History of Money. Where did money come from? Story No. 6

Richard Trudgen and Djiniyini Gondarra talk about Yolngu trade with the Macassans.

The main items Macassans came to trade for were trepang and pearls, while turtle shell was a minor trade. Flint spearheads, red cedar and cowrie and mani-mani necklaces were also traded. China wanted trepang and had their own trade with Maccassar. Pearls were wanted by wealthy people across the world as jewellery. It could have been that pearls from north Australia were traded overland to Europe, and even used by the Kings and Queens of England. In return the Macassans brought metal to trade with the Yolngu, including axes, knives and fish hooks. They also brought tobacco.

The trading sites, villages, were called Dhaarriny or Gambumaluku. These were the trading place where a number of dhomala flags were flown. When you saw the flags it was a place for trade. All trade was done through djugu-mirr contract giving.

Generally traders came as good friends.There was only one big clash remembered in the history which was the first occasion the Macassans came to Galiwin’ku. At the first meeting they had no trading partners or agreements with any tribes and so should have sent a diplomatic representative. This was Yolngu law – if Yolngu moved into the lands/estates of other Yolngu the way to let other tribes know of your arrival was by lighting a fire. However by the second and third visits friendship was established.

The Macassans created trading relations with only Yirritja people and tribes. The Dhuwa people were the labours and the djuŋgaya managers for their Yirritja mother’s people. The Yirritja people were the ones who had the contracts with the Macassans and all the Dhaarriny, trading sites, were on Yirritja lands. In the past Yolngu always paid their workers within traditional ceremonies, however that no longer happens.

The word ‘Mathakal’ has a meaning as a trading place, similar to an industrial area where many things are made. It usually involves many gong nyanyuk – someone who makes things and has lots of ideas, like an inventor. The Macassans were the first ones to bring small coins called rupia.

The language Yolngu learnt from the Macassans was their trading language not their everyday language. Djiniyini explores many of the words that became part of Yolngu Matha, including money, long bush knife, canoe, matches, guns, wire, and other trading vocabulary. Macassans and Yolngu became good friends, with inter-marrying and strong family ties developing.  Yolngu still have relatives living in Macassar today.

This is the Yolngu – Macassan history that most Balanda know nothing about. It’s often believed the two groups were constantly fighting and that there was little trade. Occasionally trouble would occur if there was cheating while trading or if laws or agreements had been broken. However generally the relationship was good.


Produced by Aboriginal Resource and Development Services (ARDS) 2007