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A map of Australia indicating the location of north-east Arnhem Land, Northern Territory. - click to view larger image
North-east Arnhem Land, NT

Yolngu country

For hundreds of years, the Yolngu people of the north coast of Australia regularly traded with visiting seafarers from Makassar.

Setting the scene

Laklak Burarrwanga, Yolngu elder, 2008:

Long time ago, when the north-east wind blew, the Mangatharra [Makasar] would travel from their place up north in Indonesia to Arnhem Land. They came in Macassan boats called praus … They planted tamarind trees and traded with Aboriginal people. The Aboriginal people, they traded the trepang [sea cucumber] … and the Mangatharra traded knives and material.
View of a sand bank covered in dead branches beside a body of water and dense forest running alongside it.
Yolgnu country, north-east Arnhem Land

First contact with overseas visitors on Australia’s northern coast, unlike many other parts of the continent, was with Indonesian fishermen rather than Europeans.

These fishermen from Makassar came each year and stayed for several months, harvesting and processing trepang. They worked with local Aboriginal people, and traded objects, including metal knives, fishhooks, pottery and glass in exchange for turtle shells, pearls and pearl shell.

A wooden spear with carved barbs along one side of the red ochred head, which is joined with black gum to the shaft.
Bati (ceremonial spear)

Bati (ceremonial spear)

When Norwegian naturalist Carl Alfred Bock visited Makassar in 1879 he observed:

The principle street [of Makassar] … runs along the beach for more than two miles. Beginning at the southern end are a row of white-washed brick stores … Spread out in front of the premises … many hundredweight of trepang … which are being dried out in the sun previous to shipment.

While in Makassar, Bock acquired three spears, which he later sold to the British Museum. For many years they were thought to have been made in Makassar, until research in the 1950s identified them as Yolngu.

Bark painting, made from ochres on bark, featuring a large sailing boat, with a rectangular sail, containing eight stylised human figures including an oarsman at the vessel's stern. The boat has nine small canoes attached to its side.
Makassan prau painting by Nagingapa Naminyamanja

Makassan prau painting

Cultural exchanges between Yolngu people and the trepang traders sometimes involved Yolgnu people accompanying the Makasar on their return voyage home.

In the 1940s, Yolngu man Djaladjari told of his trip there, via the island of Timor, as a young boy in the 1890s:

It was on Leti [Island] that we saw balanda [Europeans] for the first time … We walked about the town with its houses, just the same as Darwin, and there were coconut trees too.

Djaladjari, quoted in RM & CH Berndt, Arnhem Land: Its History and its People, 1954.

Did you know?

Trepang (sea cucumbers) were harvested in northern Australian waters by Indonesian fishermen from Makassar. They were then sold in China, where they were considered a delicacy.


Who traded what?

Mix and match

What do you know about Yolgnu country

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More activities


Yolngu man Djaladjari travelled to Makasar via Timor as a boy in the 1890s. Have you ever travelled to a different region or country? What happened? How did it feel? Share your story with a classmate and listen to their story. What are the similarities and differences between your experiences?


Have a class discussion about the different cultural groups in your community. How have these groups shaped the character of your community?

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