Macassan Influence On Aboriginal People

Macassan Influence on Aboriginal



From the mid 1700s to 1906, hundreds of Macassans from the Indonesian island of Sulewesi visited the shores of northern Australia. They were fishermen and they fished for the sea slug called trepang, also known as beche-de-mer.

This was a prized delicacy in Chinese cuisine.


Each year the Macassans would come. They would stay in northern Australia for approximately five months before heading back in April of each year when the winds changed to the south-east.


Macassan Settlements


Along the sheltered beaches of the Arnhem Land coast in the Northern Territory the Macassan fishermen set up settlements not far from the shallow waters where the trepang was collected. Here they established processing plants.

Rows of stone fireplaces were built which supported the cauldrons in which the trepang was boiled. The second stage of the processing involved burying the trepang in the sand. It was smoked and then packed ready to be taken back to Macassar and the markets in Asia.

A lively trade went on between the Macassans and the local Aboriginal people. The Yolngu of northeast Arnhem Land exchanged turtle shell, pearl shell and cypress timber for knives, axes and tobacco.

Macassan words crept into the local language and there were Macassan influences in the local art and ceremonies.  The dugout canoe and Macassan pipe were introduced.

Some children had Macassan and Indigenous Australian parents and today there are  Aboriginal families with Macassan ancestors and relations. Some even travelled back to Macassar.

The remains of Macassan camps can be seen along the northern coast and are usually marked by tamarind trees which grew from seeds left behind by the Macassar visitors.

tamarind tree

The Australian government put an end to these visits by the Macassans in 1907 because they became a threat to the pearling industry.



Barlow, Alex & Hill, Marji    The Macmillan Encyclopaedia Of Australia’s Aboriginal People. South Yarra, Vic, Macmillan, 2000.


Hill, Marji  First People Then And Now: Introducing Indigenous Australians. Gold Coast, The Prison Tree Press, 2017.


Horton, David,ed. The Encyclopaedia of Aboriginal Australia:Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander History, Society and Culture. Canberra, AIATSIS, 1994.


c. Marji Hill

Author: First People Then And Now: Introducing Indigenous Australians.