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Fishing the Sea-cucumber

"Trepang (is) the sea slug from the Loochoo Islands, and served as an entrée it tastes very much like turtle fat though richer. To counterract it's richness a great China bowl of boiled bamboo shoots was handed round with it." - Alfred Searcy (Sub Collector of Customs).

The Macassans were Indonesians from the trading center of Macassar in the southern Island Sulawesi in Java, which for centuries had been the outlet for the trepang trade with China. They came in fleets of boats called praus, which they used to collect this small sea animal. There is not sufficient evidence to make an accurate account of the time period these people had been coming to the northern shores of Australia. Some historians say fishermen were coming for hundreds of years - others say they arrived in the seventeenth century.

The demand for trepang to be brought into China did not emerge until the 1600s. Maritime expansion and commercial development by Islam and China spread throughout South East Asia into the Javanese archipelago. The city of Macassar was captured by the Dutch in 1669 and was established as a center for European trade and colonialism. Macassar began representing Dutch colonization outside Java.

The legend was that after the Macassarese fleet was defeated by the Dutch in 1667 some praus escaped and sailed to the Gulf of Carpentaria. When the survivors returned to Macassar they took the first cargo of trepang from Marege.

'Macassar' is an umbrella term encompassing all who came on the annual fleet of praus to the Northern Territory. Amongst the crew were Macassare\se, Bugis (Moslems), Turidjene (Water people), Javanese and sailors from various other racial groups in the Malaysian archipelago.

They came on yearly return visits, staying for a few months each year. No attempts were made to develop any resources present. No commercial trading occurred, only collection of products by prau crewmen. And yet the sole reason for Macassans coming to Australia was commercial. The Macassans came to collect trepang and import it back to Macassar. From there they exported the trepang to China. Besides trepang, Macassans imported timber (iron-wood, cypress pine, sandalwood), pearl, pearlshell and tortoiseshell. Apart from Northen Australia, the main fishing grounds for trepang were all in the Indian and Western pacific Oceans.

Australian trepang made up the largest part of Macassan exports and of the total import into China. The trepang industry in Australia was large and well organized. Approximately 2 000 Macassans spent 4-5 months a year gathering trepang, which fetched considerable amounts of money for their financers in Macassar, and they enjoyed high social standing in the community. European businessman controlled commercial trading, while actual shipping to South China was handled by the Chinese businessman living in Macassar. Exporting of trepang from Macassar to China was handled from Singapore. Most voyages were financed and outfitted by merchants who supplied basic items like piculs, rice, kajang(awning mats made from palm leaves), ataps(similar mats made of nipa palm leaves), catties of rattan, palm-leaf sail cloth, iron pots for cooking, parring bamboo for building etc.

Navigation and the Route to Northern Australia

The Dutch maps of the Northern Australian coastline were familiar to navigators even before regular Macassan visits began. Many vessels arrived at our shores after being blown off course, however continuous Macassanese visits were not the result of accident, although some earlier Malay praus may have been ship wrecked hereafter being blown too far south in storms as there were reported accounts.

Normally the Macassan sailors sailed without any navigational instruments to guide them other than compasses or telescopes, although Dutch maps and charts were available. Navigation was possible because of the personal knowledge and skill of the master of the prau. So they could successfully navigate their praus southwards, having also learnt by oral tradition (many could remember details of the coastline years after they sailed).

The praus left Macassar with the onset of the North-West monsoon in about December. The total trip for Macassar was about 1 600km while the 500km crossing from Timor to Melville Island took 4 days. Prau fleets left for their southward voyage at the beginning of the wet season when the weather was frequently rough. Early visits were haphazard, poorly coordinated but as the industry became more organized so did their visits.

They aimed to strike the Australian coast in the vicinity of the Cobourg Peninsula and then work slowly eastwards. During these summer months of the wet, several praus would usually work together in one locality for a few days or even weeks. When the canoes, from which the trepang was collected, had combed the immediate vicinity of the processing camp, the bamboo smokehouses were dismantled and the praus moved on. By April and the change of the monsoon, the fleet was scattered around eastern Arnhem Land, Groote Elandt and down into the bottom of the Gulf of Carpentaria. With the dry South-East wind behind them, all then turned to Macassar.


Trepang belongs to the holothurian family. Their length varies from 10 to 50 cm and the soft bodies are mainly dull brown or black in colour. They are able to contract to half their length becoming correspondingly thicker. When threatened many eject long whitish or reddish threads, which are tough and sticky and enmesh the attacker. Trepang have tough and leathery skins and can be found lying on the sand at low tide.

Trepang is a Chinese delicacy. They used it in soups, braised it with vegetables or fried it. They thought the trepang had magical powers as it acted as a general stimulant. They are purchased in dried form, soaked in water, cleaned, and cooked in many delicious ways. The French and Potuguese names mean 'sea-worm'. Other common names for trepang are 'sea-cucumber' and 'sea-slug'.

Collecting the Animal

To collect trepang each prau carried a number of lepa-lepa or dug out canoes. Only shallow water species were viable, as they were caught by natives using simple methods. When occasional deep-water species were reported, these had been stranded at low tide on reef sand banks. Ingeneral, 18m was the maximum depth worked. The species must be a common one in the fishing area. In such numbers that a profitable catch (up to 16000 per month) could be obtained without depleting future supplies. The fishing ground should be rich in one or two species in paticular, as Chinese buyers did not value mixed lots. Should be as large as possible, as they shrink considerabley in preparation. Smaller animals fetched lower prices. Only the skin is used.

Fishing Methods

Spearing entailed walking around in shallow water or on areas exposed at low tide and collecting what was available by hand or with a short spear. Diving: (Matthew Flinder's account) "They get the trepang by diving in from three to eight fathoms (14m) of water; and where it is abundant a man will bring up eight to ten at a time. The mode of preserving it is this.

The End of Trepang Fishing

In 1883 the South Australian Government forced Macassans to pay for licences to fish and imposed a duty on goods used to trade with Aborigines. Europeans began trepanging in the late nineteenth century. They competed with the Macassans, and soon the Europeans involved in trepang collection.themselves were advising the Government Resident about the Macassan trepanging industry. Some people at the time thought the Macassans were a bad influence upon the Aboriginals. Others did not consider the effect very important, while others thought the Macassan influence enriched Aboriginal culture.

Finally in 26 July 1906 praus were officially prohibited from coming to NT shores because the Government decided no further licences would be issued. People thought the Malays seemed to have overtaken the industry for centuries. "Last year there were only two (prau). Now that the local boats are exploring the coast, there can be no valid reason for continuing the issue of licences to Malays. Asiatics are not allowed to hold licences to fish for pearlshell - why then to fish for the sea-slug?" - Government Resident's report 1905 p 16. The report was written when Asiatic feeling was high in Australia. The Commonwealth Government had formulated the 'Immigration Restriction Act' otherwise known as 'The White Australia Policy'.

Mangngellai; then a young boy, was present on the last Malayan voyage, describing how many of the older prau captains retired from the sea after the industry ended while most crewmen found work in maritime occupations around Macassar. Now that Macassans ceased coming, all trepang fishing in Australia was taken up by European pearlers. Nonetheless, the trepang industry in Australia had completely finished by the 1950's.

Written/Oral Evidence

In 1803, Matthew Flinders was surveying the coast of Northen Australia for the British Government. While aboard his ship the Investigator when he met a fleet of six praus. He communicated with the chief, Pobasso, via his Indonesian cook. He was told that Pobasso had partaken on 6 to 7 voyages previous to their meeting, and that he (Pobasso) had been one of the first to travel here. Flinders recounts: "He carried two small guns, obtained from the Dutch, others had only muskets….every Malay wears a cress or dagger."

Flinders reported that although the Macassan, Pobasso, claimed no knowledge of European settlement in this country, Pobasso's son wrote these characters when learning the name of Port Jackson. The characters read 'Podjesenje', which is, as Flinders thought, a phonetic transcription of Port Jackson. Alfred Searcy (sub collector of customs) and British Naval captains King and Bremer also wrote about the Macassans in their official correspondence.

Aboriginal people can tell us stories about the Macassans visiting Northern Australia before any white people came. But some, like Macknight C in A Black Civilisation p 91, compared Aboriginal and Macassan oral stories with written records and concluded that "Many of the stories about Macassans are no more than oral history and need to be assessed as such."

Enthnographical Impact.

In the western Arnhem Land, 400 - 450 words which have been borrowed from Macassan, Malay and Bugis languages. For example, 'balanda' from the Macassan word for Hollander or white man. Arnhem Land Aborigines sing about how the Macassans came on the west wind, and how the east wind took the Macassans back to their land

In 1930's Donald Thompson found that a clan on the Glyde River had adopted as its totemic symbol, a square-faced bottle: those green liquor bottles so ubiquitous on Macassan sits. A copy of such a bottle had been carved from wood, and its painted design represented a complex ritual account, linked directly with trepanging. - Mulvaney D J (The Prehistory of the two cultures P 40).

There are some indirect descendants on Elcho Island and other coastal areas have distinct Malayan facial features and some still use Malay/Macassan words.

With Macassan-inspired dug-out canoes Aborigines could go deep sea fishing and spear catches. This changed their diet due to fish, rice coconuts and tamarinds for flavouring. Aborigines were introduced to new food sources and new methods of cooking (ie boiling via pots).

Before returning to Macassar the Indonesians would hold a Moslem farewell ceremony when there would be singing and dancing, fireworks and music played, in which Aborigines joined in before the Macassans sailed home.

This piece was constructed using exerpts from:

"The Macassans" 22 activity cards: Northern Department of Education 1986.
Prepared by the Curriculum & Assessment Branch (April 1986).
Printed by G L Duffield, Government printer of the Northern Territory.

For further information contact:
Curriculum & Assessment Branch
PMB 25 Winnellie NT 5789
Telephone: 85 0211

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