Strait to the world

Strait to the world
A brief historical depiction and cultural identity of the Torres Strait
19 November 2015

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities are advised this blog post contains images and names of people who are deceased.

Learning with Trove

Trove records Torres Strait Islander cultural and social history in ways that can impact dramatically on individuals or communities who wish to rediscover themselves and their identity. As a Torres Strait Islander and the National Library Indigenous Graduate I would like to share the fragments of my culturally diverse Island region that I found in Trove. Each fragment is a link to an historical event not only of the Indigenous people, but also those who travelled across the world and made the Torres Strait home. I will look at a few significant events in the region, highlighted by material found in Trove and discuss how assembling this material from various contributors has improved my understanding of history of the Torres Strait and provided another aspect to my own history, a recorded history.  

Village of Mabuiag, Queensland by Frank Hurley

Frank Hurley (1885–1962),  Village of Mabuiag, Queensland, 1921, National Library of Australia, nla.obj-157780634

The region's flag showcases the iconic Torres Strait Islander symbol the dhari. It is hung beside the Aboriginal and Australian flag at major events and on public buildings. The region is famous for being the birthplace of Eddie Mabo and native title but few may know that this resourceful and highly spiritual region was once an integral part of Australia’s economic history. The Melanesian custodians of these islands also contributed to Australia’s involvement in the Second World War, defending Australia’s border with Papua New Guinea. Many Islanders hold deep-rooted Christian beliefs that are blended with surviving traditional Islander customs.

Pearling boats, Thursday Island, c.a 1918, National Library of Australia, nla.obj-148875027

The pearl industry

Thursday Island, or TI as it is known to locals, was established by the Queensland Government in 1877 as an administrative centre for the region. A lucrative pearling industry was founded in 1885 and attracted people from all over the world.  

Thursday Island was a newly established port that enabled trade globally and the opportunity for the world to fulfil their sense of adventure and seek their fortune. In 1948 the price of pearl shells jumped from £100 to £600 per ton, as can be seen in the Daily Mercury, Friday 9 January. By today’s standards the total approximate cost would equate to $32,000 per ton, a good reason to travel all the way around the world. The region quickly attracted over 100 new boats and the exploitation of workers became quite common as Malay, Pacific Islanders and Torres Strait Islanders were used for cheap labour in the industry.


DUTCH MAY FISH TORRES STRAIT PEARLING BEDS (1948, January 9). Daily Mercury (QLD: 1906–1954), p.2.

Islander earnings were reported to the Director of Native Affairs and therefore the Commonwealth Government, to ensure all money was returned to the Commonwealth. The most lucrative Islander earner of all would have to have been Tanu Nona of Badu Island.  Pearling provided a hidden benefit for Islanders by helping them remain at home, despite many Aboriginal Australians being forcibly removed from their traditional lands at the time. The Islands in the late 1800s and early 1900s were not only a safe haven, they were a safe guard to Islanders who were able to reside and dive in their waters and contribute as cheap labour to the economic development of their home region.

STRAIT NATIVES’ GOOD MONEY FROM PEARLING. (1949, October 24). Worker (QLD: 1890–1955), p.7.


The introduction of Christianity on Darnley Island in 1871 facilitated a significant cultural shift. The participation of Pacific Islander missionaries was a significant factor in converting Torres Strait Islander communities to the new religion. Their arrival is celebrated annually with the Coming of the Light Ceremony on 1 July. Each Island community further celebrates the introduction of the gospel to their Island, which has created a tangled weave of Christianity and pre-colonial rituals practiced today as Islander culture.

This image below taken from the State Library of Queensland collection shows the ordination of Torres Strait Islander Priest Joseph Lui Snr and Poey Passi on Moa Island in 1925. Their ordination marked the beginning of a new era of Torres Strait cultural and religious identity in which Islanders had to adapt to a changing expectations of behaviour and relationships. Despite the heavy influence of Christianity in the Torres Strait many pre-colonial rituals have been retained, transformed and adapted, remaining alive through hymns, dance, songs and connection to place.

Portrait of priests Joseph Lui Snr. and Poey Passi at their graduation ceremony on Moa Island, 1925, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland,

Defending Australia's borders

In Australia we celebrate the Australian Defence Force. Torres Strait Islanders are also proud of our grandfathers whose contribution to Australia’s involvement in the Second World War was somewhat unique for a regional area, particularly for an Indigenous group. This image taken from the Australian War Memorial Collection captures a squad of the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion training in their company lines on Thursday Island. Almost every available and eligible man was ready to serve despite the injustice of not yet being classified as citizens in their own country.

Thursday Island, 1945-10-29. A squad of the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battlion training in their company lines, 1945, Australian War Memorial,

Culture expressed through art

Today Torres Strait Islanders depict our regional history and identity through contemporary art. This has enabled Islanders to shed new light on old stories while also showcasing the region's history and culture in the modern day. Sharing art online means it can be appreciated by Islanders residing in the region and abroad whilst being inclusive of outsiders. Works by renowned Torres Strait Islander artists are available in Trove, including: 

Alick Tipoti's Aralpaia ar Zenikula

Alick Tipoti, Aralpaia Ar Zenikula, 1998, National Gallery of Australia,

 Laurie Nona’s Aputhathew Ngurpai (Parental teachings)

Laurie Nona, Aputhathew Ngurpai (Parental teachings), National Gallery of Australia,

Ricardo Idagi's GiriGiri Le (Bird of Paradise Man) 

Ricardo Idagi - GiriGiri Le (Bird of Paradise Man), National Gallery of Victoria,

Contemporary Aboriginal and Torres strait Islander art and artist portfolios are often added to Trove from the galleries that hold their works, sharing local art with the world. You can also explore the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair through websites that show how both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artworks are being used in exciting new mediums. These resources help to share old stories and knowledge systems in a time where art can be embraced by both young and old in a safe and culturally inclusive environment.

Torres Strait Islander culture continues to remain relevant. Islanders who reside there and those who have left for opportunity on the mainland should be proud, as I am, that there is an effort to preserve the cultural history of our Island home, even in an age where old cultures and traditions can be lost or dramatically diminished by Western influence. The Torres Strait is no exception to the influence of Western ideals but Islanders and those who have documented the region and its people over the past 100 years have had their work contributed to Trove. This enables Islanders like myself to view how this beautiful region has transformed and continues to change.

There’s a lot to learn about the Torres Strait. The ancient culture of the Torres Strait Islanders will remain alive by changing and transforming as well as by continuing to make our history and culture accessible to audiences in the present.  

Thank you for this excellent article and resource. I am researching an incident on Muralug or the Prince of Wales Island. Best wishes for your future research
Brilliant blog John.