Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

The Baiini (Bajini)                                                                                                                                                                                       

These were people who appear to have come to northern Australia before the Macassans. They arrived in sailing ships (lolperu) long ago, some say maybe in the Dreamtime. According to the Dreamtimes stories of Djankawu and Laindjung, they came across them on their travels. The stories tell that Djankawu and his sisters met the Baiini and traded with them, including beautiful feathered string. According to the story, after the Baiini left Djankawu found the spoon the Baiini had used to stir fires used to cook trepang. The spoon was blackened and he liked it so he took the colour for his own, using the black in the painting of designs. Laindjung also met the Baiini, eating some of the rice they grew.

It is believed to be more likely that the arrival of the Bajini was much more recent than the Dreamtime, probably no earlier than the 15 th century, hundreds of years ago rather than thousands of years ago. There appear to have been 3 main points of contact between the Aboriginal People of north Australia and other peoples, brining alien influences. At Cape York, where the contact and influences were from New Guinea by way of the Torres Strait islands, Arnhem Land and the Kimberleys of the northwest. According to Berndt & Berndt (1954) the people of Arnhem Land may have had more intense contact over a longer period than any other group in Australia. In their songs the people of eastern Arnhem Land tell of the arrival of people in ships from the islands to the west, in what is now Indonesia, beyond the Arafura Sea and the Timor Sea. They sing of the golden brown bodies of the new arrivals, as well as their women. The songs tell of the stone houses the Bajini built, the cloth they wove and dyed, their gardens and the fish-spearing method that was apparently different from that of the Aboriginal People (Berndt & Berndt, 1964).

Unlike the Macassans, who came only to collect trepang, never setting up permanent camps with crops, apart from dropped tamarind seeds that sprouted, the trees still grown around their camp sites, the Baiini brought their entire families and built houses of stone and ironbark. They planted rice in Warrimiri country and Gumaidj country. The rice is birida (husked rice), called luda by the Baiini.

The thing that appears to have been remembered the most about the Baiini was the beauty of their women, who had lighter skin than the locals and wore multicoloured sarongs. It seems the men were hardly noticed, most of the stories are about the women and the things they did. It seems their every activity was watched with interest as they wove cloth on the looms they brought with them, from yarn they dyed in many colures in pots. The Yirritja people at Yirrkala carved the same designs on the figures they carved of the Baiini people that the women had on the cloth. The cloth was jalajal by the old Baiini and liba by the Macassans. The design, darabu, was a pattern of coloured triangles that was used in many combinations.

Many stories of the Yirritja are about the Baiini women and every activity they carried out. Some stories tell of the Baiini men's activities, such as fishing, hunting with harpoons and traps, but it is the beauty of the their women that was apparently most noted and is best remembered.

Evidence of the Baiini presence have been found along the coast of northeastern Arnhem Land and the nearby islands, in places such as Blue Mud Bay and Elcho Island. A number of rocks are said to be wrecked Baiini boats, their anchors, or places where incidents involving them took place.

Near Trial Bay there is a waterhole that is said to represent the vagina of a Baiini woman who had sexual intercourse there. A large rock near Cape Wilbeforce on Jamanga Island represents a boat the Baiini pulled up on to the land. Another place situated on the mainland near Pobassoo Island, it is said a group of Baiini rested in the shade of the boijama tree with their anchor being represented by a nearby rock. There are a number of other places the Aboriginal People associate with the Baiini mentioned in Jennifer Isaacs book, Australian Dreaming: 40,000 years of Aboriginal History.

The story relating the departure of the Baiini from Arnhem Land say that the Baiini headman saw smoke rising in the direction of Celebes and decided to go there. In Milingimbi a story called Macassan and Dog give each other fire gives a very similar account of the departure of the Macassans. According to this story, a long time ago a Macassan man came to the mainland by prau, landing at a place called Bambal, about 8 km (5 miles) from Elcho Island. On arriving on the shore he built a house for himself by driving bamboo poles into the ground. Then he planted rice (berratha), making holes with a stick that he poured the seed rice into, and when he finished his work he sat down. As he sat there a dog came to him and they talked to each other. The white man (Macassan) it is said offered matches to the dog, but the dog said he didn't need them because he had firesticks, duttji.

As they sat there the Macassan man saw smoke rising in the direction of his home, Murrunydjura, Guwalilnga, Dhangarrpura. He worried that his home was burning to pulled out the uprights of his house and departed for his home. According to the story the post holes are still there and the rice turned into shell middens.

After the Baiini left the rice fields were abandoned and the type of grass that grows there is now used as food for the Aboriginal People of the area. The local people eat the roots of  these grasses, or bulrushes, and say they are food that was brought by the Baiini (Isaacs, 2005).


Before Cook

Sources & Further reading

  • R.M. & C.H.Berndt, The world of the First Australians, 1964, Ure Smith, Sydney
  • Jennifer Isaacs, Australian Dreaming: 40,000 years of Aboriginal History, New Holland Publishers, 2005


Before Cook

Author: M. H. Monroe
Last Updated 30/09/2011

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