Sunday, February 6, 2022

The Asian Century was underway long before the British arrived

We are all used to being astounded as we see growing evidence of how widespread contact and trade was across the breadth of the ancient European world and with worlds far beyond. The Romans and the Vikings and many after them all roamed far and wide. This is the stuff of a hundred television documentaries that show just how interconnected the ancient world was. Connection, not isolation, has always been the norm. Seaways were bridges, not barriers – a way to bring people together, not divide them. Now important archaeological work confirms just how widespread that cross-cultural, international network was across the whole of Northern Australia, long before the British arrived.

For many years I worked in the Australian Government programs which supported the efforts by local communities across Australia to revive or keep thriving their First Nations languages and culture. As part of this I travelled to East Arnhem Land on several occasions to attend the long-running annual Garma Festival and visit the well-respected Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre in Yirrkala. One of the first things that strikes you in East Arnhem Land is that you are far closer to Indonesia and Timor than you are to Perth or Sydney or Melbourne – or Tasmania, my original island home.

Ancient traditions of Aboriginal ceramics have contemporary equivalents. Ceramic pots by artist Tjimpuna Williams, Ernabella Arts Centre, in a DESIGN Canberra pop up mini exhibition, 2015. In a perfect example of cross-cultural and cross-national collaboration, the ceramics were created during a residency in Jingdezhen, China, in early 2015, with long-time Craft ACT member, Janet deBoos.

At the time the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, where I worked, was developing its important White Paper strategy, ‘Australia in the Asian Century’, under the leadership of Ken Henry. There’s no question it was an important marker for the future of Australia. This was when the first hints of what the Asian Century meant really began to appear. In East Arnhem Land I had heard about the close and long-running and amicable connections between the Macassans and the Yolngu people.

The Asian Century began long before our time
I became fascinated by discovering that the Asian Century had in fact commenced long before the British arrived. Much earlier than Cook, local Yolgnu communities in Northern Australia had formed long-running trade and cultural partnerships with the neighbouring Macassans from Sulawesi in what is now Indonesia. This was built on commerce but developed into far more. We might talk about the importance of the Asian Century but the Yolngu were already partnering with Asia long before Australia even existed.