The Cocos Malays have a unique culture which emerged on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands. I'm Nicholas Herriman, anthropology lecturer at La Trobe University. My wife, Monika Winarnita, is also an anthropologist. Whenever we get a chance, do fieldwork the to Cocos (Keeling) Islands to learn about this Cocos Malay culture.
Monday, 3 February 2014
The bird that returns home
runs short orientations of Home Island. Under the Clunies-Ross
dynasty,* he had been trained up as a scuba diver by an American
and was put to work maintaining and cleaning the beacons and markers which
assist in navigating the lagoon. But, he told me, he got sick of working for
almost nothing on the islands. Relatives on the mainland helped organize work
for him. He learnt English word-by-word reading newspapers with a dictionary on
the side. He started off in Geraldton, then worked in Queensland, on Australia’s
Pacific Islands and then landed a job maintaining remote health
clinics in Western Australia’s Pilbara and Western Desert regions. He was based
in Port Hedland and his job involved driving a Landcruiser to places as remote
as Jigalong** transporting heavy supplies and fixing plumbing,
electrics, and so on.
very generous and welcoming gentleman, Nek Neng volunteered to take me on an
orientation of Home Island and to a kenduri.
This is a funeral ritual, which I will talk about some other time. Men had
gathered outside the house wearing sarongs and bright long-sleeved shirts, in the
Malay fashion. Inside other men were tahlil (chanting prayer). There I met an animal that was obviously designed as a cross-between
a duck, cat and ocean bird. If you haven’t met him yet, let me introduce to you
perhaps the world’s greatest pet, man’s other best friend, the Playful Bird (Burung Main-main).
to what the men told me, the Playful Bird comes from Keeling Island.*** Dr Oliver Berry tells me it looks like a Brown Booby and I'm in no position to disagree. The fine specimen pictured above was nipping at my sandals in a
manner that was, well, playful. It didn’t mind its owner picking it up. To top
it all off, you can eat them too. When I asked if people ate these birds in the old days, and
men assured me they had. I couldn’t catch exactly what they were saying
then, but it was something along the lines of: with the arrival of government (i.e.
1984, when the Cocos (Keeling) Islands became part of Australia) to eat a Playful Bird was to langgar (break the law). I’d like to think that they just wanted an excuse for not eating such a friendly creature! If you get
a baby Playful Bird and raise it, it will always come home. It will fly off in
the morning but then, just as surely, will return by the evening.
could be said for many who have left Home Island. After spending his working
life away, Nek Neng wished to retire to his birthplace. As
he was showing me around the places, I was touched by his deep sense of nostalgia and belonging
to the island.Perhaps this connection might help explain why, even
when speaking Malay, local people refer to their island using the English words “Home Island”.
Clunies-Ross dynasty were generations self-styled kings of Scottish origins who controlled the Cocos Malay population and the islands from the
** I mentioned Prof Tonkinson’s widely-admired ethnography, The Mardu Aborigines, in my blog "Laying some foundations". Some Mardu lived in
Cocos (Keeling) Islands consists of two atolls—Keeling Island (a single island)
and Cocos Islands (comprising many islands, two of which are inhabited).