The Torres Islands are in the Torba Province of Vanuatu, the northernmost island group in the country. The chain of islands that make up this micro-archipelago straddle the broader cultural boundary that distinguishes Island Melanesia from several Polynesian outliers located in the neighbouring Solomon Islands. To the north is Temotu Province of the Solomon Islands, to the south Espiritu Santo, and to the southeast the Banks Islands. To the west, in the ocean, is the deep Torres Trench, the subduction zone between the Australian and Pacific Plates.
The seven islands in the Torres group, from north to south, are Hiw or Hiu (the largest), Metoma, Tegua, Ngwel (an uninhabited islet), Linua, Lo or Loh, and Toga. This chain stretches 42 km (26 mi). The highest point of the chain is only 200 m (656 ft) above sea level. They are less rugged than the country's islands further south. Contrary to popular belief, only a few stretches of the Torres Islands' coastline are graced with white sand beaches; in reality, much of the shore is composed of rocky coral uplift.
As of mid-2004, the Torres Islands sustained a total population of approximately 950 people, dispersed across at least ten settlements of various sizes, all of which are located on or near coastal areas. The names of these settlements are: Yögevigemëne (or Yögemëne for short), Tinemēvönyö, Yawe and Yakwane (on Hiw), Lotew (on Tegua; sometimes misspelled Lateu), Lungharegi, Telakwlakw and Rinuhe (on Lo), and Likwal and Litew (on Toga). A small airstrip on Linua opened in 1983 and provides the only regular transportation link with the rest of Vanuatu. Lungharegi is considered the administrative centre for the Torres Islands, but this role is very small. It has a community phone and medical clinic, but no bank or police station and only two barely stocked stores.
One of the most important pre-European names by which this group of islands was known by its inhabitants and other neighbouring societies was Vava (or Vave), IPA: [ˈβaβə]. However, sometime in the early nineteenth century the name Torres was given to the group by European cartographers in remembrance of the sixteenth-century navigator Luis Vaz de Torres, who briefly visited some of the islands of North and Central Vanuatu in April, May and June 1606, and whose name was also given to the important Torres Strait that separates mainland Australia from the island of New Guinea. Ironically, neither Torres, his commander, the Portuguese captain Fernandes de Queirós (both serving the Spanish crown), nor any of their subordinates ever saw, heard of or even came near to the Torres Islands during their cruise through the archipelago. Nevertheless, through its repeated appearance in European charts, the name of Torres eventually stuck and the islands have been known as such for almost two hundred years. Nowadays, the inhabitants of this archipelago have dropped the old name Vave, which is only recalled by a few elder people. They now designate their group of islands as ‘Torres’ – even though they neither know nor concern themselves with the story and meaning of this name.
According to the meagre archaeological data currently available regarding the prehistory of this group, the Torres Islands were probably first populated around 3200 years ago. There is abundant evidence (both archaeological and oral) that prior to contact with Europeans the settlement pattern of the Torres Islands was quite different from the coastal villages of today. Most villages and extended family areas (nakamals, or ‘gemël’) were apparently located on higher ground, away from the shore, and were inhabited by fewer people. Thus, the surface area of the islands would probably have been dotted with small clearings in the middle of which one could find a handful of households and ritual spaces.
Even if several European explorers reached the islands in the 19th century, they were quickly incorporated into the sphere of influence of the Melanesian Mission in the early 1880s. It was as a result of the pressure applied by the Mission that Torres people began to concentrate in coastal settlements, where they could be more easily accessed and controlled by outsiders. It was also at this time that a Torres islander, known today by his Christianised name of Adams Tuwia, was first taken to the Mission's headquarters on Norfolk Island, where he eventually became ordained a priest. However, the first Melanesian to be ever be ordained a priest was George Sarawia, from the neighbouring Banks Islands, where the Anglicans had set up their regional centre of operations. Importantly, as a result of this strategy the Mission's leadership decided to adopt the language of Mota Island (in the Banks) as the language of choice for translating and transmitting the word of God across the broader Banks, Torres and Temotu region. Thus, according to local accounts, the teaching of Mota in the Torres mission school continued up until the early 1970s, and for this reason it is still possible to find several elder Torres Islanders who are partly fluent in Mota.
Notwithstanding the presence of the Mission in the late nineteenth century, the first non-local missionary to actually reside in the Torres for an extended period only arrive in the opening decade of the 20th century. This was the Rev. Walter John Durrad, who lived on Tegua and then moved to Lo between the years 1905 and 1910. The first permanent mission station and church-house of the Torres Islands was originally established by Durrad on the south coast of Tegua, but was eventually moved to Vipaka, on the south west side of Lo, following an apparent rumour of incestuous behaviour by the high chief of Tegua, whose sin was judged to be too abhorrent for the sensitivity of the Mission's leadership. More importantly, during this time - between the second half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth - the population of the Torres Islands suffered catastrophic decline as a combined result of the various epidemic diseases that were introduced by Europeans and the accelerated out-migration provoked by Blackbirding. According to vaguely worded Mission records located at the Diocese of Banks and Torres headquarters on Sola (Vanua Lava), at some time in the early 1930s the total population of the Torres group numbered no more than 56 persons. Hence, the subsequent recovery of the indigenous population of these islands, along with the continuity of linguistic and cultural values that they still exhibit, can be described as nothing less than remarkable. Despite the fact that they belonged to a broader regional complex of human and material exchanges that extended well into present-day Temotu province (in the Solomons), the Torres Islands eventually became part of the Anglo-French Condominium of the New Hebrides in 1906, and were subsequently incorporated into the Republic of Vanuatu in 1980.
Like the rest of the country, the islands are in the Vanuatu rain forests ecoregion. The coconut crab (Birgus latro) is one of its most famous species. However, since the opening of the airstrip at Linua these animals became the single most important cash crop in the Torres group. To date, the sale of Birgus has been directly governed by the fluctuating demand of the tourist market in faraway Port Vila and, to a lesser degree, the provincial township of Luganville. Predictably, the high demand for crab resulted in a gradual but incremental decline in the Birgus population across North Vanuatu, and led to a visible depletion of this creature's numbers in the Torres group. Consequently, various concerned individuals and groups successfully pressured the local provincial government of SanMa (the province in which Luganville is located) to declare a temporary ban on the sale, purchase or consumption of crab in that province. This ban first took effect in the first semestre of 2004 and is intended to be lifted sometime in early 2008. In the meantime, exports of crab from the Banks and Torres Islands (i.e. TorBa Province) to Port Vila is regulated through a relatively inefficient scheme of "open" and "closed" seasons and intra-regional quotas.
Two closely related yet distinct languages are spoken in the Torres group: Hiw and Lo-Toga. Hiw is spoken by the population (about 280 people) of the sole island of Hiw. Lo-Toga is spoken on the southern parts of the Torres, essentially on the islands of Lo and Toga (about 580 people); it consists of two very close dialect varieties, Lo and Toga (note that Toga is sometimes used as a cover term for the two dialects). There is no mutual intelligibility between Hiw and Lo-Toga, but many Hiw speakers are bilingual.
Hiw and (Lo-)Toga belong to the East Vanuatu languages, a subgroup of the Oceanic family. As is the case for most unwritten languages of Vanuatu, no detailed description has ever been published yet on them. In 2004 the linguist Alexandre François undertook the first descriptive study of these two languages, which is currently in progress.
The islanders divide themselves ethnically into essentially two groups, matching their linguistic division. The cultural differences existing within the Torres Is., at least in the perception of the islanders, essentially match language boundaries: that is, two groups are recognised — the 'people of Hiw' vs the 'people of Toga'; however, a secondary, less essential division is drawn between the two populations of Lo and Toga. The islanders were first described in very general - and not always accurate - ethnographic terms by W. J. Durrad at the beginning of the twentieth century (fragments of Durrad's notes were eventually published in the 1940s), and have been the bailiwick of the anthropologist Carlos Mondragón since 1999.
Today the inhabitants of the Torres Islands continue to follow to the same general patterns of subsistence agriculture and supplementary fishing activities that their ancestors did. In addition, key aspects of their ancestral knowledge and ritual cycles are still generally extant. These are dominated by two male-centred institutions, known as the hukwe (which is the equivalent of the sukwe in the Banks Islands) and the lēh-temēt. The hukwe constitutes the local complex of status-alteration rituals by which men are able to acquire greater status and power, while the lēh-temēt is the name given to a smaller group of men who have been initiated into specific types of ritual knowledge that are directly relevant to the manipulation of mana (generative potency or power) and, more specifically, to the relationship between the living and the dead. The most impressive and visible aspect of the activities of the initiates of the lēh-temēt are the manufacture and use of ritual headdresses known as temēt (primordial spirits) during special singing and dancing ceremonial rituals. In fact, the headdresses are known as temēt because they are considered to BE the temporary physical manifestations of temēt; hence, the use of headdresses is considered to be an extremely delicate operation, during which the possibility of spiritual pollution has to be closely monitored and controlled. It is partly for this reason that the headdresses are always destroyed immediately at the end of the ceremony. Notwithstanding the continuity of certain core customary practices, many important and profound changes have transformed the lives and worldviews of these people as a result of more than a century of contacts and interpenetration by the Anglican church, colonial administrators and traders, and, most recently, the postcolonial influence of the nation-state and the international world market - whose greatest direct manifestation is in the form of cash, independent travellers, sailing ships and luxury cruise liners which visit this island group every so often.
Given their relative isolation, several mistaken rumours regarding the Torres Islands and their people have become widespread by way of travel guides, inter-island gossip and the mass media.
One of the most notable, recent and unsubstantiated claims regarding these islands is that the small village of Litao/Lotew (usually reported as Lateu; population 45, all related to one large lineage from Toga), on the island of Tegua, has become one of the first human settlements in Oceania to suffer from the effects of rising sea levels as a result of global warming. However, no precise scientific observations were undertaken by the Fiji-based team of environmental observers who first visited Tegua in 2003 and began to voice this claim shortly thereafter. In view of these claims, it is important to realise that Litao village is a recent settlement, founded under pressure from Anglican missionaries about 100 years ago, which was built on a feeble coastal bed of coral and limestone that has gradually been eroding due to long-term wave activity. In this respect, it is notable that no other part of the coast of Tegua has yet suffered from the visible erosion and waterlogging that have undermined the ground at Litao throughout the past century. Hence, evidence for the claim that Litao is being destroyed by rising sea levels is inconclusive at best, and awaits thorough scientific scrutiny. Nevertheless, the unsubstantiated disaster story that originated in 2003 was quickly given credence by important regional organizations - most notably the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environmental Program (SPREP) - and was thereafter greatly magnified by the international media during the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Montreal in late 2005. Consequently the government of Canada reportedly decided to disburse $50,000 Canadian in order to help relocate the villagers of Litao on higher ground and to provide them with safe sources of drinking water - this, despite the fact that the people of Tegua had already begun to rebuild their settlement on safer terrain, with local materials and ecological knowledge, since early 2001!
Other mistaken rumours regarding the Torres Islands (some of which are reproduced in influential travel guides such as those from Lonely Planet) are that their inhabitants are keen surfers (they are not, and have never had a tradition of surfing) and that children on the island of Toga smoke pipes and chew betelnut (in fact, betelnut is practically nonexistent in the Torres group).
- Tourism in the Torres Islands, including map
- The traditional calendar of the islanders
- Detailed list and map of the north Vanuatu languages
- International Herald Tribune article on sea level rise debate
- (Spanish) Carlos Mondragón's webpage with data and images of the Torres Islands, and useful links