Torres Strait Islands

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Torres Strait Islands

Coat of arms of Torres Strait Islands
Coat of arms
Location of the Torres Strait Islands, between Cape York Peninsula, Queensland, Australia and Papua New Guinea.
Location of the Torres Strait Islands, between Cape York Peninsula, Queensland, Australia and Papua New Guinea.
and largest city
Thursday Island
Official languagesEnglish; important local languages: Kalau Lagau Ya, Meriam Mir, Torres Strait Creole
Demonym(s)Torres Strait Islander
GovernmentRegional authority
• Queen
Elizabeth II
• Chairmana
Joseph Elu
• Chief Executive Officera
Wayne See Kee
Autonomous region
• Established
1 July 1994
• 2016 census
CurrencyAustralian dollar (AUD)
  1. Of the Torres Strait Regional Authority.

The Torres Strait Islands are a group of at least 274 small islands in Torres Strait, the waterway separating far northern continental Australia's Cape York Peninsula and the island of New Guinea. They span an area of 48,000 km2 (19,000 sq mi), but their total land area is 566 km2 (219 sq mi).

Lieutenant James Cook first claimed British sovereignty over the eastern part of Australia at Possession Island in 1770, but British administrative control only began in the Torres Strait Islands in 1862. The islands are now mostly part of Queensland, a constituent State of the Commonwealth of Australia, but are administered by the Torres Strait Regional Authority, a statutory authority of the Australian federal government. A few islands very close to the coast of mainland New Guinea belong to the Western Province of Papua New Guinea, most importantly Daru Island with the provincial capital, Daru.

Only 14 of the islands are inhabited. The Torres Strait Islands' population was recorded at 4,514 in the 2016 Australian census, with 91.8% of these identifying as Indigenous Torres Strait Islander people. Although counted as Indigenous Australians, Torres Strait Islanders, being predominantly Melanesian, are ethnically, culturally and linguistically different from Aboriginal Australians.


The Indigenous inhabitants of the Torres Strait Islands are the Torres Strait Islanders, an ethnically Melanesian people who also inhabited the northern tip of Cape York Peninsula and who are ethnically and linguistically distinct from the Australian Aboriginals.

There was continuous inter-island warfare. In particular, the Murray (Mer) islanders were known as the fiercest raiders and head-hunters. They waged constant warfare with the Darnley islanders, their nearest neighbours.[2]

The Spanish navigator Luís Vaez de Torres explored Torres Strait in 1606. Torres had joined the Queirós expedition which sailed from Peru across the Pacific Ocean in search of Terra Australis.

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

Captain James Cook first claimed British sovereignty over the eastern part of Australia at Possession Island in 1770.

British administrative control began in the Torres Strait Islands in 1862, with the appointment of John Jardine, police magistrate at Rockhampton, as Government Resident in the Torres Straits. He originally established a small settlement on Albany Island, but on 1 August 1864 he came to Somerset Island.[2]

The London Missionary Society mission led by Rev. Samuel Macfarlane arrived on Erub (Darnley Island) on 1 July 1871. The Islanders refer to this as "The Coming of the Light", and all Island communities celebrate the occasion annually on 1 July.[3]

Yumplatok (also known as Torres Strait Creole and Broken) is a contemporary Torres Strait Island language spoken in the Torres Strait. The contact with missionaries and others since the 1800s has led to the development of a pidgin language, which transitioned into a creole language and now has its own distinctive sound system, grammar, vocabulary, usage and meaning. Torres Strait Creole is spoken by most Torres Strait Islanders and is a mixture of Standard Australian English and traditional languages. It is an English-based creole; however, each island has its own version of creole. Torres Strait Creole is also spoken on the Australian mainland, including Northern Peninsula Area Region and coastal communities such as Cairns, Townsville, Mackay, Rockhampton and Brisbane.[4]

In 1872 the boundary of Queensland was extended to include Thursday Island and other islands in Torres Strait within 60 miles of the Queensland coast.[2]

In 1879 Queensland annexed the other Torres Strait Islands. They thus became part of the British colony of Queensland and (after 1901) of the Australian state of Queensland - although some of them lie just off the coast of New Guinea.

In 1885 John Douglas was appointed as Government Resident Magistrate residing on Thursday Island. He made periodic tours of all the islands and was known to all the natives. He established the system under which the hereditary native chief of each island was installed as chief magistrate. He also established Native Police but the only island on which the Native Police were armed was Saibai where they were provided with Snider carbines to repel the attacks of the Tugeri, the headhunters who raided the islands from the New Guinea coast.[2]

In 1898–1899 the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition led by Alfred Cort Haddon visited the Torres Strait Islands,[5] and collected and took about 2000 cultural artefacts, ostensibly to save them from destruction by missionaries. All of the artefacts collected by Samuel Macfarlane were sold in London, mostly to European museums.[6]

In 1904 the Torres Strait Islanders became subject to the Aboriginal Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act,[7] which had draconian powers.[6] However, a process of electing island councils had been initiated in 1899 by John Douglas, aimed at loosening the stranglehold of the missionaries. In the Western islands, where the lifestyle was semi-nomadic, the council system continued to thrive.[6]

During World War II many Torres Strait Islanders served in the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion of the Australian Army.[citation needed]

From 1960 to 1973 Margaret Lawrie captured some of the Torres Strait Islander people's culture by recording the retelling of local myths and legends. Her anthropological work, stored at the State Library of Queensland, has recently been recognised and registered with the Australian UNESCO Memory of the World Programme.[6]

The proximity of the islands to Papua New Guinea became an issue when it started moving towards independence from Australia, which it gained in 1975. The Papua New Guinea government objected to the position of the border close to the New Guinean mainland and the subsequent complete Australian control over the waters of the strait. The Torres Strait Islanders opposed being separated from Australia and insisted on no change to the border.[8] The Australian Federal government wished to cede the northern islands to appease Papua New Guinea, but were opposed by the Queensland government and Queensland Premier Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen.[9] Eventually an agreement was struck whereby the islands and their inhabitants remained Australian, but the maritime boundary between Australia and Papua New Guinea runs through the centre of the strait. In practice the two countries co-operate closely in the management of the strait's resources.[10]

In 1982, Eddie Mabo and four other Torres Strait Islanders from Mer (Murray Island) started legal proceedings to establish their 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.[11] This ruling overturned the long-established legal doctrine of terra nullius ("no-one's land"), which held that native title over Crown land in Australia had been extinguished at the time of annexation. The ruling thus had far-reaching significance for the land claims of both Torres Strait Islanders and Australian Aborigines.


On 1 July 1994 the Torres Strait Regional Authority (TSRA) was created.

In March 2008 fifteen Torres Strait Islander Councils were amalgamated into a single body to form a Torres Strait Island Regional Council, or Torres Strait Island Region, created by the Queensland Government in the interest of financial viability, and accountability and transparency of local Governments throughout the State.[6] It is administered from Thursday Island, but Thursday, Horn Island, Prince of Wales Island and many others are under the Shire of Torres council.[12]


Torres Strait Islands

The islands span an area of some 48,000 km2 (19,000 sq mi). The strait from Cape York to New Guinea has a width of approximately 150 kilometres (93 mi) at its narrowest point; the islands lie scattered in between, extending some 200 to 300 kilometres (120 to 190 mi) from furthest east to furthest west. The total land area of the islands comprises 566 km2 (219 sq mi).[13] 21,784 hectares (53,830 acres) of land are used for agricultural purposes.[14]

The Torres Strait itself was previously a land bridge which connected the present-day Australian continent with New Guinea (in a single landmass called Sahul, Meganesia, Australia-New Guinea).[15][16] 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 which now connects the Arafura and Coral seas. Many of the western Torres Strait Islands are the remaining peaks of this land bridge which were not completely 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. Saltwater crocodiles inhabit the islands along with neighboring areas of Queensland and Papua New Guinea. Marine animals of the islands include dugongs (an endangered species of sea mammal widely found throughout the Indian Ocean and tropical Western Pacific, including Papua-New Guinean and Australian waters), as well as green, ridley, hawksbill and flatback sea turtles.

The Torres Strait Islands may be grouped[by whom?] into five distinct clusters, which exhibit differences of geology and formation as well as location. The Torres Strait provides a habitat for numerous birds, including the Torresian imperial-pigeon, which is seen[by whom?] as the iconic national emblem to the islanders.[citation needed]

These islands are also a distinct physiographic section of the larger Cape York Platform province, which in turn is part of the larger East Australian Cordillera physiographic division.

Top Western islands[edit]

The islands in this cluster lie very close to the southwestern coastline of New Guinea (the closest is less than 4 kilometres (2.5 mi) offshore). Saibai (one of the largest of the Torres Strait Islands) and Boigu (one of the Talbot Islands) are low-lying islands which were formed by deposition of sediments and mud from New Guinean rivers into the Strait accumulating on decayed coral platforms. Vegetation on these islands mainly consists of mangrove swamps, and they are prone to flooding.

The other main island in this group, Dauan (Mt Cornwallis), is a smaller island with steep hills, composed largely of granite. This island actually represents the northernmost extent of the Great Dividing Range, the extensive series of mountain ranges which runs along almost the entire eastern coastline of Australia. This peak became an island as the ocean levels rose at the end of the last ice age.

The isolated and uninhabited Deliverance Island is 67 kilometres (42 mi) west of Boigu, the nearest of the Top Western islands.

Near Western islands[edit]

The islands in this cluster lie south of the Strait's midway point, and are also largely high granite hills with mounds of basaltic outcrops, formed from old peaks of the now submerged land bridge. Moa (Banks Island) is the second-largest in the Torres Strait, and Badu (Mulgrave Island) is slightly smaller and fringed with extensive mangrove swamps. Other smaller islands include Mabuiag, Pulu and further to the east Naghir (correct form Nagi) (Mt. Ernest). Culturally this was the most complex part of Torres Strait, containing three of the four groupings/dialects of the Western-central Islanders, Nagi being culturally/linguistically a Central Island (Kulkalaig territory, specifically part of Waraber tribal waters), Moa is part of the Muwalaig-Italaig-Kaiwalaig [Kauraraig/Kaurareg] tribal areas, with two groups, the Italaig of the south, and the Muwalaig of the north. Many Kauraraig also live there, having been forcibly moved there in 1922–1923. Badu and Mabuiag are the Maluigal Deep Sea People.

Inner islands[edit]

The township of Thursday Island

These islands, also known as the Thursday Island group, lie closest to Cape York Peninsula, and their topography and geological history is very similar. Muralag (Prince of Wales Island) is the largest of the Strait's islands, and forms the centre of this closely grouped cluster. The much smaller Waiben Thursday Island is the region's administrative centre and most heavily populated. Several of these islands have permanent freshwater springs, and some were also mined for gold in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Because of their proximity to the Australian mainland, they have also been centres of pearling and fishing industries. Nurupai Horn Island holds the region's airport, and as a result is something of an entrepôt with inhabitants drawn from many other communities. Kiriri (Hammond Island) is the other permanently settled island of this group; Tuined (Possession Island) is noted for Lt. James Cook's landing there in 1770. Moa in the Near Western group is culturally and linguistically speaking part of this group.

Central islands[edit]

This cluster is more widely distributed in the middle of Torres Strait, consisting of many small sandy cays surrounded by coral reefs, similar to those found in the nearby Great Barrier Reef. The more northerly islands in this group however, such as Gerbar (Two Brothers) and Iama (Yam Island), are high basaltic outcrops, not cays. Nagi is a culturo-linguistic part of this group, and also has high basaltic outcropping. The low-lying inhabited coral cays, such as Poruma (Coconut Island), Warraber Island and Masig (Yorke Island) are mostly less than 2 to 3 kilometres (1.2–1.9 miles) long, and no wider than 800 metres (2,600 feet). Several have had problems with saltwater intrusion.

Eastern islands[edit]

The islands of this group (principally Mer (Murray Island), Dauar and Waier, with Erub Island and Stephens Island (Ugar) further north) are formed differently from the rest. They are volcanic in origin, the peaks of volcanoes which were active in Pleistocene times. Consequently, their hillsides have rich and fertile red volcanic soils, and are thickly vegetated. The easternmost of these are less than 20 kilometres (12 mi) from the northern extension of the Great Barrier Reef.

Regions and symbolism of the flag[edit]

The national flag features a white Dhari (headdress) and, underneath, a white five-pointed star, symbolising "peace, the five major island groups and the navigational importance of stars to the seafaring people of the Torres Strait". The five points of the star on the flag represent the following regions (which do not match administrative regions):[17]

  • Northern Division (Boigu, Dauan, Saibai)
  • Eastern Islands (Erub, Mer, Ugar)
  • Western Division (St. Pauls, Kubin, Badu, Mabuiag)
  • Central Division (Masig, Poruma, Warraber, Iama)
  • Southern Division (Thursday, Horn, Prince of Wales and Hammond Islands, NPA and Mainland Australia)


Hammond Island, Torres Strait

Regional Authority[edit]

The Torres Strait Regional Authority (TSRA), an Australian Commonwealth statutory authority created in 1994, exercises governance over the islands. The TSRA has an elected board comprising 20 representatives from the Torres Strait Islander and Aboriginal communities resident in the Torres Strait region.

One representative per established local community wins election to the board under the Queensland Community Services (Torres Strait) Act 1984 and Division 5 of the ATSIC Act 1989. The TSRA itself falls under the portfolio responsibilities of the Australian Government Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (previously under the Department of Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs). Thursday Island functions as the administrative centre of the islands.

The TSRA now represents the local communities at both Commonwealth and State levels; previously, State representation operated via a Queensland statutory authority called the Island Coordinating Council (ICC). The Torres Strait Island Region local government area superseded the ICC in March 2008.

In March 2008 fifteen Torres Strait Islander Councils were amalgamated into a single body to form a Torres Strait Island Regional Council, or Torres Strait Island Region, created by the Queensland Government in the interest of financial viability, and accountability and transparency of local Governments throughout the State.[6] It is administered from Thursday Island, but Thursday, Horn Island, Prince of Wales Island and many others are under the Shire of Torres council.[18]

Local (shire) level government[edit]

At the local level there are two authorities. One is the Shire of Torres, which governs several islands and portions of Cape York Peninsula and operates as a Queensland local government area.

The other is the Torres Strait Island Region, created in 2008, which embodies 15 former island councils. These former councils had been previously relinquished by the Government of Queensland to specific Islander and Aboriginal Councils under the provisions of the Community Services (Torres Strait) Act 1984 and the Community Services (Aboriginal) Act 1984), consisting of:

Independence movement[edit]

Notable politicians have declared support for independence, including Bob Katter and former Queensland Premier Anna Bligh, who in August 2011 wrote to Prime Minister Julia Gillard in support of Torres Strait Islands independence from Australia; Prime Minister Gillard said in October 2011 "her government will respectfully consider the Torres Strait's request for self-government". Other figures who have supported independence include Australian Indigenous rights campaigner Eddie Mabo.[19][20][21]

Demographics and languages[edit]

Torres Strait Islanders, the Indigenous peoples of the islands, are predominantly Melanesians, culturally most akin to the coastal peoples of Papua New Guinea. Thus they are regarded as being distinct from Aboriginal peoples of Australia, and are generally referred to separately, despite ongoing historical trade and inter-marriage with mainland Aboriginal people. There are also two Torres Strait Islander communities on the nearby coast of the mainland, Bamaga and Seisia.

According to the 2016 Australian census figures, the population of the Torres Strait Islands was 4,514, of whom 4,144 (91.8%) were Torres Strait Islanders.[1] These inhabitants live on only 14 of the 274 islands.[22] (People identifying themselves as of Torres Strait Islander descent living in the whole of Australia numbered 32,345, while those of both Torres Strait Islander and Aboriginal descent numbered a further 26,767.[23])

According to the Torres Strait Treaty, residents of Papua New Guinea are permitted to visit the Torres Strait Islands for traditional purposes.[24]

There are three languages spoken on the islands. The two indigenous languages are the Western-Central Torres Strait Language (called by various names, including Kalaw Lagaw Ya, Kalaw Kawaw Ya, Kulkalgau Ya and Kaiwaligau Ya), and the Eastern Torres Language Meriam Mir. Another language, Torres Strait Creole, also known as Brokan and Yumplatok, is used throughout Torres Strait, in neighbouring Papua as far as the West Papuan border area, and Cape York, as well as in many island communities in mainland Australia.

Climate change[edit]

The Torres Strait Islands are threatened by rising sea levels, especially those islands which do not rise more than one metre (3.3 feet) above sea level.[25] Storm surges and high tides pose the greatest danger. Other developing problems include erosion, property damage, drinking water contamination and the unearthing of the dead.[26] As of June 2010, there were no relocation strategies in place for Torres Strait Islanders.[26]

In early 2020 it was reported that Warraber is particularly threatened by rising sea levels, and coastal defences have been built on many of the beaches on the island. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has predicted that by 2100, tides will rise 30–110 cm, depending on the timing and level of cuts to carbon emissions. Several of the smaller islands in the group are also under threat.[27]

Disease control[edit]

The banana plant leaf disease black sigatoka, the major banana disease worldwide, is endemic to Papua New Guinea and the Torres Strait Islands. Occasional infections have been discovered on Cape York Peninsula but they have been successfully halted with eradication programs. The disease most likely appeared on the mainland via plant material from the Torres Strait Islands.[28]


The music of the Torres Strait is principally vocal accompanied by instruments. The introduction of Christianity through the London Missionary Society, beginning in 1871, had a profound influence, but before that time the musical culture reflected the cultural and geographic diversity of the Strait.[29]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Australian Bureau of Statistics (27 June 2017). "Torres Strait Islands". 2016 Census QuickStats. Retrieved 3 April 2018. Edit this at Wikidata
  2. ^ a b c d Lack, Clem (1963). "The story of Cape York Peninsula : Part II : Torres Strait saga" (PDF). Journal of the Royal Historical Society of Queensland. 7 (1): 132–153.
  3. ^ John Burton. "History of Torres Strait to 1879 – a regional view". Torres Strait Regional Authority. Archived from the original on 15 May 2009. Retrieved 3 July 2011.
  4. ^ CC-BY-icon-80x15.png This Wikipedia article incorporates CC-BY-4.0 licensed text from: "Yupanguthi". Queensland’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Languages map. State Library of Queensland. Retrieved 28 January 2020.
  5. ^ National Film and Sound Archive: The Recordings of the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to Torres Straits on the Sounds of Australia registry
  6. ^ a b c d e f "Torres Strait Islands". Australian Art Network. Retrieved 8 January 2020.
  7. ^ Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act 1897 (Qld) Archived 9 December 2007 at the Wayback Machine. Documenting Democracy. 24 May 2011. Retrieved on 3 July 2011.
  8. ^ "The Border Problem". National Film and Sound Archive. Retrieved 12 June 2016.
  9. ^ Matt Wordsworth (14 August 2013). "Patrolling the short hop from PNG to Australia". Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 12 June 2016.
  10. ^ For a detailed map see "Australia's Maritime Zones in the Torres Strait" (PDF). Australian Government – Geoscience Australia. Archived from the original (PDF) on 27 June 2008. Retrieved 13 April 2008.,
    for the agreement see "Treaty between Australia and the Independent State of Papua New Guinea concerning sovereignty and maritime boundaries in the area between the two countries, including the area known as Torres Strait, and related matters, 18 December 1978" (PDF). United Nations. Retrieved 13 April 2008.
  11. ^ "Indigenous people still battle for land rights: activist". ABC News Online. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. 3 June 2007. Retrieved 3 July 2011.
  12. ^ "Submission by the Queensland Government to the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee Inquiry into Matters Relating to the Torres Strait Region" (PDF). 16 November 2009. Retrieved 8 January 2020. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  13. ^ "Soils – Torres Strait Islands". Australian Natural Resources Atlas. Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities. 6 May 2009. Archived from the original on 2 June 2011. Retrieved 4 July 2011.
  14. ^ "Economics – Torres Strait Islands". Australian Natural Resources Atlas. Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities. 6 November 2007. Archived from the original on 2 June 2011. Retrieved 4 July 2011.
  15. ^ Allen, J.; J. Golson and R. Jones (eds) (1977). Sunda and Sahul: Prehistorical studies in Southeast Asia, Melanesia and Australia. London: Academic Press. ISBN 0-12-051250-5.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
  16. ^ Filewood, W. (1984). "The Torres connection: Zoogeography of New Guinea". Vertebrate zoogeography in Australasia. Carlisle, W.A.: Hesperian Press. pp. 1124–1125. ISBN 0-85905-036-X.
  17. ^ "Torres Strait Flag". Torres Strait Regional Authority. Retrieved 8 January 2020.
  18. ^ "Submission by the Queensland Government to the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee Inquiry into Matters Relating to the Torres Strait Region" (PDF). 16 November 2009. Retrieved 8 January 2020. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  19. ^ Sarah Elks (15 October 2011). For Mabo's sake, let my island home go: Torres Strait elder George Mye. The Australian. News Limited. Retrieved on 25 April 2012.
  20. ^ Larine Statham (17 October 2011). Progress for Torres Strait independence. Courier Mail. Queensland Newspapers. Retrieved on 25 April 2012.
  21. ^ (5 August 2009). MP supports Torres Strait independence. News Limited. Retrieved on 25 April 2012.
  22. ^ Suellen Hinde (31 January 2011). "Monster tides smother Torres Strait islands". The Sunday Mail. News Queensland. Retrieved 3 July 2011.
  23. ^ "2071.0 - Census of Population and Housing: Reflecting Australia - Stories from the Census, 2016: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Population, 2016". Australian Bureau of Statistices. 31 October 2017. Retrieved 5 January 2020.
  24. ^ "Access to Outer Islands' water restricted". Torres News Online. 17 June 2011. Retrieved 3 July 2011.
  25. ^ Peter Michael (2 August 2007). "Rising seas threat to Torres Strait islands". The Courier-Mail. News Queensland. Retrieved 3 July 2011.
  26. ^ a b Sofia Levin (28 June 2010). "Climate change: not all black and white". Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 3 July 2011.
  27. ^ Banister, Jack (1 March 2020). "'It's our right to be here': the Torres Strait Islanders fighting to save their homes from a rising sea". The Guardian. Retrieved 1 March 2020.
  28. ^ Peterson, R.; K. Grice; R. Goebel (December 2005). "Eradication of black leaf streak disease from Banana-growing regions in Australia". InfoMusa. 14 (2): 7–10. Retrieved 3 July 2011.
  29. ^ Bebbington, Warren (1997). The Oxford Companion todo Australian Music. Melbourne: Oxford University Press. p. 556. ISBN 0195534328.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 9°52′49″S 142°35′26″E / 9.88028°S 142.59056°E / -9.88028; 142.59056