History of Money. Where did money come from. Story No. 9

Richard Trudgen and Djiniyini Gondarra explore the bigger story of how and why the Macassan trade was stopped.

The trade between the Macassans and Yolngu in Arnhem Land was stopped by the South Australian parliament, which passed an act of law in 1907. At the time the Northern Territory was under the jurisdiction of South Australia (That’s why it was called the ‘northern territory’ of South Australia.)

So the trade was stopped by the government, however without letting Yolngu know. The Balanda government had no idea that Yolngu had trading activities and legal business agreements with the Macassans. The Balanda belief was that Yolngu were just “hunter and gatherers”.

The South Australian government wanted to start a business in the north of Australia. They were looking for some sort of enterprise for the region. It was thought that the Macassans mainly came for the trepang, so the government wanted that business.

This was similar to when the town of Sydney first started and it had no real business to help it prosper. It was a small community and England was a long way away. So they had to try and create a business. One of these was trading fur seals with China. Southern Australia had many seals and they have good quality fur like possums. This trade with China was one of the things that made Sydney wealthy and successful.

So in north Australia, they were looking for a  business to make them rich like the other states in Australia. It was observed that trepang was very valuable and highly sought after by China. So the South Australian government stopped the Macassan trade on Yolngu estates by sending lots of British owned boats for harvesting and by going to Macassar and advising if they came again they would be meet with gunboats. All so Balanda could have their own trade dealings in trepang directly with China.

For many years both the South Australian and the federal government also received tax revenue from the Macassan trade, including on tobacco and rice products.

However they did not realise it was Yolngu who owned these estates and production sites, and it was them who gave the Macassans permission to harvest the trepang. The Balanda thought the Macassans just came on their own account and they did not understand there were business agreements between Macassans and Yolngu. But there were long-standing legal contracts where the Macassans made balanydja payments and Yolngu did a lot of the work harvesting the trepang, as well as processing them (cutting, cleaning, cooking and drying. Lots of hard work!) It was sometimes said by Balanda that Yolngu were frightened of the Macassans and stayed away from them, but the truth is the Yolngu-Macassan relationship was a friendly and productive trade partnership.

It seems Balanda doesn’t know any of that history, even the politicians, though there are some books now starting to talk about it. It’s also part of the problem when Yolngu ask the government for trepang licences. Lots of Yolngu want to get into this business but the government doesn’t seem to listen. (That’s another part of the story for later discussion – there’s only one license for trepang that covers the whole of the Northern Territory.) It’s also good for Yolngu to learn some of this history so they can see how they lost these big industries and are now dependent on Balanda money.

While it’s true that many Yolngu are now dependent on the government, the government does not see that Yolngu were businessmen, farmers and traders. Instead, because Balanda don’t know this history they think they now have to teach Yolngu the meaning of work and business. Some Balanda are just now starting to realise what happened but Yolngu Elders died in shame due to bankrupcy and loss of business. (Such as Djiniyini’s mother’s people who had a big business in pearl production. Yet that is now Balanda business worth millions.) However, it’s possible for young Yolngu to get back into this.

For many Yolngu this is a new story and they are hearing it for the first time. The Elders who died knew the Macassans and worked with them. They waited for them, but in the end, they had no balanydja, goods of trade, so they died märrmiriw in spiritual and physical poverty and shame.


Produced by Aboriginal Resource and Development Services (ARDS) 2007