Crabbing Industry at Milingimbi and the Crocodile Islands 1960-1975.

In the1920’s the Reverend James Watson described Milingimbi Island as an ‘emerald jewel in a sapphire sea’ (Mackenzie 1976: 28). The Rev Theodore Webb, 1925-39 describes ‘primeval mud, swarming with crocodiles’ (McKenzie 1976: 34). Certainly there are lots of mangrove tree lined rivers full of crocodiles and mud in the Crocodile Islands. In the early 1960s the fishing industry at Milingimbi had a prosperous side line in the form of a crabbing industry. The crabbing industry was orchestrated entirely by Milingimbi women who worked energetically in the mangrove forests surrounded by the constant danger of crocodiles.[i] A system of job sharing, an informal practice among the men working at Milingimbi at the time, was followed by the women, with some looking after children, fixing nets and weaving while others caught crabs. The ladies who formed the vanguard of the industry were; Ŋuluru, Mayŋgurawuy, Djarrakurramawuy, Yaŋgana, Yalapany, Djaŋ’kawu, Ganyitiŋu, Warrŋayun and Muwat no 1[ii] All are well remembered as are those old crabbing days.

On Milingimbi Island, or more properly Yurruwi, largest of the inner Crocodile Islands, reside a wonderland of mangrove forests.[iii] The Islands rich in mud are rich in mud crabs that live in the mangroves (gathul)[iv] and sometimes can be found swimming in the shallow water on the mud flats (ṉinydjiya). Each day at Milingimbi, depending on the tides, the women would go to a different named mangrove forest to look for crabs. At different times, and tides, the women would search the mud in the mangroves for crabs at; Ŋambalpuma, Djiŋgilimara, Muwala, Binimirriŋguli, Gatjaw, Guḏudutji, Baḻma, Bulmatjirra and at Womila. [v]At the end of each day, or again depending on the tide, Alan or Lillian Fidock, or their helpers would pick up the ladies. After 1972 Lange Powell and Peter Dunstan would drive out to the edge of the mangroves to pick up the women and the crabs. At other times the men would take boats to the outer reef to fish and drop the women on the islands. The children would accompany them and learn their roles. The following story is happily remembered by Michelle, one of those lucky children.

Nhuŋi ŋapurr ŋyumukuniny

Nhuŋi ŋapurr ŋyumukuniny yan ŋapurr martjin bala River Songthu dhakalil nyoka’w, guyaw dirramun ga miyalk nyoka’w, ga djamarrkuḻi dhu marrtji buma wurruruwurruru ga goŋ gurrupan dirramuny märr ga walal dhu guya rakum. Walaltja miyalkwurr marrtjin ḻarrthalil nyoka’lil. Ga ŋunhi walal dhawathurr ḻarrthaŋur nyoka’mirr, ga walal roŋiyirriny marthaŋayu dirramuwurr mala guyamirr, walala dhu bala gurtha märram ga dhaŋalkum guyaw ga nyoka’w. Ḻurrkun ḻukanharraw ga wirripun marrtji fridgelil. Bala ŋayi captain waŋan ‘marrtjin limurr!’ bala wala miyalk marrtjin yan Wudarritjthu ga dirramu mala marrtji River Songdhu bala Milingimbilil. Watjim walal nyoka’ ga mipthurr guya ga bala galkaranha freezerlil. Yalala walaldhu sellinggu. Bala walal ga djulŋithirri bukmak yolŋu-yulŋu, ga balanya walal gan ḻukanhan guya free.

When we were young

When we were young we would go with the fishermen on the River Song and out to the islands to collect mud crabs with the women. We children would collect wurruruwurruru (sand crabs) as bait for the men’s fishing lines. The women would go into the mangroves to collect nyoka’ (mud crabs). We would collect fire wood and make a fire. When the men got back with fish, and the ladies got back with crabs we would eat some of them on the beach. Then the captain says ‘let’s go!’ and the men would return to Milingimbi on the River Song and the women would return on Wudarritj. Then we would wash the mud off the crabs and fillet the fish and put them in the freezer for selling. We were all happy and we had a big feed of fresh fish and crabs.[vi]

This photograph is taken on Bodjiriki Island. The little white boat in the left mid ground is Wudarritj, Big Bill Buthurugulili (Daŋyguli) was the captain. The black barge is Wurrpan no 2 – ŋurru djinbulk (sharp nose)[vii], behind which lies a lipa-lipa or dugout canoe. The island in the left background is Martharayŋa, and on the right is Djiŋgilimarra and Ŋambalpuma at Milingimbi. The trees in the middle ground are giyapara mangrove trees and look the same today as they did back then. Women would also take crabs from the other inner Crocodile Islands at; Gurmurrmurraŋa at Rapuma, Ganaŋgarrŋa Is, Martharayŋa Is, and mugupala Ck. at Nilpaywa Is.

My beautiful picture

Women crabbing at Bodjiriki Island. (Photograph courtesy Fidock Collection, 1602. Circa 1964)

When the tide goes out the crabs retreat to large holes in the deep grey anoxic mud and under the tangled mangrove roots. Ladies poke a stick, or the preferred steel rod with a hook at the end djimiku, into the opaque muddy holes and under the roots to feel for the tell-tale knock of hard crab shell. Then the game of wrestling them out without getting caught by the powerful nippers begins. Once out on the ground it is sometimes easier to break off the arm, and render the claws harmless, but the women carefully tie up the claws with string and, holding them down with their feet, wrap the string around, so that the crabs don’t fight. The powerful claws can easily crush fingers and toes and do damage to each other in the bag.

My beautiful picture

Untied crabs escaping from the bag. (Photograph courtesy Fidock Collection, 119. Circa 1965)

Mud crabs, nyoka for males and nyeŋa for females are plentiful on the inner islands[viii].Women only take the male crabs so as not to interfere with the natural increase. As Alan Fidock says ‘the women are consummate conservationists’. They said ‘we only take the males so there will be plenty of crabs for tomorrow’. So too, by moving around and leaving the females the crab population of any one place does not decline too significantly.

All of these named places in the mangroves are also home to crocodiles (bäru). The women kept a sharp eye on these large reptiles while out collecting crabs and when a bäru was spotted a great commotion erupted making sure everyone knew exactly what size and where the bäru is. Long experience and co-existence beget a mutual wariness and everyone and everything, reptiles, crabs and people got along fine as long as the rules are followed. Like everything that emerges from the mangroves the crabs were covered in mud.

My beautiful picture

Here is Marragalbiyana (Gamalaŋga) and Wulukaŋ (Warramiri) washing crabs at Ŋamuyani Milingimbi. (Photograph courtesy Fidock Collection, 223. Circa 1965)

The crabs must be handled very carefully and could not be left for too long and so were weighed and processed as soon as could be. A full grown male mud crab weighs in at about one kilogram. When all the crabs were tied up they were washed in cold sea water. This removed any mud and sand.

My beautiful picture

Crabs washed and tied and ready for cooking (Photograph courtesy Fidock Collection, 539. Circa 1965)

Before the crabs were cooked in boiling hot sea water, they were put in the freezer for about half an hour to stun them first. After the crabs had come out of the freezer they were immobilised and easy to pop into the big pot of boiling sea water. When the crabs turn bright orange then you can be sure they are cooked. They are left to cool for a while and then placed straight into the freezer to be sent to markets in Queensland and down south.

My beautiful picture

Frozen crabs in the freezer ready for export. (Photograph courtesy Fidock Collection, 118. Circa 1965)

Some crab meat was packed separately. When the crab comes out of the hot water it is left to cool. Once cooled the crab was cracked open. The white flesh of the crabs is removed and washed with cool sea water. The flesh from the crabs is packed into hard plastic containers and frozen for transport.  Don Williams and Alan Fidock (1982) describe the process in detail;

‘Throughout the processing of fish and crabs, speed and cleanliness are very important. Both types of meat spoil very easily. The whole process must be handled carefully from the time that the fish and crabs are taken live from the water or mud. Even when frozen, care must be taken to make sure that the temperatures of the freezers stay well below freezing point, and do not alter. When fish or crab meat is going to Darwin or other cities, special precautions are taken. Travel is by refrigerated ship or barge, or direct by plane in special containers to make sure that the quality is maintained’ (Fidock and Williams 1982: 205)

Milingimbi senior men, Joe Banguli (Wangurri) and Colin Yerrilil (Djambarrpuyŋu) reminisce that, children would gather around the freezer shed here at Ŋamuyani and wait for any cooked crabs legs that had fallen off to be handed out to them.

My beautiful picture

Jeffery Dhupuditj Garrawitja (Birrkili) packing frozen mud crabs at Ŋamuyani Milingimbi for transport by air to markets in the south. (Photograph courtesy Fidock Collection, 1062. Circa 1965)

Alan says that the Milingimbi crabs were often marketed as QLD mud crabs in Sydney in those days. Before the end of the RIVER SONG and changing global influences, it was imagined that the fishing industry might be a permanent local enterprise.  ‘The exporting of fish, and crabs, could eventually become very important for the local economy in North Eastern Arnhem Land, but first local needs must be met.’ (Fidock and Williams 1982: 203).

Women still go out collecting mud crabs at Milingimbi visiting the same named places. On the weekends you can see the smoke rising from the edge of the mangroves and hear the laughter of the children, and smell the burning mangrove stick as crabs are roasted and shared with family.[ix]


A very big thank you to: Alan and Lillian Fidock for their enormous contribution over the years and their wonderful photographic record of an amazing period. Thank you to Sue Raeburn, Kay Thurlow and Margret Miller who have in one way or another been behind so many positive projects of over the years. More thanks goes to my mother Michele Barratawuy Garrawurra, and elders; Colin Yerrilil Djambarrpuyŋu, Master Joe Baŋguli Wangurri, Nellie Milindirri Gupapuyŋu, Susan Balbuŋa Warrawarra, Judy Djinmalina Gamalaŋga, Norman Daymirriŋu and to Sandra, Michael, John and Mathew Garawirrtja for their help. And last of all to Big Boss who described the daily detail from the shade of trees on the beaches of Murruŋga.


Fidock, A., Williams, D. 1982. Introducing Aboriginal Australians. The Aboriginal Austrians of north eastern Arnhem Land, Series III, the Curriculum Development Centre, Canberra, Mead and Beckett Publishing Sydney.

James, B.1997. Notes and maps on Marine Turtle Custodians of Murruŋga. Unpublished

James, B., Baymarrwaŋa, L., Gularrbaŋa, R., Djarrga, M., Nyaŋbal, R., & Nyuŋunyuŋu, M., S., 2. 2003, Yan-nhaŋu Dictionary (Darwin NT: Charles Darwin University and Milingimbi: CEC Literature Production Centre) ISBN 0-9751719-0-9.

James, B. 2009a. Time and Tide in the Crocodile Islands: Change and Continuity in Yan-nhangu Marine Identity. Ph.D. Dissertation. School of Social Sciences, Anthropology and Archaeology. A.N.U. Canberra A.C.T. Unpublished.

James, B. 2009c. Yan-nhangu Ecological Knowledge and Learning in the Crocodile Islands: How to enhance biological, cultural and linguistic diversity through developing links NAILSMA Ltd.  C.D.U. Darwin. N.T.

James, B 2010c. Crocodile Islands Rangers Prospectus Report on prospects for upscaling Ranger Program for Yan-nhangu Maringa language groups and sea country. Murrungga Island. Unpublished. N.T.

Baymarrwaŋa, L. and B, James, 2014, Yan-nhaŋu Atlas and Illustrated Dictionary of the Crocodile Islands. Tien wah press, Singapore & Sydney Australia.

Lowe, B. 2004 Yolngu-English Dictionary ARDS Inc. Darwin, N.T.

McKenzie, M. (1976), Mission to Arnhem Land (Adelaide, SA: Rigby).

Zorc, R.D. 1986. Yolngu Matha Dictionary, Darwin, NT: School of Australian Linguistics, Darwin Institute of Technology).

End notes

[i] Described in Baymarrwaŋa, L. and B, James, 2014, Yan-nhaŋu Atlas and Illustrated Dictionary of the Crocodile Islands. Tien wah press, Singapore & Sydney Australia.

[ii] First five ladies are of the Djambarrpuyŋu group, the second two Garrawurra, and then the last two are Warrawarra and Birritjama, respectively.

[iii] Milingimbi is the name of the Well, also known as Macassan Well and Yurruwi is the name of the Island.

[iv] Gathul, alt: ḻarrtha’ (mangroves), includes species like wuḏuku, giyapara, muŋuṉmuŋuṉ and wudarritj, after which the boat was named

[v] Time, season and tide directed life in the Crocodile Islands, James, B 2009a.

[vi] Michelle Barratawuy Garrawurra at Gurruruwa Ŋamuyani Milingimbi 2017 recorded and transcribed by B. James.

[vii] Wurrpan (emu) no 2 was made at Milingimbi by engineer Mr Jim Blyth and Djaŋgalan Gupapuyŋu group. It was used for school camps and inter-island travel around the inner Crocodile Islands. It died of old age in 1977 and its remains lay next to those of the River Song at the barge ramp at Ŋamuyani.

[viii] Mud Crab (Scylla serrata), djikuyu (generic), nyoka’ (adult male), djinydjalma’, nyeŋa (adult female), nyuwaḻiyarr (plural) crabs.

[ix] Text, translations and research by Bentley James

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