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Mimicry and Memory: Aboriginal and Māori Seafarers during the Age of Sail

Cultural entanglements, commemoration and the Tasman Sea. (Part 1 of 2.)

John Eyre, Bennelong Point from Dawes Point, c. 1804, watercolour. Image courtesy: State Library of NSW, Sydney, Australia.

For a number of Aboriginal and Māori men who worked as guides, pilots, sailors, sealers and whalers in a Tasman world, the Age of Sail – from the 1790s to 1870s in the Antipodes – represented a unique, historical era of boundary-crossing, transgression and cultural entanglement. 

Their stories appear in academic journals and the odd book – particularly in the writing of historians such as Lynette Russell, Keith Vincent Smith and Judith Binney. But they just as quickly vanish in general history tomes and public discourse, subsumed by nationalist metanarratives in Australia and New Zealand. While Henry Reynolds, the forefather of “black armband history”, has sought to overturn the misconception that Aboriginal Australians did not contribute to nation-building, even he is remarkably silent on Indigenous sailors.

The lives of Aboriginal and Māori seafarers were entwined with frontier violence, shipwrecks and abandonment on rocky island outcrops. But there are almost no memorials for them and little public commemoration

Certainly, the number of Indigenous mariners was modest when compared to the hordes who became fisherman, farmers, shepherds and loggers. Why then bother examining the lives of Indigenous men who found employment and homes at the very edge of settler colonialism? Why bother capturing fleeting moments in history as still photography when more complete archives would allow us to indulge in vivid cinematography? These are precisely the questions I bombarded myself with as I wrote my honours thesis at the University of Sydney – “Fancy King Billy as a Jack Tar”: Aboriginal and Māori Seafarers in the Tasman World during the Age of Sail.

In asking myself why these stories were erased from history, I discovered a bigger story about settler colonialism in Australia and New Zealand and about how we choose to write history.

Through the very process of migration, Indigenous seafarers prolonged nomadism, escaped surveillance, relocated themselves within urban environments and defied the geographic constraints placed on them by religion and the state. Maritime work brought them into contact with a rung of colonial society believed to constitute the dregs – convict absconders, lawless adventurers and drunken sailors.

Yet I found one description consistently missing in the disjointed historical records – accusations that Indigenous mariners did a poor job or failed to live up to expectations. 

Before Aboriginal people pursued other occupations they adapted first to European ships. As early as 1791, an Aboriginal person – Bundell – sailed outside of Port Jackson on a European vessel. As early as 1798, David Collins praised their usefulness in maritime trades in his renowned journal. These Aboriginal sailors stood out at a time when most settlers perceived the work ethic of Aboriginal people as substandard. 

In 1848 William Henry Wells wrote that Aboriginal people at Twofold Bay “are an active and intelligent race, and in their useful labours, in boating, and in various arduous employments on board the whalers, they certainly contradict the hasty conclusions which so many superficial writers have drawn in reference to the degrading facilities of the natives of New South Wales.”

We could nonchalantly brush aside the evidence which seems, on the surface, to merely reflect settler approval of Indigenous employment and assimilation into colonial society, regardless of whether they were actually efficient as sailors. However, this does not do justice, I believe, to the adaptability of Indigenous seamen. 

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Recognising the need to ameliorate the historical literacy of the Australian public and to bypass the heavily-policed border between history and archaeology as disciplines, scholars including Paul Irish and Billy Griffiths have transformed their PhD theses into accessible books free from the yoke of academic jargon. Inspired by their self-reflective sifting through old archeological studies, I argue in my thesis that Aboriginal and Māori tribes in coastal areas were not land-locked, culturally rigid and constrained by strict tribal boundaries. Aboriginal and Māori people had a legacy of adapting to environmental changes, embracing new technologies and migrating. 

Expertise in swimming and subsistence capabilities in aquatic environments gave Indigenous seamen a useful advantage over their crewmates. In the writing of Euroamerican mariners and settlers – poor swimmers at best – we find Aboriginal and Māori people leaping out of cabin windows into the sea and diving under boats to evade musket fire and capture. We find them salvaging shipwrecks, fording rivers and rescuing the drowning. Frank Bullen, who published a semi-autobiographical narrative, The Cruise of the ‘Cachalot’, based on his own whaling adventures in the Pacific in the 1870s, noted that the bravery of Indigenous seamen during whale chases centred on their confidence that they would not drown.

Artist unknown, Whaleboat Showing Position of Crew, c. early nineteenth century, watercolour. Image courtesy: Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Aboriginal and Māori sailors also possessed physical attributes or perceived physical attributes that aided their transition into the lung-busting work of the sealing and whaling industries. These traits included physical strength and superior eyesight. 

Cultural affinities with nautical pastimes and rituals – storytelling, performance and the egalitarian division of rations and pay – helped Indigenous seafarers integrate into maritime social spheres and probably prolong their maritime careers. In August 1840, one Māori man earned a position on a ship anchored at Queen Charlotte Sound by gaining the crew’s favour with public performance. 

Edward Jeringham Wakefield recounted: 

“E Ware, had made himself a general favourite on board, and had apparently taken a fancy to the ship… His activity and mirth, together with the rich humour which he displayed in executing some of the native dances, as well as in mimicking almost every one [sic] on board, earned for him the sobriquet of ‘Jim Crow,’ which he retained during the whole time that he stuck to the ship. He had acquired his nautical knowledge on board a whaling-ship in which he had served. I have often seen him, in the violent gales which we weathered on various parts of the coast, out on the end of the yard-arm doing the work of the best man in reefing, and cheering the sailors to exertion by some broad joke or irresistible grimace. He was fully competent to do the work of an able seaman; and his good humour under all circumstances was invincible.”

As historians like Marcus Rediker and Jesse Lemisch have masterfully demonstrated, life on a deep-sea vessel in the early modern era isolated captain and crew alike from the norms of society, fostering new forms of consciousness. Rediker argues that issues of power, authority and discipline created a collective, oppositional culture – a pioneering international proletariat of sorts – among common seamen, who developed rituals and language that mocked and subverted the established order. Collective oppression often dissolved racial differences. In this unique, liminal space, Jack Tar, accustomed to working alongside different races, did not necessarily frown upon the playful antics of Indigenous mariners. 

Sailors in Pacific waters were of the same egalitarian, radical ilk. There is no shortage of information on maritime labour dispute in colonial, Antipodean newspapers. Logbooks and journals, which illuminate the interracial camaraderie of Antipodean maritime industries, show that Indigenous sailors had little trouble gaining promotions to positions such as mate or headsman, although captaincy usually provided a glass ceiling. A few Indigenous men even owned or managed whaling stations. I have found matter-of-fact descriptions of Indigenous seafarers dining in the captain’s cabin and playing cards with their shipmates. 

Ships were not always sites of perfect racial harmony. I document in my thesis cases of mistreatment, abuse, negligent captaincy and racial intolerance. But I also argue that it is difficult to conclusively assert that racism always created tension and conflict when Indigenous seafarers were part of a notoriously brutal capitalist machine. All sailors, regardless of creed, lived under the threat of flogging and creative punishments.  

Indigenous sailors situated themselves firmly within a working class, maritime culture and wholeheartedly adopted the habits and coarse language of their fellow sailors. But there are also fascinating descriptions of Indigenous mariners imitating colonial elites and aristocratic mannerisms. Here it is very much necessary to “read against the grain”. Colonial elites and supernumeraries used humour and farce to ridicule the proclivity of Indigenous sailors for mimesis. They couched Indigenous mimesis within the tropes of the ignoble/noble savage. In their eyes, Aboriginal and Māori people adopted European traditions, manners, clothes and slang in defeated recognition of Europe’s cultural superiority, conniving demonstrations of economic opportunism, or with child-like naivety. 

The flexibility of Indigenous seamen in public performance and their reconfiguration of identity according to audience and environment suggest something more complex than slavish subservience to a dominant culture, whimsical eccentricity or mimetic excess – literary tropes that remain embedded via stealth within some scholarship. It is possible, perhaps probable, that Indigenous seafarers sensed the increase in popularity obtained via performance in a workplace defined by class antagonism – a workplace in which yarning, singing, dancing, performance and rough language were key sites for the subversion of traditional, European norms. Mimesis was a subversive weapon in the armoury of Indigenous seafarers, used for the creative reconstruction of self, the fulfilment of Indigenous protocols outside the European gaze, the acquisition of material items and social acceptance.

Nor was cross-cultural exchange a one-way street. Traffic travelled in both directions. By glossing over European imitation of Indigenous customs, researchers have replicated the nineteenth century preoccupation with perceiving mimesis as an exclusively Indigenous trait.  

Cultural hybridisation was not a uniform phenomenon engulfing all ships involved in whaling, sealing, exploration and trade. But there are fleeting references in historical records to white sailors adopting the customs, dress and languages of Indigenous people and forming entirely new, hybridised subcultures of their own often without the express authority of their captains.

Sailors employed pidgin languages – a mix of English and local words from across the Pacific – to communicate. With remarkable mastery of language, Lascar, Tahitian and Aboriginal sailors acted as interpreters for sea captains seeking provisions in New Zealand. Some European sailors and beachcombers tattooed themselves in the fashion of their Māori and Kanaka shipmates. 

Haratio Robley, portrait of Anaru from Scrapbook of Maori Art, Vol. II, 1865, ink and watercolour.

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Culturally and environmentally-specific factors in New South Wales and New Zealand – the seafaring knowledge, mimesis, adaptability and strength of Aboriginal and Māori people, for instance – were just as influential in compelling colonial employers to redefine expectations as the pre-existing racial tolerance and radicalism of maritime spheres.

Indigenous sailors thus provide useful reminders and warnings about how we choose to write history. We must be wary of haphazardly pasting over the past an anachronistic conception of racism more applicable to the later decades of the nineteenth century. Scholars including Cassandra Pybus and Tony Ballantyne have shown that racial thought in the Tasman world was in flux in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. 

As the historian and anthropologist Ann Stoler reminds us: “colonial cultures were never direct translations of European society… but unique cultural configurations, homespun creations… increasing knowledge, contact and familiarity lead not to a diminuation of racial discrimination but to an intensification of it over time, and a rigidifying of boundaries.” 

I am by no means suggesting that colonialism was benign. I merely hope to illuminate some of the creative, ingenious ways in which First Nations people navigated its destructive force.

While some mariners – “Manila-men”, for example – developed reputations for disruptive behaviour, there is no suggestion in the documentary record that Aboriginal or Māori sailors were a particularly unruly segment of the maritime labour pool.  

This is not to say that they meekly acquiesced. In September 1805, for example, the Aboriginal sailor Williamannan, named after the whaleship William and Ann, refused to board a sealing vessel until he had signed the customary articles of indenture to ensure his legal protection and payment at the end of the voyage.  In 1811, eight days after returning from sealing at Macquarie Island, “Boatswain Mahroot”, another Aborigianl seafarer, successfully petitioned Governor Macquarie, claiming his employer, James Underwood, had breached a verbal contract about pay. 

Artist unknown, William Minam, Walamata – Port Aitken – Koonemetta, 1843, pencil drawing. Image courtesy: State Library of NSW, Sydney, Australia.

However, Aboriginal and Māori seafarers seldom chose to desert. Just as slaves and some African-American sailors equated naval impressment and service, notoriously brutal, with autonomy in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, perhaps Aboriginal and Māori men found a home they cherished on the ships in rapidly changing worlds, marred by disease and violence. 

In finding this home, however, Indigenous sailors seemed to vanish from view. Like unstable isotopes, they inhabited a volatile space at the centre of colonial tensions. To colonial authorities, they showed a commendable inclination for mastering practical, economic skills and mirroring the European work ethic, but they also inhabited a shared space with rough itinerant workers, who represented dysfunction and chaos. By mastering European ways – including language, manners, customs and laws – escaping European forms of governance and creating new, hybrid spaces, Aboriginal and Māori sailors threatened the colonial project itself, which depended upon incorporating and assimilating Indigenous people into settler cultures through Christianisation, education and farming. 

It was easier for contemporaries to either view Indigenous sailors as obsequious impersonators and eccentrics or ignore them completely in their writing. This image has rendered them seemingly unworthy of critical, academic attention. But historians must seek to excavate their stories to provide colour and texture to people who, while they may shine bright in the minds of First Nations people, remain silhouettes in the eyes of the coloniser, silenced in bureaucratic archives which privilege the written word. 

This article is Part 1 in a two part series exploring the role of Indigenous people in colonial maritime industries in eastern Australia and New Zealand.