Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Torres Strait Islanders

Torres Strait Islanders

Capsule Summary:

Location:  Torres Strait, Queensland, Australia, located between mainland Australia and Papua New Guinea.
Total population:  Approximately 30 000, of whom 6 000 live in Torres Strait.
Language:  English, Meriam Mer, Kala Kaway Ya, Kalaw Lagaw Ya., Torres Strait Creole
Religion: Christian.


One of Australia’s two Indigenous groups, Torres Strait Islanders are a seafaring people who inhabit the islands between southern Papua New Guinea and north east mainland Australia, in the state of Queensland. The majority of Torres Strait Islanders now live in the Queensland cities of Cairns, Townsville, Brisbane, Mackay and Rockhampton.  The Torres Strait islands, comprising  over 100, are divided into four groups, with the inhabited ones being:
The top western islands comprising Boigu, Dauan and Saibai Islands
The eastern islands comprising Stephen (Ugar), Murray (Mer) and  Darnley (Erub) Islands.
The central and near western islands comprising Badu, Mabuiag, Moa, Yam, Coconut (Waraber), Sue (Poruma) and  Yorke (Masig) Islands
The inner islands comprising Prince of Wales (Muralag), Hammond (Kiriri), Thursday and Horn (Narupai) Islands.  There are also  two significant mainland islander communities, Bamaga and Seisia, which are located on northern Cape York Peninsula at the southern end of Torres Strait.  Thursday Island is the commercial and administrative centre.

Melanesian in origin, the population was enriched by a significant influx of Pacific Islanders, Japanese, Malays, Filipinos, Indians, Chinese and Singhalese in the late 19th century. The language of the eastern Torres Strait is Meriam Mer, which is related to the Papuan language groups. Kala Lagaw Ya, which is related to Aboriginal languages, is the central islands language, while Kalaw Kawaw Ya, a dialect of Kala Lagaw Ya, is the language of the top western islands. Kalaw Kawaw Ya is still widely spoken, but the others are considered to be endangered.  Torres Strait Creole is the lingua franca, with English being used for official purposes


The first European explorer to sail into the area was the Spanish navigator Luis Vaez de Torres, in 1606, but it was not until the early 19th century, when the strait became an important navigation route for ships travelling from the Australian colonies to Great Britain, that interaction with islanders increased.

The discovery of commercial quantities of beche-de-mer and pearl shell in the 1860s led to a rapid influx of fishing interests and the beginning of colonial occupation.  The introduction of Christianity  by the London Missionary Society (LMS) in 1871 also had a profound impact.  The colony of Queensland moved swiftly to bring the islands under its control, annexing the northern ones. In 1877 Thursday Island was established as the commercial and administrative centre.

The impact of European expansion into the Torres Strait was dramatic. Islanders were decimated by introduced diseases  and Christianity propagated and adopted.  Pacific Islanders and other foreigners who crewed the fishing boats settled and married local women, while many islanders now had to work on the boats to pay for European goods and dowries.

Under the benevolent Government Resident John Douglas, (1885-1904), the power of the LMS was curbed and elected councils formed to advise the European teacher-supervisors who administered the island communities.  Following Douglas’ death, Islanders were brought under the same restrictive legislation applying to Australian Aborigines.  They were forced to endure a form of internal colonialism, which treated them as a separate race who would gain little by participation in Australian life.

Resentment over restrictive conditions in the Torres Strait fishing industry culminated in the Maritime Strike of 1936, the first organised Islander challenge to European authority.  The vital role played by Islanders against the Japanese during World War II, when over 700 men enlisted in the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion, was recognized, resulting in a gradual lessening of state government restrictions.  The post war period was also characterized by extensive migration to mainland Queensland, primarily in search of  improved employment opportunities and living conditions.

With Commonwealth involvement in Torres Strait affairs from the 1970s, the period of internal colonialism ended.  The Mabo native title decision of 1992, recognising Torres Strait Islander occupation prior to British colonisation, was followed by further successful land and sea claims.  In 1994 the Torres Strait Regional Authority (TSRA),  a Commonwealth statutory authority, was established, and there is an ongoing campaign for self determination and autonomy.


Traditional Torres Strait society was a rich and complex culture, revolving around the oceans and the seasons.  There was an extensive trade and bartering system between the inhabited islands and with the mainland peoples of New Guinea and Cape York.  A warring people, inter-island conflict and raids were an ongoing occurrence, with ritual cannibalism of enemies practiced.  Religion and sorcery were all pervasive and powerful, providing the framework for the conduct and regulation of society. Hunters and fishermen, they lived on a diet of dugong, turtle and fish as well as fruit and vegetables from their gardens.

In 1871 the London Missionary Society established a mission on Darnley Island.
This seminal event, known as the Coming of the Light, is celebrated and commemorated annually on July 1.  While Islanders embraced Christianity, they have retained their traditional stories and beliefs.  Unlike Australian Aborigines, they were not displaced or removed from their homelands, and have maintained close and enduring ties with the sea, continuing to utilize and exploit its marine resources.
The introduction and assimilation of Pacific Islanders and other non-Europeans into Torres Strait society has resulted in a vibrant and unique culture. Known as Ailen Kustom, it is a source of pride, unity and strength, bonding Torres Strait Islanders throughout the region and  the mainland. Communal feastings, where turtle and dugong are eaten, are a regular occurrence, followed by traditional singing and  dancing. Torres Strait Islander art and sculpture is also very distinctive, with many  artists combining traditional motifs and forms with contemporary styles.

Further Reading

Beckett, Jeremy,  Torres Strait Islanders:  Custom and Colonialism,  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987

Ganter, Regina, The Pearl-Shellers of Torres Strait:  Resource Use, Development and Decline, 1860s-1960s, Melbourne:  Melbourne University Press, 1994

Haddon, Alfred Cort., editor, Reports of the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to the Torres Straits, 6 vols., New York: Johnson Reprint, 1971

Mullins, Steve,  Torres Strait:  A History of Colonial Occupation and Culture Contact, 1864-1897, Rockhampton, Qld: Central Queensland University Press, 1994

Sharp, Noni, Stars of Tagai:  The Torres Strait Islanders, Canberra:  Aboriginal Studies Press, 1993

Singe, John, The Torres Strait:  People and History, Brisbane:  University of Queensland Press, 1989

Wilson, Lindsay, Kerkar Lu:  Contemporary Artefacts of the Torres Strait Islanders, Brisbane:  Dept. of Education, 1993

Wilson, Lindsay, Thathilgaw Emeret Lu:  A Handbook of Traditional Torres Strait Islands Material Culture, Brisbane:  Dept. of Education, 1988

I wrote this article for an encyclopedia around 2001/02