History of Money. Where did money come from? Story No. 10

Richard Trudgen and Djiniyini Gondarra discuss what happened after the Macassan trade with Yolngu was stopped in 1907.

Djiniyini talks about how Yolngu were märrmiriw, living in spiritual and physical poverty and shame, as they had lost their businesses. They had little food and were spending all their time looking for products and different girri general goods items.  Some clans had goods but many of them had nothing to trade.

Many Yolngu went searching for trade tracks where there were goods. Dhumbalbal dhukarr mala the old trade tracks were followed along the coast and overland but there were no goods coming along here. Yolngu began to go where-ever Balanda were, like to Roper River and to cattle stations to the south of Arnhem Land. A lot of Yolngu from the miwatj went all the way down to Pine Creek and Katherine. Some walked overland to Darwin.

The Warramiri were one of the rich clans in the Macassan times along with the Gumatj and Dhalwaŋu. Some of those Elders ended up in Darwin, Katherine, Pine Creek and all the way to the Roper Valley looking for the products that had come from the Macassans and a replacement for the trade they had lost.

Then the Welfare Department, via the Missionaries, started to bring Yolngu back to stay on their own yirralka estates. However that’s not what happened. Instead Yolngu were all brought into one single yirralka, which caused problems that are still happening today.

It was government policy and law to gather all the Yolngu into one place for the purposes of teaching – specifically teaching the people how to trade, work and produce things. (Ironic, considering it was the Balanda who stopped the production and trade because they didn’t know it existed.)

Some missionaries suggested not taking Yolngu from their home yirralka estates, and going to work with them where they lived. But the Welfare Department had a special act of law for Aboriginal affairs (Native Welfare Act) that meant it didn’t matter that Yolngu were all different tribes on separate yirralka estates – they had to come into one location.

This was disastrous. Yolngu went to foreign places where there were now many leaders from different tribes trying to assert themselves. In addition the very confused landowners of the area where the mission was sat oppressed in their own country.

The Welfare Department saw that Yolngu were in trouble, with lots of social problems and drinking and they put them in the hands of the church but things did not improve. Yolngu were often blamed for their circumstances, yet it was Balanda who created much of the mess with poor planning, and who put Yolngu in conflict with each other and they are still living in that situation today.

Balanda did not understand that Yolngu clans owned separate estates, each with its own mulwat assets that belonged to the people and those who had separate alliances with that estate. They didn’t see Yolngu had different production sites on these estates like gärul garden growing areas, marrandil fish production areas, bat‘pa turtle production areas, and how many lands had mewiyal bird hatcheries and egg collection sites. They didn’t understand clans had separate legal constitutions and acts of law, with different alliances, and different legal systems with separate legal symbols and objects. .

Balanda even thought that Yolngu had no ownership of their estates. Using terms like “hunter and gatherer” and “nomad” suggesting Yolngu wandered around like dogs or other animals looking for things to eat like grass, fruit or fish. And many still have the same view today, with schools teaching these kinds of ideas.

Balanda thought Yolngu were just one tribe/group of people; no yirritja or dhuwa groups, no different tribes or nations. So it was OK to put all Yolngu into one place. Never mind whose place it was, as if Yolngu had no practised human culture. Consequently they stopped the business and the contract giving/receiving on these separate estates where the resources were. And this is where the confusion/mystification happens around money, business and welfare.

This information is good for Yolngu across the three trade regions of northeast Arnhem Land (Miwatj, Marthakal, Gattjirrk, Gumurr-Rawarrang) to hear. This is a true story of how the the breaking of primary trade contracts between Yolngu and Macassans has had a great effect on Yolngu. It’s a situation that’s come about by a foreign Act of Law that’s forced Yolngu into conflict.

Produced by Aboriginal Resource and Development Services (ARDS) 2007



This series of ten stories did not end where we thought it would. The information that came out during the recording discussions was just too interesting to remain solely with the story of the history of money. However, the central theme of money needing to be something that’s valuable is important  for the context in which Yolngu today find themselves.

Not many Yolngu see that money has value. This has nothing to do with the fact that Yolngu never had any form of money in the past because this series of podcast destroys that mainstream myth. Yolngu confusion comes from suffering an economic meltdown after the South Australia government ended the Macassan trade. These podcasts puts things in context for Yolngu. Many have said it has answered so many questions for them, questions that when unanswered left them feeling a lesser human because the conversations they have with Balanda seem to end up always leaving them defined as ‘primitive’ or ‘native’. Now with the truth about what happened it makes much more sense.

We will be recording many more conversations around this theme to help Yolngu rediscover their role as real business people, who were trading internationally for at least 300 years before Balanda arrived.