Sunday, May 17, 2009

Robin Hood & his merry band of Sea cucumber traders

The big hairy Sea cucumber (Holothuroidea Spp.) Some time ago at Sandy Beach, New South Wales, I nearly stepped on one of these interesting marine animals in a warm rockpool, a fascinating animal that looks exactly like the one in the Wikipedia article.

In other words, as I stepped over the rocks and through the pools, I could either assume it was a bit of driftwood, probably of the tree fern variety, or that it was a Sea cucumber. It wasn't moving and from a distance I thought it was a bit of sunken flotsam. On closer inspection it was this harmless but rather creepy looking creature. Poor thing. About looking creepy, I mean. I'm sorry, but it does! I just hope someone's dog doesn't also think so. Dogs, cats, and their human beings are the sworn enemies of endangered wildlife on the continent of Australia.

This fella might be happier crawling across some of the coral further out from the beach than stuck in a shallow pool on the shore. And it was shallow: he was about 25cm below the surface. Lots of little guppy fish of at least two species were swimming all over him, possibly to eat his slime. That's just a guess.

He is one of about 1,400 living species of Holothuroidea that come in a variety of forms. They're all in the phylum Echinodermata, along with their cousins, the thousands of varieties of starfish and sea urchins of the world.

They sailed like Columbus, Raleigh and Drake

Many people in the Orient love Sea cucumbers in their cuisine. When he's dining out, Holothuroidea is known as bêche-de-mer, or trepang. The Makassans were coming down south from their South-East Asian home to catch trepang for centuries before Europeans came to Australia. They, and indigenous Australian divers, were catching, preparing and trading this delicacy when England was still a feudal society.

Lately, when the Commonwealth of Australia finds Makassan fishermen in 'our' waters, it throws them in jail and burns their boats. "Hell, we were here first!" In fact, we Aussies treat them very much the way we treat people fleeing dictatorships, like the notorious, tragic Tampa and SIEV-X cases. Happens all the time.

It's been estimated that 6 million trepang (more than 350 tonnes) were exported from Australia every summer for at least three, perhaps six, centuries before white settlement in 1788. That would take it back to about the year 1188. The days of Richard the Lionheart, Saladin and Robin Hood.

Fleets of sixty or more prahus (25-tonne boats) took the vast cargo home each year, armed against the pirates that even today are a frightening feature of the waters north of this country:

" ... sixty prows belonging to the Rajah of Boni, and carrying one thousand men, had left Macassar with the north-west monsoon, two months before, upon an expedition to this coast; and the fleet was then lying in different places to the westward, five or six together, Pobassoo's division being the foremost. These prows seemed to be about twenty-five tons, and to have twenty or twenty-five men in each; that of Pobassoo carried two small brass guns, obtained from the Dutch, but all the others had only muskets; besides which, every Malay wears a cress or dagger, either secretly or openly ..."
Matthew Flinders (1774-1814), Australian explorer

Pictured here is Macassans at Victoria, Port Essington, 1845, by HS Melville (click thumbnail to enlarge). It shows Makassan and Aboriginal trepang-getters preparing the catch.

Port Essington
, Victoria, Australia, by the way, is not on the north coast of Australia, near Makassar in Indonesia, but thousands of kilometres south at the bottom of the Australian continent. The dangerous journey in the Roaring Forties gales, as the map shows, was probably longer than that taken by Christopher Columbus. The Makassans could sail like Columbus, Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Francis Drake, quite possibly centuries before them. I suspect this is not widely known in Europe or North America ... because very few Australians would know it either.

How far did these master mariners sail, and what grand adventures did they have when the Makassans ruled seas as big as the North Atlantic, maybe bigger? What great battles and royal intrigues, what brave colonial experiments and what business ventures did they know? How many of them took Aboriginal wives and families home, and how many jumped ship and joined inland tribes?

Did ancient prahus sail down to the Antarctic seas, searching for a promised land but dying a frozen death? How far west did they sail, into African waters? Did a Makassan sailor ever sit by a fire with an Australian and tell him of the glories of the Court of Kublai Khan? Perhaps one day we will know more. Because so much information has been lost to time, I can't even tell if my questions make sense, but a little conjecture is good for the soul.

The flesh of the trepang has to be drenched in water for a long time prior to cooking, in order to remove a lot of the gelatinous goo, or so I'm told. Unfortunately, although my culinary tastes are quite adventurous, I'm cursed with that typical Anglo-Celtic preference for as little slime as possible in my food, so I think next time at the Chinese restaurant I won't be eating trepang, but something like roast duck (my favourite). Besides, the ducks of the world aren't in danger of disappearing like this little harmless fella is. Sea cucumbers are too easy to catch, their price is too appealing to the fishing industry, and their top-heavy age structures mean that populations can be easily decimated.

Mmmmm Chinese roast duck. (Now I guess I've just lost my vegetarian readers. Not to mention any duck readers.)

Categories: , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home

eXTReMe Tracker