Macassans at Victoria, Port Essington, 1845 , by HS Melville, published in  The Queen , February 8, 1862.
Macassans at Victoria, Port Essington, 1845 , by HS Melville, published in The Queen , February 8, 1862.

Australia's trade deals pre-European arrival

REGULAR readers may remember a past column which discussed traditional Aboriginal star stories and how the song lines or dreaming tracks were the routes that the ancestral spirits travelled to form the landscape during the Dreaming - the time of creation.

Traditionally, when Aboriginal people travelled long distances, it would be along these same paths, which run throughout Australia.

As discussed in that column, the reason for the travel was usually for ceremonial purposes and/or trade. The trade between different nations was so prolific that these song lines are often described as trade routes as well. Many of the song lines/trade routes crisscrossed or intercepted one another at significant sites.

A variety of different goods were traded including food such as smoked eels, shells, ochre for ceremonial purposes, certain stones to make axes and pituri, a plant that was used in ceremony for its stimulant and hallucinogenic properties. However, it wasn't just physical objects that were traded - ideas, technology, songs, dance, stories and ceremonies could also be offered.

Trading took place at designated areas and could occur between individuals or large groups of people. Festivals such as the bunya festival that took place every couple of years at the Bunya Mountains in south-east Queensland were also special opportunities for trading to take place.

Aboriginal people also took part in international trade with the Macassans who originated from Sulawesi in Indonesia. Since at least the 1700s the Macassans travelled to the Northern Territory by boat to harvest bech-de-mer (sea cucumber) which they then sold to the Chinese. In exchange for allowing the Macassans access to gather the sea creatures, the Yolngu received goods such as cloth, tobacco, rice and knives.

These visitors also impacted on Yolngu culture with some Macassans words being woven in the local languages and Macassan influences reflecting in Yolngu song, dance and ceremonies. Aboriginal men travelled back and forth to Indonesia with the Macassans to assist them in their harvest and transport of the bech-de-mer.

Unfortunately, when the Europeans arrived and claimed land, it was to the detriment of trade as it often meant Aboriginal people no longer had access to their trade routes or trading places. Trade with the Macassans also ceased, when upon Federation in 1901, the Australian government banned the visitors from entering Australia to collect the bech de mer. The South Australian Museum in conjunction with Flinders University are researching trade routes by analysing ochre used on artefacts in various parts of Australia. They test the ochre to determine where it initially came from and in many cases the origin is hundreds of kilometres from where artefacts were found.

Giinagay Jinggiwahla ("hello" in our first nation languages) is a weekly column covering the indigenous communities of the Clarence Valley exploring a variety of topics, opinions and events across our first nation areas Bundjalung, Yaegl and Gumbaynggirr.



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