Makassans on the North Coast

All that remains of a Makassan camp on the far north Kimberley coast, visited in 2015.

Near the northern most tip of Western Australia, on a beach on the Anju Peninsular of Napier Broome Bay, sits these five small seemingly unimpressive piles of stones.

Since at least the 1700s and pre-dating the Colonisation of Australia, it is believed Makassan sailors from Sulawesi had visited the northern and western coasts of mainland Australia in small boats, fishing for and processing trepang (bêche-de-mer/sea cucumber) destined for the Chinese market.

These stone piles were once used as fire pits and are all that remain today of what would have been a large fishing camp. The camp would likely have been inhabited for up to four months of the year and returned to each season. Abandoned well before the arrival of white Europeans to the area and undisturbed. This site would have been a hive of activity, numerous Prahus would be anchored off the beach and the fire pits would burn all night and day boiling trepang to remove the skins. They would then be sent to the many smoking huts that were located behind the beach and have long since been destroyed by the elements. To cure the trepang it was smoked with local mangrove wood before being washed, dried and ferried to the decks of the boats then shipped off to be sold as a delicacy in the markets of China.

The painting shown "Macassans at Victoria, Port Essington, 1845, by HS Melville, published in The Queen, 8 February 1862" shows a typical camp with the fire pits in the foreground and smoking huts, very similar to what would have been on the Anju Peninsular.