May 22, 2024 Last Updated 6:09 AM, May 21, 2024


Published: Sep 22, 2007
Indigenous Australians and Indonesians celebrate a shared story across the Arafura Sea

Alan Whykes interviews Andrish Saint-Clare

What have sea slugs, Yolngu Aboriginal people and Indonesian maritime power have in common? Quite a lot, which is exactly why the history of Macassan trepang voyages to northern Australia deserves to be widely recognised. Andrish Saint-Clare is an arts worker specialising in indigenous and intercultural performance. He has spent almost five years putting together a multi-dimensional project that is reaffirming these links. While the last trepang voyage in 1907 brought direct contact to a halt, the stories and cultural memories were lovingly preserved in the respective Yolngu and Macassan traditions. Now, across the Arafura Sea, the two peoples are working together to bring their fascinating relationship to a wider audience.

What prompted you to try to reconnect the Yolngu and Macassan cultures?

I was interested in the potential to create something contemporary from the mix of the historic and cultural elements, without surrendering the fundamental integrity and dignity of the people as they see themselves. It gave me the opportunity to integrate my interests in art form and intercultural studies, and also to perhaps contribute toward the expression of indigenous aspirations and pride. From the wider national perspective, I wanted to find out what insights might emerge from indigenous experience of precolonial contact with outsiders.

What materials did you have to work with?

In my initial field work, and from reading books such as Voyage to Marege, I found that the Aboriginal people had a considerable number of stories, songs and dances about this contact history with Macassans. As a whole the songs about the Macassan era can be seen as a preliterate encyclopaedia of commodities and practices introduced by the Macassans. I was also surprised and amazed to notice various Islamic influences, which I didn't know had made their way to Australia.

I was even more unprepared for the great emotional attachment to these stories among the two peoples, stories laced with broken family ties and lost friendships. It has never been acknowledged that the banning of the trepang visits was a tragic blow to the identity and indeed welfare of the coastal peoples.

To call it just 'history' is perhaps to sell the record short. Sometimes I think we forget that the medium of ceremonial record-keeping in preliterate times had something that writing has almost killed: the communal sharing of text through performance.

On the Macassan side, where contemporary conceptions of ceremony are morekin to ideas of performing arts, they were also keen to present their maritime history of voyages to Australia through a performance project. In Sulawesi the joint performance was also viewed as a breakthrough model for cultural tourism.

At the grass roots level in the villages around the Makassarese coast, such as Galesong, people still tell their stories of the time when many a crew and captain were lost never to be heard of again. It was in the villages that the Yolngu were also most curious, as it was in these places that descendants and graves of some trepanger families could still be found.

So how did the artistic cooperation unfold?

The central process was one of continual translation. Not only did we work with at least four languages, but the differences in culture and concepts made it inevitable that we would have to come up with a whole new genre of presentation. From the Aboriginal side there was very little notion of rehearsal and practice or of the roles taken for granted in mainstream performing arts. Functions such as writer, director and producer were quite alien and had to be constantly negotiated. Moreover, indigenous protocols and scruples on both sides of how people wished to portray their own identity, had to be carefully dealt with.

For example, the now more strictly Muslim Macassans were initially reluctant to address issues like their introduction of gambling and drinking to Yolngu, while the representation of the abduction of and occasional marriage to Yolngu women that had occurred during many of the trepang expeditions required a delicate and careful approach.

There were also strengths that kicked the project along such as musical ability, facility for songwriting, love for rituals and a general gusto for performing. The Yolngu have a highly developed sense of ensemble movement which was difficult for the Macassans to match. However they were able to respond with their own form of operetta and farce which stands in stark contrast to the high seriousness of Yolngu stage presence.

What arts events have taken place under Trepang Project?

The ground-work required extensive consultation with clan leaders and the community at Elcho Island. This paved the way for a series of workshops at Galiwinku culminating in a visit by a group of five Macassan performers in 1996. The workshops focussed on cultural maintenance from a community perspective. They included mutual exploration of loanwords, set design and construction, drama improvisation and Macassan music and dance. At the end of a month a large community event was staged which featured joint performance and gift exchange. The focal point of this event was a sand and bamboo sculpture of a Macassan perahu (padewakang) complete with tripod mast and working sail.

A year later we were invited by the regent of Gowa to participate in the Gowa Foundation Day celebrations and present a commemorative performance. The five week visit by 16 Yolngu cultural practitioners and a small support team involved school visits, television recordings, festival appearances, family visits and further development of the collaborative performance. The circumstances allowed for intensive rehearsals and melding of the discrete cultural items into a coherent narrative. The underlying story was of the journey of a Macassan perahu to Marege and the ensuing encounters with Aboriginal people.

Through this framework we used traditional performance elements that express the essence of the interaction between the two cultures. The resulting stage production called Trepang is of about 70 minutes duration and may be described as an indigenous opera. Trepang not only brings alive a fascinating period in the history of this part of the world, but also represents a break-through in presenting traditional culture to the contemporary public.

How did the audiences in Gowa and Ujung Pandang respond to this story and the way it was told?

The major performance was greeted with great enthusiasm and delight. Although our intent was mainly educational, the event obviously struck a chord with Macassans who are proud of their sailing achievements and their links with the Yolngu. There is no tradition of drama in eastern Indonesia, so the format of the performance generated excitement about a new way, accessible and enjoyable, of representing their history.

The governor of South Sulawesi, who cancelled other appointments to watch the entire performance, remarked that the Trepang Project initiative would help to establish the kind of dialogue and interaction that would consolidate friendship into the future not only between Macassan and Yolngu peoples but at the wider Australia-Indonesia level. News of the performance was widely featured in the Indonesian media, unlike Australia where it has been difficult to generate appropriate coverage. Despite Australia's supposed interest in being part of Asia, various government agencies have given only superficial recognition to the project. This has caused problems in raising the funds required to document the achievements so far and to extend the project in new directions including major public performance in Australia.

I understand you have been trying to compile a CD-ROM about Trepang Project and the associated cultural material. Is that suffering from this lack of funds?

Yes. A prototype CD-ROM was completed late last year and relied heavily as usual on in-kind support from the artists involved. The aims are to prepare an invaluable curriculum tool for Australia about an aspect of our history that is currently under-represented, and also to map out a cultural resource management program for the community. It may be surprising to some people that after 200 years, the wealth and beauty of indigenous cultural heritage remains largely unknown for the majority of the population. The neglect is catastrophic in many ways. This culture is fast disappearing and is deserving of our best efforts to preserve and record where we can, especially through modern means such as multimedia.

Then there's the issue of regional funding in the Northern Territory. It just so happens that the 'region' of the Northern Territory includes the neighbouring areas of Southeast Asia which makes it even more important to have transparent processes that allow for a serious and useful cultural development agenda. Trepang Project is one of very few to be working on creative, innovative and perhaps profitable concepts of cooperation and collaboration. Yet it has proved almost impossible to access and maintain government support, despite the increase in funding for regional development.

Where is Trepang Project heading now?

We would still like to put on a Yolngu-Macassan performance at a major festival in Australia. I have been approached by arts practitioners and academics from Europe, the USA and various cities in Australia who have indicated that Trepang represents a major new work. There is considerable interest from indigenous organisations as well. However we are facing high costs because we are working with performers from remote areas and overseas. As a result this enthusiasm has not translated into sufficient funding for a viable future based on live performance.


Macassan – Aboriginals still refer to all people who came on trepang voyages that generally originated from Makassar, including Bugis, Bajo and other ethnic groups, as Macassans.

Yolngu - an inclusive name for the various clans and language groups who inhabit the northeast coast of Arnhem Land and nearby islands.

Gowa - a Makassarese kingdom established in the 14th century in what is now South Sulawesi. Gowa was for centuries one of the powers behind the trade in trepang, or dried sea slug.

Contact Andrish Saint-Clare at email Web:

Alan Whykes also lives in Darwin and is the Australian correspondent for Indonesia’s Republika newspaper.

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