Maritime Exploration of Australia: The Muslim Traders

Makassan praus at Raffles Bay, on the Cobourg Peninsula, early in the 19th century

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. 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. and that "other merchants and men of good faith" (presumably Arabs) had been down to 54.S.

Stone platform on the Polynesian island of Raiatea

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, stone platforms and Mayan-style step pyramids on lonely Pacific islands such as Raiatea, the second largest of the Society Islands, after Tahiti. 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.

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.

The Piri Reis map, 1513

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 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. Others 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 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. In 1451 Dutch documents recorded the journey of a trepanger boat to a place they called Maregeas, as this part of the northern Australian coast was known to them. Arnhem land rock art, recorded by archaeologists in 2008, appears to support evidence of Makassan contact from such an early time.

Fishing fleets soon began to visit the northern coasts of Australia from Makassar (formerly Ujung Pandang) in southern Sulawesi 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.

At the height of the trepang industry, Makassans 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. 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.

Marege was the Makassan name for Arnhem land, (meaning literally "Wild Country") from the Cobourg Peninsula to Groote Eylandt in the Gulf of Carpentaria. Kaya 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.

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. Flinders was amazed that Pobassoo had no charts and navigated his way to the north coast of Australia with only a pocket compass. Each prow carried a month's water supply in joints of bamboo, with food of coconuts, dried fish, and a few fowls for the chiefs. Investigator's artist William Westall captured the likeness of Pobassoo sitting in the stern of his prow. He also sketched one of the prows and it was a large vessel of 25 tons crewed by 25 men, with a large single sail forward, and a length overall of around 15 to 20 metres.

French explorer Nicholas Baudin, a contemporary of Flinders, also encountered 26 large perahu off the northern coast of Western Australia in the same year. 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.

Using Daeng Rangka, the last Makassan trepanger to visit Australia, lived well into the 20th century and the history of his voyages are therefore well documented. He first made the voyage to northern Australia as a young man. He suffered dismasting and several shipwrecks, generally positive but occasionally conflicting relationships with Indigenous Australians, and was the first trepanger to pay the South Australian government trepanging licence in 1883, an impost that made the trade less viable. 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. Using Daeng Rangka commanded the last Makassar perahu, which left Arnhem Land in 1907.

The Makassan Trepang Trade

Physical evidence of Makassan contact
Archeological remains of Makassan processing plants from the 18th and 19th centuries are still at Port Essington, Anuru Bay and Groote Eylandt, along with stands of tamarind trees introduced by the Makassans. These areas have produced pieces of metal, broken pottery and glass, coins, fishhooks and broken clay pipes. Much of the ceramic material found suggests a nineteenth-century date. 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. Flinders account confirms that the Makassans he met were personally armed and their perahus carried small cannons.

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. However initial analysis by the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory indicates it is probably also of South East Asian origin. The Museum holds seven guns of South East Asian manufacture in its collections. Another swivel gun of South East Asian manufacture, found in Darwin in 1908, is held by the Museum of South Australia, and is also possibly of Makassan origin.

Effect on Indigenous people of Australia
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 Milingimbi trees dated from before Darwin was established still stand. The age of a a tamarind tree at the Gardens golf course in Darwin indicates it was planted by the Makassans, which points to them arriving in Darwin, and either they did not find trepang, or they were after palm tree wax. Makassans used to chop up palm trees, boiling off the oil and solidifying the wax to make candles and sails - essential commodities in those days.

Tamarind tree at Darwin's Gardens golf course

There is also significant evidence of contact with Makassan fishers in rock art and bark painting of northern Australia, with the Makassan perahu a prominent feature. The Makassar contact with Aborigines had a significant effect on their culture. The cultural imprint on the Yolngu people of this contact is everywhere: in their language, in their art, in their stories, in their cuisine. Studies by anthropologists have found traditions that indicate Makassans negotiated for the right to fish certain waters. The exchange also involved the trade of cloth, tobacco, metal axes and knives, rice and gin. The Yolgnu of Arnhem Land also traded turtle-shell, pearls and cypress pine and some were employed as trepangers. While there is ample evidence of peaceful contact, some contact was hostile.

Using Daeng Rangka described at least one violent confrontation with Aborigines, while Flinders heard advice from the Makassans to "beware of the natives". However, rock art and bark paintings appear to confirm that some Aboriginal workers willingly accompanied the Makassar back to their homeland of South Sulawesi, Indonesia across the Arafura Sea. Women were also occasional items of exchange, but their views and experiences have not been recorded. 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 a portable bark screens "may have been a result of contact with Macassans".

Some Yolngu communities of Arnhem Land appear to have re-figured their economies from being largely land-based to largely sea-based with the introduction of Makassar technologies such as dug-out canoes, which were highly prized. These seaworthy boats, unlike their traditional bark canoes, allowed Yolngu to fish the ocean for dugongs and turtles. Both the dug-out canoe and shovel-nosed spear found in Arnhem Land were based on Macassarese prototypes.

A Makassan pidgin became a shared language along the north coast, not just between Makassan and Aboriginal people, but also between 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 Indonesian) can still be found in Aboriginal language varieties of the north coast; examples include rupiah (money), jama (work), and balanda (white person), which originally came to the Makassar language via the Malay 'orang belanda' (Dutch person).

Evidence exists that aspects of Islam were creatively adapted by the Yolngu, and Muslim references survive in certain ceremonies and Dreaming stories today. There are traces of Islam in Yolgnu rituals and ceremonies including hymns to Allah, which would have been brought by the Makassan. The Makassans may well have been the first to bring Islam to Australia. They may also have brought smallpox to Australia but this theory is un-confirmed.

A rock art site in the southeast of Groote Eylandt depicting a Makassan prau

There are generations of Yolngu stories that say some of their people travelled to Sulawesi, as well as to Manila, Dilli and Singapore. Recently discovered photos held by a Rome museum, taken in 1873, depict Aboriginal people in Makassar. 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. 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."

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. 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 apparently put there to represent the Makassans coming to these shores and collecting trepangs. The place is a sacred site where people can see how they were connected to the Makassans.


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