History and Development of Arnhem Land in Australia

Sunset Sunlight Kakadu Arnhem Land Sky Scenic

Arnhem Land is a historical district of the Northern Territory of Australia. It is situated in the north-eastern corner of the region and is around 310 mi (500 km) from Darwin’s territory capital. In 1623 CE, Dutch East India Company captain Willem Joosten van Coolsteerdt (Colster) sailed into the Gulf of Carpentaria. Cape Arnhem is presently named after his ship.

This ship, named Arnhem, derives its’ name from the city of Arnhem in the modern-day Netherlands.

The area covers about 37,000 sq miles (97,000 square kilometers) and has a population of 16,000, of whom 12,000 are Indigenous aboriginal Australians. The area’s service hub is Nhulunbuy,(370 miles (600 kilometers) east of Darwin, set up in the early 1970s CE as a mining town (mining mostly bauxite). Other significant population centers are Gunbalanya (formerly Oenpelli), Yirrkala (just outside Nhulunbuy), Maningrida, and Ramingining.

Aboriginal indigenous peoples have reportedly occupied Arnhem Land for tens of thousands of years. It is the location of the oldest stone ax, which researchers believe to be 35,000 years old. Let’s explore the history of Arnhem Land.

Macassan contact

Since the 18th century CE, Islamic traders from Makassar of Sulawesi visited Arnhem Land each year to harvest, trade, and process trepang or sea cucumbers. This marine mammal is profoundly prized in Chinese cuisine, as an aphrodisiac, and for folk medicine.

This Islamic Macassan contact with ancient Australia is the first documented example of interaction between the inhabitants of Australia and Asia.

This contact had a significant effect on local Aboriginal Australians. The Makassans exchanged goods such as tobacco, cloth, rice, knives, and alcohol for the right to trepang tidal waters and employ local labor. Makassar pidgin became an extensive lingua franca along the north coast among numerous indigenous Australian groups who were brought into more significant contact with each other by the seafaring ancient Makassan culture.

Known archeological remains of Makassar contact, including trepang processing plants (smoking, drying) from the 18th Century CE and 19th Century CE, are still observed at Australian locations such as Groote Eylandt and Port Essington. The Makassans also planted tamarind trees (native to East Africa and Madagascar). After harvesting, the sea cucumbers were exclusively traded by the Makassans to China.

Florida Station

In 1884 CE, 10,000 square miles of Arnhem Land was randomly sold by the British colonial government to cattle grazier John Arthur Macartney. The property was referred to as Florida Station, and Macartney stocked it with cattle from Queensland. Disease, monsoonal flooding, and heavy resistance from the local Indigenous population resulted in Florida Station being ultimately abandoned for good by Macartney in 1893 CE.

Eastern and African Cold Storage Supply Company

From 1903 CE to 1908 CE, much of Arnhem Land’s property rights were owned by the Eastern and African Cold Storage Supply Company. This Anglo-Australian consortium rented the district under the Arafura cattle station’s name and tried to construct a meat production industry and massive cattle raising. The company employed ruthless gangs of armed men to kill the resident Aboriginal population.

Land rights

In 1971 CE, the Gove land rights case (Nabalco Pty Ltd Vs. Milirrpum) was the first lawsuit on native title in Australia and the first significant legal case for Indigenous land rights in Australia.

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