Torres Strait Islands Explained

Torres Strait Islands
Common Name:Torres Strait Islands
Flag Caption:Torres Strait Islander Flag
Capital:Thursday Island
Government Type:Regional Authority
Leader Title1:Queen
Leader Name1:Elizabeth II
Leader Title2:Chairperson of the Torres Strait Regional Authority
Leader Name2:John Toshie Kris
Leader Title3:General Manager of the Torres Strait Regional Authority
Leader Name3:Wayne See Kee
Sovereignty Type:Regional Authority
Established Event1:Established
Established Date1:1 July 1994
Demonym:Torres Strait Islander

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.

The islands 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.

Only 14 of the islands are inhabited, with many of the islands threatened by rising sea levels.


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.[1] The Torres Strait Islands were annexed in 1879 by Queensland. 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 1898-1899 the Torres Strait Islands were visited by the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition led by Alfred Cort Haddon.[2] In 1904, the Torres Strait Islanders become subject to the Aboriginal Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act.[3]

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 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.[4]

From 1960 - 1973, Margaret Lawrie captured much of the Torres Strait Islander people's culture by recording the retelling of local myths and legends. Her anthropological work can be found at the State Library of Queensland and has recently been recognised and registered with the Australian UNESCO Memory of the World Programme.

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.

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


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 total land area of the islands is 566 km².[5] 21,784 ha of land are used for agricultural purposes.[6]

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. Saltwater crocodiles inhabit the islands along with neighboring Queensland and Papua New Guinea. 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 Torresian Imperial-pigeon, which is seen as the iconic national emblem to the islanders.

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

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.

See also: Birds of Boigu, Saibai and Dauan Islands (Torres Strait).

Near Western islands

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.

Inner islands

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 metres 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.

Central islands

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.

Eastern islands

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 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.


Regional Authority

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 TSRA now represents the local communities at both Commonwealth and State levels - previously State representation was via a (closed since March 2008) Queensland statutory authority called the Island Coordinating Council (ICC). The ICC was superseded by the Torres Strait Islands Region local government area.[7]

The TSRA board is led by a Chairperson of the Torres Strait Regional Authority and Deputy Chairperson. The current chair is John Toshie Kris and the deputy is Napcia Bin Tahal.[8] The day-to-day functions of the TSRA are carried out by a Administration Department led by a General Manager of the Torres Strait Regional Authority, currently Wayne See Kee.[9]

Chairmen of the Torres Strait Islands Regional Authority:

Local (shire) level government

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 Region, 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.

Independence movement

Notable politicians have declared support for independence, including Bob Katter and former Queensland Premier Anna Bligh, who in August 2011 wrote to Prime Minster 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.[10] [11] [12]


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, 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. The dialects of the islands are unique from all other Australian languages because they possess sibilant consonants.[13]

According to the Torres Strait Treaty, residents of Papua New Guinea are permitted to visit the Torres Strait Islands for traditional purposes. In 2011, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade had to place restrictions on visitors to ensure water supply for local residents was adequate.

Climate change over the past 14,000 years

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

Disease control

The banana plant leaf disease black sigatoka, the major banana disease worldwide, it 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.

See also

External links

Notes and References

  1. Web site: History of Torres Strait to 1879 - a regional view. John Burton. Torres Strait Regional Authority. 3 July 2011.
  2. National Film and Sound Archive: The Recordings of the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to Torres Straits on the Sounds of Australia registry
  3. Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act 1897 (Qld)
  4. for a detailed map see Web site: Australia's Maritime Zones in the Torres Strait. Australian Government - Geoscience Australia. PDF. 2008-04-13.,
    for the agreement see Web site: 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. United Nations. PDF. 2008-04-13.
  5. Web site: Soils - Torres Strait Islands. 6 May 2009. Australian Natural Resources Atlas. Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities. 4 July 2011.
  6. Web site: Economics - Torres Strait Islands. 6 November 2007. Australian Natural Resources Atlas. Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities. 4 July 2011.
  7. Torres Strait Flag
  8. Structure
  9. General Manager Profile
  13. Book: Logan, J. R.. The Journal of the Indian Archipelago and Eastern Asia. Ethnology of the Indo-Pacific Islands. 1851. Singapore. 215. 3 July 2011.