Aboriginal and Asian Trade

Discover the rich history between Aboriginal and Asian Trade that pre-dates European settlement.

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Did you know the relationship between Australia and Asia pre-dates European settlement. From at least 1700 until 1907, hundreds of fishermen sailed each year from Makassar on the island of Sulawesi (now Indonesia) to the Arnhem Land coast, an area they called Marege.

The fishermen arrived each December and camped along the Arnhem Land coast, catching, boiling and drying trepang (sea cucumber). They met, traded and worked with local Aboriginal people. Trepang was traded with China where it is still used today for food and medicine.

The Makasar did not settle in Arnhem Land but they did have an influence on the Yolŋu people’s society and ritual. They introduced a range of items and words that are still in use today, arguably the most important item of technology that transformed Ylnju life was metal – blades, axes and knives made everyday practices (from cutting food to making large dugout canoes) far easier.

Trade with China

In China, trepang was considered a culinary delight and an aphrodisiac.

By the mid-19th Century the fleet from Makassar that visited Arnhem Land each year was supplying about 900 tons of trepang – about one-third of the Chinese demand.

By the end of the 19th century visits from Makasar to northern Australia to gather trepang were declining.

After 1901 the newly formed Australian Government banned trepangers from Makassar in order to protect Australia’s ‘territorial integrity’ and to encourage a local trepang industry. In 1907 the last prau from Makassar visited Arnhem Land.

*Source – Australian Museum 

Trade with the Makasar | National Museum of Australia (nma.gov.au)