and skills you need
- A. INDIGENOUS AUSTRLIANS
- a) Aboriginal People
- b) Torres Strait Islanders
- B. HISTORY
- a) Aboriginal People
- b) Torres Strait Islanders
- C. CULTURAL COMPETENCE
- a) World views and culture
- b) Yours & others' cultures
- c) Becoming culturally competent
- d) Cross cultural communication
- e) Practice tips
- D. ABORIGINAL CULTURE
- E. RIGHTS
- F. PRESENT
- G. PRACTICE IMPLICATIONS
- H. SELF-ASSESSMENT
- Introduction: The knowledge
Did you know . . .
To find out more explore the content in the Tabs.
TICK the items you know. Find out more about what you don't know.
The first inhabitants of the Torres Strait are believed to have migrated from the Indonesian archipelago 70,000 years ago at a time when New Guinea was still attached to the Australian continent. They were followed by new waves of migration.
The original inhabitants lived in small communities relying on fishing, hunting and the growing of crops for their subsistence. Trade in artifacts made of pearl shell, turtle shell, feathers, canoes and tools was very important in the life of Torres Strait Islanders.
Although it is likely that Chinese, Malay and Indonesian traders had explored the islands before him, the first navigator credited with coming across the islands is the Spaniard Luis Vaez de Torres who sailed through the strait in 1606.
The discovery of pearl shell in the 1860s led to an influx of people from all over the region (Japanese, Malays, Filipinos, Micronesians and Europeans) especially on Thursday Island (Wyben) which became the main settlement. By 1877, 16 firms were established on Thursday Island employing 700 people and more than a hundred pearl luggers. Although the pearl trade stopped after World War II, cultured pearl farms still operate in the Torres Strait today.
Queensland officially annexed the islands in 1879.
The Torres Strait islanders became citizens of Queensland in 1967 with full access to health and social services and freedom to travel and work in Australia. Many thousands of Islanders live in Queensland today, where they form a strong community.
Early historical accounts point to the diversity of Islander people, reflecting both the differing
conditions of the various island locations, and the social and spiritual material incorporated by
them. Competition for resources would sometimes override long-standing trade and familial
ties between islands, producing relationships that were at times cordial and at other times
tense.44 Torres Strait Islanders have close contact with both Papua New Guinean communities
to the north and with mainland Aboriginal communities around Cape York Peninsula.44 This
might be characterised as a predominantly separate yet neighbourly relationship between Torres
Strait Islanders and their neighbours to the north and south.
The economy of the Torres Strait was based on subsistence agriculture and fishing. An
established communal and village life existed, revolving around hunting, fishing, gardening
and trading. Inter-island trading was of food, weapons and artefacts and represented a key
aspect of intergroup relationships.40 Some islands were better able to support gardening and
crops and, for others, fishing provided the main food source. Other islands, due to their size
and vegetation, provided wildlife and game. Thus Islanders were, and continue to be, gardeners,
fishers and hunters, as well as warriors. They were also expert sailors and navigators, with
reference to this important traditional and contemporary skill of using the stars for navigation,
symbolised in the flag of the Torres Strait.
Early recorded history
Much of the early recorded history between Europeans and Islanders suggests that the
interaction was punctuated by attacks and reprisals.45 Mosby posits that Europeans’ attitudes
towards Islander territory and custom reflected their ‘masters of the situation’ mentality,
disregarding Islander ways. Today, many resources aimed at facilitating good working
relationships with Torres Strait Islanders focus on the need for visitors to respect Ilan Pasin and
Islander ways of working, rather than assume certain privileges or levels of access.40,46-48 See also
Chapter 15 (Dudgeon and Ugle) on communication and engagement.
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
Eddie Koiki Mabo(c. 29 June 1936 – 21 January 1992) was an Australian man from the Torres Strait Islands known for his role in campaigning for Indigenous land rights and for his role in a landmark decision of the High Court of Australia which overturned the legal doctrine of terra nullius ("land belonging to nobody") which characterised Australian law with regard to land and title.
Early life and family
Mabo was born Eddie Koiki Sambo but he changed his surname to Mabo when he was adopted by his maternal uncle, Benny Mabo. He was born on the island of Mer (Murray Island) in the Torres Strait between Australia and Papua New Guinea. Mabo married Bonita Neehow, an Australian South Sea Islander, in 1959. The couple had seven children and adopted three more. One daughter, Gail is an Aboriginal artist and dancer who works with schools in New South Wales as a cultural advisor and serves as the family's designated spokesperson.
Mabo worked on pearling boats, as a cane cutter, and as a railway fettler before becoming a gardener at James Cook University in Townsville, Queensland at the age of 31. The time he spent on the campus had a massive impact on his life. In 1974, this culminated in a discussion he had with JCU historians Noel Loos and Henry Reynolds, who recalled Mabo's reaction:
"...we were having lunch one day in Reynold's office when Koiki was just speaking about his land back on Mer, or Murray Island. Henry and I realised that in his mind he thought he owned that land, so we sort of glanced at each other, and then had the difficult responsibility of telling him that he didn't own that land, and that it was Crown land. Koiki was surprised, shocked and even...he said and I remember him saying 'No way, it's not theirs, it's ours '".
Land rights advocate
In 1981 a land rights conference was held at James Cook University and Mabo made a speech to the audience where he explained the land inheritance system on Murray Island. The significance of this in terms of Australian common law doctrine was taken note of by one of the attendees, a lawyer, who suggested there should be a test case to claim land rights through the court system.
Perth-based solicitor Greg McIntyre was at the conference and agreed to take the case; he then recruited barristers Ron Castan and Bryan Keon-Cohen. McIntyre represented Mabo during the hearings. Of the eventual outcome of that decision a decade later, Henry Reynolds said: "it was a ten year battle and it was a remarkable saga really".
Death and legacy
Mabo relaxed by working on his boat or painting watercolours of his island home; however, after 10 years the strain began to affect his health. On 21 January 1992, he died of cancer at the age of 55.
Five months later, on 3 June 1992, the High Court announced its historic decision, namely overturning the legal doctrine of terra nullius - which is a term applied to the attitude of the British towards land ownership on the continent of Australia.
"...so Justice Moynihan's decision that Mabo wasn't the rightful heir was irrelevant because the decision that came out was that native title existed and it was up to the Aboriginal or Islander people to determine who owned what land." Henry Reynolds
That decision is now commonly called "Mabo" in Australia and is recognised for its landmark status. Three years after Mabo died, that being the traditional mourning period for the people of Murray Island, a gathering was held in Townsville for a memorial service.
In 1992, Mabo was posthumously awarded the Australian Human Rights Medal in the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Awards, together with the Reverend Dave Passi, Sam Passi (deceased), James Rice (deceased), Celuia Mapo Salee (deceased) and Barbara Hocking. The award was in recognition "of their long and determined battle to gain justice for their people" and the "work over many years to gain legal recognition for indigenous people's rights".