Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Macassan Traders

People from Makassar, now Ujungpandang, in the southwest of Celebes, now Sulawesi. They visited the north of Australia for at least hundreds of years, though probably much longer, fishing for trepang - sea cucumber - and trading with the Aboriginal People. These visitors contributed to the language, art, economy and genetics of the northern Aboriginal People. The contact has left its mark on both sides of the Arafura and Banda Seas.

It is uncertain when the journeys began from Makassar to the place they called Marege, apparently on the north coast of Australia. It is thought the trepang trade may have begun in 1720, though some think it began closer to 1400. The voyagers visited places from the Kimberleys to Mornington Island in the east of the Gulf of Carpentaria. Trade dropped off towards the end of the 19th century as a result of the imposition of duties and licences by the Australian government. The last prau left Arnhem Land in 1906.

In 1803 Mathew Flinders met the Macassan trading fleet at what is now known as Nhulunbuy on his circumnavigation of Australia. As a result of this meeting settlements were established at Melville Island and the Coburg Peninsula. The trepang gathering fleets were sent from Macassar every year by Chinese trades in Macassar who shipped the trepang to China where they were used for soup and as an aphrodisiac.

The trepang were processed and dried before being taken back to Makassar. At port Essington, Groote Eylandt and Snuru Bay there are still stands of tamarind trees brought by the Macassans and the remains of trepang processing plants from the 18 & 19th centuries.

The processing of the trepang involved boiling, gutting, recooking with mangrove bark to add flavour and colour, then drying and smoking. The naturalist said of them they looked like 'sausages which have been rolled in mud and then thrown up the chimney'. He probably didn't taste them.

The Macassan contact with the aboriginals of the north had a profound effect on their cultures. The visits are still remembered through oral history, songs and dances and paintings on rock and bark.

The length of the processing required long stays on the coast. The camps set up by the Macassans had large boiling-down cauldrons, smoke houses and wells. The traces of these camps can still be seen on the coast of the Kimberleys and Arnhem Land. The remains include broken pottery and glass and stands of tamarind trees, that sprouted from the seeds dropped by the Macassans who ate the astringent fruit. These Macassan camps were situated in places that could be defended, on small islands or promontories. It seems they felt the need to protect themselves, so presumably they believed there was a chance of aggression from the Aboriginal People. Historical records in Indonesia report a number of massacres of the crews of the praus.

The Macassans exchanged goods such as knives, tobacco, cloth, rice and alcohol, for the right to fish for trepang, which can be collected at low tide, and employ Aboriginal people. Some Yolngu communities changed their economies from being land based to largely based on ocean fishing for dugong and turtles. This was made possible by the introduction of Macassan sea-going dugout canoes to replace the bark canoe.

Some Aboriginal people accompanied the Macassans on their return voyages, also remembered are the abductions and trading of Yolngu young women, and the introduction of smallpox.

And a Macassan pidgin became the lingua franca of the north coast, both between the Aboriginal People and the Macassans and between different Aboriginals that spoke a different language, having been brought into closer contact with each other as a result of the Macassan sea-going culture. Some Macassan words are still present among the Aboriginal languages along the north coast. Some examples are rupiah=money, jama=work, balanda=white person, originally from Dutch to the Macassan language "Hollander".

The Macassan praus were of about 25 tonnes, and they all carried seagoing dugout canoes that were used for fishing. Unlike the legendary Baiini, they did not bring their women. The fleets of praus were comprised of from 30 - 60 boats, each with about 30 crew, staying in  Australia over the Wet Season, in December and returning to the Makassar about 4 or 5 months later.

Though these visitors are usually referred to as Macassans, there were actually a number of different groups trading and fishing for trepang, each with distinctive praus.  Another group trading along the north coast was the Bugis, also from what is now Sulawesi. The Aboriginal People recorded the different prau design of the different groups, the Bugis praus had a bow that bent down and had an eye painted on each side to allow it to find the way more easily, while the bow of the Macassan praus pointed up.

There are songs and stories about all parts of the praus, such as the rigging, the sails, even the wind in the sails.

In stories told by Aboriginal People, such as the one told by the Gumatj clan from Yirrkala, the first contact with the Macassans is apparently recorded. According to the story the first the Aboriginal People knew of the Macassans was when they saw 2 praus approaching Port Bradshaw. Most of the people scattered further inland, while some stayed to watch these strange things from the thick vegetation. 2 young boys had not heard about the praus and were fishing with spears in the mangrove swamps. The praus anchored at Daneia, in a tidal creek, at which point 2 young Macassan boys left the prau to collect shellfish. The Aboriginal boys heard the Macassans and crept closer, watching the Macassans. The Macassan boys eventually saw them and both groups watched each other for a while before they all began talking. The Macassans gestured that the Aboriginal boys should go with them to visist their father. At the Macassan camp the men were divided into 2 groups dancing and singing, which they apparently did before they begin collecting trepang. The Aboriginals thought it was like the moieties of their people.

The Aboriginals hid behind a tree while the Macassan boys told their father and he and another man came and grabbed the boys, taking them back to the camp. They were eventually given food and taught to smoke a Malay pipe and then allowed to return to their own camp. When they told their people about the Macassans many others went and made camp near the Macassan camp. According to the story the father of the 2 boys was named Dainasi, and the name of the captains of the praus were Gurumola and Wonadjei.

Along the northern coast of Australia, wherever the Macassans traded, the local people have stories about their first encounters.

Sources & Further reading

  1. R.M. & C.H.Berndt, The world of the First Australians, 1964, Ure Smith, Sydney
  2. Jennifer Isaacs, Australia Dreaming: 40,000 years of Aboriginal History, New Holland Publishers, 2005


Author: M. H. Monroe
Last updated: 30/09/2011
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