Living with our neighbours
The British were not the first visitors to Australia. In 1606, long before British colonisation, both Dutch and Spanish sailing vessels were within sight of the Australian coast, but neither made contact with the land. In 1623 another Dutch vessel, captained by Willem van Colster, made contact with Yolngu on the Arnhem coast. This is the first recorded European contact with Aboriginal people in the area.
Long before any European voyagers ventured to our shores, however, the Macassans, from Sulawesi in East Indonesia, had significant contact with the Yolngu people of east Arnhem Land. The Macassans and Yolngu traded trepang (sea cucumber) for metal knives, cloth and tobacco. These visits are still recorded and celebrated in the music and dance of the Yolngu and other northern language groups.
Torres Strait Islanders traded extensively among themselves, as well as with people from Papua, redistributing resources throughout the islands. Prior to white contact, Torres Strait culture was heavily influenced by the Papuan culture in terms of trade, social organisation and language. In return for pearl shell, cone shell, turtle shell and stone, Islanders obtained drums and canoe hulls, up to 20 metres long, from the Papuans. Islanders in the south traded with the Aboriginal people of Cape York to obtain spears, spear throwers and ochre. Songs, dances and esoteric objects and knowledge (such as magical spells) were also carried and exchanged along these trade routes.
‘Macassan’ painting by Charlie Matjuwi features a Macassan boat, trepang, and swords traded to Yolngu people. Photo © Charlie Matjuwi, Elcho Island, ochre on paper, 1.5x1 m.
A replica of the Duyfken, a Dutch ship that sailed along the Australian coast in 1606.
Canoes at the Arafura Games, a leading international sporting competition for emerging champions of the Asia–Pacific and beyond. Photo © Francine Chinn.
Painting of a 19th century sailing vessel shows how Indigenous Australians interacted with seafarers from other continents. Photo © Paul Tacon.