Islam in our Near North

Many Australians are accustomed to thinking of the continent as being isolated for thousands of years, cut-off from the great currents flowing throughout world civilisation. A sense of this separation from ‘out there’ is given in “The Tyranny of Distance” by Blainey who writes “In the eighteenth century the world was becoming one world but Australia was still a world of its own. It was untouched by Europe’s customs and commerce. It was more isolated than the Himalayas or the heart of Siberia.” The cast of mind which is reflected in this statement, from one of Australia’s most distinguished modern historians, understands ‘the world’ and ‘Europe’s customs and commerce’ as somehow inextricably linked.

Manning Clark writes of isolation, the absence of civilisation, until the last quarter of the eighteenth century, attributing this partly to “the internal history of those Hindu, Chinese and Muslim civilisations which colonized and traded in the archipelago of southeast Asia.” While not linking Europe with civilisation, Australia still stands separate and alone.

There is no doubt that just to our north, around southeast Asia and through the straits between the islands of the Indonesian archipelago, there was a great deal of coming and going by representatives of all world civilisations. Representatives of the Confucian, Hindu, Buddhist, Islamic and latterly, Western Christian civilisations, visited, struck root and occasionally, evolved into something else. Some left or were cast out.

There was substantial trade between Arabia and China from the Tang Dynasty (608-907 CE) and that trade was plied around the seas to Australia’s near north. The history of Islam in the region commences with the maternal uncle of Muhammad, Abu Waqqas, who went on the migration to Ethiopia during the persecution but did not return to Arabia with the other refugees. He went on a trading voyage with three other Sahaba (Companions of the Prophet), from Ethiopia to Guangzhou in about 616 CE. He then returned to Arabia. Chinese Muslim annals record that after 21 years he returned to Guangzhou bringing the Quran with him. He founded the Mosque of Remembrance, near the Kwang Ta (the Smooth Minaret) built by the Arabs as a lighthouse. His tomb is in the Muslim cemetery in Guangzhou.

The precise date of Islam’s arrival in insular southeast Asia cannot be readily established. Some historians argue “that by the beginning of the ninth century Arab merchants and sailors, (and other Muslims) had begun to dominate the Nanhai or Southeast Asian Trade.” There was already a colony of foreign Muslims on the west coast of Sumatra by 674 CE and other Muslim settlements began to appear after 878 CE. Islam steadily spread, Islamisation of societies occurred and according to even hostile commentators, Islam “was a factor in the life of the islands by the end of the twelfth century.” There are indications that Arab explorations off northern Australia did take place. The map of the Sea of Java of Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi 820 CE shows Cape Yorke Pensinsula, a “V” shaped Gulf of Carpentaria and a curved Arnhem Land. A later map, that of Abu Isak Al-Farisi Istakhari 934 CE, also includes an outline of the northern coast of Australia.

Islam was well established by the time Ibn Battuta visited Sumatra in about 1350 where he found Sultan al-Malik az-Zahir “a most illustrious and open-handed ruler, and a lover of theologians.” Marco Polo had found the Kingdom of Sumatra inhabited by idolaters a few years before in 1292 CE, but the inhabitants of the Kingdom of Perlak on the same island had changed from idolaters to Muslims “owing to contact with Saracen merchants who continually resort here in ships”.

Other famous travellers also left their accounts. Chinese Muslims, Admiral Zheng He and his lieutenant Ma Huan (Muhammad Hasan), in the service of Yung Lo third Emperor of the Ming Dynasty, became famous as navigators and explorers between 1405 and 1433. The chronicler Fei Xin accompanied many of these voyages and it is from his records that we know “the treasure fleet reached Timor, which is just 400 miles north of Darwin”. The discovery of an image of the god Shou Lao in Darwin in 1879, wedged in the roots of a banyan tree over a metre underground, points to a very early Chinese contact with Australia, but it is not known whether it was Zheng-He or some other Ming sailor.

The palace revolution which caused the permanent cessation of Chinese voyages of exploration opened the way for other seekers of new worlds in our near north. According to Clark: “In the 1430s it looked as though this inheritor of the Chinese would be the Muslim merchants from Persia and the Gujerati Province of India.” Islam steadily spread throughout the Indonesian archipelago, extending across the whole of Java by the eleventh century, into the Moluccas in the early sixteenth century and into Macassar via the Royal Courts of Gowa and Tallo’ in the first decade of the seventeenth century.

As it was pushing onwards into West Papua and beyond, Islam met its nemesis. Clark claims, “the coming of the European ended the spread of Islam, for when Torres first sailed through the strait which still bears his name, he met Moors in west New Guinea. That was in 1607. This marked the limits of the Muslim expansion and knowledge of the area.” Torres came from the east across the Pacific, for the Americas and beyond had been given to Spain by the Pope, Africa and India and beyond to the Portuguese.

The Portuguese Christians, who came via the Cape of Good Hope and India, were clear about their objectives. They well knew of the significance of Islam in the region. Albuquerque, in 1511 the conqueror of Muslim Malacca, the main centre for the dissemination of Islam in southeast Asia, had some time before devised “a scheme to divert the Nile to the Red Sea to make the lands of the Grand Turk sterile, and then to capture Mecca and carry away the bones of Mohammed so that, as he put it, these being reduced publicly to ashes, the votaries of so foul a sect might be confounded.” By winning a monopoly of the Indonesian spice trade these Crusaders hoped to fatally wound Islam.

Although the aggressive Portuguese presence hindered the process of Islamisation in the Moluccas and Timor, Islam remained dominant throughout the archipelago. It was Muslim Macassans and Buginese who established links with Australia.

The Fleet of Prahus

There are suggestions of trading camps on the northern coasts dating back several centuries. Macknight reports (and rejects) evidence that some fireplaces date back 800 years and Levathes suggests a relationship between the light-skinned Bajunis of Kenya’s offshore islands and the “Baijini” of northern Australian legend, possibly linking the early Chinese explorations of both areas. However, as Islam did not come to Macassar until the early 1600s and unless these Baijini were like Zheng-He, also Muslim, they are not part of this history. Certainly Alexander Dalrymple, an English seafarer in the 1760s related “The Bugguese describe New Holland to yield gold, and the natives, who are Mahometans, to be well inclined to commerce.” Macknight attributes this religious designation to the fact that circumcision was practiced amongst the northern tribes, not to their ideology.

There were annual voyages of prahus from Macassar in southern Sulawesi to the coasts of Marege, the area of coastline east of Darwin to the coasts of the Gulf of Carpentaria and to Kai Djawa the coastline from Darwin westwards. When they began is not yet established. Macknight argues that the southeast Asian trepang trade did not commence before the late seventeenth century so that this annual traffic between Marege and Macassar could not be earlier than about 1650. There is a Dutch reference from 1654 which mentions tortoise shell and wax amongst other commodities, obtained from a great crowd of islands to the south but Macknight does not accept this as a reference to Macassan trade with Australia. The ethnographers R.M. and C.H. Berndt also suggested in 1947, from their observation of the depth of influence, that there had been some form of contact between the Aborigines, the people of Marege, and Macassar from the early sixteenth century. This too is rejected by Macknight. He insists that letters from 1751 and 1754 provide the first reliable evidence of the trepang trade between these Muslims and Marege. Perhaps other commodities dominated commerce until the opening of the more lucrative Chinese trepang market, but this is still within the realms of speculation.

Pobassoo, the Macassan master of a fleet of six prahus, was encountered by Flinders in 1803 in the Malay Roads at the north eastern tip of Arnhem Land. He informed the English visitor that he had made six or seven voyages in the preceding twenty years and that he was one of the first to come. Flinders recorded, “These people were Mahometans, and on looking in the launch expressed great horror to see hogs there. Nevertheless they had no objection to port wine, and even requested a bottle to carry away with them at sunset.”

Each year in December, as the low pressure cell moved over Australia and the winds blew towards the south, the prahus left Macassar for camps along the shores of Marege. Then four months later, as the sun moved over the northern hemisphere and the winds blew from the continent towards the northern equatorial zone, they sailed back. By May they had all gone. While they were here they caught, cooked and dried the sea slug or trepang in beach camps. One of the markers of these camps, apart from the stone fireplaces, is the presence of tamarind trees. Tamarind pods were used to flavour their rice and the seeds thrown away near the camps.

So significant was the Macassan trade that for many years the British tried schemes to make the northern coast into a second Singapore. Smarter than modern Australian policy-makers, they quickly understood that the Muslims offered a bridge to trade with the region. While the Dutch tried to wrest control of Singapore to the east of the Indonesian archipelago from them, the British believed that they could, through trading with the Maccasans and Buginese, economically infiltrate the Dutch controlled areas of the west. A second Singapore on Australia’s northern coast offered great wealth. William Barns put this plan to the British government in 1823 and gained the support of a lobby of London merchants. An expedition was sent to northern Australia in 1824 and Fort Dundas established on the strait between Melville and Bathurst Islands. However British control of the first Singapore was assured by the Treaty of London March 1824 thus removing one major incentive for its establishment. It was also soon understood that the fort was located too far from the trepang fleet’s camps to trade. It was a failure.

In 1827 a second settlement was established 200 miles further east in Raffles Bay. Fort Wellington was built but abandoned in 1829. Blainey argues that this abandonment was a mistake for by 1829 “Regular contact with the Indonesian fleet had at last been made.” Thirty-four prahus with more than 1000 men had arrived but there were no merchants at the trading post to barter textiles and metals for their trepang. It was abandoned too quickly, possibly on the verge of success, based on an outdated 1827 report. Thus died the hopes for great trade with the near north for another hundred years.

The trepang trade continued but it was viewed with jaundiced eyes by the new masters of the north coast. Searcy, sent to impose customs duties upon the prahus, revealed the thinking of the time. “So long as this portion of the coast was waste there was no reason why the Malays should not gather the annual harvest and turn it to their own profitable account. But now that there was some chance of Europeans following suit, and with the idea of local trading on the coast, it was decided that the time had come for the Malays to be placed on an equal footing with the local people, and to pay something towards the revenue of the country…” Oppressive imposition of the customs dues by men such as Searcy, growing racism in Australia after the introduction of the 1901 Immigration Restriction Act and jealousy over Macassan success, combined to crush this link with our neighbours.

A telegram which appeared in the S.A. Register 9 September 1904 reveals something of the thinking about this trade and of the tactics used to destroy it. It is significant that Searcy included it in the preface to his 1909 publication. “The Malays who man the proas which sail down from Macassar to Port Bowen in the Northern Territory, are suspected by officers of the Customs Department of smuggling, and it was recently suggested that some of their number also obtain admission to Australia despite the Immigration Restriction Act. After considering these representations, the Minister for Customs determined to close Port Bowen as a reporting station from January 1, and make overseas Asiatics who wish to engage in the trepang industry go to Port Darwin. It is believed that the trade-winds will not enable proas to go to Port Darwin, and therefore they will in all probability be prevented from visiting Northern Australia.” By changing the reporting station at which custom dues were paid, the administration opened the way to intensify harassment of the Macassans so that they would cease their annual visits.

The trepang trade with Macassar had ceased by 1907, but the frequent arrests of Indonesian fishing trawlers off Darwin indicates that old habits die hard. Fishermen used to centuries of traversing waters to our north are hard to deter. Indeed the Sultanate of Gowa, in southern Sulawesi, the old Macassan Kingdom, included the coast of northern Australia within its realm. Arnhem Land Aborigines performed an opera about the historical links between the Yolnu people and Macassar at the foundation day anniversary of the city of Gowa in 1997. That sense of belonging does not vanish without trace.

The Impact of Macassar

Contact brought changes to language. The languages of the tribes along the northern coast can be as distinct as English and Greek. Although the children of Marege grew up in communities which had a variety of language and were all multilingual, contact with tribes from different areas could be difficult. As the Macassans were in contact with widely dispersed tribes, their language became a lingua franca right along the coast. Searcy’s vessel was manned by Malays, who were valued by the English colonists, as they had the ability to communicate with the prahu masters and the local inhabitants. There are several vocabulary lists demonstrating the widespread use of Macassan terms but there is evidence of a deeper influence than just vocabulary. “A number of verbs in Gupabuyngu, the best known language of northeast Arnhem Land, are used in irregular fashion. All are derived from Macassarese.”

Another consequence of the relationship with Macassar was noticed by several British explorers. Stokes, who visited the northern coastline on several occasions between 1837 and 1843, reports observations by Captain Grey in 1838 and a Mr Usborne in 1840 that they had noticed individuals of different physical appearance from their peers in groups of Aborigines they had encountered in the north. While Grey considered that they were probably the descendants of shipwrecked Dutch sailors, Stokes was more of a mind that they were Malays either captured from the trepangers or voluntarily associating with the locals. There was quite close contact between them. “As we know that the Australian not infrequently abandons his country and his mode of life, to visit the Indian archipelago with them (the trepangers).” There were several documented cases of Macassan Muslims living amongst the Aborigines. Timbo, a Macassan left at Port Essington in 1839 to act as interpreter with the Aborigines, walked into the interior with the local tribespeople and was gone several months. Da’ Atea from Macassar deserted a prahu in 1829 and walked across the northern part of the Cobourg Peninsula.

Searcy in the 1880s also remarked upon the results of association with the Macassans. “Naturally some of the aborigines showed unmistakable signs of having Malay blood, in the way of a lighter skin and sharper and more refined features. In some of the women it was very marked.” Using (Hussain) Daeng Rangka had children to an Aboriginal wife in eastern Arnhem Land and one of his Australian daughters visited Macassar. In 1985 his 81 year old daughter, Ibn Saribanung Daeng Nganna, appealed from Sulawesi through the Northern Territory News for contact with her Australian relatives. The result was a field trip by 11 teacher trainees from Batchelor College to Sulawesi to re-establish family relationships.

The introduction of new commodities into tribal communities, such as metal knives, axes and spear-heads, increased the efficiency of hunting and gathering. The Macassan dug-out canoe, which replaced the more fragile indigenous bark canoe, also permitted expanded trading and contact with other tribes. Inter-tribal trade appears to have expanded as a result of the introduction of such commodities. The pearls, pearl-shell and turtle-shell prized by the annual visitors also meant that there was some specific production for the market. Aborigines occasionally worked for payment in the process of trepanging, an unusual development in a hunter-gatherer economy.

Despite these innovations there was little impact upon the dynamics of tribal society. This has been attributed by European commentators to the great strength of tribal culture with its focus upon social relations. In a society in which kinship is the dominant feature, capital accumulation cannot occur. According to Worsely, writing in 1955 “Since everybody in such a society is closely related, there is no chance of accumulating wealth when one’s relatives cannot rightly be refused if they are in need.” Whatever the reasons, Aboriginal culture was not disrupted by contact with the Muslims, something which cannot be said about the later cultural contact experiences of these now oppressed people.

There were cultural and religious effects from contact with the Macassans, but these were not destructive either. New developments in carving, particularly carving n the round, are found in Marege, “unknown elsewhere in Australia except in that part of Cape Yorke Peninsula under the influence of the culture of the Torres Strait Islands.” Worsley commented “Mourning ceremonies, magical practices and important religious ceremonies…are all shot through with Macassarese influences” He also mentioned that the totemic system on Groote Eylandt in the Gulf of Carpentaria was also modified with the introduction of the Ship totem and of the north-west and south-east wind totems.

Arnhem Land Aborigines later spoke of the period of contact with Macassar as a Golden Age. There is a resentful undercurrent in some of the European commentary, for this attitude of the indigenous people contrasted starkly with relations during the period of assimilation and oppression under the white colonial administration. Worsely understood: “The contrast is plainly between the generosity and democracy of the Macassarese and the parsimony and colour bar of the Whites.” Both Macassans and inhabitants of Arnhem Land remembered each others names, significant from the Aboriginal viewpoint where identification implied some ‘placement within the kinship framework’. Revealing an attitude similar to that of other white commentators, Macknight adds “but the clan affiliations suggested by some informants for several names may reflect later rationalisation rather than the reality of direct contact.” Today the positive attitude remains despite decades of separation.

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