There is a popular misconception that Indigenous Australians had no contact with the outside world before European settlement.
Yet Australian Aborigines along Australia’s northern tropical coast had extensive interactions with fishermen from Makassar in the southern Celebes (the present-day Indonesian province of Sulawesi) who visited the northern Australian coast throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Makassan fishermen came in search of trepang (sea-cucumber or bêche-de-mer). The processed trepang is prized in Chinese cooking for its texture and flavour-enhancing qualities and is used in Chinese medicine. The Makassan trepangers, after collecting and processing trepang in Australia, returned to Makassar to sell the product to Chinese traders.
The Trepang fishery on the northern coast of Australia - from The Queen (1861-1863)© The British Library Board Images Online
Visits by Makassan trepangers were ended by the Australian government in 1906.
In the British Library’s manuscript collection [Add. 32439] there is a letter to Sir Joseph Banks written by the botanist Robert Brown, who accompanied Mathew Flinders on his circumnavigation of Australia in 1801-1803, detailing the collecting of trepang in northern Australia:
“soon after we left the Gulph [of Carpentaria], in standing into a Bay formed by two islands, we were not a little surprised to observe 6 Praos [Perahus, Malay sailing boats] already at anchor. On the following day we went on board one of them and procured… some information relative to the object of their voyage … it appeared that they were part of a fleet of 60 sails belonging to the District of Bonij, in the Island of Celebes. They annually visit this coast, especially the Gulph of Carpentaria, along the western side of which we have observed many traces of them. The object of their voyage is the collecting of a marine animal … which they call Terrepang [trepang]. They find it in abundance and after preparing it, which is done by parboiling, then drying in the sun, and lastly smoke drying, they carry it to Timor Laut where they sell it to the Chinese who are either resident there or come on purpose for this commodity.” [BL Add. 32439; f. 82]
The Makassans negotiated fishing rights; employed Aborigines to help them fish for trepang; and traded in Indonesian pottery, glass, fishhooks, coins and clay pipes - remnants of which have been found along the coast. Some Makassan trepangers lived with the Aborigines and participated in their ceremonies and feasts. Aborigines returned with the trepangers to visit Makassar. Recent linguistic studies show that some Australian Aboriginal languages contain Makassan words. Aboriginal rock and bark paintings record the visit of the Makassans and their perahu. Another legacy of the Makassan trepangers is the tamarind trees (Tamarindus indicus) they planted from seeds that now grow wild along parts of the coast of northern Australia.
Formerly Australasian Studies Curator
Brown, Robert. Letters and papers: 1760 - 1858. “Letter of Robert Brown to Sir Joseph Banks, March 1803”, p. 82 [BL Add. 32439]
MacKnight, C. C. The voyage to Marege’: Macassan trepangers in northern Australia. (Melbourne, 1976) [YA.1988.b.5552]