Torres Strait: A new world beginning - The Northern Daily Leader

Torres Strait: A new world beginning - The Northern Daily Leader

The people of Erub Island in the Torres Strait seemed inured to the European men's lust for their beche-de-mer, pearls and women, but one winter's day 145 years ago they received something in return.

The people of Erub Island in the Torres Strait seemed inured to the European men's lust for their beche-de-mer, pearls and women, but one winter's day 145 years ago they received something in return.

The afternoon sun was fading to black when the light arrived. The aptly named London Missionary Society vessel, Surprise, had anchored off the small island's north coast, and brown eyes watched hidden in the thick green jumble slopes as a small boat carried the presumably blue-eyed Reverend Samuel McFarlane to them. The missionary waded ashore and fell to his knees in thanksgiving as a warrior clan Elder Dabad strode purposefully with a spear across the sand. The white man held the Bible out to the black man.

One world ended, another began. That was July 1, 1871. Australia's most Christian community abides in the Torres Strait and the annual "The Coming of the Light" festival melds European religion with original culture.

Outsiders sometimes are still coming by boat and proffering the written word.

Michael Rose, a former chief executive partner of the Sydney law firm Allens and member of the Referendum Council on Constitutional Recognition, is joining a team as part of the national Journey to Recognition that has been talking with island communities about the referendum to change the Constitution to specifically refer to Torres Strait Islanders and Aborigines.

Erub man Chris Saylor has cheekily dubbed it "The Coming of the Rights".

For weeks, Rose and the Recognise team have been ferried around on a 16m aluminium catamaran, Eclipse D. Each day he and his colleagues, including Charles Prouse, a Kimberley man who tells Torres Strait Islanders he comes from saltwater people on his mother's side, climbed into a small inflatable for the trip ashore to talk of the "The Big Law of Australia" to groups of Islanders varying between 50 and 400.

The islands may look tropical paradises but the living is not easy, particularly on western islands. They tend to be drier, low lying and surrounded by crocodile water muddied by silt flushed from Papua New Guinea rivers. The easterly islands are volcanic, green and lie in cobalt coloured water amid huge reefs.

Still, the welcomes afforded the Recognise team were universally warm.

Kundu drums greet them on the beach. There are dances and feasts of turtle meat, crayfish and mackerel and prayers and hymns and traditional songs and blessings from island pastors. The Anglican church rules but on islands where charismatic Christianity has taken hold ceremonies and speeches went long and holy rolling.

About 8000 islanders live in Torres Strait. Most who attend the meetings are grey. Teenagers are absent, away at Thursday Island, Cairns and Charters Towers high schools. Apart from fishing, employment opportunity is sparse and explains the 40,000 Islander diaspora scattered around Australia

Rose says Torres Strait Islanders possess a powerful sense of self and confidence in their own culture.

"One of the really interesting things for me is that people have said to me 'we're already recognised, we were recognised in the 1967 referendum, we were recognised when the border with Papua New Guinea was negotiated, we were recognised when people refer to indigenous people they also refer to Torres Strait Islanders. We know who we are, where we are. So recognition is something we can offer the rest of Australia rather than the other way around'," he says.

On Erub, Dabad's great great great great granddaughter Maryanne Sebasio, has a painting of her forbearer in her lounge and believes the Constitution should recognise her.

"The first nations are the one thing that makes Australia different to all other countries in the world," she says. "Those old laws were made because Queensland was worried about Kanaka labour. The Big Men down south made the law to help Queensland join the new nation but 115 years later things are very different."

The past seeps through the present in Torres Strait in a manner long gone around Australia.

The Queensland government kept the world at bay for many years but Islanders could not be denied and they played pivotal roles in achieving change for first nation Australians.

When discovered by European eyes in 1606 by the Spanish commander Luis Baez de Torres, they were fiercely independent and warring. Torres was attacked at Yam Island. Two centuries later, William Bligh's ships were attacked at Erub. By the 1860s, beche-de mer and pearling ships trailblazed for the missionaries whose conversions ensured peace broke out. The strait became an exotic paradise reflected in Ion Idriess's boys own books. One, The Drums of Mer, published in 1933 portrayed the large wooden drums as cathedrals of island culture and many ended up rotting in storerooms beneath the Museum of Victoria.

Years of trading with passing peoples made Torres Strait Islanders master negotiators. Some 30 years before the pivotal 1966 Wave Hill walk-off in the Northern Territory, Islanders staged a nine-month maritime strike and gained control over their own wages and improved conditions for pearl divers. It was unprecedented but showed Torres Strait islander mettle.

Then, during World War II, more than 700 Islanders - almost the entire male population - were recruited to the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion. No other Australians volunteered at such a rate. When war ended, the men stayed ashore and Islanders muscle kept Queensland trains running.

Then there was the politics.

Moa Island's Elia Ware was the Torres Strait Islander representative on the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders which led the successful 1967 referendum campaign and his daughter Isobel Stephen links that victory for her people with the proposed referendum: "It's about all of us, not just one of us. It is about time – since 1967, 50 years later. We're well overdue."

In the 1970s, independence movements convulsed the strait as independence loomed for PNG. Erub's George Mye fought for land and sea rights but it was the men from Mer Island, Eddie Mabo and four others, who initiated legal moves to establish traditional land-ownership. In 1992 the High Court ruled terra nullius was rubbish and the Mabo ruling opened the way for land claims across Australia.

Mabo is revered, especially on his home island, and the Recognise team were taken to his grave site - shifted to Torres Strait in 1995 three years after his death when the original was desecrated in Townsville.

They watched his youngest daughter Celuia up from Brisbane weep for her father but the family does not wish her to talk about the referendum. But she speaks for many saying she aches to return to her island home. "My kids are growing up without the culture," she says. "I need to return. We all do."

The Queensland Government took over the islands from the London Missionary Society in 1904 and kept them segregated from the outside world and the people under the control of the Chief Protector of Aboriginal Affairs.

One of the most notorious was Pat Killoran. He ran the Department of Native Affairs for four decades, many years under Joh Bjelke Petersen. Killoran was known as the "King of Thursday Island".

"But we called that bastard the lolly man," Mer man William Bero recalls. "He would throw boiled sweets in the dirt and us boys would have to fight in the dust for the lollies. What a bastard. So demeaning for us kids when you think of it now." Island girls had other fears: each year on visits Killoran would chose the prettiest to take to Cairns where he ensured they had public service jobs when he finished with them. Killoran resigned in 1986 as scandal threatened.

Bero, an orphan, was raise by the Mabo family and when Eddie Mabo wrote his letters in longhand in his Townsville home to initiate the court case, it was his adopted son who turned them into office English ("I knew White man stuff, I worked in the old CES") and typed them up.

"The referendum is a fine thing in itself for my people," Bero says. "But we already had our own Big Law. The High Court recognised it when it overturned terra nullius. I'd like that recognised too in the Australian Constitution."

While same sex marriage has shifted the focus to another minority, the Torres Strait and Aborigine recognition referendum remains mooted for 2017.

Four years ago, an Expert Panel – which included Indigenous and community leaders, constitutional experts and parliamentarians – recommended to then Prime Minister Tony Abbott that Australians should vote in a referendum on the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The panel also wanted Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages recognised as the country's first tongues, while confirming that English is Australia's national language.

It also also recommended the removal of sections which still can allow states to ban people from voting based on their race or pass laws that discriminate against people on their race.

Since federation, only eight of 44 referenda have passed and Michael Rose says the recognition referendum has deep implications for Australians, something one of the Erub elders put his finger on at the community hall meeting:

"He stood up and said recognition was really important, not so much for Torres Strait Islanders, but important for the status of Australia among other nations of the world. He said he did not think Australia could hold its head high if it had racist elements in its Constitution."

The story Torres Strait: A new world beginning first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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