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The Wessel Coins 5#: Ian McIntosh Interview December 12, 2013

Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary, Medieval, Modern , trackback

ian mcintosh

Huge thanks to Dr Ian McIntosh who agreed to this interview about the Wessel Coins, about progress in last summer’s expedition and about hopes for next year. Previous posts on the medieval African coins that ended up in Australia are gathered together in this link. All readers please note that there is also a relevant page at crowdfunding for this worthwhile cause.

1)     Dr McIntosh, let me start by establishing some chronology. The Wessels are ‘discovered’ by Europeans in 1623, in 1944 Maurie Issenberg turned up the nine Wessel coins, in 1984, in 1993 academics wrote about the coins, in 2012 you yourself published the most comprehensive article to date, then in 2013 you led an expedition to the Wessels in search of answers. What did you find that was new this past summer?

We were able to verify the site where Isenberg found the coins. This was a real breakthrough even though we did not find any more. We were disappointed, but then finding another coin would not have answered all our questions. We may have been able to test the uncleaned surface to see how long it had been in the seawater, for example, but not how it got there. So we were looking for other sorts of clues – of which we can only guess – and we found these in the form of ancient Aboriginal rock art and in bits of shipwreck debris.

2) What about these fragments of shipwreck? Any clue where they came from?

At this stage, we don’t know how old the timber is, but it appears to be from the deck support structure of a large wooden vessel. Tests are now underway. We also found pieces of metal which may be associated with World War 2 vessels or crashed Japanese planes. There is so much history up there to be documented.

3) What have you found that is exciting in the rock art?

Layers upon layers of rock art are imprinted on the walls of the caves in various locations. It is impossible to say how far back these go but many of the images are of foreign themes, inlcuding boats of a various types, men with guns slung over their shoulder, and so on. We have archaeologists on our team who specialize in unraveling all of these threads.

 4)     We also know that you plan a new expedition for 2014, which you are crowd sourcing at present, what would be the aim of the trip and what questions do you hope to answer?

We have four aims in the 2014 return visit. The first is the search for shipwrecks. The second is the documentation, analysis and dating of some of the rock art. Third is the training of Aboriginal sea rangers who monitor this coast on a day by day basis. Finally, we will be exploring new areas on the Wessels that Aboriginal mythology and oral history suggest were the scene of contact in ancient times.

5)     In your 2013 article you suggest that the coins had arrived in the eighteenth century and then had been held by a nineteenth-century Makassar who dwelt in the Wessel Islands, one Buthimang: have you changed your mind about that or is he still, in your view, the best candidate?

The idea that the coins, both Dutch and Kilwa, were in the possession of a single person is favored by some of our team, but not by all. We know the name of only one shipwreck survivor on the Wessels but there were probably many over the years. On neighboring islands there were Indonesian children who were shipwrecked and grew up with the Aborigines. We have over ten hypotheses explaining the presence of the coins, including the Arabs, Portuguese, even Germans.

 6)     You make the intriguing suggestion in your article that the Kilwan coins may not have been Kilwan at all, but that they may have been minted, perhaps as talismans, in south-eastern Asia: do you have any proof for that?

No, I no longer believe in that possibility. Having now seen Kilwa coins and comparing those to the ones found on Marchinbar I can see that they are identical and definitely from the 1100s. They probably still functioned as talisman because outside of east Africa they would have had no value, except for good luck, or for a coin collector. Unless of course, it was a Kilwa sailor who touched down on the Wessels and this is a possibility. In the early years of the first millennium Indonesians were traveling 8000km in the opposite direction to populate the big island of Madagascar (which was unpopulated at the time) [early Beachcombing post on this] so the boat technology was certainly around in the 1100s to make such a long voyage.

7)     We know that the coast on the Wessels generally and particularly at the point where the coins were found is unstable. How big a problem has that proved?

We had a geomorphologist with us to explain how the islands themselves probably only arose from the sea 5000 years ago following the last ice age. The weight of the rising waters pushing up great cliffs on the east side and creating long sandy beaches on the west. Even 70 years ago the coastline was different, especialy where the creek empties into the sea where Isenberg found the coins. So we fanned out in all directions at the discovery site. As one team member said, we knew every rock, tree and green ant there.

8)     Finally, an embarrassing question but one that we must ask given the importance of the find. Do you have any doubt in your mind about the reliability of Morry Isenberg in terms of honesty or memory? I ask as so much depends on the testimony of this one person!

Yes, the thought that this was a hoax has crossed all of our minds. But we dismissed the idea when we were able to verify the WW2 camp site location. At first we did not believe that he had accurately marked the map because he showed a landing site for WW2 provisions along a rocky platform. To us it looked impossible but when we climbed a nearby hill we could see that he was correct. There was a faint outline of a road leading from the rocky shore to a hilltop campsite

 9)     You have had to rely on Yolngu oral legends: as a European medievalist (by speciality) alarm bells go off when anyone steps outside living memory. Do you share my fears or has your experience of living with the Yolngu convicned you that reliable information can be carried across five or six or even more generations?

Yes, a very good question. My study with Yolngu has focused on these stories of past contacts. We know, for example, that Macassans started arriving in Arnhem Land in the mid to late 1700s. But for the Yolngu, these visits come at the tail end of waves of visitation by other peoples. I have written a lot about this. We all recognize the difficulty of reading history into myth, but there are simply hundreds of stories that predate the Indonesians. There are the black whale hunters, the flying fox people, and so on. We know exactly where they landed because of the place names and we visited some of these places in the chance that something might have been left behind. No luck as yet, but we are still looking.

10)     Finally, what are your views about the possibility of early Portuguese trips Australia? You, for example, make reference to men wearing mirrors in Yolngu tradition, and suggest that this could be armour.

Anyone who has studied the history of the Portuguese in the Indian ocean knows that they left no stone unturned in their quest for god, gold, and glory. If there was a possibility of wealth to be had in north Australia, they would have sought it out, and I think they did. The Tiwi Islands have a tradition of being victims of Portuguese slavers but we have no records. It does not surprise me. I think the Portuguese were in the Wessels as well, if fleetingly.