Who Did Discover Australia?: The Muslims

Long before Europeans took an interest in the Far East, Arab and Indian Muslims had become masters of the eastern seaways from the coasts of Africa to China. The Arab Muslims first arrived in Africa in 641/2 AD, when they displaced the tyrannical rule of the Byzantium Empire in Egypt and northern Africa. Under Islamic rule, Egypt became a major source of wealth for Muslims after they replaced the competitive taxation of Greeks and Romans with a new, fairer system. With the emergence of Islamic law and order in the Near East and North Africa, economic growth began to develop. Responding to their new opportunities, Muslim merchants pushed their ships and enterprises far across the Indian Ocean, establishing trading settlements along the coasts of India, Ceylon, Malaya and Indonesia, down the eastern coast of Africa, and in the ports of southern China. They multiplied the old Phoenician links between southern Spain, and reopened channels of inter-continental communications. Old markets were expanded and new ones founded, helping to shape the course of political and religious change. The Muslim influence throughout the south-east Asian archipelago is still evident today.

The Arab geographer Abulfeda (1273-1331) wrote of an Arab expedition that circumnavigated the earth some time around 1300 AD, an event that anticipated the feat of Magellan by two centuries. As a result of the Arab expedition, Abulfeda wrote that, if two persons set out from the same point and travelled around the earth in exactly opposite directions, they would come back to this same point but their calendar would differ by two days. Another Arab writer spoke of an animal with a pouch but confused it with a rhinoceros. Such a conclusion could well have been reached from a second or third hand account of a Wombat.

The Arab writer, Schems-ed-din-Mohammed, Caliph of Damascus (1256-1327) wrote of an inhabited land beyond Madagascar, across the (Indian) ocean, where Australia is situated. A 13th century account states that the sultan of Egypt called to his aid the Admiral of the Dry Tree, a mystical land of the (eastern) border of the Persian empire (mentioned by Marco Polo), in whose land the only currencies were millstones. The only region of which this is true is the Caroline Islands with their stone money (right). The Caroline Islands are a large archipelago of widely scattered islands in the western Pacific Ocean, northeast of New Guinea.

In 1332 Brochard, a German Dominican, presented to the Pope and to Philip of France a memoir in which he speaks of a voyage to the Indian Ocean in which he reached 24.S. but that other merchants and men of good faith (presumably Arabs) had been down to 54.S.

Far from confining themselves to coastal fishing voyages, the seafaring peoples of the Inca and Mayan civilisations undertook voyages of exploration far out into the Pacific to lands beyond. They carried with them the stone-building techniques developed by their forefathers, leaving ghostly monuments in their wake. Heads of stone resembling those of the Olmecs occur across the Pacific into New Guinea waters. Cave and rock art resembling that found in Peru has been found on the Australian east coast. Had Inca and Mayan peoples reached the Australian region, this would explain the presence of Myan racial features found among the Gilbert Islanders and Mayan-style step pyramids on lonely Pacific islands. Peruvian racial features have been claimed to exist among some Arnhem Land Aboriginal tribes and Maori people of New Zealand. Last century American archaeologist and historical researcher, Augustus Le Plongeon MD argued that the Maya were skilled mariners who divided the earth into five major continents and measured the distance between them. They knew how to calculate the division of time into solar years of 365 days and 6 hours; they divided the year into 12 months of 30 days, to which they added 5 supplementary days that were left without name and regarded as unimportant. Any ancient people possessing a higher civilisation of such attainments would surely also have been highly skilled in the maritime arts.

The Piri Reis map, 1513
Piri Reis was a famous admiral of the Turkish fleet in the sixteenth century. His passion was cartography, he was always on the lookout for new maps and other such documents. His high rank within the Turkish navy allowed him to have a privileged access to the Imperial Library of Constantinople.  He was considered an expert on Mediterranean lands and coastlines, and he even wrote a well known sailing book called "Bahriyye-on Navigation" where he described all the details of coastlines, harbours, currents, shallows, bays and straits of the Mediterranean and Aegean seas. He died in 1554 or 1555 being beheaded for unknown reasons. 

It is said that in a now-forgotten sea battle, he met among the prisoners a sailor who claimed to have been sailing along with Columbus in his three journeys to the new world, and that he was one of his pilots. The sailor claimed that Columbus had a map of the lands he was chasing, and that this map was now in his possession. Admiral Reis was shown the map; then in 1513 he compiled a world map based on that map and other antique charts from his collection - many of which had survived from the days of the Great Library of Alexandria. The map was then presented to Ottoman Sultan Selim I in Egypt in 1517.

In 1929 a group of historians found half of the map in the Palace of Topkapu, Istanbul where it remains on a dusty shelf, still rolled up and drawn on a gazelle skin. The content of the map (right) was amazing: it focused on the western coast of Africa, the eastern coast of South America and the northern coast of Antarctica. The major point of interest here is that Antarctic had supposedly remained undiscovered until 1818, but its northern coastline, perfectly detailed, was shown on this map drawn in 1513, as was the east coast of South America, which at the time had not been explored sufficiently by the Portuguese and Dutch to have produced a map as accurate as this. Other features indicate an advanced knowledge of astronomy, trigonometry, and the ability to determine longitude, not known to European culture until the reign of George III of England.

Close examination has proved the original source maps must have been compiled at a time when the Antarctic land mass and inland waterways of the continent were relatively free of ice. Geological evidence confirms that the latest date Queen Maud Land could have been charted in an ice-free state is 4000 BC. Because of the details on this map, many claims have been made about it. Some believe that it is so perfect that it could only have been made from very high altitude photographs. other believe it supports the notion that the whole of the Southern Hemishere, including Australia, was well known to ancient civilisations of 6 millenium ago.

The Makassans

There is ample evidence to suggest that Makassan fishermen, who sold the produce of their labours to Muslim and Chinese traders, began annual voyages to the north coast of Western Australia, Northern Territory and Queensland well before recorded visits by the Europeans. It is believed these fishermen, from the island of Sulawesi, commenced their annual visits to Marege, as this part of the northern Australian coast was known to them, as early as the 15th century. They came to exploit the shallow seas for trepang (a sea-slug sought by Chinese traders as a culinary delicacy with aphrodisiacal properties) and for tortoise-shell, pearl-shell and pearls which they later sold to Muslim traders who took them to the markets of Europe. As well as the 'fruits of the sea', the Makassans also cut and took back with them sandalwood and hardwood logs. In Ujung Pandang, there remain today numerous buildings which feature in their construction timbers that have been positively identified as being from Arnhem Land.

Large and regular fleets of ships, each with up to 2,000 Makassans aboard, are believed to have sailed on the north-west monsoons each December. They spent the next few months gathering and curing trepang, returning home in March or April. The Makassans appear to have camped in sheltered sandy bays, close to the trepang beds and the stands of mangrove trees required for the curing process. Their camps can be identified from the air by the presence of densely crowned Tamarind trees which grew from the discarded seeds of this fruit, brought here by them from their homeland. Parallel lines of stones, the remnants of structures that held the huge metal cauldrons used to boil the trepang, and the sites of shelters used to dry the smoked slugs, can still be found along the northern coast of Australia.

These fishermen were among the first visitors to establish an economic enterprise on Australian soil, but unlike later European settlers, the Makassans had no negative effect on the Aboriginal way of life. More lasting is their place in Aboriginal history and culture. The first written descriptions of north coastal Aboriginal culture indicate these people smoked pipes, used dugout canoes and grew beards, none of which are common among other Aborigines. Some inter-marriages between Aborigines and Makassans took place and Makassan grave sites exist along the north Australian coastline. There were also inter-cultural exchanges between the Aboriginal communities and the Makassar. In 1867, the Dutch Governor-General in Makassar noted that there were 17 Aborigines in Makassar who had returned with the Muslim fishing fleets.

Symbols included in their tribal ceremonies reflect a foreign influence. Aboriginal cave paintings depict the traditional Makassan sailing vessel called the prau. The Makassans had a profound and lasting influence not only on the art but also on the myth, ritual and material culture of the Arnhem Land region. Contemporary song cycles and ceremonies are still permeated with Makassan associations. Many Aborigines learnt a corruption of the Makassan language spoken by all the visitors. To this day, there are Aboriginal languages with hundreds of words of Indonesian origin, some of which include Indonesian terms for Europeans, matches, paper and money. The word 'emu' is of Arab origin - it means wingless, and was used by the twelfth century Arab scholar, Abdullah El Edrisi, who told of an uninhabited country to the south of Borneo where wingless birds roamed. He also indicated the existence of New Guinea and the northern coast of Australia. The word's use among Australian Aborigines was noted by the first white Australian settlers, indicating it was not introduced after colonisation.