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Migration and Trade

The loan word Kura Kura is found across all islands.

The 3000 kilometre journey made by the Green turtle between Indonesia and Australia is symbolic of the many people who have travelled the same ocean currents throughout history. Australia has always had more than one name - the Bajo and Bugis traders called it Marege, the Torres Strait communities referred to this large island as Keo Deudai. The Chinese mapmakers from the 1400’s knew it as Greater Java - a true reflection of our geographic position and relationship with our neighbours.

Contact between the Europeans and their exploitation of Australian waters began in the 1860's. Trade in Beche-de-mer (trepang), sandalwood, turtle shell and pearl shelling has impacted greatly on marine resources and their ritual and ceremonial purposes. It has always been the Bajo people who are caught at the center of the turtle trade in Indonesia. Just as they once transported the slaves for the Kingdom of Goa in Sumbawa, the Bajo continue their work as the middlemen to the traders. A subgroup of the Orang Bugis displaced in the Bone wars in Sulawesi in the 1700's they scattered across South East Asia living as stateless people. Living on boats with limited access to land and fresh water, they are known as the sea-gypsies. As the number of turtles diminish the Bajo are forced to travel further and further afield.

Indonesia’s geographic position on the crossroads of China, India, Arabia and Europe ensured a continual flow of foreign invaders, colonisers, missionaries, merchants and traders through the straits of the archipelago. Ancestral and trade connections are still acknowledged through song and ceremonies. On Palu’e the placenta of the newborn child is hung on the trees to west of the village - facing India, the ancestral home. The dancing beads, the drums and gongs, the ancient trade ceramics, the Patola stone, salvaged from the original/ mythical voyage are still the most valued items in village ceremonies.

The songs, stories and images collected for this project record the many connections between these coastal communities. The loan word Kura Kura - turtle is found across all island in the exhibition is the legacy of hundreds of years of contact. The ancient tamarind trees on the coast of Northern Australia are a constant reminder of vibrant trepang trade that only ended in the early 1900’s.
For hundreds of years the Makassan/Bugis traders shared contact with the Milingimbi, Ramangining, Galiwin’ku (Elco Island) Gapuwiyak (Lake Euella) and Yirrkala communities. In exchange for turtles and trepang the Makassans introduced tobacco, the practice of circumcision and knowledge to build sea-going canoes. Today it is still possible to speak Indonesian with eighty year old Justin Puruntatameri on Melville Island, hear stories of Indigenous Australians who settled on Alor and see the rock paintings by the Yolngu in Makassar.

Cultural exchanges often preceded business and trade links.
The Meriam people of Darnley Island sailed in two directions, north towards OP DEUDAI (PNG) to trade for canoes, spears, drums, cassowary feathers, dogs teeth necklaces and dance ornaments. They also sailed the treacherous waters south to KEO DEUDAI (mainland Australia) for red ochre, emu feathers and emu leg bones. Marriage between the PNG and the people of Darnley continues today.

Austronesian culture and language places great importance on the maritime skills and its symbols. The giant mythological canoes depicted in housing, ornaments and textiles refer to the ancestors and their migration from Southern China to South East Asia and onto the Pacific. This epic voyage is depicted in many forms - the cave paintings of New Guinea, the stone canoes of Tanimbar, on the bronze kettledrums from South Vietnam and on the textiles of Indonesia. The double hook motif so common in the Pacific ornamentation may not be a fish hook but a representation of the ancestral canoes.


Research Activities

Secondary Students
Why would the Chinese have referred to Australia as Greater Java?
How can we retrace the possible journeys of the different people who have settled this region?
Even today we carry gifts when visiting remote islands in Indonesia. What things are the most appropriate to take to these communities?

Primary Students
It is believed the metal Moko drums were used for ceremonies of rain making and going to battle. Hundreds have been found buried on an island close to Australia. What is the name of the island?
The designs on the top of the drum include the soul ship, the tree of life, spirals, sunbursts and human and animal forms. What images can you see on the Moko drum in the scroll?
How are the Moko drums different to the Darnley Island drum?


Education Kit | Ceremonial Objects | Mythology | Ancient Mariner | Turtle Iconography | Music and Memory

Education Kit | Fishing Traditions | Food Source | Migration and Trade | Environmental Issues | Things We Can Do