Richard Trudgen and Djiniyini Gondarra talk more about the trade with Macassans.
In all the areas across Arnhem Land there were Macassan trading sites, from Cape Arnhem through to Milingimbi and onto Maningrida. At these places different clans had a contract agreement with the Macassans. When the Macassans came and met the clans in those areas for the first time the Macassan gave the landowners wetj. (Something that is given as ‘mundhurr’ (a gift) and not as an article of commerce or trade. But you cannot refuse to take it – similar to a PR gift.) They gave Yolngu axes, rice, tobacco, food, cloth and other things.
At first the Yolngu were not sure why the Macassans were coming. Then they discovered that they were looking for trepang and pearls. They were also interested to a lesser degree in turtle shells. They made agreements with many different clans along the coast of Arnhem Land. All these were Yirritja clans. They did go to some Dhuwa estates but their agreements were with Yirritja people.
Many times the people in the Miwatja area use the name mangatharra (a name Yolngu use for Macassans) for Yirritja because of the legally bound contract agreements that existed between the Yirritja people and the Macassan people.
Richard and Djiniyini explore the trade language that was used between the Yolngu and the Macassans. Economic words such as debt, contract, liability, and balanydja (a payment for goods or service rendered under contract. The payment received at the completion of a contract.) A lot of these economic words are now Yolngu trade words used in Ŋärra’ parliaments.
It is discussed that Balanda have never learnt Yolngu trade language, based on the belief Yolngu were not business people. However Yolngu had no trouble trading and negotiating with the Macassans. They did not bring reams of paperwork like Balanda. They would sit down and talk and smoke pipes together. There would be discussions about what they wanted to harvest from Yolngu estates, or from the inter-tidal zone or further out. Discussions and agreements about how many trepang could be harvested and what the payment would be.
Rather than creating a djugu contract every time trepang were harvested, a Buku waŋgany agreement was made once. This meant a single big payment to Yolngu of food, rice, axes, and tobacco. Then the harvesting area would be marked out. If the Macassans wanted to harvest and trade into another area then they would have to pay more balandja payment to expand the contract. This was all carved into a letter stick, including all the items for payment. So a legal document as in the letterstick was used to seal the contract.
Some Yolngu clans became very wealthy and would trade in one special product like knives or axes or cloth, and these tribes would then trade with other Yolngu across regions of Arnhem Land. There are also Balanda stories of metal objects that Yolngu traded with the Macassans found being traded right across Australia.
Sadly though most Balanda did not understand that Yolngu were business people.
Produced by Aboriginal Resource and Development Services (ARDS) 2007