Indigenous Australian Studies

Torres Strait Islanders

            The Torres Strait Islanders are the natives of the Torres Strait Islands. They are believed to have relational ties to the people of the people of Papua New Guinea and Melanesian. The islands were occupied as early as 1606 by a native society that was identified as black people that used to wear facemasks and built canoes for the sake of transportation. These natives were into the practices of hunting and gathering ands therefore built weapons for the act. Scholars have enough reason to believe that these were the ancestors from whom the Torres Strait Islanders. During this period, the first Europeans, namely the Spaniards and Hollanders, set foot on the islands. There was no much ado to the discovery and the next voyage to the islands was in 1770 (Fairhead, & Hohnen, 2007). As the Torres Strait Islands were located in strategic voyage routes, by 1840 the natives were able to hold simple conversations with the White merchants that facilitated simple trade activities in food and iron weapons.

The Torres Strait Islanders maintained peaceful relations with any visitors though not all visiting groups were equally friendly to them. Some used force and weapons such as guns to advance into the islands. This could not be marched with the iron cast weapons that the natives possessed and so they had to give in or risk losing their lives. At such instances, women and children would be gang raped. In 1846, trepangers and pearlers made an establishment in the area. They set up marine industries and forced the Islanders to work in them. The system was oppressive to the natives since they were not given their pledged payments and the women having the additional case of being forced to offer sexual favors. Fear and terror was then associated to the sight of foreigners such that the natives always took cover in bushes to avoid being forcefully taken for the labor requirements.

The missionaries too had an upper hand in the erosion of the communal practices of the Islanders. Once they visited the area, they forced the natives to put on clothes and the combination of settlements into villages. New diseases were introduced in the area by the foreigners and masses of the populace succumbed to them. The north parts of Australia were targeted by the merchants for their rich deposits of trepang and pearl shells. The former was a much-demanded commodity by China as either it could be used for eating or enhancement of sexual vigor as it was also an aphrodisiac. The latter product was used in the button industries. Both activities are done in shallow waters where a boat drops like twenty workers in an area necessitating a maximum harvest of both items.

Lack of governmental intervention in the industry saw mixed reactions in the quantity and prices of the trade. In 1897, trepanging and pearling marked the boom phase and afterwards started declining. In 1905, only 1,321 individuals were employed and the number of boats used was 366. This was a big deepening from the previous year where 378 boats were used and 2,509 people in employment (Beckett, 1990). Part of the problem was attributed to the price fixation being solely done by the suppliers and the foreign buyers. This act still promoted the idea of exploitation to the local people. Bad weather conditions and the undisciplined act of overfishing would lead to the contribution of poor yields. In terms of pricing, the producers formed the Master Pearlers’ Association that would have the responsibility of regulating and setting tariffs but it did not work, as they never agreed on any rate.

Small-scale marine framers were always threatened by bigger organizations like Burns Philip that was located in Sydney. As opposed to the archaic harvesting practices that these farmers used in the application of labor-intensive techniques, the bigger companies used capital-intensive schemes that invested heavily on machinery and modernized equipment. The small farmers therefore had not chance against such institutions and worse still, the big companies often led to the diminishing of the harvest grounds due to overfishing. They would then pack their equipment and easily move to other areas while the residents would remain suffering. There was no protection of the infant industries and it led to the death of many small-scale enterprises. The welfare of the Islanders at such cases would worsen until the grounds were revived again (Davis, 2004).

A more friendly operation was however instituted between the small businessmen and the producers where they were given rental services on the equipment, fishing gear or even funds to boost their own practices. This was a step in the positive direction but it was usually hampered by the considerable amounts of price fluctuations. The economy was also affected by these negative forces since they had a direct relation with the economic climate. When the harvesting grounds became dry, the large-scale businesses would move to other areas meaning that they would invest off the islands leading to a siphoning of the funds to other areas. The revenues and investments would therefore drop leading to economic hardships. The boarding conditions on the boats were very poor and the workers were often overpopulated in their sleeping areas. The diet too was very wanting. When these two were combined to the sea dangers like storms that the workers faced, the average life span was reduced to forty.

Beriberi was one of the leading diseases during the voyages attributed to the lack of vegetables and fruits in the boats. With these challenges, the practice made it hard for the workers to harvest the shells from the sea. The prices during this time decreased and the employers took the advantage of reducing the workers wages too. No amount of protest could affect the employers, as cheaper labor was available from the Asian continent. The only considerable cost that they would face was the transport. During this period, there was labor mobility and poaching from the outer regions of the Pacific and into the islands. This practice lacked regulation leading to mass job loss and the escalation of unemployment. With these challenges, the government decided actively to protect its people from the abuse and unemployment that the trepangers and the pearlers often inflicted on the people (Nettheim, Craig, & Meyers, 2002).

The government took its first initiative in 1904 through a government representative that assumed total control on the Islanders welfare. In 1907, an inquiry was set for further investigations and analysis of the matter. The advent of cheap labor was abolished and the White employers were required to give higher wages to the workers. European divers when compared to the Chinese refused to work for the low wages of 8.17 ponds that the other workers were accorded. With this discovered the employers were commanded to hike the pay rates to which they vehemently opposed by citing the situation that they had to maintain the low wages if they were to maintain a competitive edge over their market rivals. Increasing the wages meant that the costs would rise and a subsequent fall in the profits would follow. With the discovery of the White’s refusal to work for the same rates as the local labor, the government made it clear that the Islanders had a right of employment by the fact that they were natural natives of the area. Other natives like the Aborigines and the Papuans were also included in the grouping.

Protective segregation was proposed for the sake of achieving native and White coexistence in economic and social matters, especially in the working environment. The Aborigines at this time were the main suppliers of labor to the missionaries and clergy. Some therefore felt that the segregation would adequately protect the Aborigines from the exploitation that they were facing. The government held that although the Aborigines were not skilled in much work, with their absorption in better working conditions and jobs, they could be trained for the purposes of being employed in the agricultural industry after they had protected the work. The first opposers were the employees, as they did not want to lose the cheap labor that they had gotten used to. The next group consisted of the state legislators that did not want to give public funds into what they viewed as barren settlements.

Three big arrangements were put up and a few working areas were put up within the settlements. These working places were not able to support the workforce thereby necessitating the need for further negotiations with the employers. To ensure that the workers would not be oppressed the government took the initiative of concerning itself with the wage rates of the mass employed by the Whites. They also ensured that the workers were given full payments in any period. As time went by, the government took the responsibility of fixing and controlling the wage rates. The end of World War I played in favor of the government as labor was reduced tremendously. Therefore, the Whites were pushed into giving 66.67% of the salary that Whites were given to the natives (Bryson, 2002).

For easy monitoring of the payment system, the Protectors directly dealt with the payment system in which they would receive the money from the employers, calculate that each person’s remuneration was in full and then ensure that the wages are delivered directly to the intended workers. With this area streamlined, the government released that the biggest challenge on the Islanders case was the frequent famines experienced in the area. There was a need to strike a balance between food production to ensure that the domestic and exportation requirements of the people do not leave one side poorly supplied in any instance. The government constructed stores where most basic food types were preserved incase of a drought or a shortage of yields from the farming fields. With the government accepting payments on behalf of its citizens, they gave each worker a banking book that would reflect the amount of money he had.

In a case where the worker bought, some items from the stores subsequent deductions would be levied against the bank account and the worker informed later. This arrangement also made it easier for the government to levy taxes on the workers that was used as security in case of droughts. In 1913, the first census was taken for the working members and it indicating that only 1300 individuals were employed. These were the source of pensions for the retired group. For the sake of personal expansion, the government also purchased boats for the workers on a subsidized rate making it easier for the boat owners to use the boats for commercial purposes and they could offer job opportunities where they could employ others. Twenty-eight boats had been purchased by 1924 and the economy was fating well leading to the wage increment from three to four pounds. The number of workers increased from 1921 to 1924 by 225 in a three-year period. The market thrive was hampered for a while by the Great Depression but in 1936 it recovered (Beckett, 1990).

In 1937, a group of councilors met and amended some laws. From this, the Torres Strait Islanders Act was enacted in 1939 where the Islanders and the Aborigines were recognized as different people. The former industries belonging to the Aborigines were adopted as being the Islanders assets. The government continued its management over the boat trade and the reduction of the taxes. From then henceforth to the year 1960, colonizers entered the area and the government eventually lost its power and sovereignty over its people.





Beckett, J. (1990). Torres Strait Islanders: Custom and Colonialism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Bryson, I. (2002). Bringing to light: a history of ethnographic filmmaking at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander studies Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Publishers.

Davis, R. (2004), Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, Studies Woven histories, dancing lives: Torres Strait islander identity, culture and history Acto. A.C.T, AIATSIS.

Fairhead, L., & Hohnen, L. (2007). Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics. Torres Strait Islanders: improving their economic benefits from fishing Canberra, A.C.T. ABARE

Nettheim G., Craig, D., & Meyers, G. D. (2002). Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. Indigenous peoples and governance structures: a comparative analysis of land and resource management rights Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies


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