Visitors have been coming here for a long time, with Macassan and Bugis sailors first arriving in their boats some 400 years or more ago searching for ‘beche de mer’ (the sea cucumber or trepang), which was highly valued for trade with Southern China. The exact dates of when they first made contact with the Groote Eylandt Indigenous clans and for roughly how long, is still being researched through archaeological and anthropological studies. The Aboriginal clans on the island gave these visitors license to dive for this delicacy and to camp on the beaches, with the Macassans often engaging the local people to work with them.
The Macassans brought with them culinary delights, including tamarinds, chilli and beer which they often used to try and bargain with the locals for access to women. These incursions, in breach of strict laws, caused skirmishes and social issues, including the occasional abduction of women for their return journey home. It’s no surprise then that Indonesian historical records report a number of massacres by the Aboriginal people.
The interactions were not all bad; however, as the visitors did bring with them new maritime technologies which were subsequently taken up by the Aboriginal people, affording them the ability to travel and fish more successfully. Art, language, economies and genetics on Groote Eylandt have all been influenced by several hundred years of contact.
Trade with the Macassans ceased abruptly in 1906 due to changes to Commonwealth Government laws regarding Australian waters and fishing rights.
First contact with the later arriving Europeans is well-documented although slightly contentious. According to historical records, Willem van Coolsteerdt first sighted the island in 1623 aboard the Dutch ship Arnhem. In 1644, Abel Tasman, in the service of the Dutch East India Company, arrived on the island’s shores pronouncing it ‘Groote’ or great – meaning large. However the prevalence of Mikado Josephs Disease on the island suggests that Portuguese visitors may have been among the first of the Europeans to arrive in approximately 1558, with alternative histories suggesting that 25 Portuguese settlers and merchants landed on Groote at this time.
It wasn’t until nearly 400 years later that the Anglican missionaries, under the auspices of the Church Missionary Society (‘CMS’) came bringing with them the Christian bible, food and the promise of salvation. They arrived in the 1921 and stayed until 1971, leaving many mission buildings in their wake, including a beautiful open air church on the banks of the Angurugu River where the community of Angurugu now stands.
In the 1930s, another entrepreneur in the trepang market, this time an Englishman, Fred Gray, visited the east side of the island. He stayed on and eventually set up education facilities and a seaside indigenous community in a stunning bay. Now the site of Umbakumba, some of these heritage buildings are still standing. For the people of Groote’s east coast, Fred Gray brought supplies upon which they became reliant, so beginning their sedentarisation and change of lifestyle.
In 1938 Umbakumba became renowned as the service and fuelling point for the Qantas flying boats. During WWII this converted to a Royal Australian Air Force flying base. After the war, the Church Missionary Society (CMS) came over from Angurugu to run the community of Umbakumba until 1966 when the Australian Government took over.
The 1950s brought white men in search of a different kind of wealth, hidden deep in the ground. In 1964 the Church Missionary Society and BHP agreed on royalty payments to allow mining. Mineral exploration began in earnest and in 1965 the Groote Eylandt Mining Company (GEMCO) began mining manganese.
Today, this mining still occurs, mainly on the western side of the island, with respect for the wishes of the Anindilyakwa people, who wish to conserve their beaches and oceans for generations to come. GEMCO, now owned by South32, is today seen as a partner for the Anindilyakwa people in providing employment, training and financial security for their children’s future.
Mining royalties have allowed the Anindilyakwa people to incorporate many very successful businesses, including the Eylandt Lodge – a resort based around cultural tourism; Groote Eylandt and Bickerton Island Enterprises; Aminjarrinja and others.
In 1976 Groote Eylandt became Aboriginal freehold land and in 2006, the archipelago became an Indigenous Protected Area.