Helping you find government information and services

Australia's maritime history under sail

Australia's maritime history is closely related to the global story of people crossing oceans. The first people to engineer ocean-going vessels capable of travelling thousands of kilometres were Pacific island mariners – the first truly maritime people.

Thursday Island outrigger

N B Stuckey, Thursday Island, Torres Strait Islands, 1945, Members of Torres Strait Island Light Infantry returning from fishing trip in outrigger sailing canoe. Image courtesy of Australian War Memorial: 119171.

Like the Torres Strait Islanders, the Pacific mariners used double outrigger canoes under sail to cross oceans with strong currents. Several thousand years later, the Portuguese, Dutch, Spanish and other Westerners from England and Europe made journeys around the globe to the southern hemisphere.

From the 1600s onwards (and possibly earlier), Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders traded with Makassan fishermen (from Makassa or Indonesia), who harvested trepang from Australia's northern coastline, selling them to the Chinese.

Until 1950, Australia's history of trade, colonisation and settlement was dependent upon maritime sail voyages. There is an abundance and diversity in Australia's maritime history – from the early Dutch mariners Dirk Hartog and Abel Tasman, and English navigators like James Cook, and Matthew Flinders mapping the Australian coastline, through to commercial sealers, whalers and pearlers and explorers like Douglas Mawson.

Indigenous canoes under sail

launching a canoe on Bathurst Island

John Tanner, Launching a canoe, Bathurst Island Roman Catholic Mission, Northern Territory, 1958. Image courtesy of National Archives of Australia.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders had great skills in designing watercraft that were flexible and adaptable. Three main types were used by traditional Aboriginal people: the dugout canoe, the bark canoe and the raft.

Dugout canoes were used along much of the north coast of Australia, including the Bathurst and Nguie islands in the Arafura Sea to the north of Darwin as well as in the Torres Strait. The Torres Strait Islanders' canoes were double outriggers that suited the strong currents.

Torres Strait Islanders naturally identified strongly with the sea and spent much time preparing for voyages between the islands and the mainland coasts of Australia and Papua New Guinea, undertaken for the purpose of exchange.

darnley Island, packing a canoe

Canoe of Darnley Island,dugout canoe being prepared for a voyage, 1849. Image courtesy of State Library of Victoria.

In the eastern islands, the Murray Island or Meriam people set out in outrigger canoes on long sea voyages around mid-October when the Pleiades appear in the night sky. A constellation known as Tgai is a mythical ancestral hero of the Torres Strait, represented standing up in a canoe.

Packed into the Torres Strait Islander canoes were shell armlets, yams, bananas, sweet potatoes and roasted dried turtle fat. These items were exchanged for bird of paradise and cassowary feathers and teeth necklaces. (Dianne Johnson, 'The Pleiades in Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander astronomies', Oxford companion to Aboriginal art and culture.)

Other types of dugout canoe were used in the regions now defined as Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and the Northern Territory. Aboriginal people living along the Great Barrier Reef had large outrigger canoes that enabled them to travel to the islands and outer reefs.

European mapping and exploration

Mapping and mariners

Duyfken Broadside

Duyfken Broadside; Sailing off the coast of Fremantle, Western Australia. Image courtesy of the Duyfken 1606 Replica Foundation.

Dutch mariners dominated the early coastal mapping of Australia from the early 1600s into the 1700s. The main reason for their exploration was to determine the resources of the new lands. In 1606, the Dutch ship 'Duyfken' (pronounced dive-ken or dove-ken), under the command of Willem Janszoon, sailed south from Indonesia and charted the west coast of Cape York Peninsular. Janszoon and his crew were the first Europeans to evidently land, map and record Australia, including their meetings with Aborigines.

A few months later the Spanish mariner, Luis Vez de Torres sailed through the strait that now bears his name. Dutchman Dirk Hartog landed on the west coast in 1616 and left a pewter plate with his name and the date. These landings helped establish the form of the coastline but did not result in any accurate charts.

In 1642, Dutchman Abel Tasman landed on the west coast of Tasmania, naming it Van Diemen's Land. After a second voyage, Tasman completed a chart of the northern coastline. He named the continent Nova Hollandia (New Holland). In 1663 the French traveller Melchisdech Thvenot published a chart of New Holland. Englishman William Dampier sailed to Western Australia in 1699. His journal included John Thornton's map of the Western Australian coastline and a detailed survey of Shark Bay. By 1700 New Holland was largely defined on the map. The map of Australia would remain as the Dutch left it until James Cook sailed up the east coast in 1770.

Cook's 1768–1771 voyage on the Endeavour was important, as on this voyage Cook became the first captain to calculate his longitudinal position with accuracy, using a complex mathematical formula developed in the 1760s.

Matthew Flinders

Matthew Flinders

Portrait of Matthew Flinders, colour glass lantern slide, ca 1910. Image courtesy of the State Library of Victoria: b13758.

The year 2010 marks the 200-year anniversary of Matthew Flinders' first chart of the Australian coastline which he described as 'Continent Australia'. Matthew Flinders (1774–1814) is also remembered for sailing with Captain Bligh, surviving shipwreck and disaster, and being imprisoned as a spy.

In 1798 Flinders, together with George Bass, confirmed that Van Diemen's Land (later Tasmania) was not connected to the mainland but separated by a strait, which he named in honour of Bass. From 1801–1803 Matthew Flinders circumnavigated Australia in a leaky vessel, the Investigator, and charted most of the coastline.

On a return voyage to England, Flinders was imprisoned in Mauritius for six years, until 1810. He was not able to publish his full atlas of 16 charts, which detailed a majority of the Australian coastline and recommended the name Australia, until 1814. Flinders' charts were used as base maps by the English Admiralty well into the 1950s.

Antarctica and Sir Douglas Mawson

Group of members of the land parties, including Douglas Mawson.

F J Gillies, Group of members of the land parties relieved in 1913, Australasian Antarctic Expedition, 1911-1914, 1913. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia: an24612915.

Sir Douglas Mawson was an Australian who led a series of expeditions to Antarctica. Antarctic expeditions often named places after the ship that took the men, their provisions and their equipment.

The Aurora was purchased by Douglas Mawson in 1910 as his expedition ship for the The Australasian Antarctic Expedition, having proved her strength and sea worthiness in the sub-Arctic seas. Characteristically for expeditions at this time, she was a wooden sailing ship with auxiliary engine power. The hull was made of oak, sheathed and lined, and the bow was a mass of solid wood reinforced with steel-plate armor. The Aurora left Hobart for Antarctica on the 2 December 1911.

Mawson's base camp was established at Commonwealth Bay, on the Antarctic coast almost due south of Hobart.

The Aurora Commonwealth Bay left in order not to be frozen-in and also to be able to bring fresh supplies the following spring. On her return, under the command of Captain Davis, she found that Mawson and his companions had left base camp on a long sledging trip and were well overdue. After a series of violent storms which finally caused the anchor chain to part, Captain Davis decided to leave a small winter party of six men at the base at Commonwealth Bay and start on the return voyage to Hobart before the sea froze and trapped them.

A photograph of Sir Douglas Mawson, 1930.

Frank Hurley (1885-1962), Sir Douglas Mawson, affectionately known by his staff as 'The Dux'.Courtesy of the National Library of Australia: an10932811-47.

Mawson meanwhile reached Cape Denison and saw a departing speck on the horizon – the Aurora leaving Antarctica for the season. Ice conditions prevented her from returning and the seven men at Cape Denison resigned themselves to another winter of blizzards and confinement.

They were well stocked with supplies, however, and even made a sledge journey the following spring. On 12 December 1913 the Aurora returned. By 24 December, their two-year expedition was over and on 5 February 1914 the Aurora set sail for Australia.

Through his expeditions Mawson made significant contributions to the scientific studies and understanding of Antarctica and other related phenomena in geology and meteorology.

Shipwrecks and lighthouses

Shipwrecks form a significant part of Australia's maritime history. Australia's first known shipwreck is of the Trial, a ship of the English East India Company that was wrecked off the coast of Western Australia in 1622.

Mr Salchany

Mr Salchany, lighthouse keeper of Neptune Islands signals a passing ship, 1963. Courtesy of the National Archives of Australia: A1200:L43685.

Shipwrecks were particularly common in the treacherous waters in the Southern Ocean and the Tasman Sea – part of which was known as the shipwreck coast. The coastline surrounding King Island in the Bass Strait, for example, claimed at least 60 vessels and 800 lives prior to the construction of lighthouses.

Many of the earliest lighthouses were built in direct response to such shipwrecks. The first lighthouse structure in Australia was started in 1816 and completed in 1818 at the command of Governor Macquarie at the South Head Signal Station. Francis Greenway, the famous convict architect, undertook the work on this lighthouse.

Lighthouses became critical aids in preventing shipwrecks. These lighthouses were built in harbours, on islands, and near coral reefs and beaches, usually sited to be highly visible for long distances and from many points.In 1983, there were 367 lighthouses and navigational aids in Australia and today it is estimated that there over 350 'light houses' – all built in the last 200 years.

Commercial shipping  the working sea

Commercial, or mercantile, shipping has long been a part of Australia's maritime history. Whether harvesting abalone, seals, whales or pearls, Australians have long forged a living from the sea, however controversially.

Modern mercantile sailing ships have also carried Australia's exports overseas, especially grain. The last of the commercial windjammers (big sailing ships) sailed from Australia to Europe via Cape Horn in 1949.

Whaling and sealing

From the first days of colonisation in 1788, Australia was closely associated with sealing and whaling industries. By 1792, Sydney Cove was the centre for a profitable whale trade. Sealing commenced in Bass Strait in 1798. Seal skins, seal and whale oil to China became the first viable export from the new colony.

Seal skins were in demand for clothing. Seal and whale oil was used for lighting, machinery lubrication, candles and as a base for perfumes and soaps. Baleen (whalebone) was used for items such as corsets, umbrellas, whips and as hoops for skirts.

whaleboat, Twofold Bay

C E Wellings, Whale boat fast to a whale, Twofold Bay, c 1900-22. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia.

By 1806, whaling and sealing were carried out using harpoons from small boats with the animals towed back to whaling stations. The first whaling stations were in Hobart. One of the first in New South Wales was the Davidson Whaling Station at Twofold Bay (1828) near Eden. Numerous stations were established around southern Australia in the late 1820s to 1830s. Later, in the 1840s, Tasmanian whalers set up stations in Victoria and South Australia (Fowlers Bay, St Peter's Island and Streaky Bay) and then in Albany, Western Australia (where whaling had begun in 1835).

By 1841 there were 35 whaling stations in Tasmania alone, with about 1000 men employed, even though the seal, and some of the whale, populations were exhausted by this time. Whale protection for certain whale species commenced in the 1930s after the effects of whaling on whale populations became more apparent.

Australia's pearling industry

A Pearl diver crew

A Pearl diver and the crew who worked with him, off the coast of Broome, around 1900. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia.

Australia's pearling industry began a long time before European settlement. Northern Australian coastal-dwelling Aborigines harvested the abundant pearl shell from the shallow waters and had a well-established trading network for pearl shell.

When Europeans settled in Australia, they rapidly saw the value of the pearl fields. Pearling began seriously at Shark Bay, Western Australia in the 1850s and in the Torres Strait in 1868 with 16 pearling firms operating on Thursday Island in 1877. By 1910, nearly 400 luggers (small boats) and more than 3500 people were fishing for shell in waters around Broome, which was then the biggest pearling centre in the world.

Oysters were collected from Shark Bay in 1871 by Aboriginal men and women working six to eight in a boat without wages. They would dive down deep with no oxygen, mask or snorkel. In the Torres Strait, working conditions were regarded as dangerous and squalid and contributed to a high percentage of accident and death. Attempts to regulate the industry and employment of Aborigines and Islanders were made by the Queensland parliament. Wages were required to be paid in front of an inspector after 1893. The invention of diving suits revolutionised the pearling industry in Australia.

In the early 1900s, Australia supplied 75% of the world's pearl shell. Luggers towed their divers over the pearl beds by drifting, often with just the sail on the after mast set.

1957 Pearling Lugger

John Louis 1957 Pearling Lugger. Image courtesy of the National Maritime Museum

During the First and Second World Wars, the industry virtually ceased as most of the workers enlisted. Broome and the pearling industry survived the economic devastation of both World Wars and today is recognised as a 'pearl capital'.

Built in Broome for pearling, the John Louis pearl lugger is one of the last working sail craft built in Australia. John Louis collected young pearl shells for the cultured pearl industry which thrived after the Second World War. Its tank of circulating sea water kept shells alive on the return voyage. (Australian National Maritime Museum, Commerce)

The last of the windjammers

The Pamir

The Pamir. Image courtesy of the History Trust of South Australia.

In the early 20th century, only a few trade routes were still viable for the world's big sailing vessels. The Australian grain trade was one. The voyages from Australia to Europe received much media coverage, and in Britain people would bet on which ship would make the fastest voyage of the year, coining the expression 'Grain Races'. It was on this route that a Finnish ship-owner, Gustaf Erikson, invested in second-hand windjammers and eventually became the owner of the world's last fleet of commercial sailing ships.

The final Grain Race round Cape Horn departed Australia in 1949. The race was run between the company's last remaining sailing ships, the Passat and the Pamir.

After the trials of 110 days at sea, The Passat won the race, followed 13 days later by the Pamir. Both ships were ordered to Penarth in Wales.

Once in dock, there was a constant flow of people who wanted to see the ships up-close. The captains and the ships' owner Edgar Erikson, who had joined the Pamir in Falmouth ... allowed access to the ships, gave interviews and attended social events. Eventually the public interest subsided, however, but for those directly involved, the reality of recent events began to sink in; the final voyage was done; the great age of sail was over.
The Last of the WindJammers, History Trust of South Australia.

The legacy of mercantile shipping

sculpture of a man stacking crates

Sculpture, Fishing Boat Harbour, fremantle. Image courtesy of City of Fremantle.

As a result of the significance of Australia's commercial maritime sailing past, most Australian port towns and large coastal cities have docklands. The pattern of the times was that merchants lived adjacent to their warehouses in substantial buildings within a short distance of the docks and quay areas where vast arrays of cargo were unloaded.

The docklands, many customs houses and other maritime buildings are usually prime waterfront locations with architecturally significant buildings.

Today many docklands have been or are in the process of being transformed from industrial areas to contemporary cultural spaces where the legacy of Australia's maritime history can be enjoyed and contemplated.

Useful links


Maritime industry and commerce

Last updated: 17th December 2009
Creators: Kathryn Wells