Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Strangers on the Shore

rock art

Ships depicted in the rock art of Arnhem Land indicate the influence of Makassan mariners in the region.

By Daryl Wesley & Sue O’Connor

New analysis of rock art and other artefacts found in northern Australia are revealing the timing and extent of an ancient aquaculture industry developed by South-East Asian mariners.

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.

It was during the first English forays to northern Australia that the presence of South-East Asian mariners along the coast of Arnhem Land became known to the English colony in New South Wales. At first the role of these visitors to the north Australian coast, predominantly from the Indonesian port of Makassar in southern Sulawesi, was poorly understood.

In the early 19th century the English administration considered establishing a trading entrepot for the fledging colonies in Australia at the Victoria Settlement (1838–49) on the Cobourg Peninsula to emulate the success of the emerging port of Singapore with Asian trade and commerce. A number of visitors to the settlement noted that the commercial interest of the Indonesian fleets was focused primarily on the harvesting of Holothuria – otherwise known as sea slugs, teripang (Malay), trepang (indigenous Australians) and bêche-de-mer.

The fleets would leave the port of Makassar and sail for Australia using the trade winds that blow during the early wet season. They made for areas of the Arnhem Land coast with good bays that would provide protection for their praus (ships) because the trepang harvest was undertaken during the tropical wet season, a time of storms and severe cyclones. Each year the fleets returned to the same base camps where they lived and processed the trepang in preparation for their return...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.