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.

artwork of a bot and swords

‘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.

Macassan interaction with Yolngu communities are still remembered through story, song and art.

a tall ship

A replica of the Duyfken, a Dutch ship that sailed along the Australian coast in 1606.

The Duyfken was one of the Dutch sailing ships which, along with Spanish vessels, travelled within sight of the Australian coast in 1606. The Dutch vessel Duyfken, commanded by Willem Jansz, was in the Torres Strait weeks before the Spanish but proceeded no further than Cape Keer-weer (Cape Turn-again), on the north-west side of the Cape York Peninsula.

people in canoes

Canoes at the Arafura Games, a leading international sporting competition for emerging champions of the Asia–Pacific and beyond. Photo © Francine Chinn.

Today there are sports and other ties with many neighbouring countries. At the time of European colonisation there were trade links with Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. Macassan seafarers from the island of Sulawesi (now Indonesia), travelled annually to Australia’s northern shores to collect sea cucumbers (also trepang or bêche-de-mer). Other goods were exchanged and traded until in the early twentieth century the Australian government passed laws to protect the developing trepang industry.

rock painting of a ship

Painting of a 19th century sailing vessel shows how Indigenous Australians interacted with seafarers from other continents. Photo © Paul Tacon.

The works in the Djulirri rock shelter in the Wellington Range in north-west Arnhem Land recount Aboriginal contact with Macassan traders and Europeans from the early sailing voyages from the tall ships era through to the Second World War. More contemporary pictures of the biplane, bicycle and gun, sit alongside paintings believed to be more than 15,000 years old.