By the Stars, Wind & Ocean Currents
Address: 8 Llankelly Place, Kings Cross 2011
Date: 30 November to 22 December 2019
Call: (02) 9357 2058
Powerful prints, exhibitions and actions continue to draw attention to this history. To some including academic Regina Gantner, “The telling of the Macassan stories has become an act of resistance. It refuses to allow a government decision to sever the link to Macassar, Timor and Sama Bajo places.”
Early relationships were forged by the dynamic sea passages sailed by Makassan (or Macassan) prahaus to harvest trepang across the Indonesian Archipelago and along the northern Australian coastline. Strategically located between western and eastern Indonesia, Makassar was the centre of Gowa Sultanate who adopted Islam (in 1605) with its sword belts and talismanic discs before the sultanate was conquered by the Portuguese.
Prahus with multi-cultural crews (Makassarese, Butonese, Bugis, Bajau, Madurese and ‘Koepangers’ from Dutch Timor) sailed the seas and coast powered by the monsoon winds and currents and guided by the stars. Many researchers now date the trade using the records of conquest by the Dutch East India Company (c. 1669). Australian writing relies on Matthew Flinders’ accounts. Flinders’ crew murdered two Yolgnu at Blue Mud Bay in 1803 then encountered a fleet of six prahaus near Nhulunbuy and called the passage a “Malay Road”.
At the onset of the northwest winds (December) a fleet of 50 or more left Makassar in South Sulawesi and made landfall on Marege the coast from Melville Island to Arnhem Land and down into Yanyuwa traditional country in the Gulf of Carpentaria—over 1000 kilometres. Or they turned towards Kayu Jawa (the Kimberley). All are lands and waters occupied by Aboriginal nations. The two groups entered into a series of reciprocal negotiations for the right to spend 4-5 months collecting and processing trepang. Local communities were linked to an international trading network. Trepang fishers returned home again via Timor with the southeast trade winds.
Federation cut twentieth century Australia off from the world with taxes, charges and the Immigration Restriction Act (1901) that formed the basis of the White Australia Policy and an aggressive nation state. Makassan trepangers were outlawed at the urging of missionary groups and greed to establish a second Singapore. The last voyage took place during the 1906–07 wet season and people who had sailed the waters for generations were summarily evicted.
Material items traded included dugout canoes, woven fibre sails, hooks, fishing lines, beads and metals. Amongst their valuable cargo of smoked trepang returning prahu included pearl and tortoise shell and artefacts. Academic Marcia Langton noted, “the trade was absorbed as innovations in philosophy and practice in the performing and visual arts”. Woven cloth became a valued commodity and remains important in Yolgnu and Tiwi welcoming and mortuary ceremonies. Painting documented the connections. Darwin Festival has incubated links in music and theatre performance, but rarely in the visual arts.
Makassan and Malay influences live on in language, ceremonies, songs, dances and art works and museum objects. Makassan pidgin became a lingua franca along the north coast, not just between Makassan and Aboriginal people, but also between different Aboriginal groups. Along the shore they left tamarind trees and lines of stone to support cooking pots to boil, smoke and cure the flesh to be used as a delicacy in a soup and considered by the Chinese an aphrodisiac.
Trepang fishing in some areas also led to the development of property rights which determined the right to capture trepang. Ancestral coastal estates extend well out into the sea and include the near-shore making trade history relevant to mounting legal arguments about native title. In 2008 the High Court made the Blue Mud Bay decision granting traditional Yolgnu owners exclusive native title rights to the intertidal zone. First Nations people once again control access to the waters of a major fishery. Indigenous art and exhibitions such as Saltwater (1999) and Dalkiri: Standing on their names (2010) have helped non-Indigenous people to understand how the law codifies and maps obligations to the land, sea and sky.
It is now time to survey the 250th anniversary of the landing of James Cook and crew at Botany Bay. The significance of the Hati Marege / Heart of Arnhem Land and the prahu’s subversive overturning of the foundational narrative of Captain Cook and the Endeavour and the unilateral British land claim has not been lost: from Johnny Bulun’bulun and Maningrida dancers in Makassar (1993) to the ongoing Makassar-Yirrkala Artist Exchange (2018) that looks to a poly-cultural future.
By the Stars, Wind & Ocean Currents aims to look to all the seafaring comings and goings from the north through the straits between the islands of the Indonesian archipelago by representatives of all world civilisations. In a political region of closed borders and the parlous state of minorities can art continue to open up new routes for dialogue? By the Stars grafts an ancient trade route to offer another dimension of mercantile success and cultural complexity. The past retains an inevitable trajectory towards a closer relationship despite the militarisation of borders.