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Arnhem Land, 1948 - Groote Eylandt

The first camp of the Expedition was on the Northern end of Groote Eylandt, situated in the Gulf of Carpentaria. It was anticipated that an island would have a distinctive Aboriginal culture and provide the opportunity to study unique flora, fauna and topography.  Groote Eylandt is now Aboriginal land and part of the Arnhem Land Aboriginal Reserve.  It is the homeland of, and is owned by, the Anindilyakwa people who speak the Anindilyakwa language. There are now three main settlements/missions on the island - Angurugu, Alyangula (a town developed around the mining of manganese) and Umbakumba.SLSA: PRG 1218/34/2847

The Expedition camp was near the Port Langdon Flying Boat Base which was used during World War Two, and was close to Umbakumba, a mission station under the custodianship of Mr Fred Gray and his wife Marjorie. Umbakumba was the name given to that part of the island by the Macassan traders (an Indonesian people) who had visited that part of the world well before the Dutch and other Europeans. Gray had worked in the area and was asked by the Government to stay on after World War Two and look after the mission, and he adopted the name Umbakumba when he established the settlement. The name continued when the Church Missionary Society took over the administration of the settlement from 1958 to 1966.

The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) was able to fly some Expedition personnel and supplies from Darwin to Groote Eylandt, however the remainder of the heavy equipment needed to be transported by sea.  The equipment consisted of 47 tons of food supplies, camping gear and scientific equipment, and Mountford arranged for the material to be brought to Groote Eylandt by the 200-ton barge known as the Phoenix. This was expected to take about 14 days.

Meanwhile, a RAAF Catalina made two journeys to fly some of the Expedition party and food supplies for 21 days to Groote Eylandt.  It was still the wet season, and although it was intended that they set out on 3 April, monsoonal rains held them back until the next day when they flew in to Little lagoon and established a camp at Umbakumba. By 6 April most of the party arrived to join the forward camp, except David Johnson, Herbert Deignan and Hal Walker, who travelled on the Phoenix

At this point transport and communications problems began to haunt the Expedition. Peter Bassett-Smith soon found that travelling had damaged that valves of the short-wave radio set and it would not work. Consequently the only way to communicate with the outside world was via an Aboriginal runner to Angurugu mission station on the other side of the island. When by 14 April food supplies were running low and there was no news of the Phoenix, Mountford took quite a risk and decided to walk to the mission station on Angurugu River, where he could use a radio to find out what was happening and decide what to do. They used Gray's launch to cover some of the distance by sea, but ran into a huge storm which forced them back to camp. The next day Mountford set out with a small party to walk the 38 miles (approximately 60 kilometres) to Angurugu River. The heavy rains had turned walking tracks into rivers, and Mountford wrote that the waist-deep swamps extended for miles. Mountford was nearly swept away when he fell into a fast running stream, and was rescued by some Aboriginal boys after he was able to grab onto a tree branch.  Mountford was 58 years old and suffered from lumbago, so he must have felt the worse for wear (PRG 1218/17/12, p. 293).

Late that night they arrived exhausted at Angurugu River and, finding the river too flooded to cross, camped miserably overnight in the mud with 'a sickly fire kindled from wet wood' (Monty, p. 135).  The next day they crossed the River in a dug-out canoe but, due to static, could not use the wireless communication until the evening.  Finally Mountford found out that the weather conditions had kept the Phoenix in Darwin, and he was able to secure the assistance of the Air Force to fly further supplies to the Groote Eylandt camp.  This was only a short reprieve for Mountford. Bassett-Smith was able to get the radio to work as a receiver, only to receive a message on 5 May that the Phoenix had run aground on a reef in Boucaut Bay near Milingimbi on the North Coast of Arnhem Land.  The people and supplies onboard were safe, but Mountford knew that more rough weather could well break up the wooden barge. 

Mountford asked Gray to take them to the stranded barge in his 33-foot launch, Wanderer II. The boat was buffeted by heavy seas for five days, and when they reached Milingimbi they were relieved to find that the barge had floated off the reef during high tide the previous day and was resting flat in the mud. They were able to load some of the scientific equipment on to their boat and, taking Deignan with them, set out for the six day, equally fraught, journey back to Umbakumba.  Then, as Mountford notes, 'on 24th May, six days after our arrival and five weeks after her scheduled time, the Phoenix entered Little Lagoon with the supplies for which we had waited so long'.  Now with all scientists and equipment in the one place, the work could get underway properly.

A 'campfire' song written by Bassett-Smith offers a humorous insight into the problems caused by the Phoenix.

'The Phoenix never came in'

An expedition left the north one day,
Flew by Catalina far away,
All the stores were to have gone ahead
On the barge Phoenix, instead
 But the Phoenix never came in.
While on Groote Eylandt they were near starvin'
She hadn't even left Darwin
 Oh! The Phoenix never came in.

Peter Bassett-Smith, Umbakumba, 12.6.48, (PRG 1218/17/44)

The party worked from this camp from 4 April until 8 July 1948.  Due to the late arrival of the Phoenix, the stay was about 7 weeks longer than anticipated, although this was seen as advantageous as it offered greater opportunity for study.  Mountford and Bassett-Smith made colour film of an Arawaltja Ceremony, and Mountford collected bark paintings and recorded the associated myths and songs. He also investigated the cave paintings on Chasm Island. The other scientists carried out substantial research - much of it groundbreaking in the identification of plant and animal species and the collection of anthropological information previously unrecorded in 'Western' science. 

The transport delays also necessitated the abandonment of the Roper River camp, so after 14 weeks on Groote Eylandt, the huge task of moving the camp to Yirrkala was undertaken. Although Yirrkala was the site of the attempted leadership coup (see The Expedition), Mountford often comments that this was by far the most pleasant and productive of the three camps, with Oenpelli being the most uncomfortable.

Readings: 

American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land, (1948). Records of the American-Australian scientific expedition to Arnhem Land, Melbourne : Melbourne University Press, 1956-1964.

Cole, Keith. Groote Eylandt Mission : a short history of the C.M.S. Groote Eylandt Mission, 1921-1971, Melbourne, 1971

Lamshed, Max. 'Monty' : the biography of C.P. Mountford, [Adelaide] : Rigby, 1972

Reports of Staff, Expedition to Arnhem Land, 1948, Mountford-Sheard Collection, PRG 1218/17/17.

The papers of Frederick Harold Gray of Umbakuma Mission are held by the AIATSIS Library, reference MS 2451

 

01. Groote Eylandt [map]
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02. Unloading supplies from a Catalina Seaplane
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03. Unloading Expedition supplies
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04. Unloading Expedition supplies
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05. Aboriginal man blowing a conch shell
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06. Aboriginal man scorching bark
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07. Painting of a sea eagle
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08. Paperbark Trees
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09. Two boys playing with a canoe
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10. Two children playing with a canoe
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11. Three children playing in the sand
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12. Green ant's nest
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