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Australia was not an empty land when the British arrived. Indigenous people were living all over Australia and its islands, and using its land and seas. Nor were the British the first people to visit Australia. Australia had been visited for centuries by Dutch, French, Macassan, Arab, and Portuguese explorers and traders. Sometimes the visitors were unwanted and there were violent clashes between the two groups; at other times there was curiosity and relatively peaceful contact. Food and other goods were traded or exchanged.

Early visitors

Australia and the Indigenous people had been visited for hundreds of years prior to the arrival of Captain Cook in 1770. Chinese traders and explorers may well have made the journey to Australia centuries before European explorers. There is also evidence that Portuguese sailors knew of the Australian continent. Portuguese maps from the 16th century show a country called 'Java la Grande', which indicates a landmass similar to Australia. The most regular visits, however, were from the Indonesian and Papuan people.

Macassan traders

Indonesian people have been visiting the Australian continent for centuries. They came to fish mainly for trepang (sea-cucumbers or sea-slugs) which were considered a delicacy in Indonesia and China. The people who visited the northern shores of Australia came from the Indonesian trading centre of Macassar. Remains of Macassan camp sites have been found on Australia's northern coast, and date back at least 800 years. Refer to Image 1

The Macassans sailed to Australia in boats called praus and fished for trepang in dugout canoes. Some of these canoes were traded with the Indigenous people, who learned from the design and started making their own canoes. Macassan people traded other objects with the Indigenous people. Knives, axes, smoking pipes and fish-hooks were traded in exchange for tortoiseshell and pearl shells. The Macassans also influenced the art, stories, dance, language, and rituals of the Indigenous people in the region. Refer to Image 2

Not all contact between the Macassan and Indigenous people was peaceful. Sometimes there was violent conflict. The Macassans, however, were never seen as a threat to the land. They always returned to their own land after gathering the trepang.


The Papuan people regularly travelled to the Cape York Peninsula and Arnhem Land across the Torres Strait. Papuan culture and language had a strong influence on Indigenous culture on the Cape York Peninsula. Dugout canoes, ornamental masks and grave posts were introduced to the Indigenous peoples. In return, the Papuans acquired spears and other ornaments and weapons.

Dutch sailors

Dutch sailors were the first Europeans to land in several parts of Australia, and named the land 'New Holland'. In 1606, the Dutch captain Willem Jansz sailed in the Duyfken from the Dutch East Indies in search of new trading areas. He was the first European to record the sighting of the Australian mainland at the Gulf of Carpentaria. The Dutch were looking to establish new trading ports and find precious metals, spices and exotic fruit trees. They did not establish a colony on Australia, as they found nothing of particular value to them to conquer or trade with.

In 1623, the Dutch captain Jan Carstensz was sent to sail around the Gulf of Carpentaria. Captain Carstensz and his crew encountered many Indigenous people and there were violent clashes between the two groups. Several Indigenous people were captured and taken back to the boats. Carstensz wrote that the Indigenous people were 'more miserable and insignificant that I have ever seen in my life'.

The Dutch sailor Captain Abel Tasman was the first European to land on Tasmanian soil in 1642. He did not meet any Indigenous people but did see evidence of their inhabitancy. In 1696, the Dutch Captain William de Vlamingh made the first European landing along the Swan River in Western Australia. He recorded that he saw smoke, huts and footprints of the Indigenous people but did not meet any. It was not until the British started to explore that Australia was seen as a potential colony. Refer to Image 3


William Dampier was the first Englishman to visit Australian shores in 1688. He landed on the west coast of Australia and was looking for a safe place to clean and repair his boat. In his account of his journey, published in 1697, Dampier suggested that the coast of Australia (or New Holland as it was known then) was worth further exploration. It was not until Captain James Cook took a more serious look at the east coast of Australia that Europeans recognised that the continent had potential for a European colony.

In April 1770, Captain Cook sailed the Endeavour into Botany Bay. Botany Bay was so named because Joseph Banks found so many plants there. Cook spent a week in there, gathering plants and noting the potential of the region for farming and agriculture. The Indigenous people generally kept their distance from him, but Cook wrote that their tools, houses and canoes were very primitive.

As Captain Cook sailed up the east coast of Australia, he did not see any evidence of European style of farming or any fixed houses and so he determined that the land was not occupied and did not belong to anyone. He claimed possession of the east coast of Australia for King George III and named the land New South Wales. In 1788, Captain Arthur Phillip landed at Sydney Cove under orders to establish a permanent British colony in New South Wales. The arrival of the British will be discussed in the next topic.

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1. What did the early Indonesian people fish for in the waters of Australia?






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