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Bonzer Words!: Torres Strait Islanders - Uniquely Australian

"Torres Strait Islanders have a sea culture that sets them apart from other Australians,'' says Paul Newbury. "Their history from the mid-19th century is a narrative of the development of a pan-Island identity. Islanders became Australian when Queensland annexed the inner islands of Torres Strait in 1872.''

Torres Strait Islanders have a sea culture that sets them apart from other Australians. Their history from the mid-19th century is a narrative of the development of a pan-Island identity. Islanders became Australian when Queensland annexed the inner islands of Torres Strait in 1872.

When the British set up the settlement of Somerset at the tip of Cape York in 1864, Aboriginal people on the Peninsula and the Kaurareg people of nearby Prince of Wales Island bore the stress of the invasion. Torres Strait Islanders largely escaped the violence and their land tenure was undisturbed at that time.

This was period in which predators of the marine industry traversed the islands at will, shanghaiing young men and women to work aboard boats in brutal and squalid conditions. Youth aged as young as ten dived for pearl shell at the point of a gun.

In 1904, the Queensland Government brought Islanders under the Aboriginals Protection Act of 1897. Under the Act, Islanders lost their civil rights and their islands were declared Crown land.

In the process, Queensland created a caste system that set Islanders below their South Sea cousins and workers of Asian origin. Under Protection, white supremacist notions in Queensland led to an ever tighter control of the space between black and white, through fear of the 'half-caste' menace.

By the mid-1930s, the Protector had total control of the lives of Islanders: they were confined by a 9 pm curfew; they needed a permit to travel between the islands; and those caught without a permit were imprisoned or fined. The people had no right of appeal when charged and the Protector censored their mail. Finally, he took control of the people's boat earnings by issuing a credit note that could only be redeemed at the Aboriginal Industries stores on some of the islands.

In January 1936, Islanders withdrew their labour from all boats working in the Strait. The coordination of the strike was a major feat given the distances between the islands. The strike lasted four months. Islanders wanted the Protection Act repealed but they accepted a compromise of better wages and relaxation of restrictions on some of their personal liberties.

The outbreak of war in the Pacific brought the next opportunity for Islanders to challenge colonial constraints. The Queensland government evacuated non-Islanders and formed the Torres Strait Defence Force of whom 700 were Islanders.

The government brought them to Thursday Island to be trained by army officers. Islanders gained respect because of their marine knowledge and their discipline. Islanders were allowed the freedom to mix with white soldiers and these relationships of equality encouraged them.

They gained knowledge of the outside world from white servicemen and contact with trade unionists introduced many of the future leaders of Torres Strait to socialist ideals and the postwar decolonisation movement.

Islanders returned from the war aware that the freedom they were prepared to fight for should apply to them and they were buoyed about their future as Australian citizens.

The influence of the marine industry waned in the 1960s as plastics took over from pearlshell. At this time, the sugar industry and railways in Queensland were in chronic need of labour so the government instituted an Islander migration program to the mainland. Islanders were heartened by the prospect of working for equal pay and the access their children had to secondary schooling.

In 1975, as Papua New Guinea neared independence from Australia, the Commonwealth proposed that Australia cede the Islands of the Strait above the ten degree parallel; a proposal that meant that eight of the seventeen inhabited islands would become part of PNG.

In response, Islanders insisted they were Australian and their identity was based on their autonomy within the Strait. The action was a unifying experience for Islanders and mainland Islander communities declared their allegiance to the Islands of Torres Strait came before loyalty to their home islands. In 1978, the parties signed the Maritime Boundaries Treaty whereby the Islands remained part of Australia.

Over 150 years, historical processes set in motion by government, church and the marine industry weakened traditional divisions and laid the foundation for the emergence of a common identity in culture and worldview.

Then in 1992, in the Mabo decision, the High Court of Australia acknowledged the people owned their lands according to their traditional law—a law the Commonwealth and Queensland were bound to honour. The return of the islands to Islander ownership and the 10-mile exclusive fishing zone amounts to regional sovereignty.


© Paul Newbury

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

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