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Cultural Identity and Development in the Torres Strait Islands

Leah Lui

Since the time of the white invasion of the continent now known as Australia, the treatment of the indigenous people has ranged from attempted genocide to segregation, assimilation, integration and since the 1970s self-management and self-determination.

The underlying assumption has always been that we — the indigenous people of Australia would want to be like them — the white usurpers of our lands. No recognition was given to our cultures and our traditions. We were seen as pagans, heathens, uneducated — in short ‘savages’. No recognition was given to the fact that there are other ways of living and that there may be people who wish to maintain a way of life quite unlike Westerners. It is these other ways of living which are in danger of being lost as we travel down the road of Western development. The role traditional knowledge can play in development continues to be overlooked, yet development has the potential to empower people and reinforce the cultural traditions which have allowed native people to survive (CSQ, Fall 1991: 46).

If development is to achieve anything for the people of Third World countries or for the indigenous people who live in Third World conditions in relatively wealthy nations like Australia, we, the people must have the power to decide which avenues of development we wish to pursue.

We are the ones who should build the bridge between our past and our future. Australia has two indigenous people — the Aboriginal people of mainland Australia and the Torres Strait Islanders. I am here to talk about my people, the Torres Strait Islanders.

There are four major areas I wish to talk about today, firstly where we are from and who we are culturally; secondly, about how Islanders took action against the so-called development in the Maritime Strike of 1936; thirdly, I want to talk about the Mabo Land Case, the judgement on which secured among other things, legal recognition of Murray Island customary law, and finally I want to look at what the future holds for my people.

The Islands of the Torres Strait are situated between the tip of Queensland, Australia and Papua New Guinea. The Straits cover an area of approximately 40,000 sq km. Of this area 2.6 per cent is land; 6.2 per cent is inundated reef flats and 91.2 per cent is open ocean.

Traditionally Islanders formed three major groups. These groupings were based on similarities and differences in way of obtaining food, ritual practices and the geophysical features of the islands. The basic division however, was between East and West on the basis of language. Western Islanders spoke Kalaw Kawaw Ya, a language related to an Aboriginal language from the Cape York area of Australia, while Eastern Islanders spoke Miriam Mir, a language derived from a Papua New Guinean language spoken around the Fly River.

An extensive trade network operating between PNG, the island and the Australian mainland ensured against total isolation and allowed for the movement of necessary items.

At the time of contact the population of Islanders has been estimated at 4000-5000. Today there are an estimated 6200 Islanders living on 16 islands within the Straits as well as two additional communities on the northern tip of Cape York. Approximately 15000 now live away from the Torres Strait region on the Australian mainland.

Central to our sense of identity are our extended families, within which respect for elders is preserved, it provides the framework within which obligations to kin are met, and ensures the sharing of resources and the source of emotional and spiritual support. Given that 91 per cent of our traditional area is open ocean, the sea is also central to our sense of identity having determined our way of life, subsistence practices and ceremonial life. The sea remains the source of inspiration for many of our songs and stories and is treated with great respect.

Today Torres Strait Islanders who live in the Straits continue to rely on the productivity of the natural environment for food, trade goods or cash income.

What makes us Torres Strait Islanders are our languages, our dances, our songs, our myths and legends and ceremonies. And although these have changed shape, it is a sign of how we have adapted as we came into contact with Pacific Islanders and missionaries. As the result of prolonged contact with missionaries from the London Missionary Society and since 1915, contact with the Anglican Church, we are a Christian people. Over the time, however, our Christian beliefs have been woven into our cultural practices.

One of the main ceremonies which brings us together to celebrate our culture is the tombstone unveiling ceremony. For my people, the death of a member of our society initiates the performance of certain rites. No less that 12 months after the primary rite in interring the body, a secondary mortuary rite is performed. This is known as the tombstone opening ceremony. The ceremony involves the public unveiling of the engraved tombstone which is blessed by a priest. The unveiling is followed by feasting and traditional dancing to celebrate the occasion. Its observance is symbolic of many things; the acknowledgement of a final resting place for the spirit of the deceased; the end of the period of mourning; the fulfilment of obligation and the reinforcement of Island custom through the reunion of kin. The performance of the ceremony continues today on the Islands and the mainland.

In looking at how development has impacted on our cultural identity, I want to look at one example, which examines how the Western ideology of capitalism was thrust upon the Islanders in the 1900s.

In 1879 when the Torres Straits were annexed by the Queensland Government some measures of self-government were put in place. These included elected island councils and island law courts. Islanders were encouraged to continue participating in the flourishing marine industry which relied heavily on market prices and cheap labour for the industry to remain viable.

In the early 1900s a former London Missionary Society missionary established a company, Papuan Industries Limited, to encourage further Islander participation in the marine industry. On a family or clan basis, Islanders were able to buy their own pearling boats through the company.

By the end of the 1920s almost 1/4 of the pearling fleet in the Torres Strait were owned by Islanders. But, before too long it became obvious to administrators that Islanders were not turning into replicas of their employers and ‘Protectors’ (who were the government appointed officers in the area).

Two related aspects of Islander social values and cultural meaning contrasted with capitalist norms.

1. The circulation, distribution and exchange theme inherent in non-capitalist societies continued. Rather than selling their produce, Islanders chose to uphold their identity and fulfil obligations of mutuality within and between communities, e.g., in 1910, despite the demand for copra 14 pounds/tonne, one group of Islanders gave 10,000 coconuts to their island neighbours and an additional 3000 to the Papuan Industries Limited for a new church rather than selling them.

2. Islander social values manifested themselves in attitudes to work and to their boats. ‘Production’ was determined by obligations, responsibilities and claims required by clan leaders and Island community.

To administrators it appeared that Islanders worked their boats casually — as if time was ‘no object’, often using their boats for hunting purposes. For Islanders reciprocal obligations continued and subsistence needs were being met (Sharp, 1980c).

In the late 1920s and early 30s control of Papuan Industries Limited was handed over to government administrators. The government ‘Protector’ became responsible for recruiting crews and controlled the earnings of Islanders who worked the boats in addition, if the boats were not worked to the satisfaction of the ‘protector’, they were confiscated.

Through this Islanders lost the right to control their own means of production. In addition Government teachers/supervisors were appointed on all the islands. Their presence contributed to break down of the power of the Island councils and the takeover of administration of justice via the Island law courts. The local ‘protector’ also introduced a nightly curfew and a permit system to control Islander movement between the Islands. To leave the Island permission had to be sought from the government teacher. As the grip of the government ‘protector’ tightened — inter-island feelings of opposition were reaching boiling point.

In mid January 1936 when the Protector made visits to each of the islands to recruit men to work the boats, with the exception of 2 councillors, Islanders went on strike refusing to work the boats until conditions improved.

The strike was the first organized Islander challenge to European authority (Beckett, 1987: 54). It was seen not only as a protest against increasing control over Islander lives, it was also a demand to be recognized as a distinct people and for the right of Islanders to manage their own affairs (Sharp, 1980c).

On some islands the strike lasted for nine months and embarassed the Queensland Government into making changes. The two most important were the removal of government teachers/supervisors from the Islands and the formation of the Island Advisory Council — which is the forerunner of the contemporary Islander Co-ordinating Council. Islander communities gained more autonomy and a separate legislative identity to that of the Aboriginal people (Kehoe-Forutan, 1988). The Maritime Strike heralded the turning point in Islander and Government relations.

Since the strike, we have continued in the struggle to maintain our identity and culture and to secure control of our traditional land and sea.

In recent years the most significant event in the recognition of indigenous rights in the Torres Straits and indeed Australia, is embodied in the decision by the highest court of Australia on the Mabo Land Case which ran for 10 years.

In 1982 Koiki Mabo and four other Islanders from Murray Island in the eastern Torres Strait issued a writ in the High Court of Australia claiming distinct rights to traditional lands continuously occupied by the Meriam people since time immemorial. After six years, the case survived an attempt by the Queensland Government to retroactively extinguish any rights Islanders may or may not have.

In June 1992 the full bench of the High Court recognized Meriam rights to Murray Island ruling, ". . . the Meriam people are entitled as against the whole world to possession, occupation, use and enjoyment of the lands of the Murray Islands". (Eddie Mabo and Others vs State of Queensland, High Court of Australia, Order)

The Court recognized the existence of a form of title in the Murray Islands, described as ‘native title’, and in doing so the High Court brought Australian law into line with that of other common law countries — the United States, New Zealand and Canada — which have recognized native title for some time. Native title existed in much, possibly, all of Australia when the British claimed sovereignty over the Torres Strait in 1879. The doctrine of ‘terra nullius’ which says that the land was uninhabited by people with a system of law and government was overruled.

The judgement is a major victory for the Meriam people and has profound and long lasting implications for other Torres Strait Islanders and the Aboriginal people (Sharp, 1993: 235).

The decision on the Mabo Case has placed the issue of land rights squarely on the agenda. For a majority of white Australians the decision has served only to reopen an old wound, a weeping sore, they have tried to ignore for hundreds of years. But for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people it has shifted the land rights dynamic, giving Australia’s indigenous people some bargaining power.

The Prime Minister of Australia hailed the decision saying it would benefit all Australians including future generations and allow the nation to address traditional land ownership. However, despite numerous opinions from lawyers and academics on the possible implications of the decision, the Federal and State governments are yet to respond publicly.

Meanwhile, mining groups have responded in outright opposition with one representative going as far as to say that legislation should be put in place to limit land claims.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people recognize that although we have won an important and very significant battle in our struggle for land rights, the war is far from over.

Today, my people live on the mainland of Australia and on small island communities scattered around the Strait. Harvesting sea species remains essential. Even though the social and political organizational context for our lives have changed with European arrival in the region, economic activity and social well-being continues to involve our traditions and traditionally use resources.

In the Torres Strait, we have a regional governing body — the Island Co-ordinating Council (ICC) — which is made up of the elected chairpersons of the individual Island Councils. The ICC was established by Queensland State Law and despite the lack of financial resources and power, it has become the primary focus for Islander political, social, economic and cultural aspirations.

The ICC is responsible for regional affairs and is currently formulating a Marine Strategy for the Torres Strait. The preservation of the marine environment is crucial for our survival and development in neighbouring countries are of enormous concern. Oil exploration and loading in the Gulf of Papua, vessel traffic in the strait, a pulp mill in Indonesia, lead loading in the Gulf of Carpentaria and oil development in the Timor Gap all cause worry for our Islands. Within the Strait itself, we must closely watch developments on our islands. Insensitive construction, even essential infrastructure can lead to unwanted but avoidable ill effects. (Lui, 1992a)

The future for my people, though uncertain, holds much hope. Islander leaders recognize the need of taking the initiative in environmental and political issues and in addressing other needs of the region, rather than merely reacting to what are often piecemeal government initiatives. We are placed to take the initiative.

In 1988 when Islanders announced a bid to secede from Australia, the move attracted sarcasm, criticism and racist comments. But our leaders hasve persevered and, at a conference on constitutional change, the Chairman of the ICC, Mr Getano Lui issued a one page statement titled "Self-Government in the Torres Strait". The key paragraph stated:

In looking at self-government for the Torres Strait we will be looking at practical options for securing Islander land, reef and sea tenure; managing appropriate social, health and education services and facilities; protecting the marine and coastal environments; encouraging appropriate economic development; and maintaining and strengthening our unique culture and language.

The Australian Government’s response to this most recent push for self-government has been reserved. In a press statement in December last year, the Federal Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs ". . . that the Government has made no decision on this matter and any changes will have to be the subject of exhaustive consultations" (Tickner 1992). In March this year his position on self-government in the Torres Strait had not changed.

The ICC considers that the Torres Straits are well placed for self-government, particularly since we are a majority in a definable region of Australia.

Most importantly, self-government will give US the power to negotiate our future in the world context.


Beckett, J., 1987. Torres Strait Islanders: custom and colonialism, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, U.K.

CSQ, 1991. "Grassroots Development", In Cultural Survival Quarterly, Volume 15, No. 4. Cambridge, U.K.

Kehoe-Forutan, S., 1988. Torres Strait Independence: a Chronicle of Events, Department of Geographical Sciences, University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia.

Lui, G., 1992a. "The Torres Strait Islanders of Australia". Presentation to UNCED Earth Summit, Rio de Janeiro.

———, 1992b . "Self-Government for Torres Strait". Press Statement, Darwin, October 1992.

Sharp, N., 1980c. Torres Strait Islands: A great cultural refusal. The meaning of the Maritime Strike of 1936, Melbourne, LaTrobe University, Department of Sociology.

———, 1993. Stars of Tagai.

Tickner, R., 1992. Media Release, "Torres Strait Islanders on National Agenda", Canberra, 18 December 1992.

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