The Untold Story of Aboriginal Migration to Indonesia 150 Years Ago

The Untold Story of Aboriginal Migration to Indonesia 150 Years Ago

The ABC has covered a story that reveals a hidden chapter of history where Indigenous Australians were part of a vibrant community in Southeast Asia 150 years ago. This discovery came to light through a collection of vintage black-and-white photographs found in an Italian library. These photographs, captured in the 1870s in Makassar, Indonesia, feature Aboriginal young men and children from northern Australia, aligning perfectly with both written and oral histories of Aboriginal individuals venturing overseas with Asian seafarers, some even before the British colonisation of northern Australia.

The photographer, Italian naturalist Odoardo Beccari, took these images during his travels in Southeast Asia in the 1860s and 70s. This finding has sparked an international effort to trace the descendants of these individuals, with the possibility of using DNA testing to understand the extent of the migration from northern Australia to Southeast Asia.

This discovery challenges the traditional narrative of Aboriginal Australians as isolated on the continent before European arrival, highlighting their active engagement in long-distance travel and trade, especially with regions like Indonesia and Sulawesi.

Aboriginal Elders have identified the individuals in the photographs as likely being Yolngu people from the Arnhem Land region. This corroborates oral histories about Indigenous Australians joining foreign fishing crews and heading overseas. The ABC also sheds light on the significant role of Makassan trepang fishermen who visited the northern coasts of Australia from the 1600s until 1907, emphasising the cultural exchanges that took place, including the integration of Makassar language, tools, and art into Aboriginal cultures.

Professor Jane Lydon, who uncovered these portraits, alongside Dr. Lily Yulianti Farid, who is assisting in the research, stress the importance of weaving together oral histories, documentary evidence, and DNA testing to paint a comprehensive picture of these early migrations and locate the descendants of those who made the journey. This discovery not only enriches our understanding of the past but also highlights the longstanding connections between Indonesia and Australia, offering insights into how these historical ties could influence future relations between the two countries.

The story is a testament to the interconnected history of Indigenous Australians, far beyond the confines of the continent, and serves as a reminder of the diverse narratives that shape our understanding of the past.

…Isn't history just mind-blowing?

The Search For Descendants of Aboriginal People Who Settled In Indonesia At Least 150 Years Ago. Erin Parke. ABC News. (2023).

“The source of life.” A painting by Zhou Xiaoping, from the Melbourne Museum exhibition “Trepang: China and the story of the Macassan-Aboriginal Trade” (2010).