Songs, Stories and Social Identity in Torres Strait Material

Songs, Stories and Social Identity in Torres Strait Material

John Morseu highlights Torres Strait material from the Library’s collection

Charles Maurice Yonge, Main Street of Thursday Island, Queensland, c.1928,

The most celebrated Torres Strait material within the Library’s collections has a legacy that commands acknowledgement and admiration. Items such as the Papers of Edward Koiki Mabo (MS 8822) and the Papers of Bryan Keon-Cohen (MS 9518), a member of the Mabo Case legal team, document the struggles of Murray Islander plaintiffs to overthrow the doctrine of terra nullius. In 2001, the Mabo Case Manuscripts were inscribed on the UNESCO Memory of the World Register for changing Australian history for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. This year, we celebrate 25 years since the Mabo decision in 1992.

Images by Frank Hurley and Charles Maurice depict life in the Torres Strait in the 1920s. For young Torres Strait Islanders today, the photographs are a mechanism for interpreting the oral stories of our old people. They can show us what has changed, from regalia to geography. Images are a powerful tool for Torres Strait Islanders as they provide not only a lens into the past but also an opportunity to re-contextualise material from an Indigenous perspective. We can understand how our social identity has traditionally been expressed through regalia; wearing something of cultural significance using historical images as a reference point ensures cultural integrity and honours tradition. Images capture the society as it was at a particular moment in time. Alongside the Hurley and Maurice images of landscapes and buildings, images by Charles John of Arpaka Dance Group and Thursday Island Infrastructure taken in 2008 demonstrate change in buildings on Thursday Island, dance regalia and dancing equipment.

Charles J. Page, Torres Strait Island Women Performing a Dance as Part of the Arpaka Dance Group, Thursday Island, Queensland, 2008,

This leads me onto Torres Strait material held within the Oral History Collection. Hearing the voice of my late grandmother, a significant woman from Darnley Island, in a Library recording for the first time was a powerful surprise.The recording is a great resource, containing sounds of Torres Strait Islanders singing songs, and provides context around language and meaning. This year, I conducted interviews for the Tamwoy Reserve 60th anniversary oral history project, which documented the life stories of Torres Strait residents of Tamwoy Reserve on Thursday Island. These are useful resources for future generations, answering questions about social and family history, songs and dance.

Occasionally, we don’t fully appreciate the value of the little items we stumble across, but they can fill gaps in a research project, language revival, songs or family stories. In the Torres Strait material at the Library, we have a mix of both significant and less celebrated items in different forms—images, manuscripts, oral history and more—each of which has the potential to be rewoven into the Torres Strait worldview.

As a Torres Strait Islander, sharing even a few items with a wider audience gives me pride. That the Library holds material relating to Indigenous cultures, and that it is celebrated, is an important acknowledgement of the continuation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and identity. Although I am so far away from my homeland, the Torres Strait material here reminds me that there is much to be proud of in my island region and much to appreciate, reflect on and learn from in our documented social history.

John Morseu works in the Library’s Oral History and Folklore Branch. He was the 2015 Indigenous Graduate and has created a research guide to Torres Strait material in the collection.