Trepang: China & the Story of Macassan-Aboriginal Trade

25 September, 2011

Macassans in Arnhem Land, c.1936. Registration number DT30.
Macassans in Arnhem Land, c.1936. Registration number DT30.
Image: Wonggu Mununggurr, Djapu clan, eastern Arnhem Land.
Source: Waka Mununggurr

Question: Who were the Macassans?

Answer: If you haven't seen the the stunning new exhibition at Melbourne Museum, Trepang: China & the Story of Macassan–Aboriginal Trade, you might be wondering who the Macassans are.

This exhibition explores the history of trade between China and Australia that stretches back over two centuries or more. This is a story that many Australians will not know, but large fleets of boats came to Australia's northern shores from the islands of southern Sulawesi (now Indonesia) to collect trepang or bêche-de-mer, a sea cucumber, in the shallow tropical waters of Australia's northern coast.

These people are known as Macassans and they were given licence by local Aboriginal clans to dive for this delicacy and set up large camps on the foreshore where they boiled the trepan in huge cooking pots and then built smoke houses for curing it. They engaged local Aboriginal men to dive with them to collect the trepang and also to work on their boats, known as perahus.

At the end of the season, the Macassan perahus sailed back with the trepang via the South China Sea where it was exchanged with Chinese traders, and then made its way to the markets of Shanghai and the other major centres of China. Trepang is still highly valued today in China.

The exhibition showcases collaborative works produced during the 20-year friendship of Indigenous artist, the late John Bulunbulun, and Chinese artist, Zhou Xiaoping. Their paintings feature a fusing of cultures, with the Arnhem Land painting traditions mixed with Chinese designs to create beautiful and unique works.

The exhibition also features contemporary and historical artefacts, paintings, maps and photographs that reflect the extent of these exchanges, such as the distinctive long pipes, called lunginy or pamatuka by people in Arnhem Land, used to smoke tobacco that was introduced by Macassans.

Trade with the Macassans was stopped by the Commonwealth Government in 1906. However their presence can still be seen today in the language and culture of Arnhem Land people. It is also evident in the landscape, most obviously in the groves of large tamarind trees that were planted by Macassans, or the stones that mark where the large pots stood for boiling the trepang. The exhibition provides a unique and fascinating insight into this important economic and cross-cultural exchange between Aboriginal people and outsiders.

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