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Making multicultural Australia

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KLA/Subject: Aboriginal Studies | Geography | History

Stage: Stage 5

Early Contacts - "Boat People" of the Past


  • 5.2 assesses the impact of international events and relationships on Australia’s history.
  • 5.7 explains different contexts, perspectives and interpretations of the past.
  • 5.6 analyses the impact of different perspectives on geographical issues at local, national and global scales.
  • 5.7 explains Australia's links with other countries and its role in the global community.
Aboriginal Studies
  • 5.3 describes the dynamic nature of Aboriginal cultures.
  • 5.7 explains adaptions in, and the changing nature of, Aboriginal cultural expression across time and location.


This lesson uses graphic, audio and text resources from Making Multicultural Australia to explore the contact between the Macassan people of Indonesia and Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory. As Mick Dodson says: “We were trading with the Asians for hundreds of years before you guys arrived… and the feature of that exchange was one of respect for difference”. Graphic details of this contact are described in the story by Charlie Wurramarrba, of Groote Eylandt, which is a primary source and gives us a picture of Aboriginal life and pre-British influences on their culture. It also illustrates the impact of the White Australia policy and how that changed their life. It is envisioned as series of lessons, but could be a single lesson as part of another unit of work.

Material to Download

Archival Images: A Maccassan prau

Audio Interviews: The Maccassans

History: The Maccassar Story

Interview: Commentary by Professor Andrew Jakubowicz on early relations between Indigenous Australians and the outside world, from Timeline: Before the Australian Nation

Painting: Bark painting of a Maccassan Prau, from Timeline: Before the Australian Nation

Suggested Activities

  1. Review the Timeline on Making Multicultural Australia - Before the Australian Nation
  2. Examine the bark painting of the Maccassan Prau and also the archival image of the Maccassan Prau on screen 2 of the Timeline. What do these images show?
  3. Listen to the audio interview with Mick Dodson, on screen 2 of the Timeline, and read the text in which he discusses the nature of the Maccassans trading with Asia long before the arrival of the Europeans. What does he perceive as the differences between these contacts and that of the British contact?
  4. Listen to the commentary and read the text by Professor Andrew Jakubowicz, on screen 2 of the Timeline, on early relations between Indigenous Australians and the outside world. Students should consider the following questions:
    • What was it that they traded?
    • What does he say was the difference between previous contacts and that with Captain Cook?
    • How did this contact impact on Aboriginal people?
  5. Read the Maccassar story as told by Charlie Wurramarrba, on screen 2 of the Timeline, who describes what his father told him and what he remembers of visits by the Maccassan traders who came to the Northern Territory until 1906. Students should analyse the translation of the historical text, and consider:
    • What does it tell you about the lifestyle on Groote Eylandt?
    • What does it tell you about the nature of contact between the indigenous Groote Eylandters and the Maccassans?
    • How was this contact different from, or similar to, contact with the British post Cook?
    • What this reveals about pre-Cook contact history.
  6. Write a discussion essay on the comment by Professor Jakubowicz in the last paragraph of his text about early relations between Indigenous Australians and the outside world: “One of the first things that happened was the disappearance of diversity, for the Europeans saw them as one people…” In his oral comments he mentions Terra Nullius. How does this contact challenge that view of pre-Cook Australia?

Preparation Checklist

Ask students to:

You will need:

  • computer access for students for individual use or in small groups
  • audio capability if possible, but this is not essential

If the students do not have access to a computer, download the materials summarised above in 'Materials to Download'.


Ask students to:

  1. Consider the phenomenon of the Maccassan traders in relation to the more recent arrival of "boat people" to Australia. How does this influence your understanding of the term "boat people"? How were the Maccassans treated differently from "boat people" who arrived more recently?
  2. Do a search on the term "boat people" in the media, using search engines such as google. How is the term "boat people" used today?
  3. Explore the site: "We are ALL boat people".

Related Resources

  1. "We are ALL boat people"
  2. Newspapers stories about "boat people"

Lesson Notes

The Maccassan story illustrates that people have been coming to Australia by boat for hundreds of years and depending on how one understands the origin of Aboriginal people, even for thousands of years. How they were received and what happened are issues that impact significantly on our understanding of contact history between the Indigenous people of this land and other people who have come here.

Teachers need to exercise sensitivity as to the students in their class and their experiences of how they or their family may have come to Australia.

Date Added:

03 November 2004