A brief history of the Torres Strait

Citation and thank you: The following section is authored by Dr John Burton (BA(Hons) Prehistory 1977, MSc Biological Computation 1979. ANU PhD 1985). Principal Research Fellow, Centre for Social Responsibility in Mining, Sustainable Minerals Institute, University of Queensland, 2021-

New Guinea and Australia joined by land

More than 8,000 years ago world sea levels were about 100 metres lower than today. Since much of the Torres Strait was covered by only 20 metres of water, people at that time could easily walk between Cape York and southern New Guinea. The rocky coast of Cape York would not have looked much different from what it does today, but the Papua New Guinea coast in the northern Torres Strait would have been a few kilometres further inland, as much of the present coast has recently formed from sediments laid down by river deltas.

The land bridge accounts for the fact that today some animal and bird species live in both Papua New Guinea and North Queensland: the Spotted Cuscus and Southern Cassowary, for example. On the other hand, domestic pigs, which are today common in Papua New Guinea, did not cross into Australia. This probably means that pigs, whose origins lie in Eurasia, had not yet reached Papua New Guinea by the time the land bridge had submerged by the rising sea 8000 years ago.

How long have people been living in the Torres Strait?

In the last 25 years, archaeologists working in the Torres Strait have found evidence of human settlement dating back 2,500 years.There is no reason to think that much earlier evidence could not be found in the future.

In fact the only limit is that if the ancestors of modern Islanders made camps near the shoreline at a time of lower sea level, anything they left there would have been submerged when the sea level rose to where it is today. This means likely places to find older archaeological remains are on the hills of the larger islands of western Torres Strait and on the volcanic islands of eastern Torres Strait.

What’s in a name?

Torres Strait is named after a Spanish captain, Torres, who sailed through Torres Strait in 1606 on his way to Manila in the Philippines. Although he wrote a letter to the King of Spain describing his voyage, it seems this was kept a secret from mapmakers until 1762 when the archives at Manila were opened to others.

Incidentally, Torres’ crew captured six boys and six girls from Mailu, near Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea, and three Torres Strait girls from one of the Central Islands, and took them to Manila, supposedly to be baptised. What happened to the twelve Mailuans and the three Kulkalaig, as they would have been called, at Manila is unknown.

The Torres Strait in the 1800s

Voyages by British explorers Cook, Bligh, Flinders and others charted the channels through Torres Strait in the late 1700s – early 1800s. From 1800 to 1850, perhaps several hundred sailing ships travelled from Brisbane and Sydney through Torres Strait and on to ports in India and Asia.

Only a very few of these ships stopped in Torres Strait to take on water, to trade with Islanders, or to carry out repairs. Quite a number were also wrecked on the numerous reefs; indeed, Torres Strait has been called a ‘sieve for ships!’

At the western entrance to Torres Strait on Booby Island, a ‘post office’ in the form of a few supplies, a log book and a place where letters could be left or picked up was the only port of call for most ships. Nevertheless, enough did stop to trade with Islanders that iron knives, ships’ biscuits, trade tobacco and bottles were well known to them by the mid-1800s.

In 1844, a cutter called the America was wrecked in Endeavour Strait and all on board drowned except a Scottish woman, Barbara Thompson. Mrs Thompson was saved by the Kaurareg with whom she lived on Muralug (Prince of Wales) Island for five years, being known by them as Giom. In 1849 she was discovered at Cape York by the crew of a British naval survey ship, HMS Rattlesnake, and returned to Sydney.

Oswald Brierly, the ship’s artist, wrote an account of her life with the Kaurareg. According to Mrs Thompson, the island with the friendliest relations with passing ships in the southern Torres Strait was Naghir, where she said ships often anchored overnight while the crew went ashore. In 1849, the Naghir people had made up a dance about white men that they performed for the Kaurareg wearing shirts obtained in trade from the sailors, reddened cheeks and false wooden noses – presumably shaped to look like the sailors’ noses.

Pearlshelling comes to the Torres Strait

By 1850, trading vessels with largely Pacific Islander crews were working all over the Southwest Pacific, buying and selling any goods and exploiting any resources that would fetch a profit at a mainland port. Earlier, many of the ships had been whalers and in the 1830s and 1840s, sandalwood cutters exhausted stands of this fragrant wood in the central Pacific.

But in 1834 a trade monopoly held by the British East India Company was broken and advantaged Sydney-based traders working in the Western Pacific, because they were now much freer to supply the Chinese market with products in demand there, like bêche-de-mer (sea slug) and sandalwood.

When in the 1850s the sandalwood stands of New Caledonia and the New Hebrides were worked out, the Sydney boat-owners turned to bêche-de-mer and the seas closer to the Great Barrier Reef and Torres Strait. From 1864 to 1869 about half-a-dozen bêche-de-mer boats were working in the northern part of Torres Strait, based at Tudu, Poruma (Coconut) and Erub (Darnley).

The profit from these ventures was not particularly good, until in 1869 when Tudu Islanders showed ‘Tongutapu Joe’, a Pacific Islander working for Captain William Banner, a rich patch of pearlshell on the Warrior Reefs. There was an immediate rush by the Pacific Islander-crewed boats to Torres Strait to dive for the new commodity, which brought much higher profits.

First Warrior Reef was worked out, then Moa Pass, the passage between Friday and Muralug (Prince-of-Wales) Islands, then Endeavour Strait. Only three years later, some 500 Pacific Islanders were working in Torres Strait on pearling boats. These men, many from the Loyalty Islands of New Caledonia – Lifu, Maré and Ouvéa – and from Vanuatu and Rotumah, were the first speakers of a new language: Beach-la-Mar, or Pacific Pidgin English.

Torres Strait Islander participation began immediately, and men from Mabuiag, Tudu and other places in the central and eastern parts of Torres Strait were the first to get involved. By 1870, Marus, the chief of Ugar (Stephen) had been to Sydney twice and others from Tudu had also been south with boat owners.

These kinds of men were now described as being able to ‘speak a little English’ – in fact, they were beginning to turn the Beach-la-Mar they heard on the pearling boats into the beginnings of today’s Torres Strait Creole. (Beach-la-Mar, for its part, evolved into Bislama in Vanuatu, but was overwhelmed by French in New Caledonia.)

The Coming of the Light

The London Missionary Society had been busy in the Southwest Pacific since the 1840s and later turned its thoughts to converting the people of New Guinea to Christianity. Rather than immediately establishing itself on mainland New Guinea, it was decided to first establish a base in Torres Strait.

Rev. Samuel MacFarlane wrote ‘… on leaving Lifu, we sailed directly for Darnley … and anchored there … on Saturday evening, 1st July 1871’. Torres Strait Islanders celebrate this day as ‘The Coming of the Light’, an annual holiday in Torres Strait.

Queensland annexes the Torres Strait

The colonial powers were also casting eyes on New Guinea; Russian and Italian warships paid visits in 1870s, but the ‘Great Game’ in this part of the world was really being played by Britain, who acquired Fiji by cession in 1875, and Germany, who had commercial interests, but did not yet rule, in Samoa.

Decisions were made far away from the Torres Strait about the future of the region and although Queensland made repeated moves to annex the islands of the Torres Strait, actually the final decision always rested with London.

In 1872, Letters Patent were sent from the Colonial Secretary in Britain and Queensland annexed the islands up to sixty miles from the coast of Cape York. The administrative centre was moved from Somerset (established in 1864), on Cape York, to Thursday Island, although not until 1877. In 1879, the majority of the remaining islands in Torres Strait were annexed to Queensland, by Letters Patent from London again, and by an Act in the Legislative Assembly in Brisbane. Torres Strait had become part of Queensland.