History Flows On
Catalogue essay for Yenda Carson exhibition, Soeul, June 1998
In the early 17th century, news had reached the court Musqat
that the Portuguese hold on the lucrative spice trade was beginning to weaken.
For decades, Portugal had been tied up in the disastrous Spanish war against
the English and Dutch. Its hold on trading posts throughout the Indian Ocean
was beginning to weaken. Here, perhaps, was an opportunity to renew the
Arabic influence on trade in the region.
The Portuguese had made few friends along their path to colonial power. Brutal repressions in Goa, East Africa and Indonesia had not endeared them to the hearts of their captives. It would take only a mere spark to set the anger of these slaves alight. First, it was necessary to uncover what opportunities might render worthwhile such an audacious act.
The Musqat court employed the Chaldean Abd-haddon as a spy to uncover any opportunities for renewed trade in the Spice Islands. Though trained as an astrologer, Abd-haddon had an uncanny ability to blend into the background, picking up enough words to seem one of us in whatever crowd. Having lost his wife to an English raiding party, he was happy to avenge any European power. But rather than in hot blood, he was content to wait until the most effective opportunity presented itself.
Initially wary of Portuguese vessels in Southeast Asia, Abd-haddon clung to the Indo-Chinese coast. Among the interesting reports he gathered from ports such as Cochin, he heard of a lucrative trade in a sea delicacy. Known as "bicho da mar" to the Portuguese, and "hai-sen" to the Chinese, this sea slug captured great prices in the Peking markets. The Arabs would be quite willing to relieve the Europeans of their involvement in this trade.
Abd-haddon quietly made his way south through the Javanese archipelago until he reached the Celebes port of Macassar, where much of the sea slug was traded. Anxious to find the source of this catch, he adapted to local ways and offered his navigational skills to a Punggawa, the master of the fishing prau. Boats left for the land of South Java every year with the monsoon winds. Abd-haddon had a few months to wait. He practised their language and made alliances, particularly with the religious clerics in Macassar. Eventually, the prau was loaded with supplies of rice and goods for trading, including knives and tobacco.
With a bold spirit, Abd-haddon set forth on a journey to a land beyond the known world, from where who knows what riches might be found. Swept along by monsoon winds, the prau made its way around Timor and headed further sound until eventually reached a coast studded by tamarind trees, in a place they called Lambana Mani Mani.
Their arrival seemed to have been anticipated by the inhabitants of this land, who greeted them with singing and dancing. With great ceremony, a warrior of commanding appearance presented a colourful feathered pole to the Punggawa. The primitive people seemed to understand the Macassan tongue and made them feel welcome.
While these two peoples were busy re-acquainting themselves with each other, Abd-haddon followed his nose beyond camp to survey the land. He discovered some wondrous creatures, including bouncing dogs that flew across the horizon. Such was the intensity of this experience that he was overcome by a mystical vision. It was here that Abd-haddon heard the voices of the angel of nature, Mikal, whispering Allah will be great in this land.
When he returned to camp, Abd-haddon found the Makasarese in animated conversation with the local people. He inquired into the subject of their commotion. Local men took him to a grey-bearded sage, intoning some wild story in his windy song. Through the Makasarese, the Chaldean learnt that this elder had dreamt of a colourless people who come to their land and steal their sacred poles. It was in response to this anxiety that the Makasarese told their hosts about the Hollander who point deadly fire sticks and chase the wind. They offered some anise-flavoured alcohol to give them a taste of these people.
Everyone seemed to be running around like frightened children at these wild stories. Abd-haddon resolved it was opportune to assert his righteous authority. Without notice, he burst loudly into a prayer for Allah. Awed at this strange melody, the hysteria quietened a little. Abd-haddon took the opportunity of recruiting a fisherman to help recount his vision to the grey-bearded sage. The finery of his ornate language was largely lost on his audience, but the fisherman did manage to convey the manifestation of a powerful nature spirit in the kangaroo. It happened that these people used the kangaroo as a special symbol of their tribe, so they took his words very dearly to heart.
Gladdened by their response, Abd-haddon resolved to save these poor savages from the Europeans and return with a force of Imams. With the divine assistance of the Allah, this world would be forever safe from those barbarians who drink the blood of their own god. Abd-haddon could almost see the beautiful white mosques that would grace this lush marshy land.
After six months of idyllic life, feasting on the treasures of the swamp and sea, the wind began to change course and it was time for the Makasarese to return home. Their strange hosts danced for days before letting them on their way. Abd-haddon bid these people and their wondrous land farewell, knowing in his heart that the Omanis now have a kindred people on the other side of the ocean. It would not be long before the words of the Prophet were sung joyfully throughout this land.
As it turned out, Abd-haddon did not make it back to the Musqat court. A Dutch ship captured his vessel as it passed by Ceylon. To the rest of the world, South Java would remain a mystery for a few more centuries. And to history, the Omani land on the other side of the ocean would remain a mystery forever.
Did Abd-haddon actually exist? Who knows. Its quite possible given the lively traffic around Southeast Asia that Australia had many exotic visitors to its shores prior to the white men. We know for certain that Yolngu Aboriginals of Arnhem Land played host to annual visitors from Macassar. The Makasarese travelled to their waters to fish for sea slug, which they dried in clay pits assisted by local people.
This seasonal trade persisted for many centuries. During this time, the Yolngu borrowed many words from their northern neighbours. Many are still in use today. They include the words for alcohol (anitje) and money (rupiah). The most curious of those words is that for white people, whom they first heard described as Hollander. To this day, Balanda is the most common word for white person in Aboriginal languages.
Until the 19th century, these Makasarese were the first and only non-Aboriginal people they had encountered. Yolngu believed that, after life, souls travelled north; therefore these visitors came from the land of the dead. Just recently, parties of Yolngu have travelled to Ujungpandang (Macassar) to restore ties with these people.
The annual departure of the fishermen was a time of great ceremony. While Makasarese fishermen are now prohibited in Australian waters, this ceremony persists as theatre for official functions. This Rom ceremony has recently been played out in Canberra as an official connection to the Australian government and its Aboriginal institutions.
While colonisation is an egg that cannot be unbroken, many Australians have reason to wish that the encounter between Aborigines and Europeans might have been as civil as their dealings with the Makasarese. Nowadays, a shared concern for the environment provides one context for a contract between indigenous and colonisers.
This environment is more than just resource management. It is a custodial appreciation of the land on which livelihood depends. It is an ability to listen to the waves lapping its shores, and a willingness to meet those that the ocean delivers to its beaches. The English were not the first, and they will not be the last. History flows on.
Copyright held by author Kevin Murray