Indigenous mariners rode the waves of history

1aade1b19a9b8f06d93cd343c3e243f1_nAn untold story of enterprise and entrepreneurship, of Aboriginal people seizing the opportunity to profit from life at sea as whalers and sealers, forms the basis of a new book.

A passion for whales, seals and Indigenous history has led Monash University’s Professor Lynette Russell from the Monash Indigenous Centre to explore the lives and adventures of Indigenous whalers and sealers and the women who supported them. The result is her latest book, Roving Mariners,Australian Aboriginal Whalers and Sealers in the Southern Oceans, 1790–1870. 

Professor Russell analyses archival records of maritime industry, captains’ logs, ships’ records, and the journals of the sailors themselves in this thought-provoking book.

For most Australian Aboriginal people, she said, the impact of colonialism was blunt – dispossession, dislocation, disease, murder and lives spent on missions.

“These are people that history has often classified as victims, disempowered slaves or indentured servants,” Professor Russell said.

“Yet it seemed possible too that they made choices that made sense to them, enabled their freedom, and sometimes allowed them to move beyond colonial imposition. This book explores some of the lives and adventures of those Aboriginal people who became what I call roving mariners.”

Professor Russell said some participation in the whaling trade was voluntary but some was more invidious and involved kidnapping and trade in women. In many cases, the individuals maintained a degree of personal autonomy in their new circumstances.

Drawing on both history and literature, Roving Mariners provides a comprehensive history of Australian Aboriginal whaling and sealing.

Professor Russell travelled the world, searching records in the UK, US, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands as well as Tasmania and Kangaroo Island, the home of the whaling industry in Australia.

“I wanted to write a rolling story. I wanted the reader to get a sense of their lives,” Professor Russell said.

“It has given me a deeper appreciation of the day-to-day existence of the roving mariners.”

Roving Mariners, Australian Aboriginal Whalers and Sealers in the Southern Oceans, 1790–1870 is available now through Suny Press.

Professor Russell is an Australian Research Council Professorial Fellow and Director of the Monash Indigenous Centre at Monash University.