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Taking it to the edge: did you know? Role of Aboriginal people in the exploration of Australia

''… [Charley] had hurried back, unmindful of his own exhausted condition, to apprise his companions of the important discovery he had made.''
Warburton, Peter Egerton, Journey across the western interior of Australia London : Sampson Low, 1875 Page 251

The Aboriginal people had thoroughly explored Australia at the time of European settlement in 1788 - they knew intimately the character of the country, its resources and its climate. They marked their clan boundaries and navigated using the landmarks of their Dreaming trails. (A fuller explanation of this can be read in The History of Cartography 1987, Book 3, Cartography in the traditional African, American, Arctic, Australian, and Pacific societies. Chapters 9 & 10: Icons of Country: Topographic Representations in Classical Aboriginal Traditions and Aboriginal Maps and Plans)

However, with European settlement, white men wanted to place the country on the map - to chart rivers and mountain ranges, to locate good pastures and mineral wealth: to record all of this on paper for themselves and for posterity. It is evident from the written record however that the explorers would not have fared well, particularly in the early years of exploration without the help of the Aboriginal people.

Some of the white explorers used the knowledge of the Aboriginal people by taking them on their expeditions: their bushcraft would help the explorers find water and feed for the horses, bullocks and camels. It was hoped also that their presence would help with the tribal groups met along the way. This did not always work as planned and early explorers noted that the Aboriginal people were confident within their clan boundaries but became confused and frequently frightened beyond them. The explorers did not understand the significance of the clan boundaries and that there were many different languages. To the white explorer one clan was the same as another. However the explorers did gradually learn bush skills, and there were notable instances of Aboriginal guides facilitating the explorer's way (see European discovery: Charles Sturt on the State Library's Downstream website).

European explorers could be taught about bush foods and apply this knowledge, but in the case of the Burke and Wills expedition the correct method of preparing nardoo seed was not closely observed and so the information given was unable to assist the desperate white explorers and the toxic thiaminase was not removed from the seeds. Other explorers however learnt from what they were shown, with good results. Some explorers, such as Thomas Mitchell, not only used Aboriginal people as guides, but also used their names for geographical features whenever possible. He noted their skills not only in locating water, but also in clearing muddy water.

Glen McLaren in Beyond Leichhardt: bushcraft and the exploration of Australia (1996) page 172 writes: 'The contribution by Aborigines to Australian exploration probably reached its zenith during the early 1840s, when white men's bush skills were at times, still inadequate for the task.' He then quotes Edward Eyre on the subject, who considered the use of Aboriginal people by explorers to be useful.  (Eyre EJ Journals of expeditions of discovery into Central Australia, and overland from Adelaide to King George's Sound, in the years 1840-1; volume 2 page 217.  Eyre arranged a lifetime pension for his Aboriginal companion Wylie after their crossing from Adelaide to Albany in 1841).

McLaren goes on (page 247): 'With the exception of Warburton and the Forrest brothers, explorers rarely enlisted the help of Aborigines after the 1840s. [Tommy] Windich assisted John and Alexander Forrest considerably in finding water and procuring game… Despite Warburton's undoubted bushmanship, his survival would have been difficult without Charley, who in many cases located water holes by tracking Aborigines to their camps or by carefully monitoring the movements of specific types of birds.' [See Warburton Journey across the western interior of Australia page 250 for his comments on Charley].

The Forrest brothers raised a monument over Tommy Windich's grave when he died in 1876: 'Erected by John and Alexander Forrest in memory of Tommy Windich. Born near Mount Stirling 1840 died Esperance Bay 1876. He was an aboriginal native of Western Australia, of great intelligence and fidelity, who accompanied them on Exploring Expeditions into the interior of Australia, two of which were from Perth to Adelaide. Be ye also ready.'

Ernest Giles wrote favourably of Jimmy who had assisted on innumerable occasions in locating water [The journal of a forgotten expedition 1880 page 11] and as late as 1939 CT Madigan took Andy as a collector on his Simpson Desert expedition, and spoke highly of his enthusiasm in his duties.

For a list of Aboriginal persons who assisted Australian explorers see Ian McLaren Australian explorers by sea, land and air, 1788-1988 volume 9 pages 252-253 and John Greenway's Bibliography of the Australian aborigines and the native peoples of Torres Strait to 1959

Further reading:

Johnston, T Harvey "Some Aboriginal routes in the western portion of South Australia",  Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia (South Australian Branch), volume 42 1940/1 pages 33-65

Magarey, AT "Australian Aborigines' water-quest" Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia (South Australian Branch), volume 3, 1888/98 pages 67-92

Macinnis, P. Australia's pioneers, heroes & fools: the trials, tribulations and tricks of the trade of Australia's colonial explorers Millers Point, N.S.W.: Pier 9, 2007 Chapter 9: Aboriginal relations

Advantage of Aboriginal guides to explorers
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