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Talking About Boats

It’s the 5th Piers Festival on Sunday.

This wholehearted celebration of multiculturalism is held on Princes Pier, strongly associated with Australia’s post-war migration.

Each of the twelve benches on Princes Pier is inscribed with the name of a ship that berthed there. Just to take one …

The HMAS Kanimbla arrived at the eastern berth of Princes Pier on 7 December 1947 carrying the first 839 refugees to Victoria after World War 11.

They waited overnight on the ship before boarding two special trains which took them to inaugurate the Bonegilla Migrant Reception and Training Centre on 8 December 1947.

I have looked at this photograph often – its staging, composition and tone, the absence of people – though Minister for Immigration Arthur Calwell was there to greet them  – and wondered about the life journeys of the people on board.1

HMAS Kanimbla arrives at Princes Pier in 1947 2

HMAS Kanimbla and the train to Bonegilla – National Archives of Australia

Dagmara Gieysztor came to Australia by air, not by ship, but she is troubled by our response to asylum seekers and refugees.

She has embarked on a paper boat journey. She makes paper boats, large and small, and places them at public events. Dagmara teaches people the simple art of making paper boats and uses them as a way of opening a dialogue with people: ‘What circumstances lead people put their families on flimsy boats?’ ‘How did your ancestors get to Australia?’


The Paper Boat Project – Scenes on the Yarra, Williamstown – Dagmara Gieysztor

It is ironic that the shortage of ships after the war made it more difficult for Arthur Calwell, Australia’s first Minister for Immigration, to realise his ambitious immigration plans for Australia. Listen to him in this short clip – ‘I am going abroad to seek ships for immigrants’.

Last year’s Piers Festival was held in the shadow of the attack on Charlie Hebdo’s offices in Paris, this year in the shadow of Brussels and Lahore.

There could be no better time to affirm the theme of this year’s Piers Festival that ‘Diversity shapes our future’.


Program for the 2016 Piers Festival – Memory keepers and story telling will take place in the Gatehouse between 12.45 and 4pm. Archie Roach closes the Festival between 6 and 7pm.

1The collection of 170,700 personal dossiers of Displaced Persons who emigrated to Australia between 1947-53 are placed on UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register.


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