tompson : arnhem land, 1930s
Thompson : Arnhem Land, 1930s. Thompson, Donald:
Donald Thompson in Arnhem Land
Compiled and introduced by Nicolas
The Miegunyah Press
Melbourne University Publishing,
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.
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
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-
Thomsonising the account
I have changed terms such as 'natives' and 'boys' to
'Aborigines', etcetera, throughout the narrative.
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
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
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
[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
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
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
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.
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
I had seen these spear heads in use as far south as the
Roper River and northward to the Goyder, as well as at
The journey 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
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
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
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
of turtle and dugong in the diet.
also made a close study of fishing methods, which are very
in this area, and paid a number of visits to see different
kinds of traps being
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
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
for the construction of the canoes is abundant.
The canoes are of a special type,
known to the Djinba 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 nardanis 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 nardanits
The bow seam is started well
forward at the keel and carried upwards and backwards at
angle of about twenty-five
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 helpsit
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
Instead of a paddle, a pole ten or twelve
feet long is used to propel the nardan
through the water-ways.
poler stands in the stern and this servesfurther to raise the bow so
that it slides more easily over snags. Driving the
Bark canoes. [Photograph,
and on following pages]
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
canoe, on a sheet of paper bark folded to serve
as a seat, and paddles with His
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'.
life of anardanis never long.
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.
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
Thompson, Donald: Donald Thompson in
Compiled and introduced by
The Miegunyah Press
Publishing, Victoria, 2003.
First published 1983.