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

Makassar people from the region of Sulawesi in Indonesia began visiting the coast of Northern Australia sometime around the middle of the 18th century, 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 supposed medicinal properties in Chinese markets. The term Makassan (or Macassan) is generally used to apply to all the trepangers who came to Australia.

Fishing and processing of trepang

Main articles: Sea cucumber and Sea cucumber as food

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 and 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

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 (at the time the jurisdiction that administered the Northern Territory) for a trepanging licence in 1883, an impost that made the trade less viable.[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

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]

Historian Lynette Russell, head of the Indigenous Studies Centre at Monash University in Melbourne, is researching the era, as part of a project called "Global Encounters and First Nations Peoples", which looks at interactions with Indigenous people prior to British settlement of Australia. The team is documenting early visits by sailors from France, Portugal, Indonesia, and other countries, using a number of methods, including linguists looking at foreign words in local Aboriginal languages, and dating methods on tamarind trees on the north coast of Australia, which were introduced by the fishermen. From these data, they are constructing an interactive digital map which will illustrate various people and journeys that reached northern Australia from all over the world.[19]

Northern Territory

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.[20] 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.[22] However initial analysis by the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory in 2012 indicated that it is of Southeast Asian origin,[23] likely from Makassar. There is nothing in its chemical composition, style, or form that matches Portuguese breech-loading swivel guns.[24] The museum holds seven guns of South East Asian manufacture in its collections.[25] 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.[26]

The Wurrwurrwuy stone arrangements at Yirrkala, which are listed as heritage monuments, depict aspects of Makassan trepanging, including details of the vessels' internal structures.[27]

Western Australia

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.[28] 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.[29]


There are written and oral accounts of Aboriginal people moving to the island with Asian fishermen, some dating back as far as the 1600s. In early 2023, photographs featuring Aboriginal Australian people which had been taken in Makassar in the 1870s were discovered. Yolngu elders identified the subjects of the photos as Yolngu people from the Arnhem Land area. The discovery sparked an international search for descendants of these people, in the hope of being able to do DNA testing to shed more light on migration from northern Australia to South East Asia.[30] Yolngu elder Don Wininba Ganambarr has genetic links to the population in Indonesia, and remembers that his grandmother left with trepang fishermen, moving to Makassar and raising a family there. It is not yet known whether she was forcibly removed or left of her own free will.[19]

Effect on Indigenous people of Australia

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

The Makassar contact with Aboriginal people had a significant effect on the latter's 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]

However, anthropologist Ian McIntosh has speculated that the initial effects of contact with the Makassan fishermen resulted in "turmoil"[31] with the extent of Islamic influence being noteworthy.[32] In another paper McIntosh says, "strife, poverty and domination ... is a previously unrecorded legacy of contact between Aborigines and Indonesians".[33] He also claims 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".[34][clarification needed]


Studies by anthropologists have found traditions that indicate the Makassans 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 Yolngu of Arnhem Land also traded turtle-shell, pearls and cypress pine, and some were employed as trepangers.[35] 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 Makassans 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.[36] 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 portable bark screens in this region "may have been a result of contact with Macassans".[37]


Smallpox may have been introduced to northern Australia in the 1820s via Makassan contact.[38] This remains unproven as First Fleet smallpox was already recorded as spreading across Australia from Sydney Cove.[39] 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.[40]


Some Yolngu communities of Arnhem Land appear to have transitioned 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.[41] Macknight notes that both the dug-out canoe and shovel-nosed spear found in Arnhem Land were based on Macassarese prototypes.[38]


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) (which referred to Dutch people, but was extended to all Europeans in Makassarese and many Indigenous languages).[42]

In 2012, a huge painting by Gulumbu Yunupingu titled Garrurru (Sail) was installed at the Australian National University's Hedley Bull Centre for World Politics.[43] The word garrurru is the Yolngu word for "sail", and derives from the Makassan word for sailcloth.[44]


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.[45][46] Stephenson speculates that the Makassans may have been the first visitors to bring Islam to Australia.[47][better source needed] Given the speculation around the first arrival of the Makassans, it is possible their visits to Australia predate the Islam spread through Indonesia, meaning it is possible Indigenous Australians were witness to these religious developments through the visiting fishermen.[48]

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] As there can be seen to be "several areas of convergence between Aboriginal belief structures and Islam,"[49] is it not surprising that over a long period of cross cultural engagement that there was spiritual, just like physical, trade.

Current situation

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 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 termed "Ashmore Reef" (known in Indonesia as Pulau Pasir) and the nearby islands.[50]

See also


  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.[21]
  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 2004.
  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 2010, pp. 22–66.
  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 2004, pp. 6–7.
  16. ^ a b Macknight 1976a.
  17. ^ Taçon et al. 2010.
  18. ^ Woodford, J. (20 September 2008). "The Rock Art That Redraws Our History". The Sydney Morning Herald. Archived from the original on 20 September 2008. Retrieved 6 April 2012.
  19. ^ a b Parke, Erin (10 April 2023). "Fresh evidence emerges in search for descendants of Australia's little-known overseas settlement". ABC News (Australia). Retrieved 25 August 2023.
  20. ^ Macknight 1976b, pp. 78–81.
  21. ^ Macknight 1986, p. 70.
  22. ^ See for example, "Darwin boy's find could rewrite history". Australian Geographic. 10 January 2012. Archived from the original on 12 January 2012. Retrieved 16 September 2013.
  23. ^ La Canna, X. (31 March 2012). "Cannon probably not 500 years old after all". The Telegraph. Retrieved 6 April 2012.
  24. ^ Clark, Paul (2013). Dundee Beach Swivel Gun: Provenance Report (PDF). Northern Territory Government Department of Arts and Museums.
  25. ^ Davie, D. (June 2009). "Malay Cannons". Quarterly Newsletter of the Arms Collectors Association of the Northern Territory. Vol. V, no. 2. Archived from the original on 17 March 2012. Retrieved 6 April 2012.
  26. ^ Jateff, E. (March 2011). "An oddity in South Australia: An Indonesian imitation swivel gun?" (PDF). Australasian Institute for Maritime Archaeology Newsletter. Vol. 30, no. 1. Archived from the original (PDF) on 20 March 2012. Retrieved 6 April 2012.
  27. ^ "Wurrwurrwuy (Place ID 106088)". Australian Heritage Database. Australian Government. Retrieved 13 October 2018.
  28. ^ Green, J. N. (2006). The Carronade Island Guns and South East Asian Gun Founding (PDF) (Report). Fremantle, Western Australia: Department of Maritime Archaeology, Western Australian Maritime Museum. No.215. Archived from the original (PDF) on 3 December 2013. Retrieved 6 April 2012.
  29. ^ 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.
  30. ^ Parke, Erin (10 February 2023). "Proof of mystery colony of Aboriginal Australians and Indonesians found in an Italian library". ABC News (Australia). Retrieved 11 February 2023.
  31. ^ McIntosh 1996j, pp. 65–67.
  32. ^ McIntosh 1996j, p. 76.
  33. ^ McIntosh 1996, p. 138.
  34. ^ McIntosh 1997, pp. 81–82.
  35. ^ 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
  36. ^ Russell 2004, p. 15.
  37. ^ 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
  38. ^ a b Macknight 1986.
  39. ^ Warren, Christopher (2014). "Smallpox at Sydney Cove – who, when, why?". Journal of Australian Studies. 38 (1): 68–86. doi:10.1080/14443058.2013.849750. S2CID 143644513.
  40. ^ 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.
  41. ^ Ganter 2008.
  42. ^ Walker, Alan & Zorc, R. David (1981). "Austronesian Loanwords in Yolngu-Matha of Northeast Arnhem Land". Aboriginal History. 5: 109–134.
  43. ^ Streak, Diana (29 March 2012). "Artist's long journey to see her works on display". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 10 April 2023.
  44. ^ "Artwork paints a picture of Australia's ancient links to Asia". ANU College of Asia & the Pacific. 14 February 2014. Retrieved 10 April 2023.
  45. ^ Ganter 2008, p. 2.
  46. ^ Stephenson 2010, pp. 31–34.
  47. ^ Stephenson, P. (2004). "Islam in Indigenous Australia: Historic Relic or Contemporary Reality". Politics and Culture. 2004 (4) (published 10 August 2010). Archived from the original on 21 July 2011. Retrieved 6 April 2012.
  48. ^ Cook, Abu Bakr Sirajuddin (2018). "Tasawwuf 'Usturaliya: Prolegomena to a History of Sufism in Australia". Australian Journal of Islamic Studies. 3 (3): 60–74. doi:10.55831/ajis.v3i3.119. ISSN 2207-4414. S2CID 248537054.
  49. ^ Cook, Abu Bakr Sirajuddin; Yucel, Salih (2016). "Australia's Indigenous Peoples and Islam: Philosophical and Spiritual Convergences between Belief Structures". Comparative Islamic Studies. 12 (1–2): 165–185. doi:10.1558/cis.37033. ISSN 1743-1638. S2CID 203064611.
  50. ^ Stacey, N. (2007). Boats to Burn, Bajo Fishing Activity in the Australian Fishing Zone. Canberra: ANU E-Press, Australian National University. doi:10.22459/BB.06.2007. ISBN 978-1-920942-95-3.
  51. ^ Berndt 2004, p. 55.