February 16, 2018

Arnhem Land: Daymanu and the Malarra painting



by Eva Podsiadlowski

There is a popular misconception that Indigenous Australians had no contact with the outside world before European settlement. Yet, Indigenous Australians along the tropical northern coast had extensive interactions with fishermen from Makassar in the southern Celebes (the present-day Indonesian province of Sulawesi), who visited the northern Australian coastline of Arnhem Land and the Kimberley throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Makassan fishermen came in search of trepang (sea cucumber or bêche-de-mer). The processed trepang is prized in Chinese cooking for its texture and flavour-enhancing qualities and is used in Chinese medicine. The Makassan trepangers, after collecting and processing trepang in Australia, returned to Makassar to sell the product to Chinese traders. The Makassans negotiated fishing rights, employed Aborigines to help them fish for trepang and traded in Indonesian pottery, glass, fishhooks, coins and clay pipes; remnants of which have been found along the coast.

Makassan Prau

Aborigines, in turn, returned with the trepangers to visit Makassar. Recent linguistic studies show that some Australian Aboriginal languages contain Makassan words. Aboriginal rock and bark paintings record the visit of the Makassans and their perahu or fleets of wooden sailing vessels. Another legacy of the Makassan trepangers is the tamarind trees (Tamarindus indicus) they planted from seeds that now grow wild along parts of the coast of northern Australia.

The Warramiri people, who are based at the Gäwa Community on Elcho Island, are the main clan historically associated with the Makassan people of Sulawesi. They have many Makassan ceremonies, traditions and even language at Elcho today. They say that the name “Gäwa” was given by the Makassans from their port of Gowa, southern Sulawesi.

On Coral Expeditions recent inaugural Indigenous Culture & Art Expedition, visiting remote and unique islands across the top of Australia (departing Darwin on November 23, 2017), guests were treated to the expertise of guest lecturers including artist Brian Robinson presenting workshops and lectures on Torres Strait Island art and Samantha Martin on native bush tucker of the North-East coast.

Against a backdrop of a remote and striking landscape, guests were warmly welcomed by children and teachers from the Gawa Christian School on Elcho Island. With the help of interpretation from resident Guest Lecturer, Ian Morris, Gawa Traditional Owner and school patron Daymanu (Makassan name for leader) shared stories and a selection of his paintings with our group.

Lore contained within paintings and songs is part of a moment in a larger story making up a songline which is a map of the country based on the travels of the Dreaming ancestors. Daymanu shared the lore of Malarra, a Manta Ray the size of a whale which is especially significant to the Warramiri.

The small coloured triangle patterns seen in the painting come from Malarra’s wings as he rides the ocean, an action sung by Warrimiri as ‘wirritjun’. These little clouds start rising off the sea and become larger as the season progresses during the Midawarr, or calm at the end of the wet, and in Wulma-murryunamirri, the calm of the first build-up thunders. Warramiri people emulate the wings of Malarra with paddles they use to traverse the ocean called marrwala. These stories keep the history of the Warramiri people and describe the natural progression of the seasons and behaviour of the animals. These stories may be the same ones that Indigenous peoples shared with those Makassan traders long ago.

Source: Coral Expeditions Discover News #41

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