajectory. At certain times of the night it moves according to winds and ocean currents. When the navigator uses the language of magnitudes he can tell when certain constellations pop out at different time periods. Here is an example. Here you have the southern cross. When you look at the cross [cracks, gacrocks, most of Polita and A crocks] 17:55 you can see where the meridian line goes and meets up with the pointers of Alpha [Centura and Hayda] 18:01. The line of each correspond in the middle which gives us the southern pole. From here you can go down the middle and you have a southern trajectory.

From here when the vessel moves across the ocean he sees stars pop up on his journey and at first there is a magnitude then a second magnitude then a third magnitude and so forth. So as you can see each picture, they’re like chapters so in a time period of six to eight hours during the night there could be five constellations in one chapter so then you’ve gone to the next chapter which are magnitude slash chapters. So during a night’s journey you may come across 13 constellations which tells you how far your – how far it is when you're going to get to that point. So the magnitudes when you view them as chapters, it’s easier to understand reading astronomy at night time and even across land. It’s also used on land as well. Constellations can vary such as Orion and Pleiades but furthermore he can tell exactly where his vessel is according to those magnitude of stars.

Songlines and travel made Aboriginal people deeply religious. From religion it explains existence and it regulates behaviour. Dreaming stories and mapping stories, religion brought on its own strength, courage, determination and will. Why? Because the ocean was full of many fears, large sea creatures, whales and sharks and monsters of every sort.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people for many thousands of years have continued to follow in the footsteps of their ancestors along paths called songlines across the lands and the seas of Australia. One academic, [Caston] 20:33, continues by saying that songlines interact with each other, weaving a dense mapping of both the earth and the sea. These pathways are mirrored by songlines, allowing people to travel vast distances and highlighting the deep connection they have to earth and sea.

This picture shows us the connection between religion and canoeing. The picture shows an ancestor embracing a sacred vision or dreaming. Makassan traders to-ed and fro-ed the Southern Pacific in their prows and one of their main stops was in Australian waters for sea cucumbers called trepang. Makassans were master navigators, astronomers, traders and ethnobotanical knowledge-holders. Makassans were seen travelling in Micronesian and Melanesian waters which showed the intricate kinship systems between different peoples. They married into Aboriginal people. They would leave their children in places like East Arnhem Land and Groote Eylandt to be initiated in culture and be picked up on the next trade season. Makassans spoke Papuan and Aboriginal languages.

This picture shows us the visual art performed after seeing Makassan prows. Shell middens and sea slugs that were harvested annually. You can see the shell midden in the middle there in a circle and the guy sitting down painting after he witnessed a Makassan prow.

Melanesians were master navigators, story holders, oceanographers, teachers, astronomers, traders and also seafarers. The double-hulled Motuan Lakatoi canoe designed for deep ocean-faring. Its purpose was traded into island voyaging. I like the sails, it’s very distinct for that area.

Here are some more pictures of double-hulled canoes with modifications in storage. Micronesians are very important in this story. Micronesians, especially an old elder named [Hipor] 23:35, he was responsible for the cultural renaissance throughout Polynesia today which reintroduced ancient canoeing skills and indigenous navigation taught to the local peoples again which was initially lost due to past colonial impacts within the South Pacific.

According to David Lewis he believes if it wasn’t for the Micronesians they would have lost most of their star knowledge and navigational knowledge. Today Polynesians do annual runs from Tahiti back to Hawaii thanks to [Hipor] from the Caroline Island chain of Micronesia. Polynesians are a seafaring people – these were our neighbours – and it’s in their genetics. Island-hopping is a way of life for most Polynesian people. They were master navigators. They too were traders and astronomers. They were knowledge-holders and teachers.

All the cultures around Oceania and the Southern Pacific used the trade routes. They also used the star systems. They had the knowhow of their ancestors who had come before them. They are the traditional story-holders. Sailing and navigation was an art form. It truly was a way of life for indigenous people not only in Australia but right across the Southern Pacific.

[Speaks indigenous language]. I’m Victor Briggs. Thank you for listening.


S:         Please join me in thanking Victor again for that fascinating presentation.


S:         We do have time for some questions from the audience. Please wait for a microphone to be brought to you before asking your questions. We might just have to wait for the microphones, I think we’ve – just one moment. We’ll just have a short interlude. So anyone have any questions for Victor?

A:        Thank you very much, Victor, for a fascinating talk. I was very interested in the map with all the lines of travel between the different continents and I’m wondering how far north the Aboriginal people ventured in their craft?

V:        Archaeologists found Australasian DNA in the Okinawan Islands that were not of Mongoloid nature so it shows the –

A:        Yes, from that map.

V:        Yeah, it shows you according to the seasons again you can go right around the top and come back around but then again in that timeline from the Holocene to Pleistocene sea levels were a lot different so you could go at different timelines, you could go north or come back through the equatorial belt and straight up like the Polynesians did with their annual runs to Tahiti to Hawaii, back and forth but also that DNA was also found in South America in places like Tierra del Fuego and Brazil. Yeah, it changes things.

A:        Thank you.

A:        Victor, think you. I guess the question is the extent to which this knowledge that you're presenting to us, which I find fascinating, is recovered knowledge or whether there is currently knowledge of this history amongst northern Australian Aboriginal people.

V:        You’re saying is there knowledge in the north?

A:        I’m asking, yeah.

V:        Yeah. Yes, in Groote Eylandt, all around [Yongu] 29:29 country, all around the Northern Territory, dugout canoe technology, the Torres Straits, the intermarriages between people from [Ingenu] 29:49 to the [Tii] 29:51 and back to [Bardu] 29:54 and [Sibi] 29:56, they’re all intricately connected. A relative of mine, parents owned a – IGA on [Bardu] and so again they lived off the ocean so they had to go out and catch turtles, dugong and – it’s everyday life using canoes to manoeuvre. That’s an old – it goes back – and people were seen right down to Gladstone in canoes and these are reports from early Europeans. Flinders himself when he charted the country, he came across canoes that were far out to sea, 57 Ks or so.

Just not much has been written in that history. But you got to remember too in the timeline, you have [tretritation] 30:55 and exploration vessels, you’ve got Napoleonic soldiers returning from those wars so all the early exploration vessels that were around taking prisoners or exploration vessels, they were – and you had Confederate vessels looking for whale oil or whalers, sealers. There was so much going on in the South Pacific during these timelines.

A:        Hello, Victor. As I understand it the last sealers arrived – was quite significant, about 120m and also as I understand it it all happened in a fairly short period of time, maybe six, 7,000 years, maybe a bit longer so is there anything in the storytelling that specifically tells us – it must have changed protocols and lifestyles, ways of doing things. So is there anything in the storytelling that relates to that? How life changed. Well not so much life but procedures.

V:        From the colonisation culture changed right there and then. The – those peoples that lived around Botany Harbour, La Perouse who were –

A:        <inaudible> 32:55.

V:        Fifteen thousand years ago? How did it change? That too would have pushed on exploration for Aboriginal people. Why is that?

A:        <inaudible> 33:04 sea level ris –

V:        Yeah ‘cause the sea level was rising so if you look at Coffs Harbour for instance, the sea levels rising there, did mob assimilate back into tribes behind them? Clan estates and whatnot or did they take to an ocean-faring because of the – their cultural lessons and story in that country but now they’ve lost it due to sea levels rising so there’s a possibility that that took on seafaring as well. Does that answer your question?

A:        Hi, thank you very much for your talk. In some contexts we distinguish Aboriginal peoples from Torres Strait Islanders and I notice that you haven’t made that distinction and I wonder if you could talk to me a little bit about your choice.

V:        The connection with?

A:        Yes, why you’ve either chosen to exclusively study Aboriginal people and not Torres Strait Islanders, whether Torres Strait Islanders is subsumed like there’s a question in my mind that –

V:        I'm glad you asked that question ‘cause my – how this tweaked my interest to research this, my uncle, Tim Edwards, he’s an evangelist, he was in Hawaii and he met some elders over there and stories no different to Thor Heyerdahl’s - or Tim Severin who wrote The Brendan Voyage. The elders from Hawaii told him that many, many generations ago indigenous seafarers travelled over there on the trade winds and contributed to resources and helped them with materials and vice versa and as a result of that they gave them an island to stay on. So unbeknownst to my uncle that was going to be my thesis topic so it tweaked something within me to research that and here I am today. So when you look at Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki expedition when he met that – everyone’s seen the Kon-Tiki? When he met that old elder, that tweaked the interest in him to want to sail from Peru across to Tahiti and also to Australia.

So then you look at Tim Severin, when he wrote The Brendan Voyage he found that information at one of the libraries in England and so he went back and researched the Irish history of monks that built vessels before Columbus’ time and they made it to Newfoundland which then changed its history when you think about who first found the Americas and the European spotlight. There’s a lot to think about there.

A:        Thanks so much for your talk, Victor, I found it really interesting. I was particularly interested in the cave painting of the canoe with the keel and could you just tell us a little bit more about that and about the deer painting nearby and were there any other paintings that relate to that?

V:        The record says it’s 17,000 years old, it’s up in the Kimberleys. Grahame Walsh – what can I say about his title? Was he an explorer or – he worked with national parks. He come across this piece of art and so he challenged that it didn’t came from Aboriginal people and he said it came from another group of people who colonised Australia which then the argument can challenge indigenous colonisation of the country, saying that another group did it. But then it was overruled in the High Court and saying that it’s indigenous, it belongs to Aboriginal people. So it’s – it made you think. You got to get the bias and some critical thinking comes in and so it favoured the courts in that matter.

The antlered deer, it just – like when you walk around Sydney Harbour and you see – or even in [Narrobang] 38:07 when you see all the depictions of European vessels that Aboriginal people remembered and took them back 20 Ks or so and painted and inscribed them on rocks or painted them using ochres. So it was interesting about that deer, I don’t have a picture of it, sorry, but I would love to have shown that to yous today.

A:        That would have been really interesting to see it. Just also wondering were there other animals depicted nearby –

V:        No placental hoofed animals because that’s why the top soils were pristine. Placental hoofed animals would have ruined the rivers and creeks and places where the yams grow. Yeah, there’s a bit more to that when it comes to ethnobotany.

A:        Thank you, thank you so much.

V:        All the other animals were added like kangaroos and –

A:        Thanks Victor. For a long time we’ve been in a state of a strange denial about indigenous history and indigenous capability. Axes made here in Canberra were traded as far north as Cape York in some sort of commercial arrangement, that we’re not dealing with people who were capable of commercial arrangements in a traditional European sense, according to the history books. So the history books don’t touch this stuff very much either. My question isn’t specifically about that, it’s about the size of that object, of the canoe and oceangoing, both the Brendan voyage and Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki were both quite large rafts, quite big boats in a sense. This looks to be quite small and I wonder, is there any evidence of ocean-capable vehicles in either the painted record or archaeological record that might help us to understand that better?

V:        Yeah, there is, catamaran double – double-hulled catamaran vessels up in [Tii] that can seat at least 27 people plus and these were people-movers, moving –

A:        Clearly the Maori did it to New Zealand, I mean those people come in from Polynesia.

V:        Well you look at the kinship systems in [Tii], they’re Samoan, Fijian, Tongan, everybody were to-ing and fro-ing and trading and swapping and – but that was – somewhere that was cut off.

A:        Thank you.

V:        Thank you.

S:         So thank you very much for your questions. I’d just like to say a few further words. Cook and the Pacific would not be possible without the support of individuals, communities, cultural institutions, corporate partners, foundations and the Australian Government. The National Library of Australia acknowledges the generous contributions of first nations peoples who have allowed their culture, experiences and voices to be heard throughout the exhibition.

This concludes our second lecture for the day and I hope you’ve enjoyed yourselves. I certainly have. For those who have not already done so please feel free to take a look at our free exhibition, Cook and the Pacific and tapa exhibition next door, both on the ground floor and please do visit Beauty Rich and Rare on level 4.

I’d also like to invite you to attend our third talk for the day delivered by Dr James Hunter and Kieran Hosty from the Australian National Maritime Museum. They’ve been involved in the search for and recent discovery of The Endeavour wreck. If you are interested you can meet us back here at 2pm. Please join me in thanking Victor for this afternoon’s fabulous presentation.


End of recording