Makassan contact with Australia

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Map of locations mentioned in this article:
A type of Makassan perahu, the patorani

Makassar people from the region of Sulawesi (modern-day Indonesia) began visiting the coast of northern Australia sometime around the middle of the 1700s, first in the Kimberley region, and some decades later in Arnhem Land.[1][2][3] They were men who collected and processed trepang (also known as sea cucumber), a marine invertebrate prized for its culinary value generally and for its medicinal properties in Chinese markets. The term Makassan (or Macassan) is generally used to apply to all the trepangers who came to Australia. Some were from other islands in the Indonesian Archipelago, including Timor, Rote and Aru.

Fishing and processing of trepang[edit]

A sea cucumber. This example is from the Mediterranean

The creature and the food product are commonly known in English as sea cucumber, bêche-de-mer in French, gamat in Malay, while Makassarese has 12 terms covering 16 different species.[4][5] One of the Makassar terms, for trepang, taripaŋ, entered the Aboriginal languages of the Cobourg Peninsula, as tharriba in Marrku, as jarripang in Mawng or otherwise as darriba.[6]

Trepang live on the sea floor and are exposed at low tide. Fishing was traditionally done by hand, spearing, diving or dredging. The catch was placed in boiling water before being dried and smoked, to preserve the trepang for the journey back to Makassar and other South East Asian markets. Trepang is still valued by Chinese communities for its jelly-like texture, its flavour-enhancing properties, and as a stimulant and aphrodisiac.[7] Matthew Flinders made a contemporary record of how trepang was processed when he met Pobasso, a chief of a Makassan fleet in February 1803.[8]

Voyage to Marege' and Kayu Jawa[edit]

Trepanging fleets began to visit the northern coasts of Australia from Makassar in southern Sulawesi, Indonesia, from at least 1720 and possibly earlier. Campbell Macknight's classic study of the Makassan trepang industry accepts the start of the industry as about 1720, with the earliest recorded trepang voyage made in 1751.[9] But Regina Ganter of Griffith University notes that a Sulawesi historian suggests a commencement date for the industry of about 1640.[10] Ganter also notes that for some anthropologists, the extensive influence of the trepang industry on the Yolngu people suggests a longer period of contact. Arnhem Land Aboriginal rock art, recorded by archaeologists in 2008, appears to provide further evidence of Makassan contact in the mid-1600s.[citation needed] Based on radiocarbon dating for apparent prau (boat) designs in Aboriginal rock art, some scholars have proposed contact from as early as the 1500s.[11]

Model of Makassan perahu, Islamic Museum of Australia

At the height of the trepang industry, the Makassan ranged thousands of kilometres along Australia's northern coasts, arriving with the north-west monsoon each December. Makassan perahu or praus could carry a crew of thirty members, and Macknight estimated the total number of trepangers arriving each year as about one thousand.[12] The Makassan crews established themselves at various semi-permanent locations on the coast, to boil and dry the trepang before the return voyage home, four months later, to sell their cargo to Chinese merchants.[13] Marege' was the Makassan name for Arnhem land (meaning "Wild Country"), from the Cobourg Peninsula to Groote Eylandt in the Gulf of Carpentaria. Kayu Jawa was the name for the fishing grounds in the Kimberley region of Western Australia, from Napier Broome Bay to Cape Leveque. Other important fishing areas included West Papua, Sumbawa, Timor and Selayar.[7]

Matthew Flinders, in his circumnavigation of Australia in 1803, met a Makassan trepang fleet near present-day Nhulunbuy. He communicated at length with a Makassan captain, Pobasso, through his cook, who was also a Malay, and learned of the extent of the trade from this encounter.[8] Ganter writes that there were at most "1,000 Macassans" compared to the almost "7,000 British nestled into Sydney Cove and Newcastle".[14] French explorer Nicholas Baudin also encountered twenty-six large perahu off the northern coast of Western Australia in the same year.[15]

The British settlements of Fort Dundas and Fort Wellington were established as a result of Phillip Parker King's contact with Makassan trepangers in 1821.[14]

Using Daeng Rangka, the last Makassan trepanger to visit Australia, lived well into the twentieth century, and the history of his voyages are well documented. He first made the voyage to northern Australia as a young man. He suffered dismasting and several shipwrecks, and had generally positive but occasionally conflicting relationships with Indigenous Australians. He was the first trepanger to pay the South Australian government for a trepanging licence in 1883, an impost that made the trade less viable (At the time this jurisdiction administered the Northern Territory).[16] The trade continued to dwindle toward the end of the 19th century, due to the imposition of customs duties and licence fees and probably compounded by overfishing.[7] Rangka commanded the last Makassar perahu, which left Arnhem Land in 1907.

Physical evidence of Makassan contact[edit]

Makassan stone arrangement near Yirrkala, Northern Territory. Photo by Ray Norris

There is significant evidence of contact with Makassan fishers in examples of Indigenous Australian rock art and bark painting of northern Australia, with the Makassan perahu a prominent feature.[17][18]

Northern Territory[edit]

Archaeological remains of Makassar processing plants from the 18th and 19th centuries are still at Port Essington, Anuru Bay and Groote Eylandt, along with stands of the tamarind trees introduced by the Makassan. Macknight and others note that excavations and development in these areas have revealed pieces of metal, broken pottery and glass, coins, fish-hooks and broken clay pipes related to this trade.[19] Macknight notes that much of the ceramic material found suggests a nineteenth-century date.[a]

In January 2012, a swivel gun found two years before at Dundee Beach near Darwin was widely reported by web news sources and the Australian press to be of Portuguese origin,[21] However initial analysis by the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory in 2012 indicated that it is of South East Asian origin,[22] likely originated from Makassar. There is nothing in its chemical composition, style, or form that matches Portuguese breech-loading swivel guns.[23] The Museum holds seven guns of South East Asian manufacture in its collections.[24] Another swivel gun of South East Asian manufacture, found in Darwin in 1908, is held by the South Australian Museum, and is also possibly of Makassan origin.[25]

The Wurrwurrwuy stone arrangements at Yirrkala, which are listed as heritage monuments, depict aspects of Makassan trepanging, including details of the vessels' internal structures.[26]

Western Australia[edit]

In 1916, two bronze cannons were found on a small island in Napier Broome Bay, on the northern coast of Western Australia. Scientists at the Western Australian Museum in Fremantle have made a detailed analysis and have determined that these weapons are swivel guns and almost certainly of late-18th-century Makassan, rather than European, origin.[27] Flinders' account confirms that the Makassans he met were personally armed and their perahus carried small cannons.[8]

In 2021 archaeological excavations are taking place on the island of Niiwalarra (Sir Graham Moore Island), off the Kimberley coast, for the first time since Ian Crawford did his research in the 1960s. The archaeologists are being assisted by some of the traditional owners of the island, the Kwini people. Evidence of pottery and other artefacts from the new excavations are being complemented by the oral histories of the Kwini people, yielding evidence of Makassan fishers and traders on the island. A number of hearths are a record of where the trepang was cooked on the beach in large iron pots, with activity especially picking up around 1800.[28]

Effect on Indigenous people of Australia[edit]

A female figure outlined in beeswax over painting of a white Makassan prau

The Makassar contact with Aborigines had a significant effect on the latter culture, and likely there were also cross-cultural influences. Ganter writes "the cultural imprint on the Yolngu people of this contact is everywhere: in their language, in their art, in their stories, in their cuisine".[14] According to anthropologist John Bradley from Monash University, the contact between the two groups was a success: "They traded together. It was fair – there was no racial judgement, no race policy".[11] Even into the early 21st century, the shared history between the two peoples is still celebrated by Aboriginal communities in northern Australia as a period of mutual trust and respect.[11]

Others who have studied this period have come to a different conclusion regarding the relationship between the aboriginal people and the visiting trepangers. Anthropologist Ian McIntosh has said that the initial effects of contact with the Makassan fishermen resulted in "turmoil"[29] with the extent of Islamic influence being noteworthy.[30] In another paper McIntosh concludes, "strife, poverty and domination... is a previously unrecorded legacy of contact between Aborigines and Indonesians".[31] A report prepared by the History Department of the Australian National University says that the Makassan appear to have been welcomed initially; however, relations deteriorated when, "aborigines began to feel they were being exploited... leading to violence on both sides".[32][clarification needed]


Studies by anthropologists have found traditions that indicate the Makassan negotiated with local people on the Australian continent for the right to fish certain waters. The exchange also involved the trade of cloth, tobacco, metal axes and knives, rice, and gin. The Yolgnu of Arnhem Land also traded turtle-shell, pearls and cypress pine, and some were employed as trepangers.[33] While there is ample evidence of peaceful contact, some contact was hostile. Using Daeng Rangka described at least one violent confrontation with Aborigines,[16] while Flinders recorded being advised by the Makassan to "beware of the natives".[8]

Some of the rock art and bark paintings appear to confirm that some Aboriginal workers willingly accompanied the Makassar back to their homeland of South Sulawesi across the Arafura Sea. Women were also occasional items of exchange according to Denise Russell, but their views and experiences have not been recorded.[34] After visiting Groote Eylandt in the early 1930s, anthropologist Donald Thomson speculated that the traditional seclusion of women from strange men and their use of a portable bark screens in this region "may have been a result of contact with Macassans".[35]


Smallpox may have been introduced to northern Australia in the 1820s via Makassan contact.[36] This remains unproven as First Fleet smallpox was already recorded as spreading across Australia from Sydney Cove.[37] The prevalence of the hereditary Machado–Joseph disease in the Groote Eylandt community has been attributed to outside contact. Recent genetic studies showed that the Groote Eylandt families with MJD shared a Y-DNA haplogroup with some families of Taiwanese, Indian, and Japanese ancestry.[38]


Some Yolngu communities of Arnhem Land appear to have re-figured their economies from being largely land-based to largely sea-based, following the introduction of Makassar technologies such as dug-out canoes, which were highly prized. These seaworthy boats, unlike the traditional Yolngu bark canoes, allowed the people to fish the ocean for dugongs and sea turtles.[39] Macknight notes that both the dug-out canoe and shovel-nosed spear found in Arnhem Land were based on Macassarese prototypes.[36]


A Makassan pidgin became a lingua franca along the north coast, not just between Makassan and Aboriginal people, but also as a language of trade among different Aboriginal groups, who were brought into greater contact with each other by the seafaring Makassar culture. Words from the Makassarese language (related to Javanese and Malay) can still be found in Aboriginal language varieties of the north coast. Examples include rupiah (money), jama (work), and balanda (white person). The latter was adopted into the Makassar language via the Malay term "orang belanda" (referring to Dutch person).[40]


Drawing on the work of Ian Mcintosh (2000), Regina Ganter and Peta Stephenson suggest that aspects of Islam were creatively adapted by the Yolngu. Muslim references still survive in certain ceremonies and Dreaming stories in the early 21st century.[41][42] Stephenson speculates that the Makassan may have been the first visitors to bring Islam to Australia.[43][better source needed]

According to anthropologist John Bradley from Monash University, "If you go to north-east Arnhem Land there is [a trace of Islam] in song, it is there in painting, it is there in dance, it is there in funeral rituals. It is patently obvious that there are borrowed items. With linguistic analysis as well, you're hearing hymns to Allah, or at least certain prayers to Allah".[b]

Current situation[edit]

Though prevented from fishing across Arnhem Land, other Indonesian fishermen have continued to fish up and down the west coast, in what are now Australian waters. This continues a practice of several hundred years, before such territories were declared – and some use traditional boats that their grandparents owned. The current Australian government considers such fishing illegal by its rules. Since the 1970s, if the fishermen are caught by authorities, their boats are burned and the fishermen are deported to Indonesia. Most Indonesian fishing in Australian waters now occurs around what Australia coined "Ashmore Reef" (known in Indonesia as Pulau Pasir) and the nearby islands.[44]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ At the same time he has warned against accepting radiocarbon dates from trepang processing fireplaces. These apparently give an anomalous date of 800 years before present.[20]
  2. ^ '...a figure called Walitha'walitha, which is worshipped by a clan of the Yolngu people on Elcho Island, off the northern coast of Arnhem Land. The name derives from the Arabic phrase "Allah ta'ala", meaning "God, the exalted". Walitha'walitha is closely associated with funeral rituals, which can include other Islamic elements like facing west during prayers – roughly the direction of Mecca – and ritual prostration reminiscent of the Muslim sujood. "I think it would be hugely oversimplifying to suggest that this figure is Allah as the 'one true God'," says Howard Morphy, an anthropologist at Australian National University. It's more the case of the Yolngu people adopting an Allah-like figure into their cosmology, he suggests.'[11]



  1. ^ Macknight 2011, p. 134.
  2. ^ Russell, Denise (22 March 2004). "Aboriginal-Makassan interactions in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in northern Australia and contemporary sea rights claims" (PDF). Australian Aboriginal Studies. Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. 2004 (1): 3(15). ISSN 0729-4352. Archived (PDF) from the original on 6 March 2019. Retrieved 21 April 2019.
  3. ^ T. Vigilante; et al. (2013). "Biodiversity values on selected Kimberley Islands, Australia" (PDF). Western Australian Museum. Retrieved 2 August 2021.
  4. ^ Choo 2004, p. 57.
  5. ^ Tuwo 2004, p. 52.
  6. ^ Evans 2016, p. 39.
  7. ^ a b c Máñez & Ferse 2010.
  8. ^ a b c d Flinders 1814, pp. 229–232.
  9. ^ Macknight 1976b.
  10. ^ Ganter 2008, pp. 1–14.
  11. ^ a b c d Rogers 2014.
  12. ^ Macknight 1976b, p. 29.
  13. ^ Stephenson, P.(2010)Islam Dreaming: Indigenous Muslims in Australia. P.22-6. University of New South Wales Press, Sydney. ISBN 978-1-74223-247-8
  14. ^ a b c Ganter, R. (2005) "Turn the Map upside down," in Griffith Review, Edition 9, 2005. "Up North: Myths, Threats and Enchantment." Griffith University.
  15. ^ Russell, D. Australian Aboriginal Studies 2004, Number 1. "Aboriginal-Makassan interactions in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in northern Australia and contemporary sea rights claims." pp. 6–7. Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. Retrieved on 6 April 2012
  16. ^ a b Macknight 1976a.
  17. ^ Taçon et al. 2010.
  18. ^ Woodford, J. (2008)The Sydney Morning Herald, 20 September 2008. "The Rock Art That Redraws Our History" [1] Archived 20 September 2008 at the Wayback Machine Retrieved on 6 April 2012
  19. ^ Macknight 1976b, pp. 78–81.
  20. ^ Macknight 1986, p. 70.
  21. ^ See for example, Australian Geographic, 10 January 2012. "Darwin boy's find could rewrite history." "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 12 January 2012. Retrieved 16 September 2013.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link) Retrieved on 6 April 2012
  22. ^ La Canna, X. The Telegraph, 31 March 2012, "Cannon probably not 500 years old after all."[2] Retrieved on 6 April 2012
  23. ^ Clark, Paul (2013). Dundee Beach Swivel Gun: Provenance Report (PDF). Northern Territory Government Department of Arts and Museums.
  24. ^ Davie, D (2009).Quarterly Newsletter of the Arms Collectors Association of the Northern Territory. "Malay Cannons." Vol V, No 2, June 2009. [3] Archived 17 March 2012 at the Wayback Machine Retrieved on 6 April 2012
  25. ^ Jateff, E.(2011): "An oddity in South Australia: An Indonesian imitation swivel gun?" Australasian Institute for Maritime Archaeology Newsletter, Vol 30, Issue 1, March 2011. "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 20 March 2012. Retrieved 6 April 2012.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link) Retrieved on 6 April 2012
  26. ^ "Wurrwurrwuy (Place ID 106088)". Australian Heritage Database. Department of the Environment. Retrieved 13 October 2018.
  27. ^ Green, J. N: The Carronade Island Guns and South East Asian Gun Founding.[Fremantle, W.A.]: Dept. of Maritime Archaeology, Western Australian Maritime Museum, [2007]. Report No.215(Archived copy) Retrieved on 6 April 2012
  28. ^ Parke, Erin (18 July 2021). "New study reveals history of Aboriginal trade with foreign visitors before British settlement". ABC News. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 2 August 2021.
  29. ^ McIntosh & June 1996, pp. 65–67.
  30. ^ McIntosh & June 1996, p. 76.
  31. ^ McIntosh 1996, p. 138. sfn error: multiple targets (2×): CITEREFMcIntosh1996 (help)
  32. ^ Howie-Willis 1997, pp. 81–82.
  33. ^ May, S.K., McKinnon, J.F., Raupp, J.T.(2009) The International Journal of Nautical Archaeology. "Boats on Bark: an Analysis of Groote Eylandt Aboriginal Bark-Paintings featuring Macassan Praus from the 1948 Arnhem Land Expedition, Northern Territory, Australia." Retrieved on 6 April 2012
  34. ^ Russell, D.(2004) p. 15
  35. ^ Donald Thomson, Compiled and edited by Nicolas Peterson (2003): Donald Thomson in Arnhem Land. p. 110. Miegunyah Press, Melbourne University Publishing, Ltd. ISBN 978-0-522-85205-9
  36. ^ a b Macknight, C.C. (Apr 1986). "Macassans and the Aboriginal Past," Archaeology in Oceania, Vol. 21, No. 1, Papers Presented to John Mulvaney, pp. 69–75. Published by: Oceania Publications, University of Sydney. Retrieved on 6 April 2012
  37. ^ Journal of Australian Studies Archived 1 March 2019 at the Wayback Machine
  38. ^ Martins, Sandra & Bing-Wen Soong (2012). "Mutational Origin of Machado-Joseph Disease in the Australian Aboriginal Communities of Groote Eylandt and Yirrkala". Archives of Neurology. 69 (6): 746–751. doi:10.1001/archneurol.2011.2504. PMID 22351852.
  39. ^ Ganter 2008.
  40. ^ Walker, Alan & Zorc, R. David (1981). "Austronesian Loanwords in Yolngu-Matha of Northeast Arnhem Land". Aboriginal History. 5: 109–134.
  41. ^ Ganter 2008, p. 2.
  42. ^ Stephenson, P.(2010) p.31-34
  43. ^ Stephenson, P (2004) "Islam in Indigenous Australia: Historic Relic or Contemporary Reality", in Politics and Culture, 2004, Issue 4.[4] Archived 21 July 2011 at the Wayback Machine Retrieved on 6 April 2012
  44. ^ Stacey, N.(2007) Boats to Burn, Bajo Fishing Activity in the Australian Fishing Zone. ANU E-Press, Australian National University, Canberra. ISBN 978-1-920942-95-3 [5] Retrieved on 6 April 2012
  45. ^ Berndt 2004, p. 55.