Did Indigenous Australians trade with Asia

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Did Indigenous Australians trade with Asia

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http://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-01-16/a ... in/9320452
Did Aboriginal and Asian people trade before European settlement in Darwin?
By Lucy Marks
Updated about 3 hours ago

It's long been thought that Indigenous interactions with Europeans officially began after white settlement. But the Yolngu people of the Northern Territory say they were trading with Indonesians for hundreds of years before that.

What we do know is that Aboriginal people from the north coast of Australia were travelling to the far reaches of South-East Asia long before white settlers ever arrived Down Under.

This story is part of Curious Darwin, our new series where you ask us the questions, you vote for your favourite, and we investigate. You can submit your question or vote on our next topic here.

Warning: This article contains images of deceased Indigenous Australians

Kathryn Oldcastle, a 27-year-old accountant from Sydney, asked us whether Asian groups met or traded with Aboriginal groups on the northern coast of the NT.

A black and white drawing of small ships with people on board.
PHOTO: Makassan praus off Raffles Bay near the Coburg peninsula, drawn by L. Breton in 1839. (Supplied: Campbell Macknight)
Her question was sparked by curiosity about whether history at school told the full story about first contact.

"In school I always learnt the first people who came to Australia were the Dutch or Captain Cook, and I thought we're never really looking at maybe other groups that the Aboriginal people were contacting," Ms Oldcastle said.
So who were they in contact with? The answer isn't straightforward.

The exact dates of contact with outsiders have long been the subject of dispute, with Aboriginal oral history saying trading began hundreds of years before Captain Cook arrived, and historians debating over more recent dates.

Historical evidence shows the Dutch East India Company discovered the north coast of Australia in 1606, but the Dutch did not believe there was anything of value in Australia, so no trade occurred.

Seafarers from Sulawesi in Indonesia, known as Makassans, reached northern Australia in the 18th century, beginning about 200 years of international trade.

A black and white drawing of huts on stilts and boiling implements for trepang.
PHOTO: A Makassan trepang processing site at Raffles Bay drawn by L. Breton in 1839. (Supplied: Campbell Macknight)
The Makassans, however, discovered the Top End was bountiful in trepang — or sea cucumber — which could be harvested and sold amid a booming trade in China.

What is certain is that Yolngu people from Arnhem Land travelled to Makassar and beyond — to other countries such as Singapore and the Philippines — aboard Makassan boats.

In Sulawesi, Yolgnu people lived among the local people, forged relationships, learned the language, and had families.

The discovery of trepang started a special relationship between the two cultures that's still present today.

We asked you to leave your thoughts on the history of international trade and Indigenous interactions in the comments.
First contact

Trade and contact with the Makassans was happening for hundreds of years, well before the British arrived, says Gathapura Mununggurr, a senior ranger from Dhimurru Aboriginal Corporation in Yirrkala, in north-east Arnhem Land.

A black and white drawing of Aboriginal people mixing with Makassan traders on the shore.
PHOTO: The Makassans at Port Essington on the Coburg Peninsula in 1845, by H.S Melville. (Supplied: Campbell Macknight)
"That history, and the trade to Yolngu people and history of life during that time is still there," Mr Mununggurr said.

"And people dance, people sing about them, and it's very important in these days for Yolngu people to remember them — that they came, and they were the first contact for Yolngu people.
"[It] all started before white people came, and continued afterwards as well."

The Makassans came to the NT islands and coast in search of trepang, turtle shells, and pearl shells, which they sold in China.

Tobacco, alcohol, calico, fabrics, rice, and knives were among the items introduced to Arnhem Land through the trading partnership.

During that time, language between the cultures evolved to include hundreds of shared words, such as rupiah (money) and balanda (white man).

a prau on the beach, three dugout canoes under sail, and a steamship off-shore.
PHOTO: A prau on the beach and three dugout canoes in the Gulf of Carpentaria in 1886. (Supplied: NT Library)
Linguist and academic Michael Cooke says first contact was made prior to European settlement, a view which is in line with Yolngu storytelling.

"It was definitely before European settlement, but it's not known exactly how long; 300 years is a good guess," Dr Cooke says.
But not everyone agrees.

Historians at odds

"This is the sort of thing that the experts like to argue about and fight about," laughed Professor Campbell Macknight.

He's spent 50 years of his life and work dedicated to such research, examining the period in history that the trepang trade was booming in China to help determine when the Makassans first arrived in Australia.

"If we look at the trepang exports from Makassar to China around 1780, they suddenly boom," he says.

A drawing of a Makassan sea captain sitting in a hut.
PHOTO: Well-known Makassan sea captain 'Pobassoo', drawn by William Westall in 1803. (Supplied: Campbell Macknight)
"There's a great big boom in the amount of trepang coming in and it must've come from Arnhem Land — this explains that boom, given China could take as much as they could get.
"There are all sorts of arguments about radio carbon dates and so forth, but the truth is, they started coming to Arnhem Land in about 1780."

That's 10 years after Captain Cook sailed by but didn't stop in the NT. The Makassans did, however, arrive in the Kimberley by 1750.

That carbon dating refers to the human occupation of a cave on Groote Eylandt, which anthropologists from the Anindilyakwa Land Council say dates back 500 to 600 years.

But it's not known how old the painting of a Makassan prau, or boat is, painted on the cave walls.

Professor Macknight said there was no evidence to prove the painting could be that old.

"I can't fully explain them, but they are clearly wrong," he said.

A cave painting of a house.
PHOTO: An Aboriginal cave painting of a Makassan house or smokehouse in Western Arnhem Land. (Supplied: Campbell Macknight)
"It's like if you got a radio carbon date on some early tank from World War I and this told you there'd been a tank cruising around 500 to 600 years ago — you'd think something was wrong."
Heritage consultant Mike Owen from the Past Masters history group agrees the boom in the trepang trade occurred in the 18th century, but believes the Makassans were coming to Australia from at least the mid-1600s.

"I think there's good evidence of contact between Yolngu, and many different groups, for a very extended period; they [Yolngu people] talk about whale hunters and metal-working."

1873 photos of Aboriginal people in Makassar discovered

There are generations of Yolngu stories that say people travelled to Sulawesi, as well as to Manila, Dilli and Singapore.

Two black and white photographs of Aboriginal men and one child.
PHOTO: Possibly the only known photographs of Aboriginal voyagers to Makassar, taken in 1873. (Museo Nazionale Pigorini)
Professor Macknight recently discovered photos in a Rome museum of Aboriginal people in Makassar, taken in 1873.

Just a year later, a 1874 expedition searching for gold in Arnhem Land came across an Aboriginal man who spoke some English. He told the group he'd learned the language on a trip to Singapore.

"Once you got to Makassar there were boats going everywhere, you could just get onto a boat and go to Singapore or Dili, or wherever, because you could sign on as a crew person," Professor Macknight said.
"And certainly, lots of Aboriginal people would've had a reasonable command of the Makassar language."

There are accounts of Aboriginal people in Makassar as early as 1823, with a visiting Dutch governor-general making a note: "Very black, tall in stature, with curly hair, not frizzy like that of the Papuan peoples, long legs, thick lips, and, in general, are quite well built."

Family ties

Just over 30 years ago, Dr Cooke took a field trip of students and staff from Batchelor College to Ujung Padang to investigate familial and linguistic links between the Yolngu and Makassan peoples.

They discovered family links between those in the group and an elderly Makassan woman because her father, a trepang sea captain named Hussein Dang Rangkar, had also fathered a boy and girl in Arnhem Land.

Djalinda Yunupingu points to a series of rocks on the ground.
PHOTO: Djalinda Yunupingu - here with the stone pictures - went on the Ujung Padang field trip. (Supplied: Dhimurru Aboriginal Corporation/Emma Barker)
The connection was made because the elderly woman, named Ibu Saribanung Daeng Nganne, had remembered the names of her half-brother and half-sister who lived on Elcho Island.

"One in our group was the great-great-granddaughter of this old lady's father [the sea captain]," Dr Cooke said.

"Another of our group was related by marriage, because this woman's husband was a great-great-grandson of the man who the woman named as her half-brother."
Djalinda Yunupingu, a senior cultural adviser from Dhimurru Aboriginal Corporation, was on that trip, and said it was known the sea captain had met a Yolgnu woman in Arnhem Land and fathered her children.

"I met that old lady [in Ujung Padang], and when we came back, maybe a couple of days later she passed away," she said.

"She just wanted to see a group of Yolngu people."

During Dr Cooke's trip to Sulawesi in 1986, they discovered another 50 shared words to add to a vocabulary already 300 words strong.

Rock formations and sacred sites

In Yirrkala in north-east Arnhem Land, more than 50 rock formations — known as stone pictures — were documented by Professor Macknight his associate Bill Gray in 1967.

Professor Campbell Macknight bends over to examine an arrangement of rocks on the ground.
PHOTO: Campbell Macknight with Dhimuru rangers at a stone picture site in Yirrkala. (Supplied: Dhimurru Aboriginal Corporation/Emma Barker)
The pair returned to the site for the first time last year, where the formations show a detailed Makassan prau; a house with eight rooms; sites where trepang was processed; canoes collecting trepang; stone fireplaces; and firewood.

"They were put there to represent the Makassans coming to our shores and collecting trepangs," Ms Yunupingu says.

"Keeping that place as a sacred site where people can go and have a look and go to that place and see how we were connected to the Makassans."
What's been left behind

The coastline showing Tamarind trees.
PHOTO: Tamarind trees lining the beach, Milingimbi. Taken January 1, 1950. (Supplied: NT Library)
The Arnhem Land coastline is also full of archaeological finds, like pottery, knives, and coins.

Tamarind trees were also introduced by the northern neighbours, and on Milingimbi trees more than 100 years old still stand.

"We all know that by putting tamarind trees, that they were there," Ms Yunupingu says.
Mr Owen believes a tamarind tree at the Gardens golf course in Darwin was put there by the Makassans, which he believes means they arrived in Darwin, but probably did not find trepang, and rather could've been after palm tree wax.

"They were chopping up palm trees, boiling off the oil and solidifying the wax to make candles and sails and all sorts of things — essential commodities in those days," Mr Owens said.

Evidence of dealings with China, Tanzania, Portugal

A figure of a Chinese man on a horse carrying a peach.
PHOTO: The Shou Lao figure was discovered at the base of banyan tree in Darwin in 1879. (Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences)
A Chinese figure that pre-dates European settlement was discovered at the base of a banyan tree at Doctor's Gully, near Darwin Port in 1879. Historians believe it's possibly from the second half of the 18th century.

The artefact, known as 'Shou Lao', is now housed in the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney.

A group of workmen made the discovery in the 1800s while cutting down the tree to make way for a road, finding the figurine wedged amongst its roots.

One theory speculates it most likely came with the Makassans who had contact with China.

But others dispute that, because trepangers did not usually come to Darwin, and they argue it was more likely to have been left by local Chinese people already in Darwin.

A cannon, known as a swivel-gun, was discovered on Dundee Beach by a schoolboy in 2010, and scientific analysis showed it had been submerged for 250 years.

Mr Owen said an analysis of the lead contained in the bronze showed it came from the south of Spain; it's believed to be from a Portuguese ship about the time the Portuguese were in Timor in the early 16th century.

A tamarind tree.
PHOTO: Mike Owens believe this Tamarind tree shows the Makassans made it to Darwin. (Supplied: Mike Owen)
"If a vessel came with the Portuguese in 1515 and went scouting around, it would be quite reasonable to expect it to have one of these guns on board and coming ashore looking for fresh water at Dundee," Mr Owen said.
The Powerhouse Museum recently used an electron microscope to analyse some coins found on the Wessel Islands that were between 800 and 1,000 years old.

The coins, from the Tanzanian port city of Kilwa, were discovered to have surface material that meant they'd been in the presence of high nitrate for centuries. Mr Owen says they could have been kept in the hull of a ship next to gunpowder.

"The notion still is that these coins were carried by a vessel from East Africa, across the Indian Ocean, due west, and that vessel foundered in the Wessel Islands," he said.
'It's absolutely incredible'

We took our findings back to our questioner, Ms Oldcastle, who says she wasn't surprised China had a hand in the birth of the trading relationship.

"I wasn't expecting to hear so much detail! I wasn't expecting to hear hard evidence, to hear that there's artefacts," she says.
"I was expecting to hear there might be some words in common and some stories going back saying 'this and that happened', but to hear there is a bit of real archaeological evidence supporting the stories, is absolutely incredible and it's really fascinating.

"It seems to be so prosperous and a mutually beneficial relationship, not really negative in the way we usually think when other cultures have contact [but] they seem to be very friendly and help each other with their trading relationship."
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Re: Did Indigenous Australians trade with Asia

Post by Simon_Jester »

I for one would be entirely unsurprised to learn that the Australian natives had occasional trade with seafarers from Indonesia and Asia. If humans could cross the Straits of Torres in the Paleolithic, they could cross it in the Iron Age.
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Re: Did Indigenous Australians trade with Asia

Post by Elheru Aran »

I suppose it's certainly possible there was some trade, but honestly I can't really think of much that the Aborigines would have had to offer. I find it more likely that a few random ships may have found landfall on Australian beaches, noticed that there were plentiful natural resources, taken some Aborigines back with them... effectively a similar relationship to European cod fisheries in North American coastal waters. Certainly the East Indies/Indonesia is in closer proximity than Europe was to North America, so if actual trade occurred, I'm not greatly surprised.
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Re: Did Indigenous Australians trade with Asia

Post by Ziggy Stardust »

It certainly doesn't surprise me; the Indian Ocean basin had been a conduit for human trade and travel for longer than there have been civilizations to leave real records of it. Hell, there's evidence of contact with Polynesian peoples from the eastern coasts of Africa to western South America and everywhere in between, dating back hundreds (in some cases thousands) of years before Europeans set eyes on any of it. It would be amazing to me if there WASN'T contact with Australian Aboriginals. Of course, as Elheru says, there's the question of whether this contact constituted real trade, or simply a general mutual awareness.
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Re: Did Indigenous Australians trade with Asia

Post by The Romulan Republic »

The world has always been more interconnected than a lot of people think, and humans have probably always been travelers and traders, as well as conquerors, at least as long as we've left a record.

It just goes to show the hollow absurdity of Right-wings nationalists' vision of isolationism and keeping out the foreigners. The world was never like that.
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Re: Did Indigenous Australians trade with Asia

Post by Solauren »

Probably not directly.

I can see the the Australian natives trading with people from the islands near them, and then those people trading with people further north, etc.
Eventually, in such a system, items from Australia could have reached anywhere in the world, and vice versa.

Hell, there was a man from the lands that would become CHINA in Rome while Julius Caesar was in charge.
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Re: Did Indigenous Australians trade with Asia

Post by Sea Skimmer »

I'd be surprised if some level of contact didn't exist, people are very prone to overestimating the difficulty of crossing large bodies of water based purely on what the middle of the North Atlantic is like in winter it seems to me.

Australia has a number of native metal deposits we know where exploited for thousands of years before the bulldozer, chemical analysis could probably link them to stuff found in south west asia given enough effort. IIRC one such site is still the largest hole known to have been dug completely by hand. Such ready to forge metals would be one of the most likely sort of item for trade. Problem is since that region is almost all jungle I doubt all that much ancient metalwork exists for archaeologists to find, and anything in plain sight would have been melted down to make cannons or some such a few centuries ago, at which point you couldn't prove anything.
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