Playwright resurrects lost history of Sulawesi-Aboriginal bonds

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The Jakarta PostNovember 19, 2007 – Features

Daniel Rose, Contributor, Jakarta

“It was a 400-year relationship—at least!” exclaimed Julie Janson, an Australian playwright, interviewed during her recent visit to the Australian Embassy in Jakarta.

In Indonesia to take up a literature residency at Bung Hatta University in Padang, Janson hopes to bring a production of her latest work, The Eyes of Marege, to Jakarta, Bandung and Makassar next year.

The play tells the hidden story of links between Australian Aborigines and sailors and traders from South Sulawesi. Janson explained to The Jakarta Post that the Aboriginal people in Arnhem Land have inherited poetic song cycles that tell stories of the Makassans coming across the ocean in their perahu (boats).

“There are paintings of the Makassans and their perahu in caves, and a lot of traditional songs and dances that talked about the Makassans,” she added.

But first, some background. Makassar, the capital city of South Sulawesi, has long been known to Australians as “Makassa”—and thus the people are known as Makassans. From the 16th to 19th centuries, Makassa was one of the busiest seaport cities in the world. Makassan sailors traveled as far afield as China and India for trading purposes. Less known is that Makassan sailors also traveled regularly to northern Australia looking for teripang (sea slugs) and, while there, established relationships with the local people.

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Janson, herself of distant Aboriginal ancestry, has always been attracted to anything indigenous. “I’ve been interested to find out the history of my family and the history of my Aboriginal family in Australia. That led me to Arnhem Land when I was only 24. As soon as I got up there, I heard about the Makassans”. Many years later, she decided to write a play that would recreate the secret history of the people of Northeast Arnhem Land and the Makassan fishermen of Sulawesi at the turn of the 20th century.

The Eyes of Marege revolves around Birramen, a Yolngu (one of Australia’s indigenous communities) man who voyages to Makassar to face the law for killing a Makassan fisherman over the theft of his sacred initiation dillybag (traditional bag).

Marege was the Makassan word for Arnhem Land, or the north of Australia. Australians don’t know the word, but people in Makassa do. So I wanted to introduce that word to Australians. The Eyes of Marege means the Aboriginal people looking back across the sea to look for the perahu (boats) coming,” Janson said.

“There are something like 200 Indonesian words in the Aboriginal language in northern Australia that totally predate Europeans coming to Australia,” said Janson, underlining the connection between the Makassans and indigenous Australians at that time. “I think Indonesians will find it very interesting.”

The Eyes of Marege, which was initially the first part of a longer play, The Crocodile Hotel, was performed in Adelaide and Sydney with co-directors Sally Sussman and Asia Ramli Prapanca, and in collaboration with the comic and highly physical Teater Kita Makassar.

Asked about sources for The Eyes of Marege, Janson explained that, unable to read anything in Indonesian, she relied on history written by Australian writers, especially The Voyage to Marege by C.C. Macknight. The play also includes traditional songs, dances, music, and even adzan (the call to prayer in Islam), something that Australian audiences have rarely seen in an Australian production.

Perhaps most surprisingly, the play recounts that the Aboriginal people were excited every time the Makassans came ashore—not only because they brought cloth, rice, and metal knives in exchange for sea slugs, but also for more personal reasons. Intermarriage was common between the two cultures.

The closeness of the historical relationship was confirmed for the playwright by one of the indigenous actors in the cast of the recent production of The Eyes of Marege. Recounted Janson, “Djakapurra (Munyarryun) said, ‘My grandfather is buried in Makassa,’ and all the Teater Kita Makassar men got up and hugged him, and said, ‘Brother’.”


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