Torres Strait Islands

From New World Encyclopedia
Location of Torres Strait Islands
The Torres Strait Islands, a region of the Australian state of Queensland
CapitalThursday Island
Demonym Torres Strait Islander
Government Regional Authority
 -  Monarch Charles III
 -  Chairperson of the Torres Strait Regional Authority Napau Pedro Stephen
 -  Chief Executive Officer of the Torres Strait Regional Authority Leilani Bin-Juda
Regional Authority
 -  Established 1 July 1994 

The Torres Strait Islands are a group of at least 274 small islands that lie in Torres Strait, the waterway separating far northern continental Australia's Cape York Peninsula and the island of New Guinea. They are part of Queensland, a constituent state of the Commonwealth of Australia, with a special status fitting the native (Melanesian) land rights, administered by the Torres Strait Regional Authority.

The Torres Strait Islanders are a sea-faring people. They have been at the forefront of the cultural clash that came with the British colonization of Australia, most notably in what came to be known as the Mabo Case, which overturned a century-old legal doctrine that held that native title over Crown land in Australia had been extinguished at the time of annexation.


Torres Strait Islands

The islands are distributed across an area of some 18,500 square miles (48,000 km²). The distance across the Strait from Cape York to New Guinea is approximately 90 miles (150 km) at the narrowest point; the islands lie scattered in between, extending some 125 miles (200 km) to 185 miles (300 km) from east to west.

The Torres Strait itself was a land bridge that connected the present-day Australian continent with New Guinea, forming a single landmass called Sahul, or Australia-New Guinea. This land bridge was most recently submerged by rising sea levels at the end of the last ice age glaciation (approximately 12,000 years ago), forming the strait that now connects the Arafura Sea and Coral Sea. Many of the western Torres Strait Islands are actually the remaining peaks of this land bridge that were not submerged when the ocean levels rose.

The islands and their surrounding waters and reefs provide a highly diverse set of land and marine ecosystems, with niches for many rare or unique species. Marine animals of the islands include dugongs (an endangered species of sea mammal mostly found in New Guinean waters), as well as the Green Sea Turtle, the Hawksbill turtle, and the Flatback Turtle.

The Torres Strait Islands may be grouped into five distinct clusters that exhibit differences of geology and formation. The Top Western islands lie close to the southwestern coastline of New Guinea. Saibai Island and Boigu Island are low-lying islands formed by deposits of sediments and mud from New Guinean rivers accumulating on decayed coral platforms. Vegetation consists of mangrove swamps. The islands are prone to flooding. Duaun Island (Mount Cornwallis) is a smaller island with steep hills, mostly granitic, and represents the northernmost extent of the Great Dividing Range, which runs along the eastern coastline of Australia.

The Near Western islands lie south of the strait's midway point, and are largely high granite hills with mounds of basaltic outcrops. These are the islands formed from old peaks of the now submerged land bridge.

The Central islands are widely distributed in the middle of Torres Strait, and consist of many small sandy cays surrounded by coral reefs, similar to those found in the nearby Great Barrier Reef. The more northerly islands, such as Gebar (Two Brothers) and Iama Island (Yam Island), are high basaltic outcrops.

The Eastern islands (principally Murray Island, Dauar, and Waier, with Darnley Island and Stephen Island farther north) are the peaks of volcanoes that were formerly active in Pleistocene times. Their hillsides have rich, fertile red volcanic soils, and are thickly vegetated. The easternmost of these are less than 12 miles (20 km) from the northern extension of the Great Barrier Reef.

Hammond Island

The Inner islands, also known as the Thursday Island group, lie closest to Cape York Peninsula, and their topography and geological histories are similar. Prince of Wales Island is the largest of the strait's islands and forms the center of this closely grouped cluster. Another smaller island is Dumaralug Island, which is found nearly 200 miles south of Muralag. Several of these islands have permanent freshwater springs, and some were mined for gold in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They have also been centers of pearl hunting and fishing industries. Ngurapai (Horn Island), holds the region's airport, and has drawn inhabitants from many other communities. Hammond Island is the other permanently settled island of this group. Tuined (Possession Island) is noted for British explorer James Cook's landing there in 1770.

View of the Township of Thursday Island.

The much smaller Waiben (Thursday Island) is the region's administrative and commercial center and its most heavily populated. Lying about 24 miles (39 km) north of Cape York Peninsula, Queensland, in the Torres Strait, Thursday Island has an area of about one square mile (three square kilometers). Of the 8000 or so Islanders living in the Torres Strait, approximately half live on Thursday Island, and the other half are distributed between the 14 inhabited islands throughout the region. Thursday Island, like the Torres Strait Islands generally, experiences a tropical climate with an average daily temperature of 84 degrees F (29 degrees C); the hottest month is traditionally November 88.5 F (31.4 C) while the coldest is July 81.7 F (27.6 C). January typically experiences the highest rainfall (about 15 inches or 389 mm) and September and October average less than one-tenth of an inch, or 3 mm of rainfall.


Trading canoe at Erub (Darnley Island), c. 1849

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. Further waves of migration followed.

The original inhabitants lived in small communities relying on fishing, hunting, and raising crops for their subsistence. Trade in artifacts (made of pearl shell, turtle shell, and feathers), canoes, and tools was important.

Although it is likely that Chinese, Malay and Indonesian traders had explored the islands before him, the first European navigator credited with finding the islands was the Portuguese maritime explorer (serving the Spanish crown) Luis Vaez de Torres, who sailed through the strait in 1606. In 1770, English explorer Captain James Cook visited Possession Island where he claimed British sovereignty over the eastern part of Australia. The London Missionary Society arrived on Darnley Island in 1871.

The discovery of pearl shell, in the 1860s, led to an influx of people from all over the region (Japanese, Malays, [Phillipines|Filipinos]], Micronesians, and Europeans) to Thursday Island in particular, which became the main settlement. Pearl shells were harvested to make shirt buttons. Pearls themselves were rare and a bonus. By 1877, a total of sixteen firms were established on Thursday Island employing 700 people and more than a hundred pearl ships, known as “luggers,” sailed from there. That year, the Queensland Government set up an administrative center for the Torres Strait Islands on Thursday Island and a township developed over the next decade. Queensland annexed the Torres Strait Islands in 1879. Elected island councils and law courts were set up. The Islands, thus, later became part of the British colony of Queensland, although some of them lie just off the coast of New Guinea.

In 1888-1889, the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition visited the Torres Strait Islands, resulting in a drastic depletion of their cultural artifacts. In 1904, the Torres Strait Islanders become subject to the Aboriginal Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act.

In the early 1900s a former London Missionary Society missionary established Papuan Industries Limited to encourage further Islander participation in the marine industry. Island families or clans were able to buy their own pearling boats through the company. By the end of the 1920s, Islanders owned almost 25 percent of the pearling fleet in the Torres Strait. But customary Island ways of working clashed with European work practices. By the early 1930s, control of Papuan Industries Limited was handed over to government administrators. In January 1936, Islanders went on strike, refusing to work the boats until conditions improved. The strike was the first organized Islander challenge to European authority. Although the pearl trade stopped after World War II, cultured pearl farms continued to operate until 1970, when a disease attacked the shells.

During World War II, Thursday Island became the military headquarters for the Torres Strait and was a base for Australian and United States forces. In 1942, the Japanese bombed neighboring Horn Island, which had an airbase used by the Allies to attack parts of New Guinea. Civilians were evacuated from Thursday Island; they did not return until after the end of the war.

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. The proximity to Papua New Guinea became an issue when Papua New Guniea was moving towards independence from Australia, which it gained in 1975. The Torres Strait Islanders insisted that they were Australians, but Papua New Guinea sought to include the Islands within its borders. Eventually, an agreement was struck whereby the Islands and their inhabitants remained Australian, but the maritime frontier between Australia and Papua New Guinea was established through the center of the strait. The two countries cooperate in the management of the strait's resources.


An Australian Commonwealth statutory authority called the Torres Strait Regional Authority, created on July 1, 1994, is responsible for governance of the Islands. The authority has an elected board comprising 20 representatives from the Torres Strait Islander and Australian Aboriginal communities resident in the Torres Strait region. There is one representative per established local community. The administrative center of the islands is Thursday Island. The Queensland statutory authority, the Island Coordinating Council, represents the local communities at the state level.

At the local level there are 18 authorities, the Torres Shire Council which governs several Islands and portions of Cape York Peninsula, and operates as a Queensland local government area. There are 17 Torres Strait Island Councils. These areas have been relinquished by the Government of Queensland to specific Islander and aboriginal councils.

Land ownership and a desire for self-determination were the main issues in Torres Strait politics at the end of the twentieth century. In 1982, Eddie Mabo[1] and four other residents of Mer (Murray Island) started legal proceedings to legitimize traditional land ownership. Because Mabo was the first-named plaintiff, it became known as the Mabo Case. In 1992, after ten years of hearings before the Queensland Supreme Court and the High Court of Australia, the latter court found that Mer people had owned their land prior to annexation by Queensland. This ruling overturned the century-old legal doctrine of "terra nullius" ("no-one's land"), that held that native title over Crown land in Australia had been extinguished at the time of annexation. The ruling was of far-reaching significance for the land claims of both Torres Strait Islanders and Australian Aborigines. Since the Mabo decision, several communities (Saibai Islanders and Mualgal people from Moa Island) have secured legal recognition of their native title rights over their Islands. Several other cases are also in progress.

Other issues include the planned building of a A$2 billion gas pipeline from Kutubu in Papua New Guinea across the Torres Strait to Queensland, water rights, as well as drug and people smuggling from Papua New Guinea.


Fishing is the main economic activity of the Torres Strait Islands, particularly fishing for prawns, rock lobsters, and Spanish mackerel, along with subsistence horticulture. The sustainable commercial exploitation of marine resources is considered crucial to employment and economic development in the region. Sharing regional responsibility for the management of these fisheries is therefore a primary cultural and economic goal of Torres Strait Islanders.

After World War II, Ansett Airlines set up an airline service from Cairns, Queensland, to Thursday Island, using DeHaviland Dragon Rapides and later McDonnell Douglas DC3s. Passengers disembarked on Horne Island and caught a ferry to Thursday Island. The island was also served by a ship, the Elsana, which made the journey once a month.

Customs House on Thursday Island.

Thursday Island was one of two bases for the Torres Straits Pilots, a cooperative owned and run by qualified Master Mariners who piloted ships through the Straits and down to Cairns. This is a necessary service because navigation through the area is difficult due to the extensive reef systems. The economy of Thursday Island is supported by a fast developing tourism industry, with perhaps the most famous tourist being novelist Somerset Maugham.[2] A.B."Banjo" Paterson, the journalist and poet, who wrote Waltzing Matilda as well as many other famous Australian songs and poems, visited the island and wrote quite extensively about it.[3] Elsewhere, tourism is limited by a lack of facilities.

Torres Strait Islanders have contributed to Australia's economic development through their pearling industry, the building of railroads, the sugar industry, and the arts and culture


Torres Strait Islanders, the indigenous peoples of the islands, are Melanesians, culturally most akin to the coastal peoples of Papua New Guinea. They are regarded as being distinct from other indigenous or aboriginal peoples of Australia, and are generally referred to separately. There are two Torres Strait Islander communities on the nearby coast of the Australian mainland, Bamaga and Seisia. According to the 2001 Australian census, the population of the Torres Strait Islands was 8089 (up from an estimated 6700 in 2000). A total of 6214 were either Torres Strait Islanders or of Aboriginal origin. Another 42,000 live outside the region, mainly in the coastal towns of north Queensland, particularly in Townsville and Cairns.

Since missionaries arrived from the Loyalty Islands of New Caledonia in 1871, Christianity became the preeminent religious and social force throughout the Strait. Because the initial contact was by the London Missionary Society and, since 1915, contact was with the Anglican Church, English Protestantism prevailed. Although it may seem extraordinary that the region’s fierce, animistic warrior kingdoms took to Christianity, its simplest form, of faith in a higher being, was not dissimilar to the teachings of Malo worship. One of the first Islander converts was a Malo cult leader, Aet Passi. The consequent end to the vicious cycle of warfare and headhunting was welcomed.

Although English is the official language, there are two indigenous languages. The language of the western and central islands is a member of the Pama-Nyungan family of languages, which covers most of Australia. This language does not have its own name, and has four major dialects. The language of eastern Torres Strait is Meriam Mìr, related to the languages of the nearby coast of Papua New Guinea. Meriam Mir is the only Papuan language indigenous to Australia, and used to have two dialects. A third language of the Torres Straits is a creole language that has developed over the last hundred years or so. This Torres Strait Creole is also known as "Blaikman Tok," "Broken/Brokan," and "Yumplatok." It has five known dialects, Papuan, Western-Central, Eastern, Thursday Island, and Cape York.


Although Torres Strait Islanders have had long-standing contact with Australian Aboriginal people in the south and Melanesians to the north, the Islanders are a distinct people with their own culture and identity. Central to their sense of identity are the extended families, within which respect for elders is preserved. Families provide the framework within which obligations to kin are met, the sharing of resources is ensured, and serve as the source of emotional and spiritual support.

The Islanders are a sea-faring people, traveling long distances in search of turtles and dugong, and trading with other islands and villages on the Papuan coast. Given that 91 percent of their traditional area is open ocean, the sea is central to the Islander sense of identity having determined their way of life, subsistence practices, and ceremonial traditions. The sea remains the source of inspiration for many songs and stories and is regarded with great respect.

A long-standing custom, tombstone unveiling is a important ceremony. No less that 12 months after the body is buried, the engraved tombstone is unveiled and blessed by a priest. Feasting and traditional dancing marks this acknowledgment of the final resting place for the spirit of the deceased, the end of the period of mourning, the fulfillment of obligation, and the reinforcement of Island custom through the reunion of kin.

Customary (informal) adoption of children is a feature of the culture, and requests for birth certificates can cause discomfort within families.

The Torres Strait Islander flag is an official Flag of Australia. It was designed in 1992, by Bernard Namok, who was at the time a 15 year old school student from Thursday Island. The student won a local competition and the flag was recognized by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission in June 1992. The green stripes at the top and the bottom of the flag represent the land, and the blue stripe in the center represents the waters of the Torres Strait. The thin black stripes between the blue and green segments represent the Torres Strait Islanders themselves. The white five-pointed star at the center of the flag represents the five major island groups, and the white headdress around it also represents the Torres Strait Islands people.

Queensland-born Torres Strait Islander Wendell Sailor is one of the more famous players to have represented Australia in both rugby union and rugby league. His career came to an end in 2006, after he was found to have used cocaine before a football match. His large frame (1.91 meters, 106kg) and bullocking style changed the way wingers played rugby league in the late 1990s.


  1. The papers of Eddie Kioko Mabo Retrieved October 10, 2022.
  2. Ted Morgan, Maugham (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980). ISBN 0671505815
  3. Douglas Pike (ed.), Australian Dictionary of Biography (Melbourne University Press, 1962, ISBN 978-0522841947).

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Greene, Gracie, Joe Tramacchi, and Lucille Gilll. Tjurany Roughtail: The Dreaming of the Roughtail Lizard and Other Stories told by the Kukatjo. Magabala Books, 1992 ISBN 0958810141
  • Morgan, Ted. Maugham. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980. ISBN 0671505815
  • Pike, Douglas (ed.). Australian Dictionary of Biography. Melbourne University Press, 1962. ISBN 978-0522841947.
  • Singe, John. The Torres Strait: People and History. University of Queensland Press, 1989. ISBN 0702222321
  • Wilson, Lindsay. Kerkar Lu: Contemporary Artefacts of the Torres Strait Islanders. Queensland: Department of Education, 1993. ISBN 978-0724249916

External links

All links retrieved May 1, 2023.


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