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As a continuous practice spanning thousands of years, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander fishing has been well documented in the archival record, particularly in material held in the AIATSIS Collection. This gallery presents a number of drawings and photographs from the collection, which are significant for what they convey about how fishing has historically been practiced and perceived. The photos in this gallery are sorted chronologically and range from the beginning of the 19th century almost to the present day.
Interestingly, the historical photographs in our archival collection were taken over two main time periods: the 1920s and the 1970s-80s. Throughout the 1920s, adventurers like Francis Birtles travelled around remote areas of Australia, candidly photographing the communities they met along the way. Around the 1970s and 1980s, anthropologists began to spend a great deal of time documenting the present-day life of remote Aboriginal communities. This tells us a great deal about the way fishing is intertwined with daily life in remote northern communities.
It’s not until the late 20th century that we see many photos in our collection of more regional and urban Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and communities engaging in fishing activities, or photos explicitly taken by and for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
As you scroll through the photos in this gallery, take a moment to read the detailed captions that accompany them. Consider what narrative is suggested by the photos that appear in the archival record, and think about the kinds of photos that were never even taken.
‘View of Port Jackson in New Suoth [i.e South] Wales’ – View of the Sydney region featuring Aboriginal people fishing in an Arcadian setting within a heavy neoclassical border, 1800 : Port Jackson, N.S.W. Engraved by T. Milton
This is an example of the reworking of images for the mass eighteenth century market.
AIATSIS Collection: Rpf CLE
Young Indigenous man seated with animal skin, boomerangs and shield, and fishing net, 1874 : Grafton region, N.S.W. Photographer: John William Lindt
AIATSIS Collection: LINDT.J01.DF-D00027367
Drawing by ‘Old Mickey’ at Ulladulla in the 1880s – animals and flowers (top), four sailing ships (middle), fish in the sea (bottom), c 1880 : Ulladulla, N.S.W.
Notes from original caption information: ‘These pictures were drawn by an old full-blooded Aborigine named ‘Old Mickey’ at Ulladulla – the Post Mistress gave the natives crayons to see how they could draw and Old Mickey used to come and ask for paper and crayons’.
AIATSIS Collection: ULLADULLA.M02.CS-000105851
Sawfish dance, 440, November 1888 : Thursday Island (Waiben), Torres Strait. Photographer: A.C. (Alfred Cort) Haddon
Courtesy of the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, P.1154.ACH1
Taken by A.C. Haddon on his Torres Strait Island Expedition.
Group of four Muralug men dressed for the Waiitutukap (Dance of the Sawfish), wearing large tin masks and zazi (grass skirts). The front of the mask takes the form of a crocodile’s head with an open mouth; the back has a wig of hair. On top of the mask are two long poles, the horizontal one shaped like a sawfish, with lines of feathers joining the two.
To the right two other men sit playing warup (hour-glass shaped drums).
AIATSIS Collection: HADDON.001.BW-N02139_34
Sawfish dance, 410, c 1893 : Thursday Island (Waiben), Torres Strait. Artist: Trevor Haddon
Courtesy of the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, P.1124.ACH1
Drawings based on photographs taken by Trevor’s brother A.C. (Alfred Cort) Haddon during his Torres Strait Island Expedition.
Top image shows two Muralug men dressed for the Waiitutukap (Dance of the Sawfish), facing each other.
Bottom image shows two masks collected by A.C. Haddon after the ceremony, now held in the British Museum.
AIATSIS Collection: HADDON.001.BW-N02129_36
Two unidentified Indigenous men preparing a fish net made from bark twine with two metre high poles at low tide, c 1910 : Gulf of Carpentaria, north Qld. Photographer: Francis Birtles
AIATSIS Collection: BIRTLES.F03.DF- F00000410
An unidentified Indigenous man in a dugout canoe holding two fish, more fish in the canoe, c 1920 : Australia. Photographer: Francis Birtles
AIATSIS Collection: BIRTLES.F20.BW- F00004724
An Indigenous man digging out turtle eggs, a net bag of eggs beside him, c 1920 : Australia. Photographer: Francis Birtles
AIATSIS Collection: BIRTLES.F20.BW-F00004730
Eight mullet on a hessian sack, a magazine, 'Sea, Land and Air', half obscured by the sack and fish, c 1920 : Australia. Photographer: Francis Birtles
AIATSIS Collection: BIRTLES.F02.BW- F00001431
Aboriginal youth from Koonibba Children’s Home in a boat fishing with a net at Davenport Creek, 1920-1930 : Davenport Creek, S.A.
Courtesy of the National Library of Australia, nla.obj-152904040
Children from Koonibba Children’s Home swimming in the sea, 1920-1930 : South Australia.
Courtesy of the National Library of Australia, nla.obj-152928007
A man spear fishing standing in the water, 1930s-1940s : Wutan, at mouth of Archer River, Qld.
AIATSIS Collection: CANE.F01.BW-N00101_15
One of the curious fish traps at Darnley Island, c 1920-1952 : Darnley Island, Torres Strait, Qld. Photographer: William H. MacFarlane
Editor’s note: It is interesting that the caption provided by MacFarlane for this photo refers to the Darnley Island fish traps as “curious”, as fish traps of their appearance are common in the Torres Strait, and indeed exist across Australia.
AIATSIS Collection: MACFARLANE.W01.DF-D00020946
Pushing a barrier of grass to trap fish, 1947-1951 : Cadell River, N.T. Photographers: W. Lloyd Warner and Sydney Hamilton Kyle-Little
AIATSIS Collection: KYLE_LITTLE.S01.BW-N01939_02
A man and two children net-fishing in a muddy waterhole - the net replaces plant fish poisons that were formerly used here, c 1950s : Silver Plains, Qld. Photographer: Leonard J. Webb
AIATSIS Collection: WEBB.L01.CS-000123197
Catching fish on the causeway over the Forrest River during rise in river, 1960-1965 : Ord River Station, East Kimberley, W.A.
AIATSIS Collection: WATTS.C01.CS-000111752
Women crabbing at Bodjiriki (Boojiragi/Budjirriki) Island, c 1964 : Crocodile Islands, N.T.
Courtesy of the Fidock Collection, 469
The crabbing industry at Milingimbi (1960-1975) was run by the women and was operated alongside the men’s fishing industry. The women would go out to the islands to collect mud crabs amongst the mangroves, while children would collect sand crabs to be used as bait for the men’s fishing lines.
Marragalbiyana (Gamalaŋga) and Wulukaŋ (Warramiri) washing crabs at Ŋamuyani, c 1965 : Milingimbi Island, N.T.
Courtesy of the Fidock Collection, 223
The women running the crabbing industry at Milingimbi collected only the male mud crabs to ensure the sustainability of the population.
Frozen crabs in the freezer ready for export as part of the crabbing industry at Milingimbi, c 1965 : Milingimbi Island, N.T.
Courtesy of the Fidock Collection, 118
The fishing boat, the River Song, moored at Ŋamuyani, c 1965 : Milingimbi Island, N.T.
Courtesy of the Fidock Collection, 939
The River Song was the heart of the Milingimbi fishing industry. On 8 April 1975, Cyclone Amelia threw the River Song onto the rocks at Ŋamuyani, marking the end of the industry.
(Left to right) Buruminy, Djapala, Yipity (sitting), Mamukun, Banhdharawuy, Djeriŋgal, weighing fresh fish, c 1965.
Courtesy of the Fidock Collection, 277
The Milingimbi fishing industry (1960-1975) helped support the community and local business infrastructure. The catch was shared amongst families, following Yolŋu tradition, before being sold on the commercial market.
(Left to right) Mamukun, Alfred Guŋupuny (Skipper), Big Bill Danyguli going fishing, c 1965 : Milingimbi Island, N.T.
Courtesy of the Fidock Collection, 950
Men eating a fish from a paperbark plate, August 1967 : Dod-dodngodu, Central Arnhem Land, N.T. Photographer: Robert Edwards
AIATSIS Collection: EDWARDS.R01.CS-000002109
A mixture of gaingul (the seeds of Acacia holosericea A. Cunn), and nguiru (the bark of Barringtonia acutangula gaertn), collected in 1968 : Parry's Creek, south-east of Wyndham, W.A.
Nguiru is a fish poison used to stupefy fish in waterholes so they become easy to collect by hand. The bark contains saponins, which are very toxic to fish, but not to mammals.
AIATSIS Collection: REIM.H01.CS-000023360
Crab cooking in the fire, August 1971 : Caledon Bay, N.T. Photographer: Philip Robertson. Courtesy of Ian Dunlop
AIATSIS Collection: DUNLOP.I06.CS-000132382
Fish trap, 5 July 1974 : La Grange(Lagrange), Kimberley, W.A. Photographer: Kim Akerman. Courtesy of Kim Akerman
AIATSIS Collection: AKERMAN.K08.DF-D00011198
Kaki Stumpagee with a large bluebone (tusk fish) that he speared from a distance of at least seven metres, 15 July 1975 : Talbot Bay, Kimberley, W.A. Photographer: Kim Akerman. Courtesy of Kim Akerman
AIATSIS Collection: AKERMAN.K09.DF-D00011497
Fish soup (milulu) cooking in a billy, 3 May 1977 : Barnett Gorge, Mount Barnett Station, Kimberley, W.A. Photographer: Kim Akerman. Courtesy of Kim Akerman
AIATSIS Collection: AKERMAN.K11.DF-D00012064
A Wik man spearing barramundi in a pool one kilometre upstream of Erintjal, 1978 : Mitchell River, Kowanyama, Qld. Courtesy of John M. Beaton
AIATSIS Collection: BEATON.J05.CS-000040181
Catch of fish including barramundi, sarratoga and archer fish, March 1980 : Momega outstation and Nakorro camp, 2 km south of Maningrida district, north-central Arnhem Land, N.T. Photographer: Jon C Altman
AIATSIS Collection: ALTMAN.J01.BW-N03204_34
Truck with men and women transporting the Mandjabu (conical fish trap), July 1980 : Mimanyar Outstation, Maningrida region, north-central Arnhem Land, N.T. Photographer: Jon C Altman
AIATSIS Collection: ALTMAN.J01.BW-N03215_03
A boy fishing with a net in the Blyth River, October 1982 : Kopanga Outstation, Blyth River, Arnhem Land, N.T. Photographer: Gerry Orkin
AIATSIS Collection: AIAS.015.CS-000080956
(Left to right) Brad and Newton Carriage in the ocean collecting mutton fish (abalone), wearing wet suits and snorkel gear, March 1989 : Batemans Bay, N.S.W. Photographer: Ricky Maynard
AIATSIS Collection: SOUTHCOASTNSW.001.BW-B01033_09
Close-up of a bucket holding fishing tackle and a dark blue fish which has been caught, 3 July 1994 : Ngegemorro (Ngegamorro?), Kimberley, W.A. Photographer: Jeff Doring
AIATSIS Collection: DORING.J05.CN-N07994_10
Bucket holding a collection of crab and dambala, 17 February 2009 : Yukuwarra, Arnhem Land, N.T. Photographer: Valerie Boll
AIATSIS Collection: BOLL.V01.DF-D00024796
AIATSIS acknowledges the traditional owners of country throughout Australia and their continuing connection to land, culture and community.
We pay our respects to elders past and present.