Sulawesi Traders Make Contact with Australian Aborigines

Mariners from the Sulawesi region of Indonesia, following trade winds in a hunt for the sea worm known as běche-de-mer, first made trade contact with Aborigines along the northern coast of Australia. The relationship thus shaped Aboriginal language, culture, and customs.

Summary of Event

Although Australia has been called an isolated continent and saw its first European settlers only two centuries ago, there were earlier visitors to Australia from other lands. Sometime in the late seventeenth century, traders from the Indonesian region of Sulawesi sailed to the northern coast of Australia for trade purposes. For centuries, traders from the area of southern Sulawesi later known as Macassar (now Ujung Pandang) sailed to northern Australia with the northwest winds of the monsoon season. Their objective was to collect trepang (a type of sea cucumber or sea slug also known as běche-de-mer), which were prolific in the northern Australian waters, to sell in Chinese markets, where they were considered a culinary delicacy and an aphrodisiac. [kw]Sulawesi Traders Make Contact with Australian Aborigines (late 17th cent.)
[kw]Aborigines, Sulawesi Traders Make Contact with Australian (late 17th cent.)
[kw]Australian Aborigines, Sulawesi Traders Make Contact with (late 17th cent.)
[kw]Traders Make Contact with Australian Aborigines, Sulawesi (late 17th cent.)
Exploration and discovery;Late 17th cent.: Sulawesi Traders Make Contact with Australian Aborigines[2570]
Trade and commerce;Late 17th cent.: Sulawesi Traders Make Contact with Australian Aborigines[2570]
Southeast Asia;Late 17th cent.: Sulawesi Traders Make Contact with Australian Aborigines[2570]
Indonesia;Late 17th cent.: Sulawesi Traders Make Contact with Australian Aborigines[2570]
Australia;Late 17th cent.: Sulawesi Traders Make Contact with Australian Aborigines[2570]
Aborigines, contact with Indonesians
Indonesia;Aborigines and

The traders brought with them metal knives, cloth, tobacco, and wetland rice. Other items traded included pigments, narcotics, body adornments, songs, and stories. In addition to the sea slugs, the Australian Aborigines traded turtle shells, outrigger canoes, and sails. In some cases, Aborigines traveled to Macassar. This trade lasted until the early twentieth century, when Australia passed laws to protect the trepang industry in that country. There is no evidence to indicate that this trade relationship was anything other than harmonious.

At times, as many as two thousand Macassan traders were scattered in temporary processing camps along Australia’s Cobourg Peninsula and the coast of the Gulf of Carpentaria. To a small extent, the Macassans employed Aboriginal labor to help with the drying and processing of the trepang. Interestingly, the Aborigines did not eat the trepang themselves, because it is poisonous unless prepared correctly (once dried and properly prepared, however, it is free of the poison).

The trepang were collected by spearing them, often at depths up to 40 feet (more than 12 meters). Many of the divers were Aboriginal. A dredging process was also used by harnessing two dugout canoes and scooping the trepang from the seabed. According to the Australian National Maritime Museum, the Macassans prepared the trepang by first splitting them open, boiling them in seawater, and pressing them under stones. The body was then stretched open with slivers of bamboo and preserved by sun drying and slow smoking in smokehouses. The Macassans brought with them ready-made thatch panels for camp buildings and the other necessary supplies.

Wind patterns most likely were the basis for the trade route between Sulawesi and northern Australia. The monsoon winds from the northwest began blowing in December, enabling the Macassans to sail southeast to Australia. Sometime in April or May, the return monsoon began blowing from the southeast out of the Australian desert, and the trip home could begin. A large boat called a prahu, leaving the Sulawesi port city of Macassar in December, could rely on a steady wind across the open Timor Sea to a landfall on the Cobourg Peninsula of northern Australia, a distance of about 1,000 miles (about 1,600 kilometers). By the eighteenth century, this trip took between ten and fifteen days. Assuming the earlier trips were just as speedy, this was not an unreasonable time.

The prahus were often owned by Chinese traders, and the dried trepang eventually found its way to the markets of Guangzhou (Canton), China. The sailors of Sulawesi, like all island peoples in Asia and the Pacific, were well known for their navigational skills and could read the environment and make navigational decisions based on their understanding of indicators such as wave patterns.


The Sulawesi traders took advantage of the relative proximity of Australia to their home to establish a flourishing trade Trade;Australian Aborigines and Sulawesi (Indonesia) economy with the Aborigines of the northern Australian coast. The influence of the Sulawesians on the spiritual and material life of northern Australia can still be seen today. Some authorities argue that the Aborigines of the northern coast became better traders than their kindred in other parts of Australia because of their experience trading with the Macassans. The trepang trade bound the Aborigines to the Macassans. The exchange of goods between these two peoples served as a binding force whose effects can be seen today in the preponderance of Macassan words used by Aborigines, including Macassan place-names adopted by the Aborigines along the northern coast. Music, language, and ceremonial aspects of traditional life in Arnhem Land were shaped by the Aborigines’ contact with Macassan traders.

Strangely, although it is known that many of the sailors in the region were followers of Islam, there is no indication that the religion ever sprouted among the Aborigines. Islamic maps of northern Australia, particular one drawn by Abū Isḥāk Ibrāhim ibn Muḥammad al-Fārisī al-Istakhri, date back to at least 934, and Islam had spread throughout the Indonesian archipelago by the end of the eleventh century. Whether the later Macassan sailors were followers of Islam cannot readily be established, but they evidently did not proselytize the Aborigines with whom they came in contact. Some have argued, by contrast, that the All-Mother cult of the Aborigines, which embodied a vision of Aboriginal unity, may have migrated northward with the sailors to Sulawesi and then evolved into the Earth Mother beliefs of some Southeast Asian cultures.

Another legacy of the trepang trade are the tamarind trees that grow along the northern coast of Australia. The trees are not native to Australia but were planted by the Sulawesi traders to provide a source of vitamin C to prevent scurvy. Whether this floral influence extended in the opposite direction—from Australia to Sulawesi—is a matter of conjecture.

Today, the knowledge of the Australian contact with the Macassan traders has essentially vanished from the consciousness of European Australia, but the memory still remains among legends of the tribal peoples of the north shore.

Further Reading

  • Collins, G. E. P. Makassar Sailing. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. Deals with the history, social life, and customs of the Sulawesi people.
  • Macknight, C. C. The Early History of South Sulawesi: Some Recent Advances. Clayton, Vic.: Centre of Southeast Asian Studies, Monash University, 1993. Provides an overview of trade by Sulawesians, primarily after 1200. The emphasis is on ceramics and funerary practices, with some mention of trade with Australia.
  • Macknight, C. C. “The Nature of Early Maritime Trade: Some Points of Analogy from the Eastern Part of the Indonesian Archipelago.” World Archaeology 5, no. 2 (October, 1973): 198-208. An overview of trade from ancient times to the twentieth century.
  • Rolls, Eric C. Sojourners: The Epic Story of China’s Centuries-Old Relationship with Australia: Flowers and the Wide Sea. St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1992. Covers the ethnic relationship of Australians with other Southeast Asians. Illustrations, maps, bibliographic references, index.
  • Swain, Tony. A Place for Strangers: Towards a History of Australian Aboriginal Being. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993. Analyzes the historical coexistence of Aborigines and other peoples, with one section focusing on the Macassan traders. The general principle of the book is that Aborigines have sought to accommodate outsiders and make a place for strangers.

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i><br />

William Dampier; Abel Janszoon Tasman. Aborigines, contact with Indonesians
Indonesia;Aborigines and