From the 1600s onwards – ships, ports and overseas trading
In the past, the only way for people to get to Australia was to cross seas and oceans by boat. This was true for Aboriginal people as well as Europeans. Aboriginal people first arrived in Australia by boat at least 60,000 years ago and Europeans began to visit these shores from about 400 years ago. Although tens of thousands of years apart, all these people would have struggled across inhospitable waters to make it to the continent without knowing what they would encounter at the end of the journey.
Before (and even after) maps of shorelines were created, the dangerous hidden coastline surrounding the Australian continent sank many a boat – there are 100s of recorded shipwrecks along the Western Australian coast. Through the successful and the failed passages, we can investigate the maritime heritage story of Australia.
The first recorded European contact in what would become Western Australia was in 1616, when Dutch explorer Dirk Hartog and his ship called Eendracht landed on the west coast. Another 28 recorded visits occurred over the next 200 years mostly by the Dutch in the 1600s and then the English in the 1700 and early 1800s. Unintended visits ended mostly in shipwrecks along the coast as vessels travelled across Southern Ocean to what is now Jakarta. Included in these wrecks is the Batavia which in 1629 was wrecked on the Morning Reef near Beacon Island of the Houtman Abrolhos Islands as the result of a mutiny on board. Most of the explorers of this period thought that the apparent lack of water and fertile soil made the region unsuitable for colonisation. So, although many expeditions visited the coast during the next 200 years, there was no attempt at establishment of a permanent European settlement in Western Australia until the 1820s in Albany.
In addition to European landfall, Macassan trepang (or bêche-de-mer) fishery dates back to at least the 1700s, when fishers from the trading port of Makassar, and its environs in the southwestern arm of the island of Sulawesi, made an annual journey to the coasts of the Kimberley and Arnhem Land. In large and regular fleets of wooden sailing vessels, known as prau, the Macassans sailed to Australia with the northwest monsoon each December and returned to their home port of Makassar with the southeast trade winds around March or April each year. The Macassans established peaceful trading partnerships with coastal Aboriginal people at their camps. The trepang catch and trade goods such as pearl shell, beeswax and ironwood were brought back to Makassar and sold to Chinese traders supplying the market of southern China, where trepang were highly sought.