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The Yolngu have occupied their lands since the earliest of known time. The first recorded contacts between the Yolngu and the world beyond Australia came with the arrival of Macassan traders from Indonesia around the beginning of the eighteenth century. The Macassans came to collect trepang, or sea slugs, and other oriental luxuries. The Yolngu obtained metal axes, knives, cloth and tobacco from them, adopted many Macassan words, and incorporated the story of the Macassans into their oral and art traditions.

The first recorded contact between the Yolngu and Europeans was in 1803 when Matthew Flinders visited the area.

In the 1880s Arnhem Land was divided into a number of pastoral leases and violence ensued as the Yolngu resisted the occupation of their lands by the newcomers. Yolngu oral history and genealogical records attest to a number of massacres having taken place in the period around World War I.

The 1930s brought more conflict between Yolngu and outsiders, beginning with the killing of a group of Japanese fishermen at Caledon Bay in 1933. A police investigation resulted in the spearing of a Police Constable on Woodah Island after a group of women were rounded up and held under guard.

In 1935 government authorities allowed the Methodist Overseas Mission to establish the settlement of Yirrkala in the hope that it would bring peace to the region. In the years following the establishment of the mission station, many Yolngu moved from surrounding areas to live there.

A more traumatic change occurred after vast quantities of bauxite were discovered on Yolngu land on the Gove Peninsula in the 1950s. In 1963, without consulting the original owners, the Commonwealth Government authorised prospecting by a French company, Pechiney. The same year, the Yolngu sent their famous bark petition to Canberra in protest. In 1966 the mining lease was transferred to a consortium of Swiss and Australian companies operating as Nabalco. In 1968 the Yolngu took the Commonwealth and Nabalco to court in the first land rights case in Australian history: Milirrpum v Nabalco Pty Ltd and the Commonwealth of Australia. From 1969 to 1971 the Gove land rights case (as it was known) was heard, the Yolngu challenging the mining company and seeking legal recognition of their ownership of the land. The case was unsuccessful, but paved the way for later land rights legislation, the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976, and the historic Mabo decision, recognising the pre-existence of Native Title for the first time in 1992.

The opening of the Nabalco mine brought mining royalties but also many negative influences associated with the proximity of the new mining town of Nhulunbuy, including the destructive effects of alcohol.

In the 1970s a new government policy of self-determination helped Yolngu to begin to move back to and control their own clan lands. The homeland, or outstation movement, made it possible for Yolngu to move away from the pressures of life at Yirrkala and the nearby mining town.

Gove Peninsula
Beach at Yirrkala, 2002.