A team of archaeologists from The University of Western Australia working with Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation and mining company Rio Tinto have discovered that Indigenous people were not the only ones to leave their mark in the Dampier Archipelago.
Archaeologists working across the archipelago to document Aboriginal habitation and long-term creation of ancient rock art have found evidence that the area was visited by the whale ships Connecticut (1842) and Delta (1849), with crew members documenting their respective voyages to the other side of the world from their home ports in the north-eastern US.
Lead author Professor Alistair Paterson, from UWA’s Centre for Rock Art Research and Management, said whaling of the ‘New Holland Ground’ between the Indian and Southern Oceans was an overlooked aspect of early north-west Australian contact history.
“Throughout the 19th century American, British, French and colonial Australian whaling ships plied these waters. American vessels were successful at a time when the British colony at Swan River was young (founded in 1829),” Professor Paterson said.
Whaleships followed migrating herds of humpback whales along the coast and fished the offshore grounds for sperm whales, also undertaking ship-based bay whaling, anchoring in protected bays for up to three months. It was likely that the ships’ crew members shared knowledge about safe anchorages, hazards and resources.
The discoveries are detailed in a research paper published today in the journal Antiquity, asthe earliest report of North American whalers’ inscriptions discovered anywhere in Australia.
The Dampier Archipelago represents one of Australia’s most significant heritage sites and one of the world’s largest rock art complexes. Located about 1550km north of Perth, near the Pilbara mining town of Karratha, the National Heritage-listed archipelago comprises 42 islands as well as the Burrup Peninsula which is home to an estimated one million Indigenous rock carvings.
Little is known about activity in north-west Australia before the arrival of pastoralists and pearlers in the 1860s and the subsequent, infamous, ‘Flying Foam Massacre’ of the Yaburara people in 1868.
Project leader Professor Jo McDonald said the research highlighted the activities of American whalers in the Dampier Archipelago.
“It shines a light on a brief period when Indigenous people and visiting whalers shared the same territory without obvious major conflict,” Professor McDonald said.
“The whaling inscriptions are both a rare example of maritime inscriptions on rock, and represent the only tangible evidence of this earliest phase of white colonisation of the Australian North West so far discovered.”
The authors suggest that the placement of the Delta and Connecticut inscriptions on already richly decorated rock surfaces illustrated a deliberate process of selection, which attempted to engage with the Aboriginal carvings and, indirectly, the Yaburara people themselves.
“There is no other historical or archaeological evidence for contact between the whalers and the Yaburara, making these inscriptions especially valuable,” Professor Paterson said. The dated engravings were also potentially of use in future rock art dating studies, he said.
The research is part of a larger Australian Research Council (ARC) project in partnership with the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation (representing traditional custodians the Ngarluma-Yindjibarndi, the Yaburara, the Mardudhunera and Won-goo-tt-oo), and industry partner Rio Tinto.