The problem of unauthorised boat arrivals on the north coast of Australia shows no sign of going away any time soon, despite all the good will – and more particularly the bad will – of politicians and the public.
Yet the subject of a permeable frontier in the north is hardly new. The poor Indonesian fishermen who today transport cargoes of desperate people to our shores are the 21st century descendents of the poor fishermen who sailed south to the lands they called Marege [Arnhem Land] and Kayu Jawa [Kimberley] in the 18th and 19th centuries to harvest shark fin and sea slugs [bêche de mer or trepang] for the Chinese market. The sailing season is similar, with most boats arriving before and after the summer cyclone season – though one difference is that, in these days of diesel motors, they are no longer dependent on the monsoons to propel their boats.
The other difference is that once, these visitors were enthusiastically welcomed by the British settlers in northern Australia.
Historians usually refer to these fishermen as Makassans, after the Sulawesi trading port of Makassar, now Udjung Pandang, where they sold their catch to the Makassan traders who exported their products to China. Then, as now, the fishermen took the risks, while the rewards went to the middlemen and investors further up the food chain.
The Makassan trade goes back at least to the early 18th century. In 1803, Matthew Flinders came across 6 ships somewhere near Nhulunbuy, on the Gove Peninsula, part of a fleet of about 60 in northern waters that year. The ships Flinders saw carried about 20-25 men each, so perhaps 2000 fishermen made the trip that year. Flinders called them Malays, for they spoke a Malay dialect, and they were Moslems, expressing horror of the pigs the Investigator carried, though ‘they had no objection to port wine, and even requested a bottle to carry away with them.’
They fished on Ashmore Reef too, another destination of today’s people smugglers. According to Flinders (1814):
The natives of Macassar have been long accustomed to fish for trepang … upon a dry shoal lying to the south of Rottee; but about twenty years ago, one of their prows was driven by the northwest monsoon to the coast of New Holland, and finding the trepang to be abundant, they afterwards returned; and have continued to fish there since that time.
At this time, there was no united state of Indonesia, but rather a number of independent states, increasingly encroached upon by Dutch and British interests. By the early 1820s, the Dutch gave up their claims to New Holland in favour of expanding eastwards from their settlement in Java towards Makassar, while the British concentrated on expansion in Australia. They also established Singapore in 1819 to the north of Java, to compete with pre-existing trading centres such as Makassar. Needless to say, no local people were consulted in reaching this arrangement.
Singapore was an immediate success. So in 1824 the British decided to try to develop ‘another Singapore’ in northern Australia – another multi-lingual, multi-ethnic port that would tap into existing trade routes between Makassar and northern Australia.
In 1824, the British created a settlement on Melville Island, later moved to the mainland on the Cobourg Peninsula at Raffles Bay. The Malay fishermen gradually began to come here to trade during the fishing season, enthusiastically encouraged by the commandant, Collet Barker. When 5 boats arrived in 1829, he plied the fishermen with pumpkins, rockmelons and wine, but found them very abstemious. One boy would ‘eat nothing with us though evidently very hungry.’ His clumsy efforts at hospitality were unsuccessful because it was Ramadan.
In all, 34 boats with more than 1000 men called at Raffles Bay that year, and the future of the new venture looked promising: ‘They said that … if a permanent settlement were here, where they were sure of a market, that things would be brought to exchange for others they wished to purchase of us.’
Then bingo, the British government changed tack. In August 1829, orders arrived from Britain telling Collett to close the settlement and move the operation to Albany, far to the south. Disappointed but obedient, he obeyed, and when the Makassan fishermen arrived at the end of 1829, they found the settlement and its gardens abandoned, no market and nothing to trade. A loss for the fishermen, and a lost opportunity for Australia.
A final attempt to establish a multicultural trading post came in 1838, when Port Essington was established, again on the Cobourg Peninsula. ‘It lies in the track of the Malay fleet that annually visits the northern coasts,’ wrote the Presbyterian clergyman Dr. Lang. He hoped that it would become ‘a favourite and extensive emporium of trade for the eastern world’.
Some Makassan traders did come to Port Essington, but the settlement never really took off, partly through bad luck – a cyclone perhaps the size of Cyclone Tracy hit the settlement in 1841. The other change was the decline of the port of Makassar. Dutch control brought more taxes, while the rise of Singapore shifted trade routes northwards. The trepang fisheries went into decline, and the sailors found what work they could elsewhere – just as they do today.
In 1849 the settlement of Port Essington was abandoned – and their water buffalo, imported from Timor at great cost when the settlement began, were left behind to turn feral and invade the Kakadu wetlands. Yet another testimony to the problem of governments that keep changing their minds.
Marion Diamond, ‘Another Singapore?’, in Martin Crotty and David Roberts (eds), The Great Mistakes of Australian History (2006)
Peter Boomgaard, David Henley and Manon Osseweijer (eds), Muddied Waters: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on Management of Forests and Fisheries in Island Southeast Asia (2005)
Update: A shorter version of this post was published on the ABC’s The Drum on 9 January 2012.