Torres Strait Islanders

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Torres Strait Islanders
Queensland State Archives 5750 Villagers with Hon J C Peterson and party Poid Torres Strait Island June 1931.png
Total population
Regions with significant populations
Torres Strait Island languages, Australian English
Related ethnic groups
Aboriginal Australians, Papuans, Melanesians
Map of Torres Strait Islands TorresStraitIslandsMap.png
Map of Torres Strait Islands

Torres Strait Islanders ( /ˈtɒrɪs-/ [1] ) are the indigenous people of the Torres Strait Islands, part of Queensland, Australia. They are distinct from the Aboriginal people of the rest of Australia, and are generally referred to separately. There are also two Torres Strait Islander communities on the nearby coast of the mainland at Bamaga and Seisia.

Indigenous Australians are the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of Australia, descended from groups that existed in Australia and surrounding islands before British colonisation. The time of arrival of the first Indigenous Australians is a matter of debate among researchers. The earliest conclusively human remains found in Australia are those of Mungo Man LM3 and Mungo Lady, which have been dated to around 50,000 years BP. Recent archaeological evidence from the analysis of charcoal and artefacts revealing human use suggests a date as early as 65,000 BP. Luminescence dating has suggested habitation in Arnhem Land as far back as 60,000 years BP. Genetic research has inferred a date of habitation as early as 80,000 years BP. Other estimates have ranged up to 100,000 years and 125,000 years BP.

Torres Strait Islands archipelago north of Australia

The Torres Strait Islands are a group of at least 274 small islands which lie in Torres Strait, the waterway separating far northern continental Australia's Cape York Peninsula and the island of New Guinea.

Queensland North-east state of Australia

Queensland is the second-largest and third-most populous state in the Commonwealth of Australia. Situated in the north-east of the country, it is bordered by the Northern Territory, South Australia and New South Wales to the west, south-west and south respectively. To the east, Queensland is bordered by the Coral Sea and Pacific Ocean. To its north is the Torres Strait, with Papua New Guinea located less than 200 km across it from the mainland. The state is the world's sixth-largest sub-national entity, with an area of 1,852,642 square kilometres (715,309 sq mi).



Torres Strait Islanders as a percentage of the population, in Australia at the 2011 census Australian Census 2011 demographic map - Australia by SLA - BCP field 0048 Indigenous Persons Torres Strait Islander Persons.svg
Torres Strait Islanders as a percentage of the population, in Australia at the 2011 census

There are 6,800 Torres Strait Islanders who live in the area of the Torres Strait, and 42,000 others who live outside the area, mostly in the north of Queensland, particularly in Townsville and Cairns. [2]

Townsville City in Queensland, Australia

Townsville is a city on the north-eastern coast of Queensland, Australia. Townsville is Australia's largest urban centre north of the Sunshine Coast, with a population of 173,815 as of the 2016 Australian census. Considered the unofficial capital of North Queensland by locals, Townsville hosts a significant number of governmental, community and major business administrative offices for the northern half of the state. It is in the dry tropics region of Queensland, adjacent to the central section of the Great Barrier Reef. The city is also a major industrial centre, home to one of the world's largest zinc refineries, a nickel refinery and many other similar activities. The Port of Townsville is also being expanded to allow much larger cargo ships from Asia and the world's largest passenger ships to visit. It is an increasingly important port due to its proximity to Asia and major trading partners such as China.

Cairns City in Queensland, Australia

Cairns is a city in the Cairns Region, Queensland, Australia. It is on the east coast of Far North Queensland. The city is the 5th-most-populous in Queensland and ranks 14th overall in Australia.


Ritual face mask from a Torres Strait Island (19th century). Face mask torres strait.JPG
Ritual face mask from a Torres Strait Island (19th century).

The indigenous people of the Torres Strait have a distinct culture which has slight variants on the different islands where they live. They are a seafaring people, and they trade with people of Papua New Guinea. The culture is complex, with some Australian elements, some Papuan elements, and Austronesian elements, just like the languages. The Islanders seem to have been the dominant culture for many centuries, and neighbouring Aboriginal and Papuan cultures show some Island influence in religious ceremonies and the like.[ original research? ]

Papua New Guinea constitutional monarchy in Oceania

Papua New Guinea, officially the Independent State of Papua New Guinea is a country in Oceania that occupies the eastern half of the island of New Guinea and its offshore islands in Melanesia, a region of the southwestern Pacific Ocean north of Australia. Its capital, located along its southeastern coast, is Port Moresby. The western half of New Guinea forms the Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Papua.

Archaeological, linguistic and folk history evidence suggests that the core of Island culture is Papuo-Austronesian. Unlike the indigenous peoples of mainland Australia, but like those of neighbouring Papua, islanders are agriculturalists as well as engaging in hunting and gathering. Dugong, turtles, crayfish, crabs, shellfish, reef fish and wild fruits and vegetables were traditionally hunted and collected and remain an important part of their subsistence lifestyle. [3] Traditional foods play an important role in ceremonies and celebrations even when they do not live on the islands. Dugong and turtle hunting as well as fishing are seen as a way of continuing the Islander tradition of being closely associated with the sea. [3]

Hunter-gatherer human living in a society in which most or all food is obtained by foraging (collecting wild plants and pursuing wild animals)

A hunter-gatherer is a human living in a society in which most or all food is obtained by foraging. Hunter-gatherer societies stand in contrast to agricultural societies, which rely mainly on domesticated species.

Dugong species of mammal

The dugong is a medium-sized marine mammal. It is one of four living species of the order Sirenia, which also includes three species of manatees. It is the only living representative of the once-diverse family Dugongidae; its closest modern relative, Steller's sea cow, was hunted to extinction in the 18th century. The dugong is the only strictly herbivorous marine mammal.

Turtle Order of reptiles

Turtles are diapsids of the order Testudines characterized by a special bony or cartilaginous shell developed from their ribs and acting as a shield. "Turtle" may refer to the order as a whole or to fresh-water and sea-dwelling testudines. The order Testudines includes both extant (living) and extinct species. The earliest known members of this group date from the Middle Jurassic, making turtles one of the oldest reptile groups and a more ancient group than snakes or crocodilians. Of the 356 known species alive today, some are highly endangered.

Their more recent, post-colonisation history has seen new cultural influences, most notably the place of Christianity (particularly of the Baptist and Anglican strains) which caused major shifts in cultural paradigms, as well as subtler additions through the influence of Polynesians, particularly Samoan and Rotuman sea workers and missionaries who worked in the area in the 19th Century.[ citation needed ]

Christianity is an Abrahamic monotheistic religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. Its adherents, known as Christians, believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and savior of all people, whose coming as the Messiah was prophesied in the Old Testament and chronicled in the New Testament. It is the world's largest religion with over 2.4 billion followers.

Samoa country in Oceania

Samoa, officially the Independent State ofSamoa and, until 4 July 1997, known as Western Samoa, is a country consisting of two main islands, Savai'i and Upolu, and four smaller islands. The capital city is Apia. The Lapita people discovered and settled the Samoan Islands around 3,500 years ago. They developed a unique Samoan language and Samoan cultural identity.


The Torres Strait Islands, particularly since the 1970s, have produced some outstanding and successful artists, in particular printmakers, sculptors and mask-makers, and dancers. The Islands have a long tradition of woodcarving, creating masks and drums, and carving decorative features on these and other items for ceremonial use. The modern and portable art form of printmaking, particularly linocut and etching has been a natural progression for island artists many of whom grew up learning carving, especially in wood.[ citation needed ]

Printmaking activity or occupation of making prints from plates or blocks

Printmaking is the process of creating artworks by printing, normally on paper. Printmaking normally covers only the process of creating prints that have an element of originality, rather than just being a photographic reproduction of a painting. Except in the case of monotyping, the process is capable of producing multiples of the same piece, which is called a print. Each print produced is not considered a "copy" but rather is considered an "original". This is because typically each print varies to an extent due to variables intrinsic to the printmaking process, and also because the imagery of a print is typically not simply a reproduction of another work but rather is often a unique image designed from the start to be expressed in a particular printmaking technique. A print may be known as an impression. Printmaking is not chosen only for its ability to produce multiple impressions, but rather for the unique qualities that each of the printmaking processes lends itself to.

Linocut is a printmaking technique, a variant of woodcut in which a sheet of linoleum is used for a relief surface. A design is cut into the linoleum surface with a sharp knife, V-shaped chisel or gouge, with the raised (uncarved) areas representing a reversal of the parts to show printed. The linoleum sheet is inked with a roller, and then impressed onto paper or fabric. The actual printing can be done by hand or with a printing press.

Etching intaglio printmaking technique

Etching is traditionally the process of using strong acid or mordant to cut into the unprotected parts of a metal surface to create a design in intaglio (incised) in the metal. In modern manufacturing, other chemicals may be used on other types of material. As a method of printmaking, it is, along with engraving, the most important technique for old master prints, and remains in wide use today. In a number of modern variants such as microfabrication etching and photochemical milling it is a crucial technique in much modern technology, including circuit boards.

The College of Technical and Further Education on Thursday Island was a starting point for young islanders to pursue studies in art. Many went on to further art studies, especially in printmaking, initially in Cairns, Queensland and later at the Australian National University in what is now the School of Art and Design, then called the Canberra Institute of the Arts. Linocut prints are produced with black ink on white paper. Prints tell the stories of spiritual beings, island life, the environment, and the range of creatures central to Torres Strait Island life. The prints often incorporate extensive background patterning, some of which has been rediscovered after research in anthropological collections in overseas and local museums. Artists such as Laurie Nona, Brian Robinson, Alick Tipoti, Dennis Nona, Billy Missi, David Bosun, and more recently Glen Mackie, Joemen Nona, Daniel O'Shane and Tommy Pau produce vibrant and energetic prints which are held in local and overseas collections.[ citation needed ]

At around the same time as these artists were beginning studies in art, there was underway a significant re-connection to traditional myths and legends. Many of these had been all but forgotten when Margaret Lawrie's significant publications, Myths and Legends of the Torres Strait and Tales from the Torres Strait were published in 1970 and 1972 respectively. [4] [5] While some of these stories had been written down by Alfred Cort Haddon after his anthropological expedition to the Torres Strait in 1898, [6] in the years after his publications up to perhaps World War II, dispersal of the islanders and lack of any further written records meant there was a real danger that the material culture of the islands was being lost. The artists found a new direction in interpreting and presenting these traditional stories in prints. Prints not only served as a vehicle for interpreting stories to their own people, but have found a new and increasingly large Australian and international audience with their striking imagery. Artists have produced prints that are up to eight metres in length, foregrounding a narrative with exquisitely detailed patterned backgrounds. The imagery fuses the myths and legends with the maritime perspective of the Torres Strait Islands, and depicts spirit figures and human elements, in the sea, on the land and under the stars, surrounded by the dugongs, turtles, fish, crocodiles and birds that are part of the Islands' environment.[ citation needed ]

Not all Torres Strait Islander printmakers work exclusively in myths and legends. Some include a range of contemporary iconography, including western art references and pop culture images such as comic book characters, either to add depth of meaning to or comparisons with local cultural chronicling. Others represent day-to-day life and the environment, such as the dugong and her calf swimming together, or turtles or jellyfish with traditional patterning on their bodies or as background.[ citation needed ]

Several of these artists also produce sculptures, and carved and decorated masks and headdresses. Dance performances have been a constant expression of Torres Strait Islands culture throughout the twentieth century. Head decorations, masks, costumes and mechanical dance machines are created to use in traditional ceremonies and performances. Contemporary masks can be simple carved faces or more elaborate decorated pieces. Headdresses or dhari (see the TI flag, above right) and dance machines (hand-held mechanical objects) constructed of a mix of traditional and contemporary materials, bring colour and movement to performances. Like much of the art of the Torres Strait, dharis and masks are essentially spiritual, but have taken on the ability to reflect stories and historical and contemporary events, using modern materials of metal and plywood but also more traditional feathers, human hair, bamboo, bean pods and shell. Masks, drumming and chanting are often combined with dance performances for exhibitions such as Alick Tipoti's Zugubal. Ancestral Spirits at the Cairns Regional Gallery in July 2015.[ citation needed ]

Prominent among the artforms is wame (alt. wameya), many different string figures [7] [8] [9] (a particular string figure game played by two or more participants that generates several string figures is familiar to people of many cultures under the name Cat's cradle), some extremely elaborate and beautiful, and 'string catches' (games in which strings are wrapped around fingers then removed quickly with a single pull).[ citation needed ]


The Western-central Torres Strait Language, or Kalaw Lagaw Ya, is spoken on the southwestern, western, northern and central islands. It is a member of the Pama-Nyungan family of languages of Australia. Meriam Mir is spoken on the eastern islands. It is one of the four Eastern Trans-Fly languages, the other three being spoken in Papua New Guinea. [10]


The Torres Strait Islanders have been administered by a system of elected councils. [11] This is a system based partly on traditional pre-Christian local government and partly on the introduced mission management system. [11]

Notable Torres Strait Islanders

See also

Related Research Articles

Murray Island, Queensland locality in Queensland, Australia

Murray Island, also called Mer in the native Meriam language, is a small island of volcanic origin, the most easterly inhabited island of the Torres Strait Islands archipelago, just north of the Great Barrier Reef. The island is populated by the Melanesian Meriam people, which has a population of around 485 as of 2006 census. The Murray Group comprises three islands: Murray Island (Mer), Dauar Island (Dauar) and Waier Island (Waier).

The Mabuiag or the Mabuygiwgal are an Indigenous Australian group of Melanesian Torres Strait Islander people that are united by a common language, strong ties of kinship and survived as skilled hunter–fisher–gatherers in family groups or clans living on a number of Torres Strait Islands including Mabuiag Island, in the Torres Strait in Queensland, Australia.

The indigenous peoples of Oceania are Polynesians, Melanesians, Micronesians, Papuans and Australian Aboriginals. With the notable exceptions of Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, New Caledonia and Guam, indigenous peoples make up the majority of the populations of Oceania.

Aboriginal Australians term used to refer to some groups of Indigenous Australians

Aboriginal Australians are the various indigenous peoples of the Australian mainland, Tasmania, and often the Tiwi people. This group contains many distinct peoples that have developed across Australia for over 50,000 years. These peoples have a broadly shared, though complex, genetic history, but it is only in the last two hundred years that they have been defined and started to self identify as a single group. The definition of the term "Aboriginal" has changed over time and place, with the importance of family lineage, self identification and community acceptance all being of varying importance. In the past, Aboriginal Australians lived over large sections of the continental shelf and were isolated on many of the smaller offshore islands when the land was inundated at the start of the inter-glacial. However, they are considered distinct from the Torres Strait Islander people, despite extensive cultural exchange.

Alfred Cort Haddon British anthropologist

Alfred Cort Haddon, Sc.D., FRS, FRGS was an influential British anthropologist and ethnologist. Initially a biologist, who achieved his most notable fieldwork, with W.H.R. Rivers, C.G. Seligman and Sidney Ray on the Torres Strait Islands. He returned to Christ's College, Cambridge, where he had been an undergraduate, and effectively founded the School of Anthropology. Haddon was a major influence on the work of the American ethnologist Caroline Furness Jayne.

Saibai Island locality in Queensland, Australia

Saibai Island is an island of the Torres Strait Islands archipelago, located in the Torres Strait of Queensland, Australia. The island is situated north of the Australian mainland and south of the island of New Guinea.

Meriam or the Eastern Torres Strait language is the language of the people of the small islands of Mer, Waier and Dauar, Erub, and Ugar in the eastern Torres Strait, Queensland, Australia. In the Western Torres Strait language, Kalaw Lagaw Ya, it is called Mœyam or Mœyamau Ya. It is the only Papuan language in Australian territory.

Moa Island (Queensland) island in the Torres Strait in Queensland, Australia

Moa Island, also called Banks Island, is an island of the Torres Strait Islands archipelago that is located 40 kilometres (25 mi) north of Thursday Island in the Banks Channel of Torres Strait, Queensland, Australia. It is also a locality within the Torres Strait Island Region local government area. This island is the largest within the "Near Western" group. It has two towns, Kubin on the south-west coast and St Pauls on the east coast, which are connected by bitumen and a gravel road.

Badu Island Suburb of Torres Strait Island Region, Queensland, Australia

Badu or Badu Island, pronounced ['ba:du:] in English, in Kalau Laguw Ya Badhu [bad̪u], is an island 60 km north of Thursday Island, Queensland, Australia in the Torres Strait. Badu Island is also a locality in the Torres Strait Island Region, and Badu is the only town, located on the south-east coast.

Yam Island (Queensland) island

Yam Island, called Yama or Iama in the Kulkalgau Ya language or Turtle-backed Island in English, is an island of the Bourke Isles group of the Torres Strait Islands, located in the Tancred Passage of the Torres Strait in Queensland, Australia. The island is situated approximately 100 kilometres (62 mi) northeast of Thursday Island and measures about 2 square kilometres (0.77 sq mi).

There are three languages spoken in the Torres Strait Islands, two indigenous languages and an English-based creole. The indigenous language spoken mainly in the western and central islands is Kalaw Lagaw Ya: a language related to the Pama–Nyungan languages of the Australian mainland. The other indigenous language spoken mainly in the eastern islands is Meriam Mir: a member of the Trans-Fly languages spoken on the nearby south coast of New Guinea and the only Papuan language native to Australia. Both languages are agglutinative, however Kalaw Lagaw Ya appears to be undergoing a transition into a declensional language while Meriam Mìr is more clearly agglutinative. Yumplatok, the third language, is a non-typical Pacific English Creole and is the main language of communication on the islands.

Torres Strait Regional Authority

The Torres Strait Regional Authority (TSRA) is an Australian Government body established to administer the Torres Strait Islands.The TSRA consists of 20 elected representatives.

Margaret Lawrie Antropologist

Margaret Lawrie was famous for capturing and retelling many of the myths and Legends of the Torres Strait Islander people. She was born in Victoria in 1917 and died in 2003.


Kaurareg is the name for an indigenous Australian Torres Strait Island people. They are lower Western Islanders, based on the Muralag group. In common with the other Torres Island peoples, they commanded impressive sailing outrigger canoe technology, traded throughout the Straits, fishing and trading with other Torres island groups, and regularly visited the Australian mainland of Cape York Peninsula, with several of whose tribes they held ceremonial, marriage and trading alliances. Subject to reprisals after being blamed for an incident in which a Western schooner and its crew were destroyed, their numbers rapidly diminished with the onset of white colonization and administration. After World War II, descendants of the Kaurareg began to return to their traditional islands, and lay claim to native title over several of them.

The Unduyamo (Andooyomo) were an indigenous Australian people who once lived around the northern shore of Newcastle Bay, Cape York Peninsula Queensland. It has been hypothesized that, among other aspects of their life, they functioned as religious specialists for Torres Strait Islanders, whose mastery of increase rituals attracted the native mariners from the north. Together with the Gudang, who apparently spoke the same language and whose territory ran from Cape York to Fly Point opposite Pabaju, the Unduyamo had strong cultural, kin and trade ties with the Kaurareg, the southwestern islanders centered around Muralag, with whom they enjoyed an alliance that permitted reciprocal residence on each other's territory. All three groups regarded the Yadhaigana and Gumakudin as hostile.

Mua people (Mualgal) alternatively the Moa, are an indigenous Australian Torres Strait Island people based on Moa(Banks Island). According to Alfred Cort Haddon their lifestyle, culture, myths and kinship networks overlapped closely with those of the Kaurareg on neighbouring Muralag.

The Night Island Kawadji, or Uutaalnganu, were an Indigenous Australian group of Cape York Peninsula in northern Queensland. The name is also used collectively for several tribes in this area, such as the Pontunj / Jangkonj (Yanganyu), whose language is unconfirmed.

Dauan Island Town in Queensland, Australia

Dauan Island is an island in the Torres Strait, Queensland, Australia; it is also known as Cornwallis Island. Dauan is also gazetted as a town and a locality in the Torres Strait Island Region local government area.


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  2. "Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples". Australia Now. Australian Government, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Archived from the original on 8 October 2006. Retrieved 10 December 2006.
  3. 1 2 Smyth, Dermot (2002). "Appendix B: The Indigenous Sector: An Anthropological Perspective". In Hundloe, Tor (ed.). Valuing Fisheries. University of Queensland Press. pp. 230–231. ISBN   0702233293 . Retrieved 4 November 2012.
  4. Lawrie, Margaret Elizabeth (1970). Myths and Legends of the Torres Strait/collected and translated by Margaret Lawrie. Brisbane: University of Queensland Press.
  5. Lawrie, Margaret Elizabeth (1972). Tales from Torres Strait. St Lucia Qld: University of Queensland Press.
  6. Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to Torres Straits (1898); Hodes, Jeremy. Index to the Reports of the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to Torres Straits; Haddon, Alfred C. (Alfred Cort), 1855–1940; Ray, Sidney Herbert, 1858–1939. Linguistics (1901), Reports of the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to Torres Straits, University PressCS1 maint: Multiple names: authors list (link)
  7. Brij V. Lal; Kate Fortune, eds. (2000). The Pacific Islands: An Encyclopedia. University of Hawaii Press. p. 456. ISBN   978-0-8248-2265-1 . Retrieved 7 March 2016.
  8. Alfred Cort Haddon, along with one of his daughters, the pioneers in the modern study of Torres Strait string figures
  9. A string figure bibliography including examples from Torres Strait.
  10. "Indigenous Fact Sheet: Torres Strait Islanders" (PDF). Australian Government, Department of Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs . Archived from the original (PDF) on 18 May 2006. Retrieved 10 December 2006.
  11. 1 2 Jeremy Beckett (1990). Torres Strait Islanders: Custom and Colonialism. Cambridge University Press. pp. 17–18. ISBN   978-0-521-37862-8 . Retrieved 7 March 2016.
  12. Resilience the driving force behind Sam Powell-Pepper's draft bid
  13. AFL Record. Round 9,2009. Slattery Publishing. pg 75.
  14. Moore, Tony (28 November 2017). "Labor one seat closer as first Torres Strait Islander woman elected to Parliament". Brisbane Times. Fairfax Media. Retrieved 9 December 2017.
  15. "History: Winners by Artist: Christine Anu". ARIA Awards . Australian Recording Industry Association (ARIA). Archived from the original on 19 May 2011. Retrieved 18 May 2009.

Further reading