Torres Strait Islanders

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Torres Strait Islanders



Identification. The Torres Strait Islanders are a Melanesian group who live on the islands of Torres Strait and in coastal communities of Queensland, Australia. The strait is named for its Spanish discoverer, Captain Luis Baez de Torres, who first explored the region in 1606. The islands and their inhabitants are among the most famous of ethnographic subjects as a result of the Cambridge University expedition of 1898, organized and led by A. C. Haddon.

Location. Torres Strait, which connects the Coral and Arafura seas, lies between the southwestern coast of Papua New Guinea and Australia's Cape York. Out of the more than 100 islands in the strait, only about 20 were or are inhabitedthe rest being too small or too lacking in resources to support a full-time population. The inhabited Islands are of four basic physical types. The Western Islands are large high islands, well-watered and fringed by mangrove swamps; the Central Islands are sand cays on coral reefs; the Eastern Islands are small, volcanic formations with fertile soil; and, to the north, near the coast of Papua New Guinea, there are large, low islands frequently subject to flooding, whose predominant vegetation is mangrove swamps.

Demography. At the time of European contact the Population of the islands was estimated at between 4,000 and 5,000, living in communities that varied in size from less than 100 people to more than 800. By the end of the 1800s, the population had dropped to about 3,000, largely as a result of the depredations of introduced disease and of overwork and ill-treatment by the European-controlled trepang and pearling industries. The first official population count, in 1913, showed 2,368 islanders. Figures for more recent times are rather questionable, because of methodological problems in ethnic identification, but a 1981 commonwealth census puts the figure at 15,232, about half of whom live and work in communities on the Australian mainland.

Linguistic Affiliation. Meriam Mir (or Miriam), the Language of the Eastern Torres Strait Islands, is a member of the Eastern Trans-Fly Family. On the other islands the language spoken (Mabuiag) betrays a mix of Melanesian and Aboriginal linguistic elements.

History and Cultural Relations

Traditional history holds that the current Torres Strait Islands were originally settled by people from Papua, and linguistic and material cultural evidence suggests ties to Australian Aboriginal peoples as well. What is certain is that there was trade between the islanders and both Papuan and Aboriginal peoples long before contact with Europeans, and the influences of these trading partners are apparent in a wide range of material and cultural elements of Torres Strait Society even today. The islands were first sighted by Europeans in the early 1600s but were largely ignored until the 1770 voyage of Captain Cook, shortly after which the straits became regularly traveled. These early contacts were largely incidental to the European use of the straits en route elsewhere, such as the British colony of New South Wales. By the middle of the 1800s, however, the straits attracted trepangers and pearlers whose impact upon island life was rather more dramatic: Islanders were forced to work, and women were often abducted. By 1863, Queensland had established a colonial post in the islands, and in 1871 the London Missionary Society landed teachers on Darnley Island. Conversion of the islanders to Christianity and to participation in the pearling industry was swift. The conflicting goals and aims of the colonial administration vis-à-vis those of the society resulted in the withdrawal of the society and the entry of the Anglican church. Pentecostalism, introduced by islanders who had worked on the mainland, began attracting a strong following in the Islands by the late 1930s. The annexation of the islands by Queensland was completed by 1879. In 1898, elected Councils were established, but economic control of island life remained, and still largely remains, in outsiders' hands. Islanders participated in World War II, and memories of those "army days" inspired islanders to the effort of gaining full citizenship and civil rightsan effort that continues to this day.


Settlement types varied in the islands. On those islands capable of supporting gardening to any great extent, villages consisted of a collection of huts grouped together along the shore, with a cult shrine and associated garden plots. Permanent shelters varied in construction type throughout the Islands: the eastern islanders favored a cone-shaped hut of reeds and grasses, while the northern islanders built long huts elevated on stilts. On the smaller or less fertile islands, only temporary structures were established, as might be expected for people depending primarily upon hunting and gathering for their subsistence. Traditionally, men and initiated boys slept in one hut or portion of camp, separate from the dwellings or camping grounds of the women and children. With Christianity, settlements were established in clusters around the church mission and schools, and the separation of men's and women's housing was replaced by the nuclear-family household.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The principal protein sources for islanders are turtles, dugongs, fish, and shellfish. Most of the Torres Strait Islands are not particularly suited to cultivation to any great extent, because of their small tillable areas and low soil fertility. The larger northern and eastern islands support swidden horticulture, but elsewhere in the strait most vegetable matter is gathered in the wild. Vegetable staples include yams, edible mangrove fruits, beans, and a variety of fruits and nuts. On those islands capable of supporting cultivation, the primary crop is yams, but other crops include bananas, taro, sugarcane, sweet potatoes, tobacco, and coconuts. Harvesting the products of the sea was always a major portion of the islanders' subsistence Economy, but this took on a more commercial aspect with the European introduction of the trepang and pearling industries. In the 1950s, the development of plastics disrupted the islander economy by undercutting the market for pearl shells, and this in turn precipitated a major labor migration to the Australian mainland and prompted islander youths to seek cash-based employment.

Industrial Arts. Until recent times, many items of daily use, such as spears, stone clubs, canoe hulls, bows, and arrows, were acquired through trade, for the islands do not provide suitable timber or hard stone for their manufacture. But Torres Straits Islanders made their own shell hoes and digging sticks, as well as adzes and axes that were constructed from the shells of the giant clams. Other tools and implements were fashioned from turtleshells. Mats, used in the construction of temporary shelters, as canoe sails, and for sitting or sleeping on, were woven from pandanus or coconut leaves. While canoe hulls were imported from Papua New Guinea, the construction of a finished Torres Strait canoe involved a great deal of additional work: to the dug-out hull would be attached outrigger poles and floats; masts and paddles; a platform; and storage "lockers" for food and trade items. Other manufactured goods included: masks; items of personal adornment made of shell, tooth, bone, and imported feathers; and net bags.

Trade. Traditionally, the most important trade was with the peoples of Papua New Guinea: the islanders traded items made of pearl shells, turtleshells, and conus shellsas well as trading human headsin return for canoes, drums, cassowary and bird-of-paradise feathers, and weapons. A lesserbut nonetheless importanttrade network existed between the islanders and the Aboriginal peoples of Australia, who provided spears, spear throwers, and red and white ocher. Trade also occurred among the Torres Strait Islands themselves, primarily involving foodstuffs and tobacco but also permitting the circulation of finished ear ornaments, pendants, hair combs, necklets, armbands, and the like.

Division of Labor. Men hunt sea turtles with harpoons or, more commonly, simply by slipping a rope around the front flippers and towing them back to land. Dugongs are harpooned. Fish are caught with multipronged, thrusting spears, with hooks and lines of turtleshell, or with the use of spear throwers. On some islands bamboo scoops or stone fish traps are used. Men also collect crustaceans and shellfish from the reefs and atolls. Women collect wild vegetables, fruit, and nuts in net bags that they weave from pandanus leaves, grass, rattan, and rushes. Women also provide most of the labor for weeding and harvesting on those islands supporting hortiCulture, while men on such islands do the heavy work of clearing gardens and burning off the ground cover in preparing the gardens. Garden magic is men's work, while cooking and food processing is routinely done by women. Both men and women participated in the early days of the trepanging and pearling, but once the shallower coastal beds were worked out it became a predominantly male enterprise.


Kin Groups and Descent. Throughout the islands there is a patrilineal bias to the reckoning of kinship, but maternal kin are recognized as well. Community groups tend to be predominantly made up of patrilaterally related men, their spouses, and their children, but descent is not reckoned very deeply. The concept of "family" is now strongly "privatized" in accordance with the majority practice of Australian society.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Courtship was traditionally initiated by the prospective wife, who expressed her interest in a young man by sending him a small giftusually through his sister. Should the boy be interested, the girl's parents would eventually involve themselves in negotiations with the boy's family to set the bride-price. Upon the payment of the bride-price, the bride would simply be brought to the camp of her new husband where she would build a fire and begin the responsibilities of wifehood. While there appears to have been no formal ceremony, a community feast and dance such as generally accompanied all major life-cycle events would be held. Island custom permitted polygyny, but it was generally only the most successful of leading men who were able to afford the multiple bride-prices that polygynous marriages required, and with Christianity the practice was ended. Postmarital residence was initially with the family of the groom, but after the birth of children the young family would generally establish their own household and were free to live wherever they chose. Divorce was and is frowned upon, but it did and does occur.

Domestic Unit. The traditional domestic unit minimally consisted of a nuclear family plus one or more dependent relatives of the grandparental generation, and this pattern constitutes the general rule on the islands.

Inheritance. Traditionally, land rights, magic spells, and fetishes were inherited by sons for the most part, although a daughter might be permitted a small plot of land upon her marriage or might even inherit the whole plot in the absence of brothers. Women's lore passed from mother to daughter.

Socialization. In earlier times, mothers taught their daughters their future roles and responsibilities as wives and mothers by the simple expedient of enlisting the girls' help as the mothers went about their daily tasks. Young boys were largely free of such responsibilities. Female initiation occurred at puberty, and involved seclusion with a paternal aunt who provided assistance and instruction. Male initiation ritual was more elaborateboys were secluded in pairs under the tutelage of a maternal uncle for up to three months during which time they underwent dietary taboos and were instructed in proper adult male behavior, as well as undergoing physical ordeals that were intended to transform them into men. A Central feature of male initiation was the introduction of the boys to the chants, lore, fetishes, and sacred masks of the culture heroes. For both boys and girls, initiation rites marked the transition from childhood to adult status.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Kinship, bilaterally reckoned, is invoked as the organizing principle in island life, be it in putting together a work crew, justifying the establishment of Residence in a community, or cooperating in throwing a feast.

Political Organization. Torres Strait leadership was traditionally achieved rather than ascribed, and it was largely based upon a reputation for generosity and a willingness to help one's fellows. But the egalitarian nature of traditional society, and the relatively autonomous nature of households meant that there were limited occasions wherein leadership was required on a communitywide basis. Warfare was one such enterprise, as was land allocation and dispute settlement, and community elders provided the means for achieving consensus in such circumstances. With the establishment of island councils, communities elected representatives (councillors) to serve the traditional functions of elders and to mediate islanders and the government.

Social Control. Traditional mechanisms of social control were largely informal and mainly consisted of public censure or disapproval. But with the advent of the missionaries, social control often came under the auspices of the church and its representatives, and the threat of expulsion from the church provided an institutionalized means of securing individual compliance with social norms.

Conflict. All small communities give rise to interpersonal frictions, and the Torres Strait Islanders were not exempt from this. But friends or kin were always ready to mediate when possible, and if they failed, the community elders would attempt to reconcile disputants before hostilities could get out of hand. Conflicts between individuals of different Communities were commonly expressed in accusations of witchcraft or sorcery; within the community antagonisms found release in arguments or, more rarely, brawls.

Warfare and raiding was common throughout the Torres Strait, encouraged by traditional beliefs that the taking of a human head marked a boy's attainment of full manhood. Stated reasons for a particular raiding expedition usually included revenge for perceived insult to one's group. Over time, relations of enmity between two islands or communities assumed the character of tradition. Wars were fought with bows and arrows and stone clubs, and members of war parties carried braided cane shields and wore distinctive feather headdresses and shell ornaments. Prior to a raid, warriors sought out the offices of medicine men for magic to secure a successful outcome, and dances and chants were composed to celebrate victory. With the advent of colonialism and the influence of missionaries, a policy of pacification brought an end to warfare and head-hunting in the region.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Indigenous religion in the Torres Strait fell victim to Christianity early and thoroughly in the years of European contact, and few traces of it remain. It appears that beliefs focused upon a cast of culture heroes whose travels throughout the region were recounted in creation myths. Through the exploits of these mythological beings the physical features of the islands and many of the social and cultural practices of the islanders were brought into being. Principal among these culture heroes, at least in the Western Islands, was Kwoiam, said to have come from the Aboriginal peoples of Cape York, whose deeds were recounted on important ceremonial occasions. Culture heroes, the things they used, and the places with which they were associated assumed a totemic character in the beliefs of the islanders, and a variety of hero cults existed throughout the islands. There is some evidence to suggest that the hero cults are an importation from Aboriginal and Papuan sources and that they were grafted onto an earlier belief system, which itself was totemic in nature. Christianity was first introduced through the efforts of the London Missionary Society in the late 1700s; this creed was replaced by Anglicanism when the society withdrew from the strait in 1914. In the 1930s, Pentecostalism was introduced by islanders returning from Queensland communities and established a rivalry with Anglicanism for island followers. Island Christianity today incorporates much precontact Religious practice, and recourse to magic (for gardening, fishing, revenge, and curing) still occurs.

Religious Practitioners. Traditionally medicine men, or magicians, began training in their early teens by becoming apprenticed to an established practitioner. Training involved Direct teaching, practice, and submission to trials by ritual ordeal. The apprentice attained full practitioner status when he successfully cast a "hostile" spellthat is, when he succeeded in causing the death of an intended victim through magic. Traditional officiants at ceremonial occasions are elder men of high repute and esteem within their villages, for these are the people in whom resides the greatest knowledge of and experience in cult lore, practice, and magic. Islander men have been trained to the ministry and priesthood since the early days of proselytizing in the region.

Ceremonies. The principal island ritual occasion is the "tombstone opening," wherein the grave marker is formally revealed to all kin and friends of the deceased; this ceremony may take place many years after the actual death. This ritual is an occasion of feasting and dancing and may bring in celebrants from throughout the strait as well as from the mainland. Other major ceremonial occasions follow the Christian calendar and include Christmas and Lent. Of particular importance is the 1 July celebration, commemorating the date of the arrival of "The Light"that is, the arrival of the first mission teachers sent by the London Missionary Society. Celebrations involve feasting, dancing, and singing. Traditional hero-cult ceremonials occurred in the context of initiation rites and involved the reenactment of important events in the hero myths. Ceremonial costume included elaborate sacred masks.

Arts. In traditional times, masks, headdresses, and articles of personal adornment attained a high degree of decorative elaboration. Islander canoes were highly carved. Current Musical instruments include drums, panpipes, whistles, flutes, and rattles, and the composition and performance of songs for festive occasions is still a highly valued skill. Island dance is a dramatic, coordinated series of stamping and leaps performed by troupes of young men, often in competition with one another.

Medicine. Traditional medicine involved the use of magic, either alone or in conjunction with herbal remedies or bloodletting. The type of cure employed was dependent upon diagnosis of visible symptoms. Today, islanders may make use of Western medicine but still respect traditional curing practices.

Death and Afterlife. Traditional beliefs held that the spirit of the deceased was capable of bringing harm to the community, and funerary ritual was intended to avert such danger through appeasing the spirit and freeing it to make the journey to an "Isle of the Dead" somewhere in the west. When a man died, the village members marked the occurrence with loud wailing and crying, then abandoned the Village site to the corpse and the male kin of the widow, who built a platform upon which the body was placed. At a later date, the head of the corpse would be removed for use in Ritual divination to learn if sorcery was the cause of death and thus to determine the necessity of mounting a revenge party. The widow kept the skull to carry about with her throughout her mourning period, but the remainder of the corpse would be interred. Current funerary practice follows customary Western standards, although a tombstone-opening festival, featuring traditional feasting and dancing, is later held.

See alsoKiwai


Beckett, Jeremy (1987). Torres Strait Islanders: Custom and Colonialism. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Haddon, A., ed. (1901-1935). Reports of the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to Torres Strait. 6 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Singe, J. (1979). The Torres Strait Islanders. St. Lucia: Queensland University Press.