The Aboriginal Huts of Eendracht’s Land

Article | Updated 5 years ago

Dr Shino Konishi
Senior Lecturer, History Department
The University of Western Australia

New Holland. Eendracht’s Land – Native hut on Peron Peninsula.

New Holland. Eendracht’s Land – Native hut on Peron Peninsula. View of Bernier Island and of a part of Dorre Island. Engraving by Pillement and Née from a drawing by Charles-Alexandre Lesueur under the supervision of Jacques Milbert Engraving on paper – 25 x 35 cm
Image copyright Muséum d’histoire naturelle, Le Havre – n° 16 030-2 Atlas of the Voyage de découvertes aux Terres Australes, 1811. 

The Baudin Expedition in Shark Bay

On the 17th of March 1803 the Géographe and Casuarina anchored at Dampier Bay, on the north-west end of what became known as Peron Peninsula in Shark Bay. This was the Baudin expedition’s second visit to Shark Bay. They had previously visited in July 1801, in the early stages of their exploration of Australia. In the interim they had explored the southern coastlines of the continent, spending significant stays in Van Diemen’s Land and the British colony in Sydney. In March 1803 the expedition was preparing to depart Australian waters, and had re-visited Shark Bay to explore the waters to the north of the Peron Peninsula and to collect turtles to supply meat for the homeward journey, and complete their survey of the north-west coast. Excited by the prospect of collecting the ‘highly extraordinary and beautiful shells’ that William Dampier had gathered there in 1688, the surviving French naturalists including the expedition’s official chronicler François Péron, were impatient to land.1 But upon hearing the alarming report that a group of sailors’ had been prevented from landing by a hundred or more giants carrying ‘great shields and enormous spears’, the scientists were diverted from their mission so they could investigate this extraordinary claim. The next day, after landing ashore they were disappointed to find ‘not a single one of these so-called giants’ after ‘vainly explor[ing] all of the environs and hunt[ing] in all the bushes’. Instead Péron lamented that the ‘discovery of twelve or fifteen huts … was all that resulted from our search’.2

However, these huts were an important find. Their design and structure differed significantly from other Aboriginal huts and dwellings discovered by Europeans in other parts of Australia. Moreover, Péron’s observations on the huts allowed him to muse and speculate on the relationship between different societies and their environment, and offer an intellectual challenge to the prevailing theories exemplified by Montesquieu. The publication of Péron’s description of the huts in Voyage de decouvertes aux terres australes in 1816, together with an engraving of Nicolas Martin-Petit’s meticulous drawings, is one of the earliest published ethnographic studies of Western Australian Aboriginal people. These rich details provide tantalising insights into the histories of the Malgana and Nhanda peoples of Gutharraguda (Shark Bay).

Early Explorers accounts of Aboriginal dwellings

Many of the European explorers who had visited Australia shores had been very critical and dismissive of Aboriginal dwellings. Indeed, William Dampier who had landed in Shark Bay in 1688 claimed in his A New Voyage Round the World (1697) that ‘They have no houses but lie in the open Air without any coverings, the Earth being their Bed and the Heaven their Canopy’.3 This led him to conclude that ‘The Inhabitants of this Country are the miserablest People in the World’.4 In the south-east of Van Diemen’s Land, British explorers had similar views of the Palawa people’s abodes. Captain Tobias Furneaux, whose ship the Adventure, companion to James Cook’s Resolution, landed in Adventure Bay in 1773, discovered huts made from a tree bough which was ‘either broke or split and tied together with grass in a circular form [with] the longest end stuck in the ground, and the smaller part meeting in a point at the top, and covered with Ferns and bark’. Furneaux thought that the huts were ‘so poorly done that they will hardly keep out a showr [sic] of rain’, and concluded that ‘their houses seem’d to be built but for a few days’ only. He thus surmised that Aboriginal people ‘wander about in small parties from place to place in search of Food and are activated by no other motive’. Based on these brief observations of Aboriginal huts as makeshift and ephemeral dwellings, Furneaux concluded that they were ‘a very Ignorant and wretched set of people’.5

When Cook visited Adventure Bay in 1776 during his third epic voyage of discovery he also perceived the Aboriginal huts as ‘mean small hovels not much bigger than an oven’.6 Even the French Captain, Nicolas Baudin, who visited Van Diemen’s Land in 1802 and who is notable for his relatively measured evaluations, considered the huts seen in Van Diemen’s Land ‘the most miserable things imaginable’.7 Similarly, at Port Jackson the British First Fleet that established the colony at Port Jackson were highly critical of the Eora dwellings they observed. The colony’s deputy judge advocate David Collins claimed that their ‘habitations are as rude as imagination can conceive … affording shelter to only one miserable tenant’, and surgeon Arthur Bowes Smyth referred to them as ‘miserable Wigwams’.8

These early European explorers were surprised by how basic the Aboriginal dwellings appeared, because, according to Furneaux, the inhabitants of Van Diemen’s Land were ‘natives of a country producing every necessity of life, and a climate the fairest in the world’.9 Lieutenant John Rickman of the Discovery, the companion ship on Cook’s third voyage, was similarly perplexed by the Palawa people’s perceived ignorance and lack of industry despite the hospitable climate of Van Diemen’s Land. Noting that ‘when Nature pours forth her luxuriant exuberance to cloath this country with every variety’, it was very ‘strange’ to the Europeans that ‘the few natives [they] saw were wholly insensible of those blessings’. Instead of taking advantage of their fertile environment, he claimed that they ‘seemed to live like those beasts of the forest in roving parties, without arts of any kind, sleeping in summer like dogs, under the hollow sides of the trees’.10 Few Europeans attempted to offer any sympathetic explanations for the seemingly simplistic Aboriginal habitations, with many concluding it was a sign of their ignorance and backwardness. In Port Jackson Captain John Hunter was one of few early European observers to suggest that the Eora people’s apparent ‘ignorance in building, [was] very amply compensated by the kindness of nature’. He exclaimed that they benefited from nature’s gifts - the ‘remarkable softness of the rocks, which encompass the sea coast, as well as those of the interior parts of the country’, ensuring Aboriginal people did not have to erect elaborate dwellings.11 Unlike Hunter's account, most early descriptions of Aboriginal dwellings were disparaging and even contemptuous, and contributed to the once-held colonial fantasy that Australia was a terra nullius, a land belonging to no-one. To colonial eyes Indigenous people appeared to do little to cultivate the bounteous lands they lived on, and make it their own.

Peron’s Account of the Huts of Eendracht’s Land

In describing the ‘twelve to fifteen huts’ he observed, Péron first noted that they were erected on ‘sandy ground’, in an area that had been ‘previously stripped of all vegetation’.12 In his very detailed description, he reported that the huts were constructed

in the shape of a semi-circle, slightly flattened on top; their walls form the single turn of a spiral, in such a way that the entrance is sloping and to the side – more or less like that of a snail-shell. They are 4 to 5 feet high and 8 to 8 feet in diameter. They are made of shrubby trees, planted close together in the sand and most commonly in two or three rows, the branches of which are bent over and interwoven in all directions to form the upper arch and a sort of floor for these dwellings. Over the outside of this arch are placed several layers of foliage and dried grass, covered with a great quantity of sand.13

The next day Péron observed a different style of abode located at ‘the head of a small inlet immediately east of Cape Lesueur’. Here he saw three caverns which he only noticed because of their ‘semi-circular openings’ which were ‘too regularly similar to each other’ to be natural formations. These entrances were very small, ‘barely one meter high’, and to enter he had to crawl ‘on all fours’.15 Inside one of the cavern he found that it was

About five metres deep, and its width was a third of its depth. The upper part of the vault was fairly smooth; but at intervals in the lower part, several small niches had been made that seemed to me to be suitable for holding a few household utensils. The floor of this dwelling was carpeted with a thick layer of seaweed.16

As Péron was alone and night was approaching, he was reluctant to inspect the other two caverns, but assumed that they were the same as the first. Significantly, he pronounced that ‘However crude such dwellings may be, they are none the less the most finished examples that we had occasion to observe in New Holland’.17

Discovering these ‘most finished examples’ allowed Péron to propose his own theory on the effects of climate on the development and progress of different peoples. He began by acknowledging that so ‘much effort and care’ in the construction of the huts ‘would seem at first to indicate a more advanced state of civilisation’ of these people, than those in other parts of the country. However, he argued that such a position would be wrong, for the huts’ superiority was instead ‘the consequence of a deeper misery and more pressing need’.18 Péron elaborated that ‘However accustomed the native may be to the inclemencies of the atmosphere and the seasons, he can never be absolutely insensible to them’. To this end he speculated that ‘the native’ would seek out ways to minimise his discomfort, even if he could not completely eradicate it. Peron then asserted that the ‘very efforts that he will make to achieve this end will always be in fairly exact proportion to the discomfort that he experiences’.19

The Shark Bay climate was very erratic, for Péron noticed that a ‘fresh, very dry morning [gave] way to a burning day which ends, in turn, in an excessively damp, cold night’. So while he accepted that the Aboriginal people of Van Diemen’s Land lived ‘in a colder climate’, he argues that the ‘vicissitudes’ of Eendracht Land ensured that it was worse. This he based on his own personal experience of the ‘excessive heat’ of the day followed by the ‘penetrating cold of the night’, as the oscillating temperatures had ‘reduced’ him to a ‘state of anxiety’ when he was lost on Bernier Island. Moreover, he explained that the ‘baleful influence of these atmospheric variations’ was similarly felt by his crewmates on the Naturaliste, who, during their previous stay in 1801, had suffered greatly ‘despite the tents and woollen coverings that protected them’, causing most of the men, he reports, to suffer ‘copious attacks of diarrhoea’.20 Such personal experiences led Péron to propose that the Aboriginal ‘native’ had to ‘guard himself’ by ‘building shelters, disposed in such a way as to furnish salutary shade during the day and an essential refuge from the cold and damp at night’.21 Péron concluded that the construction and layout of the huts was deliberate and ingenious, supposing that the spiral shape of the huts and the ‘choice of materials of which they are made’ provided insulation from the climate, and that the position of the entrances allowed a fire to burn ‘in front of the doorways and very close to the dwellings’, spreading ‘a gentle warmth inside’ and driving away the ‘countless legions of midges that pursued’ the Frenchmen ‘unmercifully everywhere’.22

Péron even appreciated the caverns or ‘subterranean retreats’ he had discovered near Cape Lesueur.14 Again, informed by their own experiences on the peninsula, Péron posited that the local Aboriginal people must escape the heat of the day by ‘rest[ing] in the shade of some deep cave or grotto carved out by Nature’. These caverns would also provide shelter from heavy rains and protection from the ‘fury of the hurricanes and downpours that particularly characterize the equatorial regions’.23 He surmised that the particular caverns he had found, might have been worked upon by individuals ‘armed … with a pointed piece of wood’ to create the entrances and ledges.

Péron also hoped that his detailed account of the huts of Eendracht’s Land would make an important contribution to science. He referred to contemporary scientific literature, and provided an empirically detailed discussion of the local meteorological conditions.24 Moreover, his implicit argument that the Shark Bay Aboriginal people, who live ‘so close to the tropics’, possessed more ingenuity than the Aboriginal people of Van Diemen’s Land who lived in more temperate climes was also a subtle critique of the Enlightenment philosopher Montesquieu.25 In The Spirit of Laws (1748), Montesquieu had explored the effects of climate on societies, concluding that people from colder climates were more industrious than those from hotter environments.26 He theorised that ‘Cold air contracts the extremities of the body’s surface fibers’, which then ‘increases their spring’, whereas ‘Hot air’ does the opposite, so ‘decreases their strength and their spring’. ‘Therefore’, Montesquieu claimed, ‘men are more vigorous in cold climates’, and in the tropics, there is ‘no curiosity, no noble enterprise, no generous sentiment; inclinations will all be passive there; [and] laziness will be happiness’.27

For Péron, the huts of Eendracht’s Land were ‘the most finished examples’ they had observed in Australia, and allowed him to advance scientific knowledge about the relationship between climate and societal progress. However, more significantly, his detailed descriptions of the huts, enhanced by his empathetic understandings of the local conditions, have provided us with richer views of nineteenth-century Aboriginal material culture. Unlike other early Europeans who quickly dismissed Indigenous habitations as ‘miserable’, Peron’s account reveals that the Shark Bay huts were intentionally and ingeniously designed to fit the unique environment of Gutharraguda (Two Waters).28


Footnotes

1. François Péron and Louis de Freycinet, Voyage of Discovery to the Southern Lands, Books IV, Comprising Chapters XXII to XXXIV, 2nd edn, 1824, trans. C. Cornell (Adelaide: Friends of the State Library of South Australia, 2006), pp. 134.

2. Péron and Freycinet, Voyage of Discovery, p. 135.

3. William Dampier, A New Voyage Round the World: The Journal of a Buccaneer, ed. Mark Becken (London: Hummingbird Press, 1998 [1697]), p. 219.

4. Dampier, A New Voyage Round the World, p. 218.

5. Tobias Furneaux, ‘Furneaux’s Narrative’, in James Cook, The Journals of Captain James Cook on his Voyage of Discovery, ed. J. C. Beaglehole, 4 vols (London: Hakluyt Society, 1955-67), vol. 2, p. 735.

6. James Cook, The Journals of Captain James Cook on his Voyage of Discovery, ed. J. C. Beaglehole, 4 vols (London: Hakluyt Society, 1955-67), vol. 1, p. 396.

7. Nicolas Baudin, The Journal of Post-Captain Nicolas Baudin Commander-in-Chief of the Corvettes Géographe and Naturaliste, trans. Christine Cornell (Adelaide: Libraries Board of South Australia, 1974), p. 345.

8. David Collins, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, ed. Brian Fletcher, 2 vols (Sydney: A.H & A.W. Reed in association with the Royal Australian Historical Society, 1975), vol. 1, p. 460, and Arthur Bowes Smyth, The Journal of Arthur Bowes Smyth: Surgeon on Lady Penryth 1787-89, eds Paul G. Fidlon and R.J. Ryan (Sydney: Australian Document Library, 1979), p. 57.

9. Furneaux, ‘Furneaux’s Narrative’, p. 735.

10. Anonymous, [attributed to Lieutenant John Rickman] Journal of Captain Cook’s last Voyage to the Pacific Ocean, on Discovery; Performed in the years 1776, 1777, 1778, 1779, illustrated with Cuts, a Chart, shewing the Tracts of the Ships employed in this Expedition, Faithfully narrated from the original MS (London: E. Newberry, 1781), pp. 43-4. Cook similarly noted that they ‘move from place to place like wild Beasts in search of food’. Cook, Journals, vol. 1, p. 396.

11. John Hunter, An Historical Journal of the Transactions at Port Jackson and Norfolk Island with the Discoveries which have been made in New South Wales and in the Southern Ocean since the publication of Phillip’s Voyage, compiled from the official Papers; Including the Journals of Governors Phillip and King, and of Lieut. Ball; and the Voyages from the First Sailing of the Sirius in 1787 to the Return of that Ship’s Company to England in 1792 (London: John Stockdale, 1793), Australiana Facsimile Editions No. 148 (Adelaide: Libraries Board of South Australia, 1968), pp. 40-1.

12. Péron and Freycinet, Voyage of Discovery, p. 138.

13. Péron and Freycinet, Voyage of Discovery, p. 138.

14. Péron and Freycinet, Voyage of Discovery, p. 137.

15. Péron and Freycinet, Voyage of Discovery, pp. 137-8.

16. Péron and Freycinet, Voyage of Discovery, p. 138.

17. Péron and Freycinet, Voyage of Discovery, p. 138.

18. Péron and Freycinet, Voyage of Discovery, p. 138.

19. Péron and Freycinet, Voyage of Discovery, p. 140.

20. Péron and Freycinet, Voyage of Discovery, p. 139.

21. Péron and Freycinet, Voyage of Discovery, p. 141.

22. Péron and Freycinet, Voyage of Discovery, p. 141.

23. Péron and Freycinet, Voyage of Discovery, p. 142.

24. Péron and Freycinet, Voyage of Discovery, p. 140-1.

25. Péron and Freycinet, Voyage of Discovery, pp. 140-1.

26. Mark Harrison, Climates and Constitutions: Health, Race, Environment and British Imperialism in India 1600-1850 (New Delhi and New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), pp. 34 and 92-4.

27. Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu, The Spirit of Laws [1748], trans. and ed. A.M. Cohler, B.S. Miller, and H.S. Stone (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), pp. 231-4.

28. Gutharraguda is the Malgana name for Shark Bay, meaning “Two waters”. See Darren Capewell, ‘Yandani (Welcome)’, in Jimmy Poland, Bewley Shaylor, Sarah Trant, Helena Bogucki, Pieces of Gutharraguda (Shark Bay): Jimmy Poland: Jewellery and Objects, Form, Perth, 2013, p. 10.