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donald tompson : arnhem land, 1930s 

Donald Thompson : Arnhem Land, 1930s.

Thompson, Donald:
Donald Thompson in Arnhem Land
Compiled and introduced by Nicolas Peterson.
The Miegunyah Press

Melbourne University Publishing, Victoria, 2003.
First published 1983.

The work is compiled from drafts and outlines detailing Thompson's work in the Northern Territory in the 1930s.
Hard cover, 245 pages, black and white illustrations and photographs, Notes, Sources, Illustrations, Index.

In the Introduction to the first edition (1983) Nicolas Peterson notes that he has accepted "the risk of de-Thomsonising the account" and changed certain terms in the original text.
The justification for this is "
to protect Thomson from anachronistic criticism."

Page xii

The most difficult problem facing me as editor has been deciding on the extent to which I should alter certain phrasings to protect Thomson from anachronistic criticism.

The original writing was done in the late 1930s and early 1940s when Aboriginal people were commonly called 'natives' or "boys".
He used these terms, as well as 'Aborigines'/'Aboriginals', throughout his writ­ings.
Today they have a jarring and unpleasant connotation, which would not accurately reflect the relatively progressive nature of many of Thomson's views.
Although at times his expression and attitudes were more overtly paternalistic than is acceptable today, there can be no doubt that Thomson was in the fore­front of champions of Aboriginal rights, including land rights, recognition of customary law, and the need to respect Aboriginal people as fully responsible Australian citizens with their own views and rights.
His sympathy for them, his forceful advocacy to the government on their behalf and his public champi­oning of their cause all serve to underline this.
Therefore at the risk of de-

Page xiii

Thomsonising the account I have changed terms such as 'natives' and 'boys' to 'Aborigines', etcetera, throughout the narrative.

Page 36

[Roper River]
It was a memorable journey.

I shared a dugout canoe with five Aborigines of whom two men formed the crew - wielding the bow and stern paddles respectively - and an old woman, a young woman and her child, four dogs, our swags, and a quantity of stores.
When fully loaded, we had a freeboard of only a few inches.
The canoes leaked badly.
We placed sticks and branches crosswise to keep the cargo off the floor, bailed frequently to prevent the water rising to the level of the gear, and at intervals pulled into the banks to caulk the cracks with tea-tree bark.
On the upper reaches of the river, where the stream was fresh and less strongly tidal, we made rapid progress, but on the lower reaches the crew flagged and with the heavily laden canoes we found it economical to travel only when the tide was running out, and to call a halt when it turned.

The wooden canoes of Arnhem Land are all built on the same lines; they have a rounded bottom with no keel whatever nor outrigger, and unless very carefully loaded, trimmed and handled, are easily upset.
These canoes are a legacy from the Macassan voyagers, whose praus brought eight or ten canoes which served as tenders for the trepang fishing; when the praus were about to

Page 37

return home, the canoes, with other presents, were generally given to the Aborigines in whose territories the trepangers had been operating.

Page 41

There was nothing to do on the island, and the hours of waiting seemed an eternity, but early in the afternoon Mardi returned alone, the way he had come - without any canoe - swimming with his log raft.
He reported that the camp was deserted.
The tracks indicated to him that the people had all moved north to Cape Barrow on Bennet Bay.
Subsequent events proved that he was right, but the fact vety nearly cost two of us our lives.

Page 50

[June 17th]
The hours of waiting seemed an eternity.
Joshua collected a bundle of dry branches and lashed them together with strips of bark.
The tide fell very slowly.
It was late at night, the moon obscured by clouds, and bitterly cold.
Just as we were ready a shadow seemed to pass in the water; we waited, but in the dark depths there was nothing to be seen.

After a little, we went on.
Pluckily, Joshua

Page 51

made a crossing first, reached a sandbank and stuck a fish spear there, then with the aid of the rough raft on which I laid my swag, I crossed to the sandbank.
With my stiff and swollen leg I was not much use for swimming.

He made another journey and this time Tiger swam too.

Page 59

The people had developed a special technique for crossing rhe crocodile-infested reaches of the Koolatong River near the mouth, which at this point is fringed with a dense wall of mangroves.
When a large party wished to cross without the trouble of bringing a dugout canoe and of making several trips to ferry the party across, they climbed out as far as possible on the ovethanging

Page 60

limbs until they looked like flying foxes.
Then all dropped or jumped in togethet, splashing so that they churned the watet into foam; making as much noise as they could, they swam quickly across.
Even as they swam however the heads of two of three crocodiles could sometimes be seen just above the surface of the watet a few hundred yards away.

Page 91

[Peter John River, Cato River]
The Aborigines now took the initiative.
They collected the dry buoyant drift­wood that lay about and lashed it together with strips of the green bark of rhe cotton-tree (Hibiscus tiliaceus).
This did not look very secure and as I could not hope to swim very far wirh my leg as it was, I took the straps off my canvas bag and strapped these around the bundle to supplement the bark.
On top of this the men placed the sheets of tea-tree bark which they had obtained for the pur­pose, earlier in the morning, and stripping off my clothes, I lay flat on top.
The women remained on rhe bank and the men swam with me, pushing the raft across, while I paddled with my hands.
The people are accustomed to crossing rivers in this way, many of them swimming at one time, keeping close together and making as much noise as they can to frighten the crocodiles.
They landed me safely on the notth bank and then returned with the 'raft' for the gear.
On later patrols when I became more accustomed to the way of life I was aide to swim all the rivers with them, to live on their food and to travel barefoot.
This stood me in good stead when in 1942 I returned to organise and lead a mm of these people in wartime for guerilla scouting and fighting.

Page 105

After remaining for some days in this camp to rest, I gathered together a party of guides and carriers, and set out for Ngilipidji in the hills close to the Walker River.
Ngilipidji is renowned throughout the whole of eastern Arnhem Land as the quarry at which the fine stone spear heads and knives are manufat tured - and from which, for many generarions, they have been circulated over a vast area of country.
I had seen these spear heads in use as far south as the Roper River and northward to the Goyder, as well as at Caledon Bay.
The jour­
ney to Ngilipidji and return to Matarawatj, which lies some forty miles inland, occupied four long days of travel, but I felt grearly privileged to see with my own eyes the quarry that had acquired a legendary renown.

At Ngilipidji the quarry covered many acres of ground.
The stone was not

Page 106

quarried from a face of rock, as I had expected, but from the open ground, where a big overburden of earth had to be removed in order to expose boulders, which were then levered out, or fractured by the use of fire, into pieces that could be handled.
Great heaps of chips and broken or rejected flints marked the sites of old working places.
The actual manufacture of the flints is carried out only with a pounding stone of quartzite; a great deal of skill and experience is re­quired, and only two or three old men remain who are considered skilful enough to make the fine heads and knives.
We were fortunate in finding one of the most renowned of them, Dhutjuru, there.
Of hundreds of flints struck off, all but a dozen or so would be rejected.
These fine flints were wrapped separately, in bark sheaths, tied into bundles of a dozen or two to be given to people not only for tipping of spears but also for fighting picks and the knives which are still used in circumcision.
I obtained a series of still photographs and a cinemato­graph record.

Page 108

Dugout canoes of varying sizes were common along the coast of Arnhem Land.
Originally obtained by barter or theft from Macassans who started regular visits to northern Australia around 1720, people resorted to making them after 1907 when such visits were stopped by the government.
Sails were made from pandanus fibre.
Outriggers were never used in Arnhem Land.
The introduction of dugouts, along with metal for harpoons, seems to have increased the importance of turtle and dugong in the diet.
Page 144

I also made a close study of fishing methods, which are very specialised in this area, and paid a number of visits to see different kinds of traps being used.
The most interesting was the ingenious gurrka gurl trap used on a small area of the north coast lying between the Glyde River and Buckingham Bay.
Although this territory is inhabited by a number of small, closely allied clans, the right to use the gurl technique is restricted to the Nalladar, Djambarrpuyngu and Galbanuk group of the Liyagalawumirri, though in practice they are often assisted by their neighbours.

Page 145
Gurrka gurl fish trap and Weir construction.
[Photographs, and on following pages]

Page 152

These camps are situated some way from the margin of the swamp, where the 'stringy bark'
(Eucalyptus tetradonta) necessary for the construction of the canoes is abundant.
The canoes are of a special type, known to the Dji
nba as nardan, and as a rule each hunter makes his own.
The most distinctive
feature is the form of the bow, which is sharply pointed and shaped rather like a shoe; this allows it to drive through the heavy grass in the swamp and to ride e4asily over tangled water-weeds and logs.
As in most bark canoes, the
nardan is made from a single sheet of 'stringy bark'.
The bark is stripped of some of the outer fibre and is subjected to a process of smoking to prevent it cracking.
It is then folded along the centre, with the cambium side inwards, and wedged between two stakes driven into the ground, which hold the margins together while the seams are sewn with baste fibre or with split
Flagellaria cane.
It is the position of the seams which gives the
nardan its characteristic form.
bow seam is started well forward at the keel and carried upwards and backwards at angle of about twenty-five degrees.
At the stern the edges are brought together and
sewn at a point a foot or more from the end of the canoe, leaving a flat terminal stern about a foot in length, which is cut off quite straight.
This not only
allows a water-tight seam to be made but adds to the stream-lining of the craft and helps it in riding over obstacles.
The bow-seam is caulked with clay and
a plug of tea-tree bark is wedged tightly into the seam in the stern, from inside, to render it water-tight.
Sticks are placed transversely to act as spreaders and
to flatten canoe and it is further strengthened by the addition of five or six strips of baste fibre stretched across above the spreaders.

Instead of a paddle, a pole ten or twelve feet long is used
to propel the nardan through the water-ways.
The poler stands in the stern and
this serves further to raise the bow so that it slides more easily over snags.
Driving the

Page 15 3
Bark canoes.
[Photograph, and on following pages]

Page 154

canoe through the narrow openings among the trees which stand in the water, or through dense thickets of grass, is very hard work and calls for great skill and long practice.
In stretches of open water he sits on the bottom of the canoe, on a sheet of paper bark folded to serve as a seat, and paddles with His hands.
As the craft is light and offers little resistance to the water it can be propelled at con­siderable speed in this way.
Apart from the pole, the only item of equipment is the bailer, generally made from one of the pieces of bark cut off when the bow is shaped; this is curled into the form of a scoop and tied with baste fibre.

Page 155

I travelled always with a 'pole man' and with two men aboard the nardan was so deep in the water as to have very little free-board.
Water continually slopped over the edge and with monotonous regularity the pilot would cry out, 'Wait! Wait! I bail'.

The life of a nardan is never long.
The strongest may stand as many as three journeys but generally they serve only for one or two.

While the men are making the canoes, they send scouts into the swamp from time to time to watch the geese and to report on the progress of the nesting

Page 201
Men using swimming logs to cross a wide river, the man nearest the camera
holding a bag aloft which appears to have fire sticks and, presum­ably, tinder in it.

Thompson, Donald:

Donald Thompson in Arnhem Land
Compiled and introduced by Nicolas Peterson
The Miegunyah Press

Melbourne University Publishing, Victoria, 2003.
First published 1983.

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Geoff Cater (2014) : Donald Thompson : Arnhem Land, 1930s.