The earliest history of Eastern Arnhem Land is recorded
in the paintings, dances and songs of the Yolngu , the Aboriginal
people of the region, which tell of creation ancestors bringing
lands and waters, people, animals and plants into being and laying
down the Law that governs them all. The Law defines who owns and
manages the lands and waters, essential features of Yolgnu identity
Click here to read "Journey of the Wititj"
(Serpent, Olive python) by Dhänggal Gurruwiwi
The Yolngu have had a great deal of contact with outsiders for several hundred years, including Macassan traders who traveled from Sulawesi every year with the north-west wind of the monsoon to collect trepang (sea cucumber) for the China trade. They brought with them metal knives, cloth and tobacco to trade, and Macassan words and songs, which are part of Yolngu culture today.
The first recorded European contacts with the region
were an exploratory voyage by the Dutch. In 1623 Willem van Colster
sailed into the Gulf of Carpentaria and Cape Arnhem is named after
his ship the Arnhem. Several other fleeting sorties occurred up
to the early 1700s, however it was not until 1803 that Matthew Flinders
on his Australian circumnavigation made the first detailed charting
of the Arnhem Land coast in the Investigator.
North-west of the Gove Peninsula in the English Company's Islands Flinders came across the Macassan fishing fleet on their seasonal visit. Japanese pearlers and trepangers replaced the Macassans after the South Australian government stopped their visits in 1907.
During the early nineteenth century contact with overland prospectors and cattlemen as they travelled north frequently led to conflict. In 1931 an area of some 96,000 sq km was proclaimed Arnhem Land Aboriginal Reserve. Today the Land Trust holds some 100,000 sq km as Aboriginal freehold land (with the exception of mining leases).
The Methodists established a mission at Yirrkala on the Gove Peninsula in 1935.
World War II
During World War II, the Gove Peninsula was a key
in the defense of northern Australia. Three operational air squadrons
were based here:
- 83 Squadron - flew Boomerangs
- 13 Squadron - flew Venturas
- 42 Squadron - flew Catalinas
WWII wreckage - Milingimbi - Photo by David Suiter
There was an airfield on the site of the present
Gove airport, and a flying boat base at Drimmie Head. The Peninsula
derived its name from a RAAF navigator who died in a mid-air collision
in the vicinity.
Yolngu people also took an active part in the action providing invaluable service in a specially created Reconnaissance Unit led by anthropologist, Dr. Donald Thomson to monitor the Arnhem Land coast for Japanese intrusions.
World War II relics can be seen around Gove Peninsula. Historic sites include Drimmie Head where the Catalinas landed in the bay and taxied onto land and remnants of the ELDO (European Launch Development Organisation) program satellite down range tracking station. The planes featured in the images where all based in Gove.
There is also a War Memorial located at Yirkalla just south of Nhulunbuy which is dedicated to the Yolgnu men trained to defend our shores from Japanese attack.
- By 1970, nearly a thousand Yolngu people lived in
- In 1973, Nabalco, (now Rio Tinto Alcan Gove) a Swiss / Australian consortium started mining and processing a 250 million tonne (one of the world's largest) bauxite deposit and established the new town of Nhulunbuy.
- The local Yolngu clans had been opposed to this development and made their concerns known in the now famous 'Bark Petition' sent to the Commonwealth Parliament in 1963. This led to the first major legal action over land rights and although the Yolngu case was lost, it led to the introduction of the 1976 Northern Territory Land Rights Act.
- Under this Act, Arnhem Land was returned to its Aboriginal owners along with other traditional lands in the Northern Territory. Mining is expected to continue until the middle of the twenty-first century.