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Australia’s earliest trades

Ancient routes and sharing

While we typically look at the history of trade as an exchange between two countries, or the development of a major commercial industry that provides for multiple countries (the spice trade between the East and West, for example) – trade has occurred as long as there have been communities – no matter how far they are from each other. 

As such, Australia’s Indigenous people have been sharing not only physical objects, but also stories, ceremonies, dance, art and sacred rituals. Trade routes intersected as significant spiritual sites, such as waterholes, where materials like red ochre could be found and used in ancient rock art. Indigenous communities would exchange both solely and in groups at these ‘trading centres’. While there is little documented evidence of trade between First Nations people, artefacts studied by researchers have shown that ocean shells were traded in Outback Queensland, most likely for ochre, shields, spears, axes or boomerangs. 

Yolŋu people and the Makassar fishermen

The Yolŋu people of Arnhem Land in Northern Territory began trading with the Makassar people of Sulawesi (Indonesia) as early as 1700. The Makassar fisherman from Sulawesi would arrive each December to harvest trepang, a type of sea cucumber, and camp along the Arnhem Land coast. The Makassar would usually stay until April, drying out the trepang and preparing for trade to China, where the sea cucumbers were seen as a delicacy and aphrodisiac.

During those four months on the Arnhem Land shore, however, the Makassar would trade, mingle and work alongside the Indigenous Yolŋu people. While they did not settle on Arnhem Land, the Makassar would introduce tobacco, smoking pipes and calico fabric to the local population. They also completely transformed the lives of the Yolŋu, bringing them a brand new technology in the form of metal blades, knives and axes that would make everyday life significantly easier – from cutting food to working with wood.

The whaling industry

Whaling in Australia began in 1791, and quickly became one of the ‘new’ nation’s primary trade industries. While there’s no known history of Indigenous people hunting whales, beached whales were a valuable source of food and oil, among other by-products. 

Whaling first began along the Iberian Peninsula around 1000 CE, where the Spanish and French Basque population would hunt commercially. During the 1500s and 1600s, the Basque developed operations around Canada and later the Arctic. This then caught the attention of British, Dutch and Danish companies who then sent their own ships and fishermen to the area.

Whale oil, in particular, was in high demand throughout the 1700s and 1800s. Until the discovery and development of petroleum in the 1850s, whale oil was widely used in machinery, in oil lamps and as a general lubricant across Europe and North America.

After war broke out between Spain and Britain in the late 1790s, the British began to rely heavily on Australia’s whaling industry, with Sydney becoming one of their major whaling ports. Australia’s whaling peak between the 1820s and 1850s saw more than 1300 men working in the industry every year, and was responsible for close to 52 per cent of all exports in New South Wales by 1832. The discovery of gold in Australia, coupled with the development of petroleum saw a massive decline in whaling, and by 1855 the whaling industry had fallen to produce only one per cent of New South Wales’s exports. 

Despite this, whaling continued as an industry in the 1970s; however, rapid advancements in technology saw a severe overharvesting of whales for a previously thriving industry now with little demand. After a series of concerns from the public, the last commercial whaling station was closed in 1978. Following this, Australia permanently ended whaling in its waters, and became active in its support for the International Whaling Commission’s fight against whaling.

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