We Go Way Back: Indigenous Australia and Indonesia

Posted on 13 March, 2014

The contemporary relationship gets plenty of attention, but there were economic and cultural ties between Indigenous Australians and Indonesia long before European colonisation.

023 Macassan Perahu sailing vessel
A Yolungu painting of a ‘Macassan perahu’ photographed by Australian National University researchers in Arnhem Land.

Despite recent controversies, it is an exciting time to be young and interested in the Australia-Indonesia relationship at all levels. With this in mind, it is constructive to consider how this strong youth engagement can encompass a truly representative range of Australians and Indonesians.

The Australia-Indonesia Muslim Youth Exchange Program sees young Australian Muslims visiting their counterparts in Indonesia to raise awareness on the role of Islam in the two countries, and Indonesian participants on the Australia-Indonesia Youth Exchange Program are routinely drawn from former “hotspot” provinces such as Aceh, Maluku and Papua.

However, there is a concerning absence of Australians of Indigenous descent with a visible role in the bilateral relationship. This is unfortunate, because the history of links between Australians of Indigenous descent and the people of Makassar in Sulawesi suggests that the relationship need not be viewed solely through the lenses of politics and business.

While formal ties are typically dated to 1949, with the exchange of diplomatic missions and the mutual recognition of governments, academic literature places first contact among the Yolngu people of Arnhem Land and the Makassarese people of Sulawesi somewhere between the mid-seventeenth to mid-eighteenth centuries.

This early trade relationship was based on the trepang, the Makassarese (and now Indonesian) word for what is known in English as the sea cucumber. This gelatinous invertebrate was of little value either to the Yolngu or the Europeans, but large volumes were supplied by the Makassarese to Chinese markets, where the trepang was used in local cuisine and traditional medicine.

The Makassarese brought cloth, metal tools and rice to Arnhem Land, among other commodities; in exchange, the Yolngu negotiated fishing rights and allowed the establishment of temporary outposts for the Makassarese to boil and dry their catch.

Arguably the most durable aspect of this interaction, however, was the emergence of a specialised contact language. This form of communication, known as the Macassan language, had a lasting impact on the vocabulary of the Yolngu-Matha languages, which are among the few Australian languages to survive to the present day.

The Macassan language was used between speakers of Yolgnu-Matha languages and Austronesian languages in the Indonesian archipelago to conduct trade, but also among Top End communities that had previously had little to no contact with one another; young unattached men from these communities joined the seafaring Makassarese on their coastal forays and communicated with each other partly, if not entirely, using this contact language.

Scholars have identified over two hundred words that, to varying degrees, are considered to have come into the Yolgnu-Matha languages by way of the Austronesian languages spoken in the Indonesian archipelago. Makassarese and Buginese are believed to have contributed the vast majority of these words, although some of them have been flagged for further investigation.

The following table shows a selection of words that demonstrate strong language links between the Austronesian languages of Indonesia and the Yolngu-Matha languages of Arnhem Land; Indonesian speakers will have no trouble recognising them.

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This trade relationship, however, deteriorated quickly following Federation in 1901; licensing fees and customs duties enacted by the Australian colonial governments caused trepanging to dwindle toward the end of the nineteenth century, while hundreds of Indonesians living and working in Australia left after the introduction of the White Australia Policy.

That the Yolngu-Matha languages have survived at all makes them unusual; indeed, these languages continue to be passed on from one generation to the next. The Gupapuyngu language has been used in modern musical productions, theatrical performances, written publications and at least one full-length audio-visual narrative, and these remnants of interaction survive to this day.

Strategies to increase bilateral youth engagement are developing quickly, and these strategies are being shaped by and for young Australians and Indonesians. Ensuring that these engagement strategies are truly inclusive and truly representative, however, presents a much more difficult challenge; without taking a balanced and respectful approach to engaging young Australians of Indigenous descent in the bilateral relationship—particularly at such a crucial stage in it—Australia and Indonesia cannot hope to pay homage to the very first relationships that brought them together.

Luke J. Dawes is the Chapter President of AIYA Victoria.