Old Chinese coin found in Arnhem Land adds another layer to our ancient trading

There has been regular trading along the northern coast of Australia with other countries for many centuries before the British arrived. Here is an interesting find that puts some further light on the trading lines.

This Chinese coin, thought to be minted around 1735 in Beijing, was found on a remote beach on Elcho Island, off the coast of Arnhem Land.

(Image Australian Geographic Pic: Ian McIntosh)

Barbara Barkhausen 7 August 2014

An 18th Century Chinese coin found in the remote Wessel Island off the coast the NT adds another piece to the puzzle of Australia's early trade routes

The Mystery of early foreign trade with Australia has gained another intriguing piece of evidence: the discovery, on a Top End beach, of a Chinese coin that may have been minted in Beijing as early as 1735.

The coin was found on a beach on Elcho Island, part of the Wessel Islands off the coast of Arnhem Land, NT, during an exploratory expedition of scientists from the Past Masters (a multidisciplinary team who explores historic mysteries), in consultation with the local traditional owners. Australian Geographic recently sponsored one of these expeditions.

The location of the find is in the vicinity of a known Macassan trepanger (sea cucumber fishing) site. The Macassans from Sulawesi, Indonesia, are known to have fished in northern Australian waters for trepang from about the mid-1700s until 1907, when the Commonwealth Government stopped the trade.

Dutch coins minted in the 18th century have been found previously on Macassan sites but this is the first time a Chinese coin from the same period has been found.

Trepang trade: Australia's early industry

The trepang trade is Australia's first documented export industry, occurring before European settlement.

Macassans would sell the trepang harvested on the beaches of north Australia to the Chinese in Singapore. For the Chinese, trepang was a rare delicacy with aphrodisiac properties.

The Macassan presence is still visible in the Northern Territory today, in the tamarind trees the trepangers introduced, as well as in the language and traditions of the Arnhem Land people.

Aboriginal rangers from the Marthakal Homelands Resource Centre at Elcho Island shared this valuable knowledge with the scientists during their recent expedition, pointing out still-existing stones where the Macassans laid their pots while boiling the sea cucumber.

Coin reveals early Chinese link to Australian trade

The newly discovered Chinese brass coin dates back to the Qing Dynasty and was made during the reign of the Emperor Qianlong (1735-1795 AD), say experts Tiequan Zhu of Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou, an archaeologist at the University in Guangzhou, and leading Australian numismatist Peter Lane.

Members of the expedition with the ancient swivel gun
(Australian Geographic Pic: Barbara Barkhausen)

"Two Manchurian characters on one side of the coin indicate that it was minted at the Chinese Central Government's coin manufacturing factory at Baoquan in Beijing," say Professor Zhu.

"One of these Macassans may have lost the coin on the beach, but it is more likely that he had paid the local Aborigines for access to the Arnhem Land site and its resources with this cash," says Australian scientist Ian McIntosh, an anthropologist at Indiana University in the US and a co-founder of the Past Masters. "There is also the possibility of a direct connection between north Australia and China."

For Ian, the Chinese coin adds another piece to the puzzle that he is currently working on to establish Australia's early contact history with other nations.

"The Chinese coin discovery provides further opportunity for re-writing Australian history, as it suggests that Australia was trading with the Middle Kingdom in the period before it became a British colony," he says.

Australia's earliest foreign contact

McIntosh is also leading the research on five 900-year-old East African coins that were found on the Wessel Islands north of where the Chinese coin was found.
An expedition to a remote Northern Territory island in search of clues for the ancient coins in July last year uncovered rare indigenous rock art that could depict the first seafarers to reach Australian shores.

Among whales, snakes and fish, the ancient but as yet undated art shows white men with long pants and guns, ships of different sizes with sails and riggings that were used in different periods of seafaring.

The rock art, along with the African coins, an ancient swivel gun found in the Northern Territory in 2010, and the newly discovered Chinese coin all point to multiple foreign contact with European, Arabian, African and Indonesian seafarers before Cook's arrival in 1770 and potentially even before 1606 - when Dutch explorer Willem Janszoon became the first known European to reach Australian shores.

"With every find we are getting closer to unravelling more of Australia's early history and solving the secrets that still surround these ancient seafarers," Ian says.