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New study reveals history of Indigenous trade with foreign visitors before British colonization

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The first study of Asian occupation sites in 50 years found that Indigenous people traded with foreign visitors before the British settlement.

There are little clues if you know what you’re looking for.

An Indonesian tree where it shouldn’t be, a fragment of foreign pottery on a picturesque northern beach.

These are markers of an annual Asian occupation of the northernmost tip of Western Australia that remains a mystery.

“This contact took place before the colonization of this part of the north coast, so it’s an Asian industry that works with traditional aboriginal owners.

“I think we’re going to get some really interesting results.”

A stone hearth was left by fishing crews from Southeast Asia.(

ABC: Andrew Seabourne

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Dr Souter is part of a research team from the West Australian Museum and the University of Western Australia, working with the Kwini people to try to piece together the little-known trepang industry of the 1700s and 1800s.

The slimy, spiky, cucumber-shaped sea animals were a popular and sought-after delicacy on the reefs of northern Australia.

Sea cucumbers.
Sea cucumbers, also called trepang, were marketed on isolated beaches.(

Facebook: Mr. Barra

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Each December, as tropical storms loomed on the horizon, fishing crews sailed from the islands of Southeast Asia and set up camp on secluded beaches in what is now the Kimberley and the Northern Territory.

They stayed for months at a time, catching, cooking and drying the animals, which would be sold to Chinese merchants as food with claimed aphrodisiac properties.

Fishing lodges opened up international trade decades before the British moved to the continent: an exchange of boats, seafood and women that linked Indigenous Australians to Asia.

Two people standing and looking at an archaeological excavation site on a beach.
The previously unknown trade history is revealed by excavations on the island of Niiwalarra in Western Australia.(

ABC News: Andrew Seabourne

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The first study in 50 years

While the sites in the Northern Territory are well documented, the Kimberley fishing lodges have not been surveyed since the 1960s.

That is about to change, with a newly created marine park the catalyst for a new archaeological investigation.

A native seated outside.
Kwini’s man and field assistant Ian Waina said he was happy the archaeological survey was underway.(

ABC: Erin Parke

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Kwini man Ian Waina helped with the excavation.

“I’m glad this job is done because we’ve always heard stories about how the Makassan came here,” he said.

“They traded a lot with our people; we didn’t have canoes until they came here.

Several local women help in the field work.

Their presence is vital: they know the oral history of Asian visits and coastal archaeological sites.

An indigenous woman holding leaves in her hand
The Wunambal woman, Dorothy Djanghara, shared her knowledge and memories with the researchers.(

ABC: Andrew Seabourne

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Wunambal woman Dorothy Djanghara remembers older family members discussing foreign visitors and even speaking Indonesian.

“In the old days, some of our people spoke the Indonesian way,” she said.

“They always kept their own language, but the Indonesians also taught them in their own way.”

Ms. Djanghara believes it would have been an interaction based on an exchange of knowledge – and even people.

“The blackfellas used to build their rafts out of driftwood and paper bark, but when they met the Indonesians, they traded for canoes,” she said.

“Sometimes they traded for young girls.

“They were taking the girls to Indonesia, and they weren’t coming back.”

A drone shot of an archaeological dig.
The excavation sites have not been studied since the 1960s.(

ABC News: Andrew Seabourne

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The Kwini people have visited the isolated island of Niiwalarra for thousands of years.

More recently, it was the site of a WWII military base and unsuccessful attempts to grow cotton.

But the main focus of archaeologists is a network of hearths still visible on the beach, where the drill bits were pulled from the ocean and fired in large iron pots over 200 years ago.

An aboriginal kneels in front of an archaeological dig.
Four coastal sites are being excavated in the Kimberley as part of the 2021 fieldwork.(

ABC News: Andrew Seabourne

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“The traditional owners first showed this site to Professor Ian Crawford in the 1960s,” explained Dr Souter.

“We’re mainly looking for pieces of pottery, which we can use to determine where fishing crews are coming from, and pieces of charcoal, which can be used for radiocarbon dating.”

Alistair Paterson said the first radiocarbon dating results indicated the Kimberley fishing lodges were in operation around 1800.

“We could still get earlier dates because Dutch historical records suggest people started moving down the Kimberley Coast in the mid-1700s and then it really picks up around 1800,” he said.

A man stands in front of a microscope.
Alistair Paterson analyzes artifacts in the laboratories of the University of Western Australia in Perth.(

ABC News: West Matteeussen

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A “sail-in, sail-out” workforce

Prof Paterson said the Asian presence in northern Australia was a fascinating developmental moment, foreshadowing today’s shifting workforce.

“This is a really modern industry that aimed to meet global markets,” he said.

“I like to think of them as some sort of ‘on board, on board’ worker who come from Asia, are there for the season and then go home.

“The fact that the great resource industries of the 1700s and 1800s were all maritime – you have the whale, the mother of pearl, the trepang and not the sheep – is a reason to rethink Australian history.”

Artifacts collected by Professor Crawford in the original 1960s study are also scientifically tested for the first time, including a musket ball and a Dutch coin dated 1823.

A Dutch piece on display at the WA Museum
A Dutch piece from 1823 was found in an Asian fishing camp in the Kimberley.(

Provided: WA Museum

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The research will also have practical benefits.

The area is managed by the Balanggarra Aboriginal Corporation and the Parks and Wildlife Service.

Documentation of the fishing camps will help preserve them amid increasing tourism to the region.

Discussions are ongoing, but it is expected that some sites will be flagged for visitors and others kept secret.

Watch this story on ABC TV’s landline at 12:30 p.m. Sundays, or on Iview.


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