Indigenous people have inhabited Groote Eylandt for some 8000 years. Their first encounter with visitors is thought to be in around 1700, when Macassan sailors came in search of trepang, or sea cucumber, a marine invertebrate highly prized by the Chinese for its culinary and medicinal values.
The clans allowed them to dive for trepang and camp on the beaches in exchange for steel knives, axes, cloth, tobacco and culinary delights like tamarinds and chilli. After some 300 years of contact, Macassan influences are still strong in Groote Eylandt’s art, language and genetics; Macassan boats and people are featured in a number of early bark paintings produced by local artists.
The next contact is thought to be in 1623, when Willem van Coolsteerdt first sighted the island aboard the Dutch ship Arnhem. In 1644, Abel Tasman made shore on the island, pronouncing it ‘Groote’ or great, meaning large. English explorer Matthew Flinders later circumnavigated the island in 1803.
In 1921, Anglican missionaries arrived on the island and established a Christian mission, the first European settlement on the island. They left in 1971, leaving many buildings in their wake, including a beautiful open-air church on the banks of the Angurugu River where the community of Angurugu now stands.
In the 1930s, an Englishman named Fred Gray visited the east side of the island, where he stayed on and set up education facilities and a seaside Indigenous community, which is now the site of Umbakumba. In 1938, Umbakumba became the service and fuelling point for the Qantas flying boats, which during WWII was converted to a Royal Australian Air Force flying base.
The 1950s brought white men in search of a different kind of wealth: the manganese hidden deep in the ground. In 1965, the Groote Eylandt Mining Company (GEMCO) started mining manganese, which is used to harden steel. Mining continues today.
Groote Eylandt became Aboriginal freehold land in 1976 when land rights were granted to the Anindilyakwa people. In 2006, the archipelago was officially named as an Indigenous Protected Area.
Visitors can learn more about the rich history of Groote Eylandt on excellent historical displays at the lodge’s art centre.