Kevin Murray on Fri, 27 Aug 1999 18:07:50 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Call me non-indigenous?

 'In the beginning, Bunjil created this land and the life within it. He
created people and gave them law.' Or so claims Melbourne's new
Immigration Museum, on the walls of its elegant galleries. This latest
version of Australian history starts with a Koori creation figure and ends
with the David Wang Emporium. Traditional linear history has been outmoded
by a sacred foundational myth. 

It's a sign of the times. Rather than grant Aboriginal culture a place
within the museum, the museum locates itself within Aboriginal culture. 
Not only does this transcend the role of indigenous people as victims, but
it also evens out the ethnic differences between settlers. In the eyes
Bunjil, it matters not whether you are English, Italian or Vietnamese you
are all visitors to this land. 

Once gathered on the same ground, though, we encounter a tricky problem. 
What do we call this grouping of non-indigenous Australians? For such an
obvious question, it's strange how rarely we hear it asked. 

I confronted this question by accident one night while walking past
Adelaide Railway Station. A man emerged out of the darkness to ask me for
a light. I cautiously obliged, and we shared a few words after the fire
exchange. As I was about to move on, he asked me what seemed at first a
simple enough question, 'Are you a brother, man?'

I stumbled. 'No, I'm an...' I didn't know what to say. If I said I was
'Australian', it would imply my Nunga interlocutor was not. And I felt too
Australian to say I was 'European'. If this was New Zealand, I could say
'pakeha', but there is yet no commonly accepted Aboriginal word for 'white

A few weeks later I asked an art curator of Murri descent what my answer
should have been. 'There's a word they use up the top end,' she said,
'Balanda'. Balanda? 'Yes, it's the Macassan word for the Dutch, or
"Hollander".' It gets stranger-Macassans? 'You know, the sailors from
Sulawesi who harvested sea-slug off the coast of Arnhem Land, before
Captain Cook.'

This is not the story we learnt in primary school. Could it be that the
most likely word for 'white person' in Australia is the Indonesian term
for Dutchman? Does the path to reconciliation include a stopover in
Southeast Asia? 

It's not an unlikely itinerary. Sulawesi is little more than a thousand
kilometres from Australia, about the same as the distance between England
and Portugal. Annual monsoon winds and regular island stepping stones
through the Malay Archipelago make the journey quite reasonable. 

Accounts vary about the exact date when Macassans first covered this
distance. Though some estimate their arrival in the sixteenth century,
Tasmanian professor Campbell Macknight claims that recent evidence
confirms the commencement of trade in the 1720s. Macknight's Voyage to
Marege' documents the seasonal visits of Macassan fishermen, who spent
several months a year catching and processing trepang (sea slug) for
Chinese markets. Australians assisted in catching and preparing trepang in
exchange for commodities such as knives, tobacco and rice. 

At that time, Macassar was capital of the Indonesian Kingdom of Gowa, the
map of which included north Australia. Apart from a formidable
ship-building prowess, the Makasserese were famous for their epic Ella
Galiga, supposedly longest literary work in existence. 

Macassan culture has left its mark on the top end. Besides 'Balanda',
there are scores of loan words such as 'rupiah' (money) and 'jama'
(work)-still in common use. There are also ornamental influences in
coloured head-scarves and long tobacco pipes. Perhaps the most profound
influence, however, concerns ceremonies. In the Wurramu funerary ritual,
the deceased are farewelled by a symbolic raising of the mast, evoking the
departure of Macassans north, to the land of the dead. Recently, similar
ceremonies have been used in official acts of exchange with the Australian

Macassan visits ended soon after Federation. In 1907 the Australian
government prohibited foreign fishing fleets in its territorial waters. 
Apart from memories of the crocheted 'antimacassar' on our grandparent's
lounge suites, the Indonesian port (now called Ujung Pandang) plays little
part in contemporary Australian cultureľat least on the surface. A little
digging, however, reveals a network of indigenous and Balanda who are
renewing this interrupted conversation with our northern neighbours. 

Western anthropologists are fascinated by Macassan-inspired ceremonies.
The work of Ian McIntosh has been particularly contentious. This recent
study of the community at Elcho Island claimed to uncover an Islamic
influence, sourced from Macassan contact. Australians were apparently
impressed by the customary call to prayer heard from the crow's nests of
Macassan ships. The name given to the funerary spirit, 'Walith'Walitha',
is interpreted as 'Allah'. Though a long bow indeed, McIntosh's fanciful
anthropology does at least suggest that there might be stories in
Australian history beyond European grasp. 

For many Balanda, this a-European story offers respite from the 'black and
white' history that we have inherited. According to Macknight, 'Macassan
story is the best example we have that reminds us Australia did not begin
with British colonisation. Too many people equate Botany Bay 1788 as the
beginning of the nation, but Macassans show that this hasn't always been
the case.'

Some feel this personally. The theatre director Andrish St Clair is
currently working on an opera about trepanging for this year's Darwin
Festival. His own life story stretches across many southern oceans. Born
in Hungary, he has since lived in each of the three Southern Hemisphere
continents. According to St. Clair, 'My own history is as a migrant,
highlighting the polarised nature of colonisation. In the word "Balanda",
I am happy to find Aboriginal story that mentions a third party. As a
migrant who doesn't have a stake in Anglo culture, I am excited that this
gives me a position.'

Restoration of Macassan contacts began in 1986, with newspaper reports of
an old Macassan woman who recalled her father reciting the names of his
children in Australia. Some Aboriginal students at Bachelor College
recognised these names, and teacher Michael Cooke organised a trip to
Ujung Pandang. Thus began a remarkable series of reunions. 

In 1993, painter Johnny Bullen-Bullen led a group from Maningrida to Ujung
Pendang. Though there were occasions for exchange, such as impromptu
discoveries of common language, the event as a whole was too stage-managed
to build a lasting relationship. His paintings of Macassans, however, now
adorn airports and hotels around Australia. 

In 1996, St. Clair lead a group of half a dozen Macassans to Elcho Island,
where they participated in an exchange of performances. The set included a
Macassan gate and mock prau, around which performers enacted an exchange
of knives. 

Late in 1997, the Macassans then invited performers from Elcho Island to
Sulawesi to participate in the 667th Anniversary of the Kingdom of Gowa. 
They were led by Charlie Mattjuwi Burrawanga, a Gumatj ritual leader. 
Burrawanga was the grandchild of one of six wives of the last trepang

The performance was centred on a reunion between Burrawanga and his
Macassan relatives. Trepang was the main act following the annual
processions in front of the local Bupati (Regency). St. Clair describes
the atmosphere in front of a crowd of nine thousand as 'like a football

It certainly captured the attention of Southeast Asian media. Three
national Indonesian television stations covered the event, and favourable
reviews appeared in Indonesian and even Malaysian press. Despite this
coverage, the event was ignored by Australian media. Ironically, the
obsession with Pauline Hansen had taken more positive Asian exchange off
the papers. 

Meanwhile, responses to the Macassan story have come from a number of
local rock bands. In 1990, the Milingimbi Wirrngga Band released song
called 'Takkerena', which was the Macassan name for trepanging camp in
area. Three years later, Maningrida's Sunrise Band produced a hit for 3JJJ
titled Lembana Mani Mani, the Macassan name for their town. 

Fascination with the Macassan story is not limited to non-Balanda. The
story of the Macassans epitomises the romance of the seas. On the trail of
this romance, the Australian Maritime Museum offers regular tours to the
boat-building sites in Sulawesi. In 1988, Peter Spellit from the Darwin
Museum reconstructed a Macassan pinisi for a commemorative voyage from
Australia to Sulawesi. According to Jeremy Mellefont of the Maritime
Museum, the sailors' perspective is different from that of academics:
'Sailors see oceans as what connects people, whereas academics see oceans
as what separates them'. Thinking about the rich history of traffic in
Australia's northern seas, the British leap across to the antipodes begins
to seem less original. 

It may well go back further. There are unconfirmed reports of Chinese
people called Baijini, whose visits preceded the Macassans. While there is
no unambiguous archaeological evidence of their presence, the Baijini
feature in creation era myths. Their textile patterns of coloured
triangles (darabu)  supposedly influenced Aboriginal design. And a history
of the Sui dynasty (636AD) records a wilderness called the 'great beyond'
where people throw circular knives and there are two-headed hopping

Australia was situated at the doorstep of a bustling marketplace, where
trade was brisk along routes that stretched from the East Coast of Africa
to the islands of Japan. It would take very little for one of these boats
to stray south. Arab sailors visited Aru, only 500 kilometres north of
Australia. Eric Rolls has even speculated that the ancient Phoenicians may
have been swept away from their circumnavigations of Africa to the western
coast of Australia. And though it stretches historical plausibility to
breaking point, it is still remotely possible that a Viking or two might
have hitched a ride on an Arab dhow and found himself in this strange

This armchair history might seem fanciful, but it touches a deep nerve in
our English sub-cortex. In the nineteenth-century, any English gentlemen
with pretensions to scholarship made a study of Phoenicians-the Semites
who did indeed walk upon England's shore 'in ancient times'. William
Gladstone wrote several books on the subject in between Prime Ministerial
duties. In the Devil's Foot, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle placed Sherlock Holmes
in Cornwall so he could imbibe 'its sinister atmosphere of forgotten
nations' and study the impact of Phoenician tin merchants on the Cornish
language. For a nation so obsessed with its relation to the Holy Lands,
Phoenicians offered themselves as a vigorous Semitic people with whom the
English could claim a direct contact, however tenuous. 

There are the makings of a similar myth here. Before the European invasion
occurred, we see a deep relationship between the inhabitants of this
continent and their bold neighbours across the seas. Here, perhaps, is the
kinship tie we have been desperately seeking with our northern neighbours. 

There have already been gestures in this direction. Back in 1987,
Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke used the Macassan story as testimony
of the enduring relationship with Asia. To extend this beyond political
expediency, however, requires consideration of what we look like as

What shape might the word 'Balanda' give to Australian identity? 'Balanda'
presents identity through the eyes of first Australians, for whom all
European colonists were foreign. It reminds us of distant origins, while
remaining uniquely Australia. It offers an indigenous framework for
identity without the escapism of a New Age spirituality. It's just the
medicine for a republic, but there are some troubling side effects. 

According to Murray Garde, the Cultural Research Officer at Maningrida,
'Balanda' has become standard Top End Australian English. Yet to employ it
nationally would be to privilege one particular Aboriginal culture over
all others. A similar mistake was committed in the 1970s, when the
emergence of 'pan-Aboriginality' attempted to dissolve cultural
differences through an Esperanto-style indigenous language. One of the
movement's participants, John Bunby, has now returned to his Birri Gubba
heritage. He emails, 'The people didn't want to give up their own language
and culture. It is very difficult to transfer these languages from one
country to another because they are so dependent on the landscape - the
country from which they come.'

Strictly speaking, the term for non-indigenous should depend on the
Aboriginal languages of the area, such as 'watjala' in Western Australia
and 'migaloo' in Queensland. South-eastern non-indigenes should be called
'gubba'. Depending on who you speak to, this Koori word means either
'ghost' or 'government'. 

While it would be wonderful to recover regional Australian identity
through Aboriginal difference, it would present a confusing image to the
rest of the world. To use the diversity of indigenous cultures as a way of
denying a national term would be respectful, but it also sidesteps the

Without 'Balanda', we are left with words like 'settler' or 'whitefella'. 
Both are flawed. 'Settler' is a generic term, which privileges the early
Europeans who cleared the land, rather than the post-war migrants who
worked the assembly lines. And while uniquely Australian, 'whitefella'
seems a blokey term, with overtones of vaudeville. 

In the end, the final word that is chosen may not be as important as the
process of selection. It seems an intrinsic part of becoming a republic
and achieving reconciliation that we find a word to describe those of us
whose ancestors settled here within the past two hundred and ten years.
Already, many Balanda are putting up their hands to be counted. What will
the next Australian census hold? Perhaps some Koori, Murri, Yolngu, Nunga,
Balanda and a few Indonesian tourists. 

A forum for names for non-indigenous Australians is at An online version of this article with
images is at

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