The Torres Strait Islands are a group of at least 274 small islands which lie in Torres Strait, the waterway separating far northern continental Australia's Cape York Peninsula and the island of New Guinea. They are mostly 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. 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.
It was at Possession Island that Lieutenant James Cook first claimed British sovereignty over the eastern part of Australia in 1770. The London Missionary Society led by Rev. Samuel Macfarlane arrived on Erub (Darnley Island) on 1 July 1871. This is referred to by the Islanders as "The Coming of the Light" and is celebrated annually by all Island communities on 1 July. The Torres Strait Islands were annexed in 1879 by Queensland. They thus later became part of the British colony of Queensland, although some of them lie just off the coast of New Guinea.
In 1898-1899 the Torres Strait Islands were visited by the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition.
The proximity to Papua New Guinea became an issue when it was moving towards independence from Australia, which it gained in 1975. The Torres Strait Islanders insisted that they were Australians, but the Papua New Guinea government objected to complete Australian control over the waters of the strait.
Eventually an agreement was struck whereby the islands and their inhabitants remain Australian, but the maritime frontier 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.
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.
This ruling overturned the century-old 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 was thus of far-reaching significance for the land claims of both Torres Strait Islanders and Australian Aborigines.
The islands are distributed across an area of some 48 000 km². The distance across the Strait from Cape York to New Guinea is approximately 150 km at the narrowest point; the islands lie scattered in between, extending some 200-300 km from furthest east to furthest west.
The Torres Strait itself was formerly a land bridge which connected the present-day Australian continent with New Guinea (in a single landmass called Sahul or Australia-New Guinea). This land bridge was most recently submerged by rising sea levels at the termination 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 actually the remaining peaks of this land bridge which 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 Green, Hawksbill and Flatback Sea turtles.
The Torres Strait Islands may be grouped into five distinct clusters, which exhibit differences of geology and formation as well as location. The Torres Strait is home to numerous birds, including the Pied Imperial-pigeon, which is seen as the iconic national emblem to the islanders.
The islands in this cluster lie very close to the southwestern coastline of New Guinea (the closest is less than 4 km offshore). Saibai (one of the largest of the Torres Strait Islands) and Boigu 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 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 was/is culturally/linguistically a Central Island (Kulkalaig territory), Moa was/is a Kawalaig (Kaurareg) island, with two groups, the Italaig of the south, and the Muwalaig of the north. The Muwalgal and Italgal were the same people as those of the Inner Islands. Badu and Mabuiag were/are the Maluigal Deep Sea People.
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. Another small island is Dumaralug Island which is found a few hundred meters south of Muralag. 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.
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 Gebar (Two Brothers) and Iama (Yam Island), are high basaltic outcrops, not cays. Culturally-speaking, Nagi of the Near-Western group is also 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 2-3 km long, and no wider than 800 m. Several have had problems with saltwater intrusion.
The islands of this group (principally Mer (Murray Island), Dauar and Waier, with Erub Island and Ugar (Stephen Island) further north) are formed differently from the rest. They are volcanic in origin, the peaks of volcanoes which were formerly 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 km from the northern extension of the Great Barrier Reef.
An Australian Commonwealth statutory authority called the Torres Strait Regional Authority (TSRA) is responsible for governance of 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. There is one representative per established local community. These board members are elected 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 Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (previously under the Department of Immigration and Citizenship). The administrative centre of the islands is Thursday Island. The Queensland stautory authority the Island Coordinating Council (ICC), represents the local communities at the state level.
At the local level there are two authorities, the Shire of Torres which governs several islands and portions of Cape York Peninsula and operates as a Queensland Local Government Area. The Torres Strait Islands Regional Council, created in 2008, is the embodiment of 15 former island councils, these areas have been 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.
Torres Strait Islanders, the indigenous peoples of the islands, are Melanesians, culturally most akin to the coastal peoples of Papua New Guinea. Thus they are regarded as being distinct from other Aboriginal peoples of Australia, and are generally referred to separately. There are also two Torres Strait Islander communities on the nearby coast of the mainland, Bamaga and Seisia.
According to the 2001 Australian census ABS figures, the population of the Torres Strait Islands was 8,089 (up from an estimated 6,700 in 2000), of whom 6,214 were either of Torres Strait Islander or Aboriginal origin.
There are two indigenous languages spoken on the islands: the Western-Central Torres Strait Language (called by various names, including Kala Lagaw Ya, Kalaw Kawaw Ya) and Kowrareg, and the Eastern Torres Language Meriam Mir. One language, Torres Strait Creole, or Brokan, 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. This is a creole English similar to the closely related Tok Pisin in Papua New Guinea.