Long before European colonialists extended their influence into these waters, the Makasar, the Bajau, and the Bugis built elegant, ocean-going schooners in which they plied the trade routes. Intrepid and doughty, they travelled as far east as the Aru Islands, off New Guinea, where they traded in the skins of birds of paradise and medicinal masoya bark, and to northern Australia, where they exchanged shells, birds’-nests and mother-of-pearl for knives and salt with Aboriginal tribes.
The products of the forest and sea that they brought back were avidly sought after in the markets and entrepots of Asia, where the Bugis bartered for opium, silk, cotton, firearms and gunpowder.
The Bugis sailors left their mark and culture on an area of the northern Australian coast which stretches over two thousand kilometers from the Kimberley to the Gulf of Carpentaria. Throughout these parts of northern Australia, there is much evidence of a significant Bugis presence. There are the remains of Bugis buildings on islands, Bugis words have become part of the Aboriginal languages and Bugis men and their craft feature in the indigenous art of the people of Arnhem Land.
Each year, the Bugis sailors would sail down on the northwestern monsoon in their wooden pinisi. They would stay in Australian waters for several months to trade and take trepang (or dried sea cucumber) before returning to Makassar on the dry season off shore winds. These trading voyages continued until 1907.
As Thomas Forrest wrote in Voyage from Calcutta, “The Bugis are a high-spirited people: they will not bear ill-usage…They are fond of adventures, emigration, and capable of undertaking the most dangerous enterprises.”