It has been rather well-established that (some) Asians were in contact with Australia before European colonialism, possibly even centuries before. Yet the awareness of Australia didn't seem to spread across the rest of Asia.

Here are some choice quotes from Wikipedia to summarise the matter, with important bits in bold:

The Austronesian Makassar people from the region of Sulawesi (modern-day Indonesia) began visiting the coast of northern Australia sometime around the early to middle 1700s, first in the Kimberley region, and some decades later in Arnhem Land.

They were men who collected and processed trepang (also known as sea cucumber), a marine invertebrate prized for its culinary value generally and for its medicinal properties in Chinese markets.

Trepanging fleets began to visit the northern coasts of Australia from Makassar in southern Sulawesi, Indonesia, from at least 1720 and possibly earlier. Campbell Macknight's classic study of the Makassan trepang industry accepts the start of the industry as about 1720, with the earliest recorded trepang voyage made in 1751. But Regina Ganter of Griffith University notes that a Sulawesi historian suggests a commencement date for the industry of about 1640. Ganter also notes that for some anthropologists, the extensive influence of the trepang industry on the Yolngu people suggests a longer period of contact. Arnhem Land Aboriginal rock art, recorded by archaeologists in 2008, appears to provide further evidence of Makassan contact in the mid-1600s. Based on radiocarbon dating for apparent prau (boat) designs in Aboriginal rock art, some scholars have proposed contact from as early as the 1500s.

The book Islam Dreaming also mentions that the link with the Chinese markets was rather direct:

Using the winds of the north-west monsoon to sail their boats (called perahu), the Makassan fishermen made seasonal voyages to the northern Australian coast in search of trepang, a kind of sea slug, variously known as bêche-de-mer or sea cucumber. In December each year a fleet of up to fifty or more vessels would make the journey to either the northern shores of Arnhem Land, known to the Asian visitors as Marege, or the beaches on the Kimberley coast, which they called Kayu Jawa.3 The Arnhem Land trepanging area extended from Melville Island east to the Gulf of Carpentaria, usually reaching the Sir Edward Pellew Group, more than 1100 kilometres to the south-east.4 The Kimberley trepanging sites stretched south-west from Napier Broome Bay to Cape Leveque.5 Approximately four months later, with the south-east winds behind them, the fishermen returned to Makassar with their cargo of trepang. There they traded it with Chinese merchants, who considered it a great delicacy for its culinary, medicinal and aphrodisiacal qualities.

Several things strike me as interesting:

  • These were deliberate, ongoing voyages to Australia over a long period of time. There were semi-permanent settlements and plenty of interactions (peaceful and otherwise) with the local inhabitants. So not something sporadic.
  • The Makassans traded directly with Chinese merchants. So not a several-degrees-of-separation scenario.
  • Makassar was a major port city in Sulawesi and part of the VOC. So not an obscure location to begin with.
  • East Asians were very aware of places outside their immediate surroundings. For example, the Han Dynasty knew of the Roman Empire through indirect trade links, which they called "Daqin". So they weren't incurious about such things.

And yet, as far as I can tell, the Chinese themselves and other Asians never picked up any awareness of Australia's existence. There's no unambiguous evidence that any Asians other than Makassans attained any awareness, mention or name for Australia or its inhabitants at that time. The Makassans called the Arnhem Land region "Marege" and it seems this name and concept never transferred to any other culture even with thousands of traders over several centuries to such a big and well-connected place like China. It wasn't until European colonialism that knowledge of Australia became unambiguously mainstream across China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, etc.

How did Asian civilisations as a whole somehow not know of Australia's existence, despite regularly trading with people who constantly voyaged there?


5 Answers 5


WRT the Chinese in particular, perhaps they just didn't care. They could buy their trepang from the people who harvested it, just as the could sell silk to merchants, without caring where the trepang came from, or where the silk went. With very few exceptions (such as Zheng He) the Chinese didn't do exploration, and certainly not the organized "publish what you found" sort, like the European Age of Exploration.

The same seems to be true of other SE Asian peoples. If merchants ventured to distant parts, and found something profitable there, they kept it as a trade secret. You might compare with the Portugese fishermen who probably visited the Grand Banks (just off the coast of Canada) decades before Columbus, and possibly landed on offshore islands or even the mainland, but kept their knowledge secret to protect those lucrative fishing grounds.

  • 2
    I would have to disagree with the first suggestion. The Chinese clearly did care where trade was going to/from, which is why they had documentation on their links to India, Persia, Africa and Europe, even in times when they weren't interested in directly exploring all the way. The trade secret idea makes sense but I'd be keen to see some evidence that this is actually what occurred in this case.
    – Brian Cham
    Sep 11, 2021 at 18:54
  • @Brian Cham: Did the Chinese have documentation, aside from occasional tales? Something comparable to the "Periplus of the Erythraean Sea" or the Tabula Peutingeriana?
    – jamesqf
    Sep 11, 2021 at 23:08
  • 1
    I don't have time to delve fully into this, but a cursory look reveals the Weilüe, Da Ming Hunyi Tu and Sihai Huayi Zongtu which are roughly analogous to your Western examples.
    – Brian Cham
    Sep 12, 2021 at 6:41

I think the answer can best be understood by taking from the point of view of the people on the ground at the time: All they knew is that there were a few products of minor value to be gotten from a land located well beyond many other equally large (as far as they could tell) islands.

We know they were knocking on the door of a whole continent. But as far as they knew it was just another big island in a region filled with big islands, and it was poorer than most, and harder to get to.

  • 1
    I think the mention of "continent" is a misunderstanding. I'm not asking about awareness of Australia as a whole or as a continent. I'm just asking about awareness of any landmass at all. The Chinese were aware of New Guinea, a distant tribal backwater with scant resources just east of the Malay World. Yet they weren't aware of the one just south of the Malay World. It's probably not a perfect comparison but it shows they had interest in such things, even if cursory.
    – Brian Cham
    Sep 16, 2021 at 18:49

The answer probably lies in the scarcity of people living in Australia. It was one of the most sparsely populated parts of the world, relative to its land area. Few people meant few goods, few cultural artifacts, and not much of a footprint. Even today, Australia has "only" 25 million people, about the same as North Korea or Taiwan, two areas that are much closer.

Transportation and exploration were much worse in "pre colonial" Asia. Australia's vast resource potential was not then well known. And even if it were, exploiting those resources would have been much harder before the modern "mass production" era. Also, see this answer.

  • But we could say the same of most of the Americas, couldn't we? The Spanish had the Aztec & Inca gold, of course, but what resources did the British & French get from North America? Beaver hats & tobacco, basically.
    – jamesqf
    Sep 15, 2021 at 16:56
  • @jamesqf: One statistic. The (air) distance from Guangzhou,China to Sydney (Australia) is something like 7500 kilometers. From London to NYC, 5700 kilometers
    – Tom Au
    Sep 15, 2021 at 17:50
  • 1
    Not really a fair comparison, since Sydney is pretty far south in Australia. Darwin on the north coast is about 3000 km closer. Per Google, Guangzhou to Darwin is 4393 km. And there are a lot of islands in between. London to NYC (via a great circle) has a lot of empty ocean between the west coast of Ireland and Newfoundland.
    – jamesqf
    Sep 16, 2021 at 3:56

Geographic discovery like that of Australia is also political and was done by states. We have to think in terms of political authority. Who would have been interested in Australia and what Australia would have meant to (and be called by) them.

the Chinese themselves and other Asians never picked up any awareness of Australia's existence. There's no unambiguous evidence that any Asians other than Makassans attained any awareness, mention or name for Australia or its inhabitants at that time.

"Australia" didn't exist for anybody as such before the Europeans came, it was invented in a way before being "discovered" — they even called it Terra Australis before knowing it was there. "Continents" are a matter of convention, of pre-established ideas and expectations. Without those Europeans would have seen initially a coast, useful or not for fishing and trading, then a big island, but not a "continent" called Australia. (Why isn't Eurasia a single continent? Why are there two Americas? Or are there? Why is Europe stopping at the Urals? Why is Turkey in Asia, on the same "continent" as Japan and Papua New Guinea, but Australia is not? How have the Europeans "discovered" that Australia was a separate continent and not just a part of Asia?)

The pre-European Australians didn't knew that they were Australians or that they were supposed to have a name for all of them. They had to be viewed from the exterior so to speak, and the "continent" had to be seen from a world view to be seen as such. Europeans had a such view, which was also a political one, dependent on certain political institutions - beside certain technological capacities.

"Awareness" was expensive. It had also to be invented. — People don't simply discover each other, and become aware of one another. Or if that happens — let's say just by commerce — it does much slower than when a conquering empire puts them on the same map (or onto the the same "continent") and forces them into the same world.

The Chinese and other possible Asian "explorers" (or masters thereof) could have done it for sure. The European age of exploration and then colonization took great resources invested in that direction, and especially political will. The small peoples of fishermen don't count as far as continents are concerned. Even Incas and Mayans lacked the resources and the overall infrastructure to "discover" a continent (they didn't even new they lived on one etc).

It takes, so to speak, a world power to put a "continent" on a map, you have to be able to think in terms of world maps, continents and such, it takes a certain world view. Here China and other Asian powers clearly qualify but — notwithstanding matters of isolationism (on which Japan is only the perfect example) — they were at best interested in other political entities. Their openness and curiosity was oriented towards other peoples and especially big states. And that only above a certain level of greatness and prestige, as it took a lot to impress the Chinese emperor. The ancient Chinese were interested in the Romans and the later ones in any great power that they heard of, but not in masses of land per se (to occupy and colonize), nor in peoples without political power (to "educate", convert, and exploit). — We ask why hasn't China expanded to or discovered Australia? We could also ask why hasn't China expanded more to the north at least (on the same "continent", that is), why it took the Russians to "invent" Siberia, and occupy Kamchatka - and Alaska! - when the Chinese were almost there, and preceded them by thousands of years - and kilometers!

The "explorative" European states were, by contrast, hell-bent on discovering new lands, for them scientific curiosity mingling with the will to colonize and exploit.

It is also a matter of chance. Western Europeans had reached the technological capacity to explore the whole planet including Australia; but they also had a political orientation and economic dynamics that would have pushed in the same direction anyway.

Especially the political features that count here are absent in "Asia" (meaning China and its neighbors); given the opportunity, some other "Asians", let's say the Arab and the Ottoman, might have proven as expansionist as the "Europeans" (meaning some Western European states, and Russia); nor were all Europeans like that, be they "Western" or "Eastern". (Some say that the former have invented/discovered the latter).

It's all about complex political circumstances and developments. In the end Japan - after Westernization - went from Siberia and Burma to Solomon Islands. There was even a Romanian that played the conquistador.

  • 1
    I think the mention of "continent" is a misunderstanding. I'm not asking about awareness of Australia as a whole or as a continent. I'm just asking about awareness of any landmass at all. The Chinese were aware of New Guinea, a distant tribal backwater with scant resources just east of the Malay World. Yet they weren't aware of the one just south of the Malay World. It's probably not a perfect comparison but it shows they had interest in such things, even if cursory. The rest of your response is spot on though, thanks.
    – Brian Cham
    Sep 16, 2021 at 18:53
  • @BrianCham - I was about to post a comment but got carried away.
    – cipricus
    Sep 17, 2021 at 6:27

Wallerstein makes (In World Systems Theory I) the following case:

  • european exploration was supported by states, because of the fragmentation of europe Portugal could busy itself with founding expeditions while middle european countries faced attacks by the turks - OTOH, China in the decades after Zheng He's famous voyages had a far smaller problem with coastal piracy, but this still contributed (or was the main cause, according to Wallerstein) to shift the priorities from exploration to defence and anti-piracy

  • Another factor was the relative role of trade: sea cucumbers are a luxury good that China can do without. OTOH, at the cusp of the age of exploration, Europe had limited far-range trade in bulk good (I think grain from poland is his example). There was no cpaitalism per se in place in the sphere of production, but a sort of proto capitalism in the circulation sphere (with the Fuggers most famously, later the Dutch would be a major world power for a short time, in part due to their trading houses).

So in sum, at first states funded expeditions, then state supported conquest, private companies like east India companies of england and the nether land or the Fuggers and semi-private pillagers like Cortez made colonization and discovery a worthwhile effort (unless you where discovered and colonized). This was made possible by political fragmentation and existing long distance bulk trade, itself possibly a consequence of the political fragmentation.

I can't really answer the question, but taking Wallerstein as a springboard I would ask: Where there, at the time in question, chinese trading houses with deep enough pockets (or the credit lending institutions in place) to fund expeditions to Australia & the naval experience to at least try? Was the volume of trade in sea-cucumbers and the profit big enough to justify the effort? How did long distance trade in bulk goods (as opposed to luxury) work within the chinese empire? Ultimately I think looking at the economical base is more productive than looking for cultural explanations.


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