yolgnu men dancing

Yilpara Men Dancing
Photo supplied by EALTA © 2001

Yolgnu History

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 and culture.

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.

European Contact

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.

ventura wreck

Ventura A59-81 (EX42-49431) Gove 1944 Photo courtesy of Allan Love

boomerang bomber

Boomerang MH-T (A46-158) 83 Squadron, on standby near Crew Hut, Gove 1944 Photo courtesy of Phil Herdman

catalina bomber

Catalina A24-373 RK-A flying over Arnhem Land. Photo courtesy Phil Herdman

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

world war II bomber

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.

More recently

- By 1970, nearly a thousand Yolngu people lived in the town.

- 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.

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