Few Australians are aware that the country’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples had regular contact with foreign Muslims long before the arrival of Christian colonisers. And Islam continues to exercise an appeal for some Aboriginal peoples today, writes Janak Rogers.
The white lines are faint but unmistakable. Small sailing boats, picked out in white and yellow pigment on the red rocks of the Wellington Range in Arnhem Land, northern Australia, tell a different story from the one most Australians accept as the history of their nation.
They are traditional Indonesian boats known as praus and they brought Muslim fishermen from the flourishing trading city of Makassar in search of trepang, or sea cucumbers.
Exactly when the Makassans first arrived is uncertain.
Some historians say it was in the 1750s, but radiocarbon dating of beeswax figures superimposed on the cave paintings suggests that it was much earlier – one of the figures appears to have been made before 1664, perhaps as early as the 1500s.
They apparently made annual trips to gather the sea cucumbers, which fetched a high price because of their important role in Chinese medicine and cuisine.
The Makasssans represent Australia’s first attempt at international relations, according to anthropologist John Bradley from Melbourne’s Monash University – and it was a success. “They traded together. It was fair – there was no racial judgement, no race policy,” he says.
Quite a contrast to the British. Britain designated the country terra nullius– land belonging to no-one – and therefore colonised the country without a treaty or any recognition of the rights of indigenous people to their land.
Some Makassan cucumber traders stayed, married Aboriginal women and left a lasting religious and cultural legacy in Australia. Alongside the cave paintings and other Aboriginal art, Islamic beliefs influenced Aboriginal mythology.
“If you go to north-east Arnhem Land there is [a trace of Islam] in song, it is there in painting, it is there in dance, it is there in funeral rituals,” says Bradley. “It is patently obvious that there are borrowed items. With linguistic analysis as well, you’re hearing hymns to Allah, or at least certain prayers to Allah.”
One example of this is a figure called Walitha’walitha, which is worshipped by a clan of the Yolngu people on Elcho Island, off the northern coast of Arnhem Land. The name derives from the Arabic phrase “Allah ta’ala“, meaning “God, the exalted”. Walitha’walitha is closely associated with funeral rituals, which can include other Islamic elements like facing west during prayers – roughly the direction of Mecca – and ritual prostration reminiscent of the Muslim sujood.
“I think it would be hugely oversimplifying to suggest that this figure is Allah as the ‘one true God’,” says Howard Morphy, an anthropologist at Australian National University. It’s more the case of the Yolngu people adopting an Allah-like figure into their cosmology, he suggests.
The Makassan sea cucumber trade with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples ended in 1906, killed off by heavy taxation and a government policy that restricted non-white commerce. More than a century later, the shared history between Aboriginal peoples and Makassans is still celebrated by Aboriginal communities in northern Australia as period of mutual trust and respect – in spite of some historical evidence that this wasn’t always the case.