This canoe is a survivor. It is the only aboriginal bark canoe from early Melbourne to have survived into the 21st century. We believe it was made in the 1850s and brought to Melbourne by Aboriginal people or by a collector.
The canoe came to the museum in exceptional circumstances. In 1941 during the Second World War a museum curator got a letter from a resident of Kew, just a few kilometres east of Melbourne to say that a canoe had been thrown onto a bonfire and was going to be burnt the following week by the builders who were demolishing a house in the area. The museum curator went across and had a look at the canoe and quickly realised its historical significance and it was a unique artefact from early Melbourne.
The house being demolished in Kew was called “Finhaven” which John Innerarity Buchan, an estate agent had built in the 1870s, so it was either him or his father, John Buchan, who had collected the canoe we think.
There had been no family members living in Finhaven for many years before the house was demolished, so there was very little we could discover from the family about the circumstances in which the canoe was collected. All we really can know about the canoe is what the canoe itself can tell us.
The canoe is made from the bark of a Mountain Ash tree – now Mountain Ash grows at least 45 kilometres or more from Melbourne up in the hills to the east of Melbourne so the canoe must have been made up there and then presumably either brought down the river or transported in some other form later on.
There are burn marks underneath where aboriginal people have heated the canoe in a fire in order to make it more flexible so they can bend the bark into the correct shape.
Here too, handmade rope can be found which one can tell was the rope which was originally used to tie the bark together to give the canoe its shape. Subsequently, machine made rope has been added to the canoe as well.
Most distinctive here are these straps from barrels that have been put in to help the canoe hold its shape. Now, again we don’t know – did Aboriginal people adopt a western technology, a European technology with the barrel straps and apply them to hold their canoe in shape, or did the collector himself apply this in order to help the canoe retain shape?
This to me is an extraordinarily powerful object – it’s one of the few items we have in the museum collection, certainly in this exhibition, that talks so directly and so powerfully about an Aboriginal presence in Melbourne, long before Europeans had founded Melbourne, a presence in which Aboriginal people used canoes like this to move up and down the creeks, the waterways, the billabongs, using them for fishing, for transport, for collecting bird’s eggs – for generations upon generations. It is a survivor.