Well before 1788, Makassan fishermen from the east-Indonesian archipelago, fishing for trepang (sea-slugs), began annual voyages to our northern shores. It is thought that the fishermen of Makassar had been visiting the north coast of Western Australia, Northern Territory and Queensland from as early as the 16th century. Aboriginal cave paintings also depict the traditional Makassan sailing vessel or ‘prau’ and a number of Makassan artifacts have been found in Aboriginal settlements on the west and northern coast of Australia.
In 1803, Matthew Flinders recorded the sighting of 6 praus off the east of Arnhem Land. Some inter-marriages between Aborigines and Makassans took place and Makassan grave sites exist along the coastline.
These early Muslim traders were among the first visitors to establish an economic enterprise, founding Australia’s first ‘modern industry”. Unlike later European settlement, Makassan enterprise encroached little on the Aboriginal way of life. More lasting is their place in Aboriginal history and culture.
They came intermittently as visitors, revealing only a part of Islam. While day-to-day contact would have made Aborigines aware of prayer times and burial practices, Islam as a way of life had little impact on Australia.