Can Australia ever have sovereign borders? We never really have and the porosity is ancient.

A simple Google search reveals that as an adjective sovereign means ‘possessing supreme or ultimate power. These words are also offered as synonyms: supreme, absolute, unlimited, unrestricted, unrestrained, unbounded, boundless, infinite, ultimate, total, unconditional, full, utter, paramount.

Powerful as the invocation of sovereign might be the simple answer to the question ‘Can Australia Ever Have Sovereign Borders?’ is no. Yet in the land that is girt by the myth of the sovereign border has the power of reality. While we Australians might choose not to see, to look inwards and to rejoice in the notion that our land abounds in nature’s gifts, regional and planetary systems are unfettered by such introspective cultural constructions.

In the face of this simplicity, I offer a very simple post. It’s pitched at secondary school level.

The ice age
During the Ice Age the seas between Indonesia and Australia were lower and also narrower than now. At this time Australia was actually connected to the land masses of West Papua and Papua New Guinea. Theoretically it would have been possible to walk between present day Darwin and Merauke in about three weeks.

Australia, West Papua and Papua New Guinea formed a continent that geographers call Sahul. The rest of Indonesia, west of Lombok, on the other side of the Wallace line, with its tigers, rhinos and elephants is part of Sunda and is closely allied with the rest of Asia. Eastern Indonesia has strong and unmistakable biogeographic links with Australia.

New Guinea including West Papua was originally a northern peninsula of Australia. Both areas have largely Australian fauna and flora. Egg-laying mannals such as echidnas, marsupials such as kangaroos and cuscus, birds like bower birds, cockatoos and birds of paradise, and reptiles such as skinks and side-necked tortoises are common.  Amongst the plants lillipilli, eucalypts and melaleuca, are all testimony to ancient links with Australia. There is even a close relative of the Huon Pine growing in the mountains of West Papua and some of the indigenous Melanesian people of West Papua have recently claimed to have seen an animal resembling the Thylacine inhabiting mountainous areas.

The Settlement of Australia
Whenever settlement began movement must have been through the archipelago to the north. It probably began at least 70,000 years before the present.

The Dingo
About 4 000 years ago the Dingo appeared in Australia. The Dingo resembles the Ajag (anjing hutan) which originates on mainland Asia and Sunda. It probably migrated into Sahul, perhaps with help from people. It was probably brought to Australia by people. It is likely these people came from Indonesia or Nusantara as it was called in former times.

Ajag (Cuon alpinus) Ajag (Cuon alpinus)


The Baiini Story
The Yirrkala people of Arnhem Land tell of a people called the Baiini who came from the north. They are said to have arrived in sailing ships as families, long before European settlement in Australia.

The Baiini built houses of stone and timber on the shore line. They planted rice which they called luda. As well as this, the Baiini wove brightly coloured cloth called jalajal and wore colourful sarongs.

It is said that the Baiini finally left Australia sailing back over the sea to the north, leaving behind their rice lands. Today a kind of grass grows on these lands; it is used as food by the Aboriginal people.

The stories of the Baiini were passed on by word of mouth. It is difficult to know whether these stories are mythology or not.

Sailings ships and monsoon winds
When people developed sailing canoes, and later sailing ships, travel by sea became possible. This probably made contact between Indonesia and Australia easier. The north west monsoons helps sailing ships travel from Indonesia to Australia. When the winds reverse direction, at the beginning of the south east monsoon, the return journey to Indonesia is possible.

The earliest recorded contact
Makassan, Bajo and Buginese fishermen regularly sailed into northern Australian waters from at least 1650. These voyages probably began during the time of the Makassan kingdom of Gowa. The Makassan and Buginese sailors called Arnhem Land, Marege, and they called the north western parts of Australia, Kayu Jawa.

Unlike the legendary Baiini the Makassans, Bajo and Buginese brought no families with them. They voyaged in fleets of 30 to 60 praus, each boat had up to 30 men on board. Their objective was to fish for trepang which they smoked. Then they carried the trepang back to Sulawesi from where it was exported to China.

Fishing fleets “fished three areas: the Northern Territory coast from Cape Don to the Gulf of Carpentaria; parts of the Kimberley coast of Western Australia from Cape Londonderry to Cape Leveque and perhaps further south towards Port Hedland; and the offshore reefs and islands in the Timor Sea.” See, Natasha Stacey, ‘Boats to Burn – Bajo Fishing Activity in the Australian Fishing Zone. Ch.4 pp58 ANU Press 2007

Their voyages were timed so that they arrived on the north coast of Australia in December which was the beginning of the wet season. They returned home in March or April at the end of the wet season.

The trepang fisherman built temporary houses, dug wells and planted tamarind trees. The groves of tamarind trees which they planted exist today.

Aboriginal people, like the Yolgnu, worked for the trepang fishermen, learning their language, adopting the habit of tobacco smoking, painting pictures of perau, learning their dances and borrowing some of their stories.

Some people went with the fishermen on their return voyage to Sulawesi, returning with the next monsoon, some remained in Sulawesi.

The influence of the Macassans, Bajo and Bugis, in particular, can still be seen today in the language and customs of the people.

Listen to Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunipingu.


For a more scholarly account of the pre-European settlerment of the north and the Macassan voyages read ‘Turning The Map Upside Down’ by Regina Ganter

Trade with Australia’s European settlers
When food supplies dwindled and the colony of New South Wales faced starvation the first ship to bring relief was the Waaksamheyd, in 1790. It brought supplies from Batavia (Jakarta), including 171 barrels of beef, 172 barrels of pork, 39 barrels of flour, 4,500 kilograms of sugar and 31,000 kilograms of rice.

Traditional fishing today
Traditional Indonesian fishermen continue to visit Australian waters. They fish around the reefs and islands between Australia and Indonesia. Although these are now Australian waters traditional Indonesian fishermen are granted fishing rights. In return for fishing rights they must use traditional sailing boats and traditional fishing techniques.

Ashmore reef is a group of three small islands. It is a National Nature Reserve, administered by the Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service. No fishing is permitted in the reserve, but fishermen are permitted to land on West island to obtain water. The reef was known to Macassan, Bajo, Bugis and Rotenese before it became part of Australia.

Australia's Environmentally Sensitive Maritime Border Australia’s Maritime Border

Natasha Stacey writes that “During a visit to Kupang in 1803, Flinders obtained information linking Macassan trepang fishing activity to ‘a dry shoal lying to the south of Rottee [Rote]’ (probably Ashmore Reef) and met a number of Macassans on the coast of northern Australia in the same year (Flinders 1814: 257). 2 Since Ashmore Reef has a supply of fresh water and a sheltered lagoon, it has long been an important ‘staging post’ for Indonesian perahu on their voyages further south to other islands and reefs (Fox 1998: 117). Matthew Flinders learned of the existence of Ashmore Reef in Kupang.” op cit page 59

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