Maritime history is the study of people and their activities in, on, around and under the waters of the world, from the great oceans to inland waters. Australian maritime history includes Indigenous ‘deep time’ history, as Australian First Nations people made the world’s first sea crossings from Southeast Asia (known as ‘Sunda’) to Australia (‘Sahul’) some 65,000 years before present (BP) when sea levels were 125 metres lower than today – a minimum voyaging distance of 90 kilometres.

During human occupation of Australia, rising sea levels flooded over 2 million square kilometres of the now submerged continental shelf between 19,000 to 7,000 BP, significantly impacting First Nations peoples’ culture and territories, and drowning their coastal archaeological record. For this first chapter of Australia’s incredible maritime history, First Nations peoples have carefully maintained knowledge passed down through generations of ancestors about sea level rise events thousands of years ago, communicating their experiences and histories orally, and through rock art, while archaeological discoveries both on land and underwater are providing further detailed information.

More recently, Australia’s maritime history includes the earliest discoveries of the continent and its offshore islands by Macassan voyagers from Southeast Asia that led to knowledge of what they called ‘Marege’ (Arnhem Land) and ‘Kayu Jawa’ (Western Australia’s Kimberley coast), and by European navigators who named the lands they found ‘Terra Australis’, ‘New Holland’, ‘Arnhem’s Land’, ‘Dirk Hartog’s Island’, ‘Van Diemen’s Land’ and ‘New South Wales’. The Dutch were the first Europeans to chart Australia’s coastline in 1606, when the Duyfken encountered the Gulf of Carpentaria coast in far north Queensland. Dutch, French and British exploration was followed by Britain’s formal colonisation of Sydney Cove in 1788. The colony’s first export industries were sealing and whaling that provided the capital to support pastoralism and agricultural development, and led to the growth of port cities, shipbuilding, the establishment of regular coastal and international trade routes, maritime infrastructure and navies.

The late Professor Frank Broeze, co-founder of the Australian Association for Maritime History, believed that maritime history should be defined as widely as possible and identified six broad overlapping categories: using the resources of the sea and its subsoil, transportation, political power projection, scientific exploration, leisure, and culture and ideology.1

Aboriginal reed boats observed at Schouten Island, Tasmania during Baudin’s visit in 1802. Artist: Charles Alexandre Leseur

Maritime history encompasses a wide range of subjects including Indigenous marine and coastal use, exploration, trade and dominion, immigration, war and defence, shipbuilding, shipping and shipwrecks, marine resource use ( e.g. sealing, whaling, guano mining, trepanging and commercial fishing industries), piracy, maritime law, ports, environmental impacts, yachting, surfing, marine art, and other cultural and leisure pursuits based on the sea.2 Maritime history incorporates a variety of different research disciplines, including history, anthropology, archaeology, environmental studies, marine science and law. For example, marine conservation and the study of modern fisheries and marine mammal populations involves scientific analysis of data from early explorers’ reports, surveys and whalers’ logbooks to understand changes in animal populations and human impacts over time. Maritime historians use global, national, regional and local approaches of study; and often cross boundaries incorporating other disciplines such as marine science, archaeology, climatology and cultural history.

Maritime history is also a pathway to the study of world history. Historians such as Gelina Harlaftis4 and Felipe Fernandez-Armesto5 describe maritime history as being international and comparative in scope with a global perspective6. Such a global perspective is more important than ever with a range of ocean and maritime-related global issues confronting humanity, such as ocean plastics and pollution, overfishing, maritime territorial conflicts and ocean warming and sea-level rise due to climate change.

The broad range of displays within Australian maritime museums is evidence of scope of maritime history, and the AAMH’s publications, public lectures and other activities regularly feature a broad range of maritime history topics.3


  1. Broeze, Frank “From the Periphery to the Mainstream: The Challenge of Australia’s Maritime History”, The Great Circle 11/1 (1989), pp. 1-14.
  2. The Wikipedia entry for maritime history has an extensive list of subjects:
  3. For further information visit and
  4. Felipe Fernandez-Armesto in Finamore, Daniel (ed.), Maritime History as World History (University Press of Florida, 2004)
  5. There is a lively debate on the definition and practice of maritime history. See: Joshua M. Smith “Far Beyond Jack Tar: Maritime Historians and the Problem of Audience” in CORIOLIS Volume 2, Number 2, 2011. Accessed 12 September 2012 from