I was introduced to the Gove Peninsula and Yolgnu Matha people in 2006, when working for the Northern Territory Department of Education and Training on what was called a Remote Learning Partnership Agreement. It was a wonderful experience for many reasons, including meeting members of Yothu Yindi and coming to know the lovely people of the Yirrkala community. One of the Aboriginal men who was part of negotiations for that Agreement was a senior leader who went on to chair the Northern Land Council. This story came from chatting with him.

As some background, Nhulunbuy is a town created on the Gove Peninsula in the Northern Territory for bauxite mining in the late 1950smap_of_gove. A deep water port and an alumina refinery were established in the 1960s. 220px-GoveBauxitePlant138003-0d9f3ba6-8f01-11e4-9125-9cd044c40754 But the region had been home to the Yolgnu people for in excess of 40 000 years. Their existence in a traditional state was disturbed in the 1880s by pastoralism, and it resulted in considerable conflict and violence as they tried to resist what they saw as an invasion .

In 1935, in the hope of bringing peace to the region, government authorities allowed the Methodist Overseas Mission to establish the settlement of Yirrkala, which is approximately 20 kilometres south of  Nhulunbuy. In the years following its establishment, many Yolngu moved from surrounding areas to live there.

At the 2011 census, Nhulunbuy had a population of almost 4000, while Yirrkala’s population was given as about 850. But the closure of the alumina refinery in May 2014, followed by the demobilization of the bauxite mine, has substantially reducing the Nhulunbuy population, as well as services, making its future uncertain.

I had many visits to Nhulunbuy and Yirrkala in the course of my work. Both are lush in vegetation which butts against the ocean amid very hilly country. Group-shot-EduGrow-B orientisAOn each visit, a female teacher who went on to be principal of Yirrkala School, would always try to teach me Yolgnu Matha (which directly translates as “Yolgnu speak”). Over time, I came to learn how to say a number of phrases, although not how to spell the words. But I could greet people with “nhämirri nhe?”, meaning “how are you?” to which the reply was “menmak” or “good”. And a partng phrase was “du dudj na” (which I have spelled incorrectly) or “bubu”.

So, over time, I started to use these phrases with various members of the community . They seemed pleased that I was trying to speak their language, particularly the senior leader of the group from the community.4809108-3x2-340x227 And as we worked on the agreement, one word seemed to be repeated a lot. It was the word “balanda” which I learned was the Yolgnu term for “whitefella”. I’d become used to the fact that different language groups have different names for “whitefellas”. For example, the Walpiri people to the north-west of Alice Springs called me “kardiya” (the k is pronounced as a g) which was the same term I’d known in the Kimberley. The Noongar people of the south-west of Western Australia called me “wedjella”, while to some groups in the Pilbara I was “waibala”.

I was recounting this to the senior leader one day and he said, “do you know where that balanda word came from?”

The question surprised me. In the end, I said, “I figured it was just a Yolgnu word.”

“No, it wasn’t. About four hundred years ago, people from the island of Macassa – the Macassans – came to trade with us Yolgnu people. They wanted things like our trepang …” (sea slugs)… “and timber, and we got metal axes, knives, cloth and tobacco from them. And we learned to eat rice and like it. You can see we still eat big mobs of it. And they also brought some words that became part of our language.”

I must have given him a quizzical look and he added, “rupiah means money, jama means work, balanda means white person.”

He grinned. “You think this man old bullshit, Daybt?”

I shook my head. “You haven’t since I met you, old man, so I don’t think you’re starting now.”

He chuckled softly and continued.

“That word ‘balanda’ been one of those words we keep in our language. It’s a word from Bahasa, their language, and it means people from Holland. Four hundred years ago, Dutch traded with Javanese and Macassans. So Macassan mob told us mob about them Hollanders. But in Bahasa they don’t have the letter H, like many of us mob say letters different way from Balandas. Us mob, we use don’t say V or F. For a V, we use B, like you say volleyball, and we say bolleyball, or you say football and we say pootball. They use a B for that H, so they call that mob Balanda.”

I found it a fascinating piece of history, that gave powerfully simple validity to the Dutch presence in Indonesia for all those centuries as well as the history of overseas trade before the coming of the English.