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Stop the Jabiluka Uranium Mine

Didjeridu & Traditional Music of the Top End
The content of this page was originally created by Peter Lister

Didjeridu Home : Makassans


Makassans visited the northern Australian coastline for three centuries and possibly as long as six centuries, sailing seasonally from Ujungpandang at the southwestern tip of Sulawesi to trade with Aborigines (Cawte, 1996) from the Kimberleys in the west, to as far as Mornington Island in the east of the Gulf of Carpentaria.

Over this extraordinarily long period of what appears to be quite harmonious contact, a variety of objects, and even language, were adopted by many people across the Top End. Tobacco, smoking pipes, metal knives, dugout canoes, sails, flags and arrack (alcohol) all became a part of traditional life. Still today the rich music, language and ceremonial aspects of traditional life in Arnhem Land reflect this contact.

Some makassans made their home here, while some Yolngu from central and eastern Arnhem Land travelled back to Ujungpandang. This journey was re-enacted in 1993.

Indonesia/northern Australia Map - Click for enlargement
click on map for enlargement

Ujungpandang (Makassar) can be seen on this map at the southwestern tip of the island of Sulawesi.

Makassans sailed to the Arnhem Land coast in prahus (also spelt prows, praus and perahus) on the winds of the northwest monsoons each summer and returned with the southeast winds about 3 months later. They came to collect the sea cucumber, or sea slug (also known as trepang and beche-de-mer), prolific in our northern waters. The Chinese believed the trepang held great medicinal and aphrodisiac value. Yolngu do not use trepang as it is poisonous (it contains a saponin - holothurian glucoside), but once prepared correctly, is free of the poison. According to Cawte, "For centuries Chinese merchants engaged caravels to go to the unknown South Land to garner it by the tonne from those shores and take it to Timor, whence their own junks sailed it home to the local markets to sell for food and medicine". After 1901, this trade became prohibited by the Commonwealth of Australia, and it finally came to a halt in 1906.

Makassan trade route
Map showing trade route used by makassans to northern Australia and China (from Cawte, 1996).

Preparing trepang
click on map for enlargement

'Macassans at Victoria, Port Essington, 1845, by HS Melville.'
from a flyer for the Australian National Maritime Museum exhibition, 1997.

The trepang were collected by spearing, diving or dredging. Divers (many of whom were Aboriginal) worked in up to 14 metres of water, bringing up 10 trepang at a time in woven bags. For dredging, dugout sailing canoes operated in pairs, scooping trepang from the seabed.

The trepang were prepared for travel by first splitting them open, boiling in seawater and pressing them under sand or stones. The body was stretched open with slivers of bamboo and preserved by sun-drying and slow smoking in smoke houses. The makassans brought with them "ready-made thatch panels for camp buildings, iron boiling pots, rice and other supplies" (Australian National Maritime Museum exhibition, 1997) and they introduced to the Yolngu, among other things, tobacco, liquor, iron tools, dugout canoes, sails, a variety of cultural practices and language.

Cawte quotes an extensive passage from Lt. Matthew Flinders journal, published in 1814, from his voyages 1801-03. Here is some of the more relevant text;

".....on the return of Lieutenant Flinders, were learned that they were prows from Macassar, and the six Malay commanders shortly afterwards came on board in a canoe. It happened fortunately that my cook was a Malay, and through his means I was able to communicate with them. The chief of the six prows was a short, elderly man, named Pobassoo; he said there were upon the coast, in different division, sixty prows, and that Salloo was the commander in chief.....

.....According to Pobassoo, from whom my information was principally obtained, sixty prows belonging to the Rajah of Boni, and carrying one thousand men, had left Macassar with the north-west monsoon, two months before, upon an expedition to this coast; and the fleet was then lying in different places to the westward, five or six together, Pobassoo's division being the foremost. These prows seemed to be about twenty-five tons, and to have twenty or twenty-five men in each; that of Pobassoo carried two small brass guns, obtained from the Dutch, but all the others had only muskets; besides which, every Malay wears a cress or dagger, either secretly or openly......

....A thousand trepang make a picol, of about 125 Dutch pounds; and one hundred picols are a cargo for a prow. It is carried to Timor, and sold to the Chinese, who meet them there; and when all the prows are assembled, the fleet returns to Macassar......."

This means that each of the sixty ships was carrying around 100 thousand trepang at about 6.2 tonnes - that's 6 million trepang (over 350 tonne) - every summer for at least three centuries!!

Dried trepang is still sold in Chinatown, Sydney for around $Aus20 a kilogram.

Want to have a squizz at the Hati Marege - a makassan perahu in the Northern Territory?

Further fascinating information can be obtained by consulting:
Macknight, CC (1976) The Voyage to Marege' : Macassan trepangers in northern Australia. Melbourne University Press. ISBN 0 522 84088 4.



Copyright 2002-2006 J.H. Burrows and Peter Lister