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Bonzer Words!: The Coming Of The Light

"On July 1 annually, the people of Torres Strait celebrate the festival of the 'Coming of the Light'. The festival marks the time in 1871 when the London Missionary Society placed two teachers on Erub Island to begin mission work,'' writes Paul Newbury.

The reception of Christianity by Torres Strait Islanders was striking. The principal reason was that the population of the islands had dropped alarmingly in the mid-19th century, largely because of marine industry raiding parties and inter-island feuding. Islanders believed missionaries could protect them from the violence; an expectation they largely fulfilled.
Islanders identify strongly with the missionary metaphor of the darkness of 'heathenism' and the light of 'salvation'. Islanders refer to the time before 1871 as 'Darkness Time'. It is a sad fact throughout Melanesia that a devalued past is the legacy of missionary endeavour.

The late Ephraim Bani is a well-known Torres Strait Islander academic and commentator on Torres Strait Islander culture. He attempted to combat missionary influence on his people's culture by initiating the Torres Strait Cultural Festival. He dedicated his writing to his elders who taught him: 'the ancient ways of survival, spirituality and affiliation with nature'.

Torres Strait and its island populations came into the consciousness of Europe after October 1606 when Spaniard Louis Vaez De Torres sailed through Torres Strait in command of the San Pedro and Los Tres Reyes.

In 1770, as Cook sailed by Muralag Island in Torres Strait, he noted he saw a number of men and women on the beach. He said the men had bows and arrows—something he had not seen anywhere else on his South Pacific travels. This is the first recorded observation of the Kaurareg people who are the Indigenous people of the Prince of Wales Islands.

The Torres Strait Islander flag was adopted in July 1995. It is emblazoned with the white dari, the ceremonial headdress. The five pointed star represents the communities and the navigational importance of stars to these seafaring people. Green represents the land, black the people and blue the sea.
On 3 June 1992 in the Mabo decision, the High Court of Australia declared that the Miriam people of Mer in Torres Strait hold native title over their lands. The Court did not reserve the decision to the Miriam people but applied it across the Torres Strait and to Aboriginal people on the mainland.
The High Court declared that at the time of the British invasion in 1788, the Indigenous peoples of Australia owned the land and waters of the Australian continent and they were entitled to have their title acknowledged and protected under British law.

Torres Strait Islanders are Melanesian and they are classified with Aboriginal people as the Indigenous Peoples of Australia. Islanders became Australian when the Queensland Government annexed the islands within 60 miles of the Australian mainland in 1872 and in 1879, it annexed the remainder.

The Torres Strait Islands comprise 133 islands of which 38 are inhabited and the population is around 8000 people. Significantly, five times that number live on the Australian mainland, principally in Queensland.

Before the end of the last ice age, Torres Strait was a land bridge between the mainlands of Papua New Guinea and Australia. Around 8000 years ago, rising seas left only the peaks of the mountain range that form the islands today.
The islands are divided into five major clusters and there are two Islander communities on the mainland—Bamaga and Seisia. Bamaga was established as a town of Islanders in the 1950s after a tidal wave inundated Sabai and the Aboriginal community granted them refuge to live in Cape York.
The history of Torres Strait Islanders from the mid-19th Century can be told as a series of events—each building on the other and each contributing to the pan-Island identity recognisable today. The story begins with the setting up of the colonial outpost of Somerset at the top of Cape York by the British Government in 1864.

In 1904, the Queensland Government deemed Islanders 'Aborigines' and brought them under the Aborigines Protection Act. Their story is marked by their attempts to be treated as Indigenous people separate from Aborigines of the Australian mainland.

Though they have much in common with Aboriginal people, especially their experience of invasion and colonisation, Torres Strait Islanders are distinctive because of their island environment, the importance of the sea and their cosmology. Part 2 will tell the story of their struggle for freedom during the 20th century.

**

Paul writes for Bonzer! magazine. Please visit www.bonzer.org.au

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