Abdul Shaheed Drew

Muslims in Australia: The Tremendous Encounter of 1803

By AbdulShaheed Drew

Matthew Flinders is one of the most famous navigators in Australia’s history. He was the first to circumnavigate Australia and the first to compile an accurate map of Australia. He is also responsible for giving Australia its name. Yet, how many Australians are aware of his encounter with Muslims in Australian waters? One of the most fascinating accounts recorded in his journal, while mapping the northern coastline of Australia, was his encounter with a fleet of praus carrying Muslim crewman.

Matthew flinders Portrait [Art Gallery of South Australia, Artist: Toussaint Antoine DE CHAZAL DE CHAMEREL (1770 - 1822) (Mauritius)]

Matthew flinders Portrait [Art Gallery of South Australia, Artist: Toussaint Antoine DE CHAZAL DE CHAMEREL (1770 – 1822) (Mauritius)]

Flinders and his crew came across some people in canoes and noticed a number of larger vessels anchored. Earlier on his journey he saw evidence of visitors as he made his way past Caledon Bay. He earlier observed that guns or the sound of gunfire did not surprise the Aboriginals in this region. Flinders cautioned his crew for fear the vessels may belong to pirates. Yet, as they neared with fingers on triggers, the strangers produced white flags.

[Depiction of Flinders’ Investigator encountering Makassan Praus (watercolour). Artist: AbdulShaheed Drew].

[Depiction of Flinders’ Investigator encountering Makassan Praus (watercolour). Artist: AbdulShaheed Drew].

In Flinders’ own words, “These people were Mahometans.” [i.e. Muslims] These men were ‘Malays’ from Makassar (Sulawesi Island, Indonesian Archipelago). Six of the commanders came aboard the Investigator. Flinders had a cook who happened to be ‘Malay.’ His handwritten journal notes that the cook came from the island of Java. For the two days that followed, the cook sufficed as an interpreter for Flinders. Flinders then had an in-depth dialogue with an elderly man named Pobassoo. This meeting fascinated Flinders, so he spent extra time with the Makassan crew to find out what they do in these waters.

Flinders observed that: the Makassans arrived every year using the monsoon winds; they collect trepang (sea cucumber, sea slug); they prepare it for exporting to Sulawesi where it is sold to Chinese merchants; there were one thousand Muslims working along the Australian coast that season from Sulawesi…

Pobassoo [William Westall Sketch (rendered into colour)]

Pobassoo [William Westall Sketch (rendered into colour)]

Flinders noted, “Pobassoo even stopped one day longer at my desire than he had intended, for the north-west monsoon, he said, would not blow quite a month longer, and he was rather late.” Flinders also gave the Makassans some gifts in appreciation for their time. Flinders named an island off the Arnhem Land coast “Pobassoo Island” and he named the passage beside Podassoo Island and the Cotton Island, “The Malay Road.”

The collection of trepang to trade with the Chinese is considered Australia’s first industry. Documented evidence clearly places the existence of this industry somewhere in the 1700s. There are strong arguments to suggest that this industry existed in the 1600s. Such details will be explained in a future publication in sha Allah.


AbdulShaheed’s current project is to compile a large illustrated coffee table book that covers, ‘The Muslim Story in Australia’s History.’

Email: shaheed.drew@gmail.com


References -Matthew Flinders’ Great Adventures in the Circumnavigation of Australia: Terra Australis, Edited and Introduced by Tim Flannery, The Text Publishing Co. Melbourne 2000.

-Matthew Flinders’ Handwritten Journal Vol II.

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