Southeast Asian and Indonesian trade

The arrival of secret visitors is often the first and only explanation invoked to explain the discovery of exotic artefacts.  Very often other, simpler, explanations are overlooked or ignored entirely.  In scientific and other logical reasoning the simplest explanation – the one that introduces the fewest unproven leaps of faith, or is based on processes and events that are known to happen elsewhere – is preferred.  This idea is often termed Occam’s Razor or the principle of parsimony.  As well as referring to explanatory mechanisms, Occam’s Razor also favours the fewest revisions to what is already known.  It can be worth thinking about those circumstances which could result in the appearance of out of place artefacts in a way that fits Occam’s Razor.  Using known facts is it possible to expect that we could, one day, find exotic artefacts in Australia?  If we found a mobile phone in a Pleistocene rockshelter deposit in central Australia it would be foolish to invoke time-travel, extra-terrestrial intervention or long-forgotten Aboriginal telephony as the best explanation.  Well before we call on unproven and unsupported ideas, we would need to look at the question of prior disturbance of the deposit by animals and humans, whether people still camped there, deliberate fraud or hoaxing, errors by the archaeologists and so on, all of which are known to have happened in the past.  Each of these explanations is testable, and each could explain the mobile phone’s presence without having to alter what we already know about Australian Pleistocene archaeology.

Similarly, knowing that Macassan fishermen harvested trepang in Australian waters, it is reasonable to ask whether the well-established maritime trade networks that connected China and India via the Malay archipelago may also have extended as far as Australia or, if not, at least have provided a conduit for some clearly exotic material to end up in pre-1606 Australian contexts.  This post takes a look at what we know of this trade.  The Macassan presence in northern Australia deserves a few posts on its own.

Historically known trade

Early Chinese references to the Malay peninsula begin to appear in the first century AD, but their imprecision is frustrating.  There appear to be references to maritime passage following the full length of the Malay peninsula and portages across the peninsula.  Early voyages from China were aimed at the east Indian coast and were diplomatic in nature, rather than trade exchange [Wheatley 1961].

Ptolemy recorded what was known in the Roman east about the region in the 2nd century AD, and there is sufficient in his Geography to indicate that the Malay peninsula was part of the regular trade networks that operated around the margins of the Indian Ocean.  His geographical knowledge did not extend into island Southeast Asia, and it does not seem to have been part of the main trade network at that time.  This included, according to Wheatley,  ‘[l]uxury bric-a-brac, Buddhist relics, camphor and other jungle products’ [1961: 290, Fig 47].

Indian rouletted pottery has been found in a number of Indonesian locations [Walker and Santoso 1977;  Ardika et al 1991, 1997 ].  Known initially as Romano-Indian rouletted pottery, it comes from Indian coastal communities and dates to the early centuries AD.  Its presence in Bali shows that even before there are clear and definitive records of state formation, individual islands or small states were actively participating in the Indian-Chinese trade network.

Records are sketchy until the 8th century AD, when the Sumatran kingdom of Srivijaya began to dominate the Malacca Straits and remained the main power for about four centuries.  After that a succession of kingdoms developed on Java, Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula [see e.g. Cribb 2000].  In the 14th century Majapahit, centred on eastern Java, began a naval dominance over the archipelago.  According to contemporary documents its extent, which may represent navigational limits rather than actual authority, included westernmost New Guinea [the Vogelkopf or ‘Bird’s head’] and Timor.   New Guinea, the Kai and Aru islands were producing gold, sago and bird plumage for export to the west.  Sago was still a staple well to the west of its current limits at that time, so this was export of a basic commodity [Cribb 2000: maps 1.25, 3.18].

Eastern Indonesia produced the fragrant wood sandalwood, as well as cloves and other spices.  Culturally, island Indonesia has seen great change.  For example in religion, Hindu-Buddhist cultural influence reached as far as Timor and the Vogelkopf of New Guinea by the 13th century, more than 1000 km from established states, but has been largely swallowed by later spread of Islam and Christianity [Cribb 2000: maps 2.21, 2.23, 2.31].  At the same time the overall hierarchy of major and minor ports remained largely constant, and marginal areas continued to have trade connections with particular entrepots, but be subject to only nominal control.  In the early 1500s the twin rival states of Ternate and Tidore began to establish trade networks that allowed them to dominate the control of spice exports.  The Aru islands were under Makarese control until that state was overthrown by the Dutch in 1667.

Tome Pires, a Portuguese traveller in the area in about 1512-15,  observed that there was constant intense trade from the eastern islands in the archipelago, usually directed towards Malacca, but also to subsidiary ports.  Piracy was common and there was a rich economic life as a result of the value of commodities being traded, which ensured buying power that allowed them to be a market for the goods passing through between China and India.  Pires noted

Goods from all over the east are found here; goods from all over the west are sold here. [Pires 1944: 228]

That may have been an exaggeration but certainly in many parts of the archipelago neither wealth nor distance was really a hindrance to accessing material goods that were being traded between India and China.

Shipwrecks carrying Chinese and mainland Southeast Asian ceramics are well known in the western part of the archipelago.  The locations of some suggest at least that they were heading for island ports rather than being wrecked in transit.  After passing through the strait and entering the Indonesian archipelago in 1606 Torres observed their first obvious trade goods when they visited an island just off the Vogelkopf, finding pieces of Chinese ceramic, iron fish-hooks and a harpoon.  There was a bellows for working the iron made from bamboo [Hilder 1980: 117].  This told them they were no longer lost and entering a trade area.

Prado, who accompanied Torres, showed just how porous and globally interconnected the region was when he described meeting a Moorish slave who was the servant of a small chieftain on an island off the Vogelkopf .  The man spoke Italian, had been sold as a slave in Seville to some Manila merchants.  He eventually escaped and island-hopped, ending up working for the minor chief on this little island just next to New Guinea.  He said that Papua produced ‘gold and pearls, precious red stones, sandalwood, pepper, pigs, buffaloes, ginger and coconuts’ [quoted in Hilder 1980: 122].  Chinese ships at one time had called for pepper and gold, but had not come for several years.

The Makarese are described by Pires in the early 16th century.  He does not mention any trade or use of beche-de-mer [sea slugs or trepang] which was harvested from the shallow coastal waters throughout the archipelago, notably along the northern Australian coast.  The trade was either not operative or at such a low intensity for a specialised commodity that it simply did not register in his intelligence gathering.  More on Macassans and trepanging in a later post.

Bird of paradise feathers are the best-known of the trade goods that had to come from either eastern islands in the Indonesian archipelago or from New Guinea itself.  By the 1500s the Aru islands were becoming known as the source.  Tome Pires records, in the first detailed European account, said

The nore parrots come from the island of Papua.  Those which are prized more than any others come from the islands called Aru, birds which they bring over dead, called birds of paradise, and they say come from heaven, and that they do not know how they are bred.  … They are good merchandise and only a few come. [Pires 1944: 209]

Veth etal [2007] document the role of the Aru Islands in connecting with other areas, particularly western New Guinea, for tradeable goods, including birds of paradise, gold and probably the other commodities known to the Moorish ex-slave met by Prado.

Further east, along the coast of the Gulf of Papua, Melanesian people developed a range of long-distance trade relationships. Late Lapita period ceramics are now known from the Gulf of Papua [about 2,900-2,500 years ago], and pottery documents the continuation of trade networks that may have extended as far as the Australian mainland and the Solomons in later centuries.  A number of papers presented at the 2011 Australian Archaeological Association Conference, Toowoomba set out the current understanding, which suggests an extensive maritime, as opposed to purely coastal, trade and social network having developed on Australia’s doorstep perhaps 2,500 years ago.  In more recent history the hiri was an exchange of ceramics produced near Port Moresby for sago produced in lands to the west.  This was primarily a trade, but there were large exchange networks, most well-known being the kula, where goods were of high social value and their transfer from one owner to another reflected status and personal authority and power.

Fred McCarthy traced what had been recorded about Aboriginal trade networks during the first century of European contact [McCarthy 1939].  This included extensive dispersal of goods such as stone for ground axe production and pearl baler shell to different parts of the continent.  He also recorded trading links across Torres Strait between Australian, Islander and Papuan communities.  Although he was documenting a heavily disrupted society by this time he was able to note that this was chain trade, as in the producer of the goods [A] passed them on to [B], [B] traded them to [C] and so on.  McCarthy titled his paper with ‘trade’ in inverted commas, as he was concerned to make clear that this was not necessarily for barter, commerce or  profit, but also included exchange where the purpose may be to fulfil social or cultural obligations.  As materials and objects moved further from their source they were invested with greater value, either through scarcity or being seen as holding power from the act of transfer from one owner to another.  This also meant they lost whatever utilitarian value they had, as their special values as exotic objects were much greater.  Trade lines on both sides and across Torres Strait would have allowed goods to be transferred from Papua New Guinea to mainland Australia through a chain of connections.

What does all this mean?

The Indian-Chinese maritime trade represented a major influx of goods into the western end of the Indonesian archipelago at least by the first century AD.  It is likely that some trade occurred before that, but this requires further archaeological demonstration as the written records are unclear.  As states formed they began their own trade networks which tapped into this major international artery.  This resulted in Indian and Chinese goods moving eastwards among the islands.  Both luxuries and staples are likely to have been involved.  The easternmost point  in terms of formal networks of trade tied to the major states is the Aru Islands and the Vogelkopf .  It is very likely however, that both these points were gateways to a less formal network of trade supply routes, some of which may have included the exchange of status items as well as staples.  Because of the spice trade the islands were relatively cashed up and apparently avid consumers of the best that China and India had to offer.  They had the money to draw staples and luxuries eastwards.

Movement of goods, whether pottery, sago, obsidian or slaves, connected the western and eastern ends of the Indonesian archipelago in regular mercantile networks, and potentially eastwards from there in more informal webs of trade and social interaction.  While they are unlikely to have survived, it is not at all impossible that identifiably exotic trade items may have worked their way eastwards from the Malay peninsula into Torres Strait in the period before 1606 by their participation in this chain of trading networks.  What would be really interesting to understand is how goods that were so obviously foreign were understood in the different cultures they passed through and how they were valued and invested with meaning.

By considering the historically and archaeologically known trading systems that operated in northern Australia through to Indonesia it is possible to see how an object could have made its way from say Malacca to Cape York.  If any such goods were found, then rather than appeal to unknown voyages or mechanisms that exist only in peoples’ impaginations, we can use Occam’s razor to provide a more plausible explanation.

Addendum [April 2012]

Since this was posted in January 2012 I have found Pamela Swadling’s [1996] book on the bird of paradise trade, which adds considerable nuance and detail to my sketchy overview.  Among other things she notes the discovery by archaeologists in Syria of cloves, which had to come from the Moluccas, in an archaeological context dated to 1750-1600 BC .  Small volume but high value goods evidently were being traded a minimum of 9,800 kilometres [6,100 miles] in a straight line, so presumably a lot further in real life.  This mirrors the trade in other luxury items, of which we are most aware of minerals, due to their preservation.

Swadling notes that there appears to have been a brief period of high volume trade in bird of paradise feathers in the period from c.2000 BC to about 250 AD, when the Vietnamese Dong Son culture penetrates the cultural region of island southeast Asia, leading to the widespread occurrence of glass beads, bronze ceremonial kettle drums and other objects as far as western New Guinea.  This developed out of an existing trade network reflected in pottery distribution, obsidian trade and probably cultural connections that goes back to perhaps 4,000 BC.  The motifs on the kettle drums and other bronze artefacts often depict warriors and other figures with elaborate feathered or plumed head-dresses, suggesting that bird of paradise skins were a substantial trade item.  This long-standing culture eventually was overtaken by Hindu-Buddhist based kingdoms who derived their wealth from the Indo-Chinese trade.

In the period from c.300 AD to around 1500 the home-grown Indonesian kingdoms built up the spice trade, but when Europeans arrived in the early 16th century they rapidly sought to dominate it and made fundamental changes to regional trade, which included re-invigorating the bird of paradise skin trade, as discussed by Tome Pires above.


Ardika, I.W. and P. Bellwood 1991
‘Sembiran: the beginnings of Indian contact with Bali’, Antiquity, vol. 65 [no. 247], pp. 221-232.

Ardika, I.W., P. Bellwood, O.M. Sutaba and K.C. Yuliati 1997
‘Sembiran and the first Indian contacts with Bali: an update’, Antiquity, vol. 71 [no. 271], pp. 193-195.

Cribb, R. 2000
Historical atlas of Indonesia, Curzon Press, Richmond.

Hilder, Brett 1980
The voyage of Torres: the discovery of the southern coastline of New Guinea and Torres Strait by Captain Luis Baez de Torres in 1606, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia.

McCarthy, Frederick D. 1939
‘”Trade” in Aboriginal Australia, and “trade” relationships with Torres Strait, New Guinea and Malaya,’ Oceania, vol. 9 [4], pp. 405-438, vol. 10 [1], pp. 80-104, vol. 10 [2], pp. 171-195.

Pires, Tome 1944
The Suma Oriental of Tome Pires, an account of the East from the Red Sea to China, written in Malacca in 1512-1515, and the book of Francisco Rodriguez, Pilot Major of the armada that discovered Banda and the Moluccas, Hakluyt Society, 2nd series, Vol. 89.

Swadling, Pamela 1996
Plumes from paradise: trade cycles in outer Southeast Asia and their impact on New Guinea and nearby islands until 1920, Papua New Guinea National Museum / Robert Brown and Associates, Boroko.

Veth, P., S. Oc’Connor, M. Spriggs, W. Nayati, A. Jatmiko and H. Mohammad 2007
‘The Ujir Site: an early historic maritime settlement in northwestern Aru’, in O’Connor, S., M. Spriggs and P. Veth [eds], The archaeology of the Aru Islands, eastern Indonesia, Terra Australis 22, Australian National University, Canberra, pp. 85-93.  Available here.

Walker, Michael J. and S. Santoso 1977
‘Romano-Indian rouletted pottery in Indonesia’, Mankind, 11, pp. 39-43.

Wheatley, P. 1961
The Golden Khersonese: studies in the historical geography of the Malay Peninsula before A.D. 1500, University of Malaya Press, Kuala Lumpur.


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