Historians probe links between Indonesia, indigenous Australians | Asia Pacific

Historians probe links between Indonesia, indigenous Australians

Historians probe links between Indonesia, indigenous Australians

Updated 10 February 2012, 22:04 AEST

In the early 18th Century, Makassar, a city in the south of Indonesia's Sulawesi Island, was renowned as a major regional trading hub.

Seafarers from as far as China and the Gulf came to the port-city to trade for spices and precious metals.

The Macassans also had close links with northern Australia where they were attracted by its vast supply of lucrative sea cucumbers or trepangs.

But little else is known about the links between Macassan fishermen and indigenous Australians from the north.

In fact, those links are still evident today in the form of art, language and even architecture and were the subject of a major symposium at the Australian National University in Canberra.

Presenter: Girish Sawlani

Speaker: Dr Marshall Clarke, Australian National University; Laklak Burarrwanga, traditional Aboriginal landowner, Northeast Arnhem land; Professor Ambo Tuwo, Hasanuddin University, Macassar

SAWLANI: Some three hundred years ago Macassan fishermen, from the island of Sulawesi, made their way to the northern shores of Australia, either by accident or exploratory voyages. But what they found became one of the Macassans most lucrative commodities for centuries. It was the humble sea cucumber, or what the Macassans called trepang, and were in abundance on the shores of Australia's Top End. The trepang was, and still is a highly prized delicacy in China and South East Asia, and became the focal point of relations between the Macassans and indigenous Australians. Dr Marshall Clark is from the College of Arts and Social Sciences at the Australian National University.

CLARKE: They did employ Aboriginals to help them on the boats, to fish for the trepang and also in helping them in curing the trepang on the shore. And from these interactions, other trade resulted. For instance, Aboriginals would bring beeswax to the Macassans and they try and barter for things like iron or metal. So you have other things like tortoise shells that the Aboriginals would trade with the Macassans and ironwood from Arnhem Land.

SAWLANI: While trade and trepang characterised the links between the Macassans and indigenous Australians, little is known about their personal encounters and cultural connections. But that was precisely the focus of a symposium at the Australian National University. Dr Marshall Clarke, who's also co-organiser of the event, says intercultural exchanges between the two groups went both ways.

CLARKE: Many of the Indonesian fishermen had relations with Aboriginal women on the Australian mainland. So the links were mainly for sexual reasons. But on the other hand, there were Aboriginals who did travel on these prau (boats) along the coastline of Australia and then a number of them made this epic voyage back to Macassar. And they lived there for a time, experienced a completely different lifestyle. And there are stories of aboriginals living and dying there.

SAWLANI: One such person was the great great grandmother of Laklak Burarrwanga, a traditional landowner in Northeast Arnhem Land, in Australia's top end. She says links between her family and the Macassans have left an enduring legacy.

BURARRWANGA: We are the first businessmen, business people living in northern Australia - Aboriginal people and Macassan people. When they first came to Arnhem Land, they introduced trepang and asked the Aboriginal people to help them find the trepang. And now the new generation, they see and are starting business. In my homeland, Bawaka, we have family business. It was introduced by Macassan people.

SAWLANI: But those relations go well beyond the Trepang trade. Professor Ambo Tuwo is from Hasanuddin University in Macassar. He says the centuries of cultural links are evident in language and physical appearances of some Macassans and indigenous Australians.

TUWO: Some words [are] similar, like jama, which means walking and rupia, rupia without 'H'. It means money, it's similar between Macassar and Aboriginal. If you see the Buginese [Macassans] and Aboriginal, some people in Macassar look like aboriginal. It means their relations are genetic between Macassar and Aborigines.

SAWLANI: He even suggests that homes built on stilts, known as Queenslanders and common in Northern Australia were influenced by designs from the Macassan's homeland.

TUWO: In South Sulawesi, there are many wild animals. So to be protected, they use their house like that. And the same house, you can find in Queensland.

SAWLANI: Macassan journeys to northern Australia were halted in 1907, when the fishing of sea cucumber was banned by colonial authorities. But today, the trade continues to be a lucrative one for fishermen in northern Australia and Macassar. It's also a lasting reminder of the encounters which began in the early 1700s - encounters which Dr Marshall Clarke from the Australian National University, says warrant greater attention in the annals of history.

CLARKE: Well I think it's very significant because it shows that Australia, if you go far back into our history, has very close links with Asia and the Indonesian archipelago in particular. And not forgetting the trepang trade, the pathway was from Arnhem Land, to Macassar, to China. So the Australian continent was very much a part of Asia and had played a key role in a very big maritime trade for those centuries.

SAWLANI: Macassan journeys to northern Australia were halted in 1907, when the fishing of sea cucumber was banned by colonial authorities. But today, the trade continues to be a lucrative one for fishermen in northern Australia and Macassar. It's also a lasting reminder of the encounters which began in the early 1700s - encounters which Dr Marshall Clarke from the Australian National University, says warrant greater attention in the annals of history.

CLARKE: Well I think it's very significant because it shows that Australia, if you go far back into our history, has very close links with Asia and the Indonesian archipelago in particular. And not forgetting the trepang trade, the pathway was from Arnhem land, to Macassar, to China. So the Australian continent was very much a part of Asia and had played a key role in a very big maritime trade for those centuries.

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