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.

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 journey at the end of the wet season.

Data on the size, frequency and duration of the Makassan fleets that visited northern Australia in the first half of the 19th century is available from historical sources. Crew sizes of 1000 to 2000 Indonesian mariners have been estimated, and must have been a significant presence along the Arnhem Land coast.

During the early half of the 20th century, anthropologists working in Arnhem Land recorded oral histories documenting the Aboriginal relationships with the visitors from Makassar, and also hinted at the possibility that there may have been earlier South-East Asians forays to Arnhem Land by people known as the Bayini. Evidence for the Bayini remains elusive, but the presence of the visitors from Makassar can be found in abundance in the archaeology and rock art of the Arnhem Land region.

The Makassan trepang fleets persisted until 1907, when changes in Australian Commonwealth export laws finally put an end to the industry. Although history records the date when Makassan visitation ceased, the timing of their first visits and the establishment of camps on the shores of northern Australia were unknown.

It wasn’t until the late 1960s, when a detailed historical and archaeological investigation was carried out by Prof Campbell Macknight, that the nature and extent of the Makassan trepang industry operating along the coast of the Northern Territory was appreciated. His research illustrated the scale of operations and economy of the trepang fishing operation, as well as describing various impacts on Aboriginal society in Arnhem Land.

An area that has remained a point of contention has been the length of time Aboriginal people in Arnhem Land have had contact with mariners from South-East Asia. Macknight obtained some radiocarbon dates that indicated that Makassan visitation may have started as early as 1200 AD. However, Macknight believed that radiocarbon dating was not reliable enough to provide the age of the Makassan sites. He therefore rejected the archaeological dates and instead relied on the evidence from Dutch and Chinese historical trade records, which suggested that the trepang industry in Arnhem Land only began in the 1720s and proliferated in the 1780s.

Despite this, uncertainties persisted and the mysterious Bayini of the oral histories and Macknight’s early radiocarbon dates left open the possibility that the Arnhem Land coast may have been receiving visitors from the islands to the north for much longer than history recorded.

It was to investigate these issues that the Department of Archaeology and Natural History at the Australian National University developed a multidisciplinary archaeological project with the Maung Traditional Owners of the Anuru Bay and Wellington Range region of north-western Arnhem Land. The project sought to reinvestigate the Anuru Bay Makassan trepang processing site excavated by Macknight and also look for evidence of cultural contact in the rich indigenous archaeology in the nearby Wellington Range.

The Wellington Range – a large sandstone outlier of the Arnhem Land plateau that is only 12 km from the major Anuru Bay trepang processing site – contains an abundance of rock art and rock shelter occupation sites containing imagery and materials from this contact era, including images of European and Makassan ships and weapons, scenes of European people, a bicycle, a wagon, rifles, smoking pipes and an aircraft.

There were three main elements to the research project:

  • radiocarbon dating of features at the Anuru Bay Makassan trepang site;
  • examining rock shelter occupation sites inland from the coast to see if there was evidence of any early trade of Makassan goods; and
  • investigating the rock art for pictorial evidence of contact.

The main purpose of re-excavating Anuru Bay was to obtain samples for radiocarbon dating to establish when Makassans first started using the site, when the major period of trepang processing occurred, and when the site stopped being used. Trenches were excavated in areas identified by Macknight as Makassan working and processing sites. Other trenches were excavated to provide information about previous indigenous occupation and how the site was formed over the past 1000 years.

We processed 18 radiocarbon samples from charcoal in the area of the stone bays used to hold huge metal “tripots” in which the trepang were boiled, the working areas, and the site more generally. We also dated two Makassan burials excavated previously by Macknight.

Our analysis found that there was a strong likelihood the Anuru Bay site was first occupied by Indonesian mariners around the 1640s, with trepang processing occurring later in the mid- to late-1700s, followed by a phase of late use in the early 20th century.

While Macknight had recovered some Chinese porcelain and stoneware ceramics, and artefacts such as metal fragments, fish hooks, glass beads and glass shards, our study found very few exotic artefacts to add to his assemblage, probably because the site has been extensively disturbed in the intervening years between Macknight’s excavation and ours. Our examination of earthenware fragments we had collected from Anuru Bay indicated that all the pots came from southern Sulawesi. This further supported our hypothesis that the site was mostly in use during the 18th century.

The excavated indigenous rock shelter sites provided strong evidence for a major increase in occupation and a proliferation of rock art production in the past 300–400 years.

Significant finds in the archaeological excavations were 28 glass beads and one stone bead. These exotic artefacts provide some context to trade and exchange with the Makassans. An analysis of the bead assemblage showed that although they were of European manufacture, the majority of the beads are also of the type that were widely favoured throughout the Indonesian archipelago. Beadwork is especially important in Sulawesi societies, and it would be expected that beads may have been one of the trade items carried by the Makassans. Another important aspect is that the stone bead is almost certainly of South-East Asian origin.

One other finding was the discovery of a bead splatter that would have come from a package of beads. This shows that Aboriginal people were doing their own beadwork while camping at the sites in the Wellington Range. Radiocarbon dating of excavation levels associated with the beads was consistent with an early 18th century introduction.

The final major area of archaeological evidence came from documenting the rock art complexes found around the Wellington Range. The Wellington Range has the largest corpus of Makassan-themed rock art in western Arnhem Land, attesting to the close relationship between the Aboriginal traditional owners and the Makassans visitors.

Radiocarbon dating of beeswax figures positioned over paintings of two South-East Asian praus was carried out by a team of researchers led by Prof Paul Taçon of Griffith University. The date of the beeswax over one prau shows that it was painted some time before 1664, and the other prau before 1773. These ages are consistent with the radiocarbon dates from the indigenous rock shelters with introduced contact artefacts and those from the Anuru Bay Makassan trepang processing site.

In conclusion, the archaeological evidence supports an early phase of cultural contact between mariners from Indonesia and the indigenous inhabitants of the Arnhem Land coast in the early to mid-1600s. The reason for these early visits is unclear. There may have been a period of expansion of the Makassar Sultanate during its commercial and political height in the 1600s, which drove the investigation of new areas for resource exploitation and potential trade. This was followed by regular visitation on a larger-scale by Makassan crews in the mid- to late-1700s as the demand for trepang grew and the industry expanded to meet this demand.

Daryl Wesley completed this research for his PhD at the Australian National University’s School of Culture, History & Language, where Sue O’Connor is Distinguished Professor.