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The Ancient African Coins of Arnhem Land

Kilwa coins

With the Kilwa coins, we have potential evidence of much earlier contacts that challenge the Captain Cook-centred view of Australian history that prioritises English and some Dutch discoveries.

By Ian McIntosh

Indigenous knowledge is informing a scientific expedition that hopes to uncover the origins of medieval African coins that may have been left in Arnhem Land hundreds of years before the arrival of Cook.

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.

I first learned about the Kilwa coins in the late 1980s when I lived on the Yolngu community of Elcho Island in north-east Arnhem Land. I was working closely with the traditional owner of the Wessel Islands, the late David Burrumarra MBE, on issues of social justice, sea rights and reconciliation. Burrumarra and I even toyed with the idea of mounting an expedition to try and solve the mystery of how ancient coins from East Africa ended up in his homeland more than 8000 km away.

Burrumarra, the leader of the Warramiri–Golpa clan, had spoken at length to me about the history of Yolngu connections with the wider world. The north-east Arnhem Land coast is alive with references to past contacts. He would describe, for example, how at “the beginning of time” a harpooned whale had dragged a large sailing canoe filled with black men onto the Australian coast. I wondered to myself if there was any trace in the land or seascape to mark this historic occasion.

He would speak about a beach where “men with hats of mirror” had come ashore on the Wessel Islands, a possible reference to armoured outsiders. Were they the Portuguese freebooters who had looted and burned Kilwa, an island off the coast of Tanzania, in 1505?

Among the most fascinating stories were those of the flying fox people who, in partnership with Yolngu, had made boats from local timber and iron...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.