Smoking in Arnhem Land – culture with Asian flavour.

Australia was brought into the European sphere of interest, and eventually influence, a few hundred years ago. First the Portuguese established a foothold in Malacca in 1511 and gradually set their posts in other parts of the region. In theory the Treaty of Tordesillas of 1494, which divided the New World into Portuguese and Spanish, ceded the west part of the Australian continent to Portuguese and east - essentially eastern states - to Spanish.

The maps produced around the middle of the 16th century show clearly, if in different mapping convention, at least the north parts of Australia – usually called Java La Grande. It is not clear if the maps were based on original Portuguese charts or copied from other, possibly Chinese sources. In any event Europeans began probing, at first almost blindly, into the Great Southern Continent quite early in the Age of Discovery. In 1644 Abel Tasman called this continent Nova Hollandia (Latin for New Holland) – a name which persisted, in some contexts, until the early 19th century.

The Portuguese adopted the tobacco-smoking habit from the indigenous Americans, and introduced it to Southeast Asia and China. It did not take long to discover that smoking was much more potent way of using narcotics and so opium smoking pipe was developed. It is most likely that combining tobacco smoking with opium resulted in such invention. It is difficult to tell how bamboo pipe of Melanesia and Southeast Asia contributed to this development, but opium pipes became common at least in the late 18th century.

In pre-contact times Aboriginal people of Australia did not smoke tobacco – all stimulants (narcotics) were chewed. Smoking was introduced to people in north Queensland via Papuan influence in Cape York. In Arnhem Land smoking was brought by the Makassan fishermen from Sulawesi who, for several centuries, visited north Australia – where they were fishing for and processing sea cucumber for the Chinese market.

In Yolngu dialects of northeast Arnhem Land the smoking pipe is called bamutuka – adopted from Malayo-Polynesian language spoken by Makassan, where pammudukang means 'bamboo opium pipe.' And the Aboriginal contribution includes pipe bowls - often made from crab claws, sea shells, marine worm tubes or animal bones, or latter modified glass and metal pieces. Yet, it is probable that the Aboriginal tobacco pipe was modelled more directly on opium pipe used in the 19th century in northern Australia by a sizable population of Chinese labourers.

Arnhem Land tobacco pipe is an interesting cultural marker of Asian influence and ideas embraced by the indigenous people of northern Australia. Dugout canoe was probably the most important in pre-European times. It allowed for offshore deep-water fishing, including dugong and possibly shark. It also expanded the range of maritime communication, transport and trade as well as stimulated technological shift with greater need for metal tools.

It was only at the beginning of the 20th century that fishermen from Indonesian islands were prohibited to visit Australian waters. Consequently the direct Asian influence on Aboriginal cultures was terminated. But the Asian contact left ample marks in art, ceremonies, language, pictorial sources and numerous archaeological coastal sites in the region.


Maggie Brady 'Drug substances introduced by the Macassans: The mystery of the tobacco pipe' in Macassan History and Heritage. Published by ANU E Press 2013.