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From Makassar to Marege’ to the Museum: Trepang processing industry in Arnhem Land

Curator Alison Mercieca, National Museum of Australia, 9 July 2008

ALISON MERCIECA: Thank you all for coming today: I would also like to thank Patrya and Matt in registration and conservation for making the objects available for viewing today and to look at, touch, sniff and play with, if you desire.

Today I will be introducing you to the Australian journeys’ Macassan trepang fishermen exhibit. I will be introducing you to the objects that I have selected to help tell the story of the Macassans in the gallery. I thought even though the blurb specified that it would be the archaeology of the Macassans in north Australia, I thought I might expand out from that and introduce you to more of the objects I will be putting in there, to give you a more rounded picture of the exhibit and also because we don’t have many of the archaeological objects for you to see today.

I will explain why in a moment. Unlike most of the talks in this series the Macassan exhibit is made up entirely of loan objects, so we are lucky to have some of them here for you to see today. This is a good opportunity to thank some of the lenders for their support because without it we would not be able to tell some of Australia’s historical stories.

I don’t want to bore you with the ins and outs of exhibition development, but a healthy lending program is important to what we do as curators. It allows us to tell stories that we would not be able to tell, such as this Macassan story, because in the National Historical Collection we have very little that would help us tell this story, even though it is a wonderful collection that we have.

The archaeological material, some of which we are lucky to have here today, is loaned from the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory or MAGNT. We also have material on loan from Emeritus Professor Campbell Macknight who has been researching the Macassans for some 40 years. We also have loans coming in from the National Gallery and also the National Museum of Ethnology in the Netherlands. It’s a great way of bringing objects to new audiences. Unless you were planning a trip to the Netherlands some time soon, you wouldn’t be able to see the object we are getting from there. I will introduce you to that object and the others as the talk progresses.

Before the First Fleet arrived in Sydney in 1788 fishermen sailing from the port of Makassar on the modern-day Indonesian island of Sulawesi were sailing to the Arnhem Land coast of northern Australia to collect trepang, otherwise known as sea cucumber or bêche de mer. Just how long before is debated.

The precise year of the first voyage is not known from the historical or archaeological records. The consensus among historians and archaeologists has been to place the date of the first voyage in the first half of the eighteenth century. Whether or not the voyages were made annually at this point in uncertain. However recent studies of trepang imports and exports to and from Makassar suggest that in the 1720s the trepang industry was still in its infancy, and as the century went by the industry intensified. So fishermen were sailing further and further afield to collect the trepang to supply the demand.

A recent study by Campbell Macknight reconsiders a date of about 1780, formally dismissed by scholars. This date is based on the record of Matthew Flinders who encountered Macassan fishermen in 1803. He records a conversation that he had with Pobassoo ‘A Malay chief’.

In this conversation Pobassoo recounts how he had been working in the trepang industry for about 20 years and that he had been one of the first sent from Makassar to harvest trepang on Australia’s northern shores. In A voyage to Terra Australis Flinders writes:

Pobassoo had made six or seven voyages from Macassar to this coast, within the preceding twenty years, and he was one of the first who came.

In the past the date of 1780 has been dismissed under the assumption that perhaps something was lost in translation. The conversations between Flinders and Pobassoo were conducted through Flinders’ cook. In any case I think we can say that by 1780 there was certainly a trepang industry in Australian waters and that by this time annual voyages were being organised from Makassar to the Arnhem Land coast to fish for trepang.

Who were the people making these voyages? The men who made this annual voyage have become known as the Macassans, although they never would have referred to themselves in this way. The term ‘Macassan’ has no racial, linguistic or cultural value - it is simply used to collectively refer to the people who made the annual journey from Makassar, a port city in the modern-day island of Sulawesi, to the Arnhem Land coast. The purpose of the voyage was to collect and process trepang to trade with the Chinese.

Most, but not all, of the Macassans were Makasar, a linguistic group who came from the south-west corner of Sulawesi [shows image]. Other groups who formed part of the Macassan fleets include Bugis (another linguistic group of southern Sulawesi from the north of Makassar) as well as people from New Guinea, Java and Ceram. In fact Campbell Macknight concludes:

There were probably few crews that did not include some variety.

What was common to the groups who formed the Macassan fleets was the port of Makassar. This was their base. What was it like? Makassar was an entrepôt, an international place where people traded in a variety of products. [Shows image] In this lithograph by Jacques Guiaud you can see the European presence in Makassar in the architecture in this street view published in 1846. In another lithograph by Eugene Ciceri, the local architecture is represented called Une rue de quartier malais, basically a street in the local quarter. Both original drawings are by Louis Le Breton.

[Shows image] This is a portrait of a Chinese inhabitant of Makassar, again published in 1846 and thought to be a merchant. You can see by this series of images, all made during Dumont d’Urville’s expedition of the late 1830s, there was a real international presence in Makassar.

Makassar’s status as a trading place grew because it was positioned in the centre of the Malay-Indonesian archipelago, a fantastic location to catch maritime traffic and trade. By the end of the sixteenth century a number of states had been established in southern Sulawesi, with the two related but different languages of Makasar and Bugis being spoken. The state of Gowa and Tallo’ was the main centre of Makassar influence, while Bone, Wajo’ and Soppeng were the main Bugis states. During the sixteenth century contact with the Portuguese increased. The port that grew out of this activity around the centre of Gowa and Tallo’ became known as Makassar, reflecting the name of the local people.

The following group of objects, which form part of the Australian Journeys display, provide glimpses of the political and religious and economic situation of this region during the trepang industry.

[Shows image] Here we have a ceremonial sword belt, which is a tablet woven textile made from cotton and indigo dyes. It was made in the nineteenth century.

[Shows image] Here we have a pair of talismanic discs. They are sculptured in gold alloy and cinnabar and were made in 1903. Both of these items are in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia and are not archaeological.

[Shows image] This is a VOC or Dutch East Indies Company coin or copper doit that is dated 1780. Here are a couple of prunts from Dutch gin bottles. Both the coin and the prunts will be on loan from the MAGNT.

What does this suite of objects tell us about Makassar, the place where the Macassans sailed from and where many of them lived and worked?

[Shows image] In 1605 the aristocracy of Gowa and Tallo’ adopted Islam, also imposing the new religion on the Bugis states. Since this time the predominant religion of the peninsula has been Islam. The sword belt and talismanic discs, made in Sulawesi toward the end of the Macassan trepang industry, have Islamic references. The talismanic discs, which are believed to be for a sword belt, are decorated with Islamic calligraphy on one face. Allah is written in the central rectangle while Muhammad is repeated in the points of the star. The other side of the disc shows off the fine filigree work. Woven into the sword belt is the shahadah or Islamic creed.

At the start of the seventeenth century the Dutch were establishing themselves in the East Indies. They wished to have complete control over the spice trade. The policy impacted on the trade patterns of European and local traders, significantly depleting trade between the Moluccas and the western portion of the Indonesian archipelago. Consequently Makassar came to be the port of choice, and its growing power frustrated the Dutch.

[Shows image] In 1669, after decades of conflict, the Dutch took possession of the fort of Sombaopu under the leadership of Admiral Speelman (who is pictured in the cartouche) with the assistance of Bugis forces led by La Tenritata from Bone. He was known by the Europeans as Arung Palakka. The Dutch renamed the stronghold Fort Rotterdam. In this image from Atlas Amsterdam by Isaac de Graaff you can see the Dutch flag flying high above the fort. It is obviously denoting Dutch possession. This image dates from 1690-1705.

Given that Makassar was ruled by the Dutch, unsurprisingly Dutch manufactured goods were also found in Makassar and some of these were brought to north Australia on the Macassan praus.

[Shows image] The Macassans recycled Dutch gin bottles, most likely filling them with spirit such as arak. There are records of provision lists for praus that sailed into north of Australia which include arak. The prunt on the left is impressed with the brand name JH Henkes with a stork. It was collected by Campbell Macknight from Waminari Bay site on the Arnhem Land coast. On the right is a Blankenheym and Nolet prunt with a key symbol. This was also collected by Campbell Macknight from McPherson Point, South Goulburn Island.

Coins produced for Dutch overseas territories, including Makassar, also accompanied Macassans on their voyages. A number of them have been found in archaeological sites across the north. This copper coin was excavated from a Macassan trepang processing site on an islet just off Groote Eylandt. It was minted in the Dutch province of Holland, as indicated by the crowned shield of that province on the obverse side of the coin. On the reverse are the letters VOC for the Dutch East Indies Company and the year 1780. Presumably the coin was brought to Australia by the Macassans sailing from Dutch Makassar, rather than by the Dutch themselves, given their archaeological context and the fact that the coin was produced for Dutch overseas territories, not the Netherlands itself. It also suggests that the coin was deposited on a voyage made after 1780.

Although the Dutch had clamped down on the spice trade and restricted the trading capabilities of other European powers, Makassar, due to its position, continued to witness trade in a variety of products, particularly maritime commodities from the southern and eastern parts of the islands which now make up Indonesia. This included the trepang trade.

What is trepang? It is an echinoderm also known as bêche de mere or sea cucumber. The class Holothuroidea contains more than 1000 species. These marine animals live predominantly in tropical waters such as those to the north of Australia. Their lengths range from 10 to 50 centimetres but sometimes they can grow up to more than a metre. They also range in colour including black, white, grey, brown, blue and red.

The use of the term trepang, derived from the Makassar word teripang, is generally reserved for the edible varieties of sea cucumber. One of these edible species, Holothuria scabra, commonly known as sand fish, is in the process of being preserved for the exhibit in the new gallery.

Patrya Kay one of our conservators is preserving it for us. The animal, which was supplied by Tasmanian Seafoods, is being kept in 70 per cent ethanol. Patrya constantly measures the levels of ethanol in the container and as the trepang leeches out water it dilutes the ethanol. She continues to top it up with ethanol and will keep doing this until it stabilises at 70 per cent. Then it will be ready to seal in the jar. This process has been going on for some time.

Sand fish were one of the species known to have been fished by the Macassans off the north Australian coast. [Shows image] This wet specimen was recently collected off Groote Eylandt and promptly gutted and blanched on board the fishing vessel before being frozen. This caused them to shrink from their original size. However, it was necessary to undertake this course of action because of what I am about to tell you. It gets a bit messy from here on because if left untreated sand fish will exhibit some seemingly bizarre defensive behaviour.

Sand fish are known to expel their insides, basically their gut, through their back end if they are in distress. Presumably the predator goes for that gut rather than the animal itself and the animal is able to crawl away. They can grow back the gut so it is not fatal to them. They can do this within six weeks. [Shows image]

Other species such as Holothuria atra or lolly fish, which was another species fished by the Macassans, exude a red liqueur from their skin, which is poisonous to other fish. There are other species which actually disintegrate; that is, the body of the animal literally turns to liquid. It loses all its binding properties and its body just turns to liquid. When placed back in the water it can reform. It is also not fatal but perhaps this is a way of entangling the predator.

[Shows image] Other species of trepang expel their Cuvierian tubules which are part of its respiratory tract. They expel them through their anus. These tubules lengthen and become very sticky again probably to encase the predator. Again not fatal; they can grow them back. I guess this is one reason why the Macassans decided they had to process the trepang promptly after collecting them to avoid these sorts of messy behaviours.

First of all I will tell you about how the Macassans get to Arnhem Land. The annual trepang collecting voyage made by the Macassans departed Makassar with the onset of the north-west monsoonal winds, which usually hit in December. [Shows image] Their destination was the Arnhem Land coast in the north of Australia, an area they called Marege’. From their home port of Makassar, they passed north-east of Timor, calling on the neighbouring island of Kisar for supplies and freshwater before embarking on the longest stage of the journey - roughly 500 kilometres across open seas. The Macassans crossed about 2000 kilometres of ocean in total before making landfall in the vicinity of the Coburg Peninsula. This journey usually took 10 to 15 days.

Throughout the season they fished and processed trepang, gradually making their way east to the bottom of the Gulf of Carpentaria before returning to Makassar with their cargo on the south-west monsoonal winds which usually blew in about April. The Arnhem Land coast is dotted with the remains of Macassan trepang processing sites.

The Macassan voyage to Marege’ was made on praus. The Macassans had different words for different prau types such as paduwakang, a Sulawesi designed and built prau. These were used in the Macassan trepanging fleets. This one was captured off Raffles Bay in the Northern Territory by French artist Louis Le Breton. These vessels possessed anywhere from one to three tripod masts to which the sails were attached. The sails were made from lengths of karoro’ [shows image]. Karoro’ is manufactured from unspun fibres taken from the leaf of a palm tree, Corypha utan, commonly known as Gebang Palm among other names. The cloth is woven on a back-tension loom used with a comb. The bundle of karoro’ on display was collected from Sulawesi by Campbell Macknight in the late 1960s. There were three main legal interests in the Macassan voyages. These were the prau’s owner, the person who financed and outfitted the prau and the captain who commanded the voyage. The relationship between these interests was one of interdependence, to ensure that all made their relative profits from a successful voyage. At times these three roles may have been filled by two or even one person.

The financial backers of the voyages, who remained behind in Makassar, might be Chinese, Dutch or Malay while in most cases the captain was Makasar or Bugis. The crew members also had a vested interest in a successful voyage to ensure their own financial return. The voyage contracts suggest that all crew members under the captain or master enjoyed equality, except that senior crew members were allowed to borrow more credit. This level of equality on board a prau is probably unlikely however, and certain crew members were bound to have special functions.

Once the Macassans arrived, they set about the business of harvesting and processing the trepang. The first task upon arriving in a bay was to establish the trepang processing camp. If the site had been previously used then the stone lines used as fireplaces for trepang processing would indicate the most appropriate spot from previous seasons, and the location of these would have been known by some crew members or easily visible. Some sites were marked by a tamarind tree, a species that the Macassans introduced to the north of Australia. There were men who collected the trepang and there were those who processed it.

The harvesting methods used by the Macassans were diving, dredging, spearing and spiking. Diving was reportedly the most common method employed. The estimated depth reached by the divers was up to 10 fathoms, although half this depth was more normal. Spearing was used in shallow waters whereby trepangers walked about the shallows and either picked up the trepang by hand or speared them.

Dredging is a method thought to have been introduced in the 1840s. Dredges were attached to large canoes carried by each trepang. Finally there was spiking, which involved the use of a ladung-taripang or pronged harpoon. This weighted tool was lowered over the trepang with the aid of a string. [Shows image] This three-pronged example, which will go on display in Australian Journeys, was collected from southern Sulawesi in the mid-nineteenth century. It consists of a palm wood handle, which at one end is inserted into a heavy piece of lead with the corners attached by two rattan straps to a wooden base from which protrude three brass points. They aimed above the trepang, let go and the weight of the lead would drop it straight down on top of the trepang.

In 1871 Dr Matthes, a Dutch missionary, who had been carrying out ethnographic work among the Makasar people, gave the item to the National Museum of ethnology in the Netherlands. He illustrated this tool in his Ethnographic Atlas which gives you an idea of the tool with the rope and string attached to the end. Trepang processing rapidly followed collection. Firstly the gutted trepang were boiled in kawa, or large iron cauldrons containing sea water. In the exhibit there will be two cauldrons both on loan from MAGNT. The first one was collected from Record Point, Port Essington, in about 1909. The second example which will also be on display was collected from Sulawesi by the crew of Hati Marege’, a replica prau built to commemorate the 1988 bicentenary. This replica sailed from the Northern Territory to Makassar and back again and is now on display in MAGNT as part of its boat display. This technology, the use of iron cauldrons to boil trepang, has continued in Makassar into the twenty-first century.

After the trepang had been boiled, [shows image] and this is depicted in Melville’s 1845 drawing of trepang processing at Victoria, Port Essington, they were buried in the sand. Historical informants report that the trepang was placed in a pit dug into the sand, and the hot water used for boiling the trepang was poured over it. The trepang were then covered with a layer of sand. After some time the trepang were removed from the pit and the chalky skin washed away using salty water.

The final stage involved drying and smoking the trepang. Drying could be achieved by laying the trepang on mats in the sun. However, if longer term preservation was desired, which was usual to get it back to Makassar, it had to be smoked over a slow fire. To undertake this task smokehouses, examples of which can be seen in the Melville image, were temporarily erected using bamboo and roof mats.

Now a bit about the archaeology. The archaeological traces of these trepang processing activities are present along the Arnhem Land coast. The most obvious features visible in the landscape today are the rows of stones which lined the fireplaces used in boiling the trepang. In many instances these are still visible on the ground’s surface. Much less obvious and only revealed by excavation is evidence of the pits in which trepang were buried after being boiled. They can be distinguished by the disturbed deposit - being darker than the undisturbed sand around it. [shows image]

Finally depressions in the ground surface and concentrations of pale grey ash within these depressions indicate the location of where the smokehouses were in the processing sites. [shows image] In the late 1960s Campbell Macknight surveyed and excavated a suite of sites along the Arnhem Land coast, in Anuru Bay and Lyäba. He drew on this archaeological work and to a lesser extent the historical and oral records to produce a picture of how a processing site was laid out and used.

There are of course variations between different processing sites but in general they were arranged as such: Stone lines marked the location of the fireplaces over which the trepang were boiled. These were arranged adjacent to the shore line but parallel to each other. The pits for burying the trepang were positioned parallel with and behind the stone lines, with the smokehouses positioned further back from the shore. Most trepang processing sites were usually situated on sheltered sandy beaches and headlands.

The archaeology can also help tell us about trepang processing site use. For example, archaeologists may infer that a site was reused by a number of Macassan crews within or over a number of seasons or used intensely, based on the amount of material found in a site. This includes the degree of ash accumulations, numbers of stone lines and smokehouses and the quantity and type of objects found, such as those made of earthenware, china, glass and metal.

I should mention there have been other archaeologists and historians who have carried out research on the Macassan trepang industry in Arnhem Land other than Campbell Macknight. But my focus has been on Macknight because the archaeological objects featured in the display are from the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory from the Macknight collection there. It is appropriate to focus on his work. He is one of the most prominent Macassan experts and his research was foundational and is still relevant today.

In processing the trepang the Macassans turned this into this [shows images]. At the end you will be able to see the before and after examples. The final product was taken back to Makassar and traded to China. As Macknight says:

Trepang was the bases of direct contact between southern China and Macassar.

And from the seventeenth century:

... there was direct contact between the eastern parts of the Indonesian archipelago and south China. Until 1820 a licence was issued each year in Batavia permitting a junk to sail directly from Canton or Amoy to Macassar. ... After 1820, no licence was required ... Most of the small rice bowls found on Macassan processing sites in Australia were probably imported from south China on such junks. More importantly for the Macassans, the contact provided an outlet for their trepang, which made up an important part of the return cargo of the junks. Indeed Australian trepang, which was almost unknown except at Macassar, was particularly intended for shipping directly to China.

The Macassan voyages to the north coast of Australia were economic. The trepang harvested and processed on Australia’s shores was destined for the Chinese market was where it was in demand as a culinary delight and as an aphrodisiac.

The amount of trepang collected off the Northern Territory coast and traded to the Chinese was not insignificant. Throughout the nineteenth century it would appear that a majority of trepang traded from Makassar was supplied by the fleets which sailed to Arnhem Land and perhaps even supplying about a quarter of the total Chinese market by the mid-nineteenth century.

The north coast of Australia, southern China and Makassar were all connected by an international trading network that centred on trepang. Harvested and prepared along the northern beaches of Arnhem Land, trepang was traded to southern China through the entrepôt of Makassar. In trepang processing sites along the north Australian coast, the Macassans left behind china produced in the kilns of southern China. Decorative motifs such as the chrysanthemum, circle and colon, and fish scales are repeatedly used and found in different sites, and examples of these will be used in the display in Australian Journeys.

All of the following examples were collected by Campbell Macknight in the late 1960s. [Shows image] Firstly we have a rice bowl with the colon and circle pattern on it excavated from Anuru Bay. [Shows image] The second piece was recovered from Waminari. Next we have the chrysanthemum design [shows image]. The piece on the left is from Wombalina Island and another from Anuru Bay.

[Shows image] Finally we have the fish scale design. The two shards on the left are from Anuru Bay and the third piece is from Lyaba. You can see the motifs were spread out across different sites as well as being concentrated in one site, in this case Anuru Bay. Anuru Bay is probably one of the most important sites excavated by Campbell Macknight for the information it contains. It was quite an extensive site. It was one of the main sites he worked on.

There will also be completed examples of nineteenth century kitchenware featuring the fish scale motif for comparison or so the design can be seen in a completed form. The motif on the plate looks remarkably similar to that of the shards which were excavated from Anuru Bay. The plate which was handpainted with a blue oxide underglaze was produced late in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). It was collected from south Sulawesi. The shards are also from the Qing dynasty. It is difficult to pinpoint which kilns these products came from but they are from southern China. There has been a study done. You can pinpoint to a cluster but it’s hard to pinpoint to an individual kiln.

The last Macassan prau to legally visit the waters off Arnhem Land was in 1905-06. Only four praus visited the coast that season, one of which was captained by Using Daeng Rangka. The industry had been in decline since the 1880s when the South Australian government, who oversaw the affairs of the Northern Territory at the time, began to charge the Macassans customs duties and then a licence fee to fish in Australian waters.

In 1906 the government decided to ban Macassan trepang fishing, the main reason being to protect and encourage the local industry. In 1907 Using Daeng Rangka again sailed to the Northern Territory coast to verify whether or not the reported ban was true. It was, ending an industry that had been operating since the eighteenth century and which brought Australia into one of its first international trading networks.

One thing I would like to highlight before finishing up is that obviously the Macassans did not encounter an empty landscape when they arrived on the Arnhem Land coast. It was occupied by Aboriginal people.

The two groups entered into exchanges of goods and services. But the impacts of contact, I would argue, were more clearly visible in the material culture and behaviour of the Aboriginal people than that of the Macassans. For example, the Macassans introduced metal tools to the Aboriginal people that were used to build dugout canoes. Previously they had water craft but not water craft that was as stable as a dugout canoe. The dugout canoes allowed the Aboriginal people to venture further out to sea and in doing this they were able to catch more large sea turtles, and because now they had metal they used harpoons with metal heads which allowed them to catch more. The significant increase in the number of turtles consumed by Aboriginal people after contact is visible in the archaeological record, as demonstrated by the work of Scott Mitchell in the 1990s. The turtle shell was traded to the Macassans, in exchange for more metal tools, among other things, and so the cycle of exchange goes on.

I have not discussed this in relation to the exhibit because the exhibit will not be covering this contact. It would take another whole showcase to do it any justice. So I thought I would focus my energy on the Macassans themselves, and particularly their trepang industry, as one of the aims of the gallery is to focus in on the people making the journeys, and the impacts of those journeys, the places connected by those journeys and the people in those places on the central characters.

One of the aims of the gallery is also to look at the objects of those experiences, and probably the most important object of this exchange to the Macassans, between Aboriginal people and the Macassans, was the right to fish for trepang. I think the impact of contact between Macassans and Aboriginal people on the Macassans was otherwise minimal. So the story of contact is another whole story but one well worth telling at some point. Thank you.

Date published: 8 October 2008