When Matthew Flinders and Robert Brown met the trepanging fleet from Makassar off north-eastern Arnhem Land in 1803 and interviewed Pobassoo, its 'old Commander', they asked a very well-informed question; according to Brown, 'They [that is, the trepangers] denied having any of their celebrated Poison wch they call Ippo, on board'. Given the long and complicated history of the European understanding of this poison, it is not clear how Flinders and Brown picked up the common association of 'ippo', or more usually in Malay 'upas', with Makassar. The significance of the question in this discussion, however, is that it demonstrates how these British observers of the trepang industry in northern Australia were able to place the trepangers within a known context. Neither Flinders nor Brown had ever visited Makassar - or would in the future, but they knew this detail about the world of South Sulawesi and the Indonesian archipelago more generally. It is a useful point from which to begin a survey of the changing attitudes of those who saw this industry in action, before turning to the outlook of those who have studied it subsequently.
|Published - 2011