NICHOLAS HERRIMAN and MONIKA WINARNITA enter into the spirit of gift-giving among the Cocos Malays.
Giving and receiving play a huge role in the life of Australia’s Cocos Malays. This struck home for us when returning from fieldwork in the Cocos (Keeling) Islands.
After the long, turbulent flight, we collected our luggage and a special consignment—two eskies organised by our Cocos Malay host parents to take to their family in Perth.
Customs had a quick look at the contents of the eskies, and waved us through—they’re used to hundreds of eskies coming every week from the Cocos Islands. Equally intriguing, hundreds of eskies also accompany passengers heading back to the islands. But what is in them, and why are there so many? The answers lie in the current significance of seafood, Facebook and gifts in the lives of today’s Cocos Malays.
Australia’s offshore possessions include the twin atolls of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, in the Indian Ocean, 2750 kms northwest of Perth. The locals, Cocos Malays, could be considered Australia’s oldest, continuous Muslim community. Originating for the most part in Southeast Asia, they were transported to the islands in 1827 and put to work harvesting coconuts by the Clunies-Ross dynasty. The rule of these European–Malay ‘white rajas’ was only brought to an end in 1984, when the Cocos Malays voted to become part of Australia.
The Cocos Malays are unique in their Malay dialect as well as their customs, which combine Scottish (e.g. dancing reels), Malay (e.g. ritual feasts), Islamic (e.g. fasting month) and Australian (e.g. Australia Day) elements.
About 400 Cocos Malays live on Home Island. Local Cocos Malays also reside on West Island—the only other inhabited island in the atolls—where the airport is, and a small ‘expat’ population from the Australian mainland live. The local population is all that remains after a huge emigration—partly forced, partly free—which began in the 1940s and resulted in Cocos Malay communities being established in Malaysia, on Christmas Island and in Perth, Katanning, Bunbury, and Port Hedland in Western Australia. The majority of Cocos Malays today live in migration.
Wherever Cocos Malays live, seafood is highly significant in their culture. However, fishing is not necessary for survival and, even on the Cocos Islands, is supplemented by provisions from a local supermarket. Fishing is also not conceived of as a job, identity or sport—though good catches are highly prized and men are exceedingly, but subtly, competitive for such catches. Several species attract prestige and admiration. For example, spider shell (gong-gong) is collected by teams of families. It is abundant and its meat is used in all manner of Cocos Malay food.
Some indication of the importance of seafood comes through Facebook. Many Cocos Malay women and some men we knew are connected through Facebook. Their posts range from holiday snaps, photos of their children, pearls of wisdom, and links. These Facebook friendships also span to Cocos Malays on mainland Australia, and Borneo. A common post is a photo of the day’s catch, and often an accompanying text indicating the religious significance of the catch—for example, ‘This is what my husband caught, thanks to Allah.’ Sometimes Cocos Malays living overseas will respond, commenting on how delicious the catch looks and asking for some. Which brings us to gifts.
Giving gifts and receiving
Anthropologists generally think that no-strings-attached gifts are rare. Generally gifts have strings attached. Mostly, when we give somebody a present, we are also binding them into an obligation. At the very least they are obligated to reciprocate in some way, but are also obliged to maintain social connections. Therefore gifts bring people together.
Gifts can range from the everyday to the ritual. Among the Cocos Malays, examples of everyday gifts abound. A man returning from fishing gives part of his catch to his brother, whose wife cooks the fish and gives some to her neighbour, who returns the favour by picking up some soap from the shop. Such simple acts are so common worldwide that many might think they’re hardly worth commenting upon.
Gift-giving also occurs in ritual contexts. For a community of 400, the frequency of rituals on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands astounded us. There are rituals for new life stages—birth, circumcision, marriage and death; rituals to mark Islamic celebrations such as the fasting month and the birth of the Prophet; and rituals to celebrate birthdays parties, farewells and national days of celebration. For most occasions you need to give at least one, if not several, gifts—and you might receive some too. These of course will need reciprocating.
Against this background of seafood, gift-giving and Facebook, the eskies at the airport begin to make sense. The eskies we brought were full of seafood. After much consultation with their daughter in Perth, our host parents on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands settled on what seafood to send and how to obtain it. As is usually but not always the case, our host father went out to the lagoon to gather highly prized items like spider shell and snapper. Our host mother gutted, cleaned, bagged and froze the catch. What they couldn’t obtain themselves, they got from relatives and friends on Home Island.
On arrival at Perth Airport, we passed on the eskies full of seafood to our host parents’ daughter and her husband. A week later, when we visited them, they told us some of the esky contents had made their way into the box freezer. These large freezers are an ubiquitous feature of Cocos Malay homes—both in Western Australia and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands. While we were there, the daughter’s cousin, who also lives in Perth, arrived. She stayed only long enough to pick up seafood from the freezer and drop off sate she’d brought from her uncle. The sate came from Katanning, where Cocos Malay migrants work in a halal abattoir.
The most lavish gift-giving of all among Cocos Malays coincides with weddings. Here is the foremost expression of the gift exchange. A spouse might migrate from another part of the Cocos Malay diaspora, seafood might arrive from Home Island, and sate from Katanning. The circulation of spouse, seafood and sate comes together in a ceremony that lasts for a week.
Almost every Cocos Malay we’ve spoken to agrees weddings are far too lavish, competitive and expensive—but this does not stop them from participating in them. Thus gift-giving—including eskies brimming with seafood and sate delivered between the various sites of the Cocos Malay diaspora—helps tie together a geographically dispersed community.
Dr Nicholas Herriman is a senior lecturer in Social and Cultural Anthropology at La Trobe University.
Dr Monika Winarnita is a postdoctoral researcher with the University of Victoria, British Columbia. She has an external affiliation to La Trobe University. Her thesis is on Indonesian migrants in Australia.
You can also listen to an interview with Dr Herriman on Asia Rising, the podcast of La Trobe Asia.
Nek Sofia uses his net to catch some little mullets in a Cocos (Keeling) Island atoll.