Coming of the light

The Coming of the Light

While the Strait was seen as a strategic waterway in terms of trade and natural resources, the population was also seen as valuable to the efforts of Christian missionaries, in particular the London Missionary Society which targeted Torres Strait Islanders and other groups in the area for conversion to Christianity.49 Their arrival at Darnley Island on 1 July 1871 has become known as the ‘Coming of the Light’ whereby the light of Christ was brought into the ‘heathen’ darkness of the Torres Strait.45

There are mixed opinions about the introduction of Christian religion and other influences to the Straits. While the conduct of anthropological, psychological and other research activities such as the Cambridge expedition (led by Haddon, 1912) (including the collection and removal of artefacts) were carried out as scientific imperatives of the time, recently authors suggest this period helped define the prevailing Islanders as ‘souls needing to be rescued’.49(p15) While there were many disadvantages of missionary influences, such as the destruction of traditional cultural practices, responses to its encroachment varied.50

From the mid-19th century onwards, Torres Strait Islanders experienced momentous change from their increasing contact with Europeans. The emerging maritime industries of fishing, pearling and beche-de-mer (sea slug) collection were attractions. Islanders adjusted to the new lifestyle being introduced to the region through maritime industries, religion and government administration. The development of trade and industries also brought an influx of workers whose cultural diversity has helped shape Islander culture and identity.

In 1879, the Torres Strait was annexed and as such was considered part of Queensland when the islands became Crown land. At Federation, Islanders became Australian citizens although, like mainland Aboriginal people, they experienced restricted access to many of the rights their fellow Australians took for granted.41

Indeed, there are numerous examples of Torres Strait Islander peoples’ endeavours and achievements, as well as symbols of solidarity and unity.41 Some of these have had repercussions that extend beyond the Islanders involved, such as the case of Mabo. This has affected the very foundations of the nation’s story. The historical significance of the High Court decision in the case of Mabo and Others v the State of Queensland lay in the recognition, for the first time, of the common law rights and interests of Indigenous people in their lands according to their traditions, law and customs. This in effect exposed the legal fiction of terra nullius—that Australia was an empty land belonging to no-one. The repercussions of this fundamental change to how the early story of the Australian nation was told continues to be felt not only in the subsequent claims to Native Title that have ensued, but also in how prior Aboriginal occupation and management of the land challenges the previously competing claim of their non-relationship to it. Actions pursued by Islanders have had repercussions beyond the Torres Strait. While Torres Strait Islander history and culture is characterised in many ways by cultural adaptation and migration, the essence and origins of Islander identity—the psychological and the geographical—are still fought for, defended and celebrated with pride today.41 Into the future, along with an increasing awareness of the circumstances of Torres Strait Islanders based on conduct respecting Islander needs and aspirations, it is likely that the label of ‘voiceless minority’ will become a less accurate description of Torres Strait Islanders.46,47,49.

Aboriginal social, cultural and historical contexts