17th-Century Moluccan Warships Identified in Australian Rock Art
Archaeologists from Flinders University in Adelaide have finally identified the exotic watercraft featured in indigenous rock art found 50 years ago in a small cave in Arnhem Land in the Northern Territories of Australia. It seems these colorful images depict a pair of Indonesian Moluccan warships that would have been sailing the waters of the Pacific Ocean in the 17th century, apparently reaching the Australian mainland at a time when no such contact was previously known to have existed.
Photo of the Australian rock art in which Moluccan warships have been identified. (Darrell Wesley / CC BY 4.0)
In an article appearing in the journal Historical Archaeology, the Flinders University researchers report that the enigmatic and mysterious ships in the rock art bear a striking resemblance to vessels known to have been built by people living on the Maluku Islands (also known as the Moluccas or Spice Islands) of eastern Indonesia nearly 300 years ago. The ships “display triangular flags, pennants, and prow adornments indicating martial status,” the study authors wrote, offering evidence that they were indeed part of the Moluccan navy.
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Previous discoveries, including rock art imagery, indicated that Macassan seaborne voyagers from the Indonesian island of Sulawesi had made contact with Australian indigenous people by the late 16th century. But rock art depictions of their fishing boats showed clear differences with the craft that have now been identified as Moluccan warships. This contradicts the old the belief that peaceful Macassan traders and anglers were the only Indonesians to make early visits to Northern Australia.
Drawings of the two Moluccan warships identified in Australian rock art. (Darrell Lewis / CC BY 4.0)
The Moluccans in Australia: An Unsuspected History of Contact
This enlightening discovery confirms that contacts between Southeast Asian islanders and Northern Australian indigenous people in past centuries were more extensive than previously known. “Just these two craft suddenly add another dimension to the sphere of interaction of Northern Australia—that Australia is not just some sort of land that's on its own, in the middle of nowhere and is cut off for 65,000 years from everywhere else,” said Flinders University archaeologist and study co-author Daryl Wesley, in an interview with ABC News Australia.
It is notable that the Moluccan ships were outfitted for warfare. This suggests that some type of invasion may have occurred, which may have resulted in hostilities breaking out between the invaders and local inhabitants protecting their coastal settlements. Interestingly, there were reports dating back to the 17th century that indicated people from the Moluccas were visiting the northern coast of Australia.
According to Flinders University maritime archaeologist and study co-author Wendy van Duivenvoorde, explorers on Dutch sailing ships that visited the region in the early-to-mid 1600s claimed that the Moluccans were active seafarers who routinely traveled to Australia, among other places. The Dutch would have been in a position to know this, van Duivenvoorde noted, as they’d established trading relationships with both the Moluccans and the indigenous Australians.
“Dutch traders established agreements with the elders in Maluku Tenggara for products like turtle shell and trepang that may have been sourced during voyages to Australia,” she explained in a Flinders University statement. “Islanders in Maluku Tenggara also had a reputation as raiders and warriors, ranging across the eastern end of the archipelago.”
The Dutch reports were actually somewhat ambiguous. They don’t make it clear whether the Moluccans were raiding or making war against the indigenous Australians, or simply visiting them for purposes related to trade.
A prow board or kora ulu on a Moluccan watercraft ca. 1924. (Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen / CC BY 4.0)
Were the Moluccans Friend or Foe?
Based on the amount of detail found in the rock art depictions of the warships, the Flinders University researchers are certain that the artist must have had an up close and prolonged look at these vessels. In the opinion of the researchers, this fact “implies instances of physical violence or at least a projection of power” from the Moluccan people toward their Northern Australian neighbors.
This is a reasonable conclusion, but there are other possibilities. Despite the warlike nature of their ships, the Moluccans may not have had any reason to attack the indigenous Australians, nor a reason to try to intimidate them.
Even if they were on friendly missions, they may have chosen to travel in such vessels for reasons of security, fearing attacks from enemies during their long trips across the open sea (the Maluku Islands are 750 miles or 1,200 kilometers from Arnhem Land).
It’s also conceivable that the indigenous artist may have had a chance encounter with the Moluccans while out at sea on a boat built by his own people, in which case he may have relied on his memories to create the rock paintings.
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Just because the artist was able to observe Moluccan warships for long enough to notice details doesn’t mean the opportunity came during pitched battles—although there is a distinct likelihood that it did, as the researchers suspect.
“Regardless of the motivation that prompted the painting of these vessels, the presence of these fighting ships provides direct evidence of the ethnic diversity of the mariners from Island Southeast Asia known to Arnhem Land artists and further demonstrates the issues associated with the use of the generic term ‘Macassan’ for depictions of non-European vessels,” van Duivenvoorde said, summarizing the importance of her team’s discovery.
“The presence of Moluccan fighting vessels in Arnhem Land would support a significant departure from the accepted narrative of Macassan coastal fishing and trading and has important implications for understandings of cultural contact with Southeast Asia.”
Top image: D-stretch image of the Australian rock art in which Moluccan warships have been identified. Source: Darrell Lewis / CC BY 4.0
By Nathan Falde