On maps which illustrate the historical Indian Ocean or Southeast Asian trade routes, the northwest of Australia often sits in the bottom right corner, a point of cartographic reference which is rarely, if ever, explored. The continent occupies a similar, peripheral position in European maps of the Enlightenment period: initially a speculative form, then slowly gaining a familiar outline as its north and west coasts were charted in the 17th century. Yet Terra Australis, or Australia, and its peoples remained a vague and fanciful place in the European imagination.

Recent studies into the Makassar-based trepang (sea cucumber) trade from the 17th century onwards, which linked northern Australia to Makassar, the Philippines and China, have begun to include interactions with First Nations Peoples of what was known as Marege or Kayu Jawa. Australian history is beginning to tell the story of how its first international connections were longstanding, non-exploitative, and Asian.

My study, which is part of the Global Encounters and First Nations Peoples project at Monash University, tests the idea that Australia can be seen as an outer node in Spice Routes networks. It builds on collaborations with Indonesian colleagues and involves a conceptual re-evaluation of what we understand as the trepang trade network and, by extension, the Spice Routes. Descriptions of the trepang industry involving Makassar and Northern Australia traditionally depict a one-way trade north, to the Philippines and then China. Often obscured by Eurocentric and Sinocentric analyses of the trepang trade, there are hints of a much more complex series of regional networks dating back more than 1500 years, which include Korea, Japan, Taiwan and Okinawa. How far do the Spice Routes go? I will also examine the role these networks play in postcolonial ideas of nationhood, and how they complicate settler colonial structures.