By the early 1870s it was clear that Bowen's grandiose expectations for Somerset would not be realised. The settlement had made the Strait safer for shipping - by 1871 assistance had been provided to ten vessels in distress, and 84 shipwrecked seamen had been provisioned and found passages to other ports. some control had also been exerted over the Torres Strait Islanders. the determined manner in which Chester sought out those responsible for the Sperwer attack, and the presence of HMS Blanche off Maurura (Wednesday) when three Kulkalai leaders were executed for their part in the affair, demonstrated, at least to southern Torres Strait Islanders, that attacks on British shipping would not tolerated. But the missionaries, had done little to change the day to-day life of most Islanders. Nevertheless the growth of the new maritime industries ensured that the missionaries, had done little to change the day-to-day life of most Islanders. Nevertheless the growth of the new maritime industries ensured that the stations in the region since the mid-1860s, and the number increased slowly until 1869 when the Warrior Reef pearl shell bed were 'discovered. In that year over 50 tons of shell, which fetched between 150 pounds and 180 pounds a ton in Sydney, was collected by William Banner's men at tutu (Warrior). Banner's cargo was worth at least 7500 pounds, which represented a spectacular profit, and news of it caused a rush of vessels to the Strait. In 1871 Albert Ross Hovell of the Australasian Packet collected 21 tons in just three weeks, and Robert Towns' Kate Kearney returned to Sydney with 41 tons after two months. the number of large vessels increased from about seven in 1870 to about twenty in 1872 and by December of that year there were nearly 500 boat crew and divers at work in the Strait. The Torres Strait Islanders numbered no more than 3500 altogether and the arrival of so many men so quickly was bound to have a profound impact. The influence of the Somerset officials was almost insignificant when compared to that of the masters and men in the new maritime industries.
As C.C. Macknight has pointed out, the collecting and processing of beche-de-mer was Australia's first modern industry. From about 1700 it was carried on on the north Australian coast by Bugis and Macassarese fishermen from the north of Sulawesi, usually referred to as Macassans. The product was traded north until it reached the ports of China where it reached the ports of China where it was regarded as a culinary delicacy, with an effect something like ginseng. Matthew flinders was the first to suggest that beche-de-mer might profitably be exploited by the Australian colonists, and James Aicken was probably the first to enter the trade. In 1804 he collected several barrels of beche-de-mer from Wreck Reef in the Coral Sea. A few vessels are known to have been employed in the industry on Queensland's east coast in the 1820s, and by the 1840s a regular Sydney-based fishery had developed thee.
The hospital, Somerset, 1868
One of the most experienced beche-de-mer fishermen at this time was Martin McKenzie, master of the schooner Heroine, and his operation was probably typical of the industry in the 1840s. McKenzie plied between Sydney, Port Easington and the Indonesian archipelago, trading and soliciting cargoes. to diversify his operation he recruited Malaya at Surabaya and landed them at various islands in the vicinity of Cape Crenville to the north of present-day Cooktown. Under the command of the Heroine's first officer the men went out in small boats to collect the sea slugs from reefs and sandbanks, then returned to their island base to process the day's catch. On his regular voyage to the Indonesian archipelago the following season, McKenzie would relieve the men and take their produce to the markets of Kupang or Surabaya.
Until 1834 Sydney's merchant-shipowners operating in the Pacific were hamstrung by the British East India Company's monopoly on trade to China. china was the principal market for many of the commodities produced in the Pacific, and Sydney-based vessels had to transship cargoes to vessels of other nationalities that had free access to Chinese ports. this additional expense kept profit margins down and reduced competitiveness. the freeing up of the china trade coincided with the discovery of stands of high quality sandalwood on islands in the western Pacific less than two weeks sailing time from Sydney. After Thomas Beckford Simpson's highly successful 1846 sandalwood expedition, speculative merchant-ship-owners no longer content with the modest profits made on the Queensland coast turned their attention to the New Caledonia-new Hebrides region, and it was no coincidence that the Torres Strait beche-de-mer industry did not begin until most of the accessible stands of sandalwood in that area were cut out.
Traditional beehive huts, Erub, 1875
By the 1860s the western Pacific maritime trade had developed a distinct characters with its own complex of values, behaviour patterns, religion and language, and this was the most potent cargo it carried to the Strait. The crews were composed of many different ethnic groups, but the impact of the gold rushes on colonial seamen's wages meant that the majority were Pacific Islanders of one sort or another. Most the masters had been in the Pacific for many years and were experienced employers of Melanesians, the lingua franca was beche-la-mar, the Pacific trade language, and the dominant religion, at least among the crews, was mission Christianity. Another characteristic of the Pacific trade was its flexibility. When one profitable resource became depleted or dropped in price on a glutted market, traders turned to another. to protect themselves against fluctuations in the sandalwood market in the 1840s, the two principal trading concerns in the New Caledonia-new Hebrides region, those of Robert towns and James Paddon, began collecting and processing beche-de-mer at their sandalwood stations. By the early 1860s most of the easily accessible sandalwood in the western Pacific had been cut out, costs had risen considerably, and there were more traders competing for what was left of the wood. some long-term sandalwood getters left the industry altogether and Towns and Paddon were forced to look more to turtle shell, coconut oil and beche-de-mer to make up their cargoes.
Both Paddon and Towns, however, were born speculators constantly on the lookout for new enterprises with higher profits. In keeping with that entrepreneurial spirit, in 1859 Paddon decided to send the 100-ton brig Julia Percy with a party to test the potential Torres Strait. Its principal task was to assess the Strait's beche-de-mer grounds and if they proved extensive to establish a permanent station. For Paddon the beche-de-mer industry presented an attractive alternative to the declining sandalwood trade. From the 1820s Fiji had been its centre, and it had mainly been carried on by sailing masters from Salem in Massachusetts who sold their produce in manila. the Americans made substantial profits. Between 1830 and 1841 J.H. Eagleson of Salem made five voyages to Fiji. For a total outfitting cost of $US10,397 he collected beche-de-mer which sold for $US80,241. In 1862 it was reported in Sydney that one cargo collected and cured at a cost of $1,200 fetched $12,000 and that another costing $US3,300 sold for $US27,000. These last figures appear fantastic and are probably exaggerated, but the incentive was certainly there for men like Paddon and Towns to divert more of their capital to beche-de-mering. One of its attractions, of course, was that it could be carried on within much the same framework of capital, labour and markets as sandalwood.
The Courthouse, Murray Island, 1898
Be that as it may, there is some confusion as to what Padoon's exact intentions were in sending the Julia Percy to Torres Strait. At one stage he had suggested to Henry Burns, another sandalwood trader in the New Caledonia-new Hebrides region, that they should move the entire population of Uvea in the Loyalty Islands, near New Caledonia, to Queensland. Burns if he would transport them to a more fertile island. but the idea was completely unrealistic and it is difficult to believe that either man considered it seriously. At the time there was no plantation system in Queensland to employ them, and they could not be simply dumped to fend for themselves. Because Padoon's Uvea proposal coincided in time with the planning for the Julia Percy expedition it is tempting to suppose that there might have been relationship between the two. But the only possible connection was that if extensive new beche-de-mer grounds were discovered in Torres Strait Paddon would have access to a large pool of willing and mobile Uvean labour.
Erubian woman in mourning at the height of the 1875 measles epidemic
Paddon did business with Noumea after the French annexation of New Caledonia in 1853, but he was apprehensive about the French extending their influence further east. Indeed, Henry Burns had already been pressured to sign an agreement guaranteeing that he would leave Uvea by 1861. so it appears that the Uvea proposal, and Paddon's later plan to move his headquarters from New Caledonia to Eromanga in the New Hebrides, were, at least in part, in response to French expansion into the Loyalty Islands. At Eromanga he would be far enough from the centre of French administration and closer to the last visible stands of sandalwood. for Paddon the Julia Percy expedition was a speculation, a chance to repeat the achievement of 1853 when he discovered the sandalwood on Espirito Santo that revitalised the industry. In Torres Strait he could exploit whatever resources he could find, free for a time from the competition that plagued him in the western Pacific. Under the command of William Banner, one of Paddon's most experienced masters, the Julia Percy set out from Eromanga on 16 July 1860. Its destination was Lizard Island, off Cape Flattery on the north Queensland coast. Beche-de-mer had been collected from reefs in its vicinity as early as the 1820s, and the naturalist John MacGillivray, who began working for Paddon in 1858, knew from experience that there had been vessels plying the region at the time of the hydrographic surveys of the the 1840s. After a voyage of twelve days the brig reached Lizard and a party of 32 was landed to establish a base and commence work. In 1860 beche-de-mer was fetching between 40 pounds and 120 pounds per ton in the Asian market, depending on quality and type, and its collection was the expedition's first priority. but it was rumoured that there was sandalwood at Night Island, about 250 kilometres to the north, so Banner sailed to investigate. Unfortunately the trees proved to be of a small stunted variety and not worth cutting. For the nest three months the Julia Percy sailed the coast from Night Island to the End4eavour "River in search of payable stands of sandalwood and patches of reef with behe-de-mer in sufficient numbers to warrant the setting up of curing stations.
In November 1860 Banner decided to take advantage of the variable winds that blow between the north-westerly and south-easterly seasons to visit the islands of Torres Strait. he hoped to reach the north-eastern extremity of the Strait and return to Lizard Island before the south-easterly trade winds set in in early April. Like the masters of the 1840s his intention was not to search for beche-de-mer but to trade with the Islanders for turtle shell and artifacts. Banner visited most of th4 inhabited islands in the main shipping channel on his way to and from rub (Darnley). He found that the Islanders were very experienced in dealing with Europeans and that they were shrewd but fair traders. Although he had to give more than he had expected in trade he was well pleased with the results of the voyage. More than 100 pounds of turtle shell was obtained as well as some rare and valuable artifacts, including preserved and decorated human skulls. Numbers of dugong were also seen and MacGillivray noted that these would be profitably exploited for their oil. He had heard of a captain who had been offered 21 shillings a pint for dugong oil, though a more realistic price was probably about 2 pounds per gallon.
Samoan teacher Finau and family, 1898
When the Julia Percy arrived back at Lizard Island on 10 February 1861 however, the situation there was desperate. Ten of the shore party were dead and others were debilitated by fever. A gale in early January had unroofed the stone storehouse and damaged the two boats left for the use of the beche-de-mer fishermen, and since then little work had been done. the vegetable garden had been submerged by a series of wet season downpours and a new one would have to be dug on higher ground, which, however well tended would not produce vegetables for some months. Worse still, the supply vessels expected from Eromanga had failed to arrive. Banner was left with little choice but to abandon the station altogether and sail for Sydney. Although Lizard Island was well placed among reefs abundant in beche-de-mer, and had adequate water and fuel timber, it was infertile. The shore party was discontented there and as a consequence productivity had been low. Nevertheless the voyage to Erub had been a success. It had shown that the inhabitants were friendly and ken to trade, and that the island was fertile. Erub was also close to the northern reef systems of the Great Barrier Reef where commercial quantities of beche-de-mer could probably be found.
Henry Majoribanks Chester
When Banner arrived back in Sydney he soon discovered why the support vessels had failed to arrive. Paddon had died while the Julia Percy was at sea, and with that the project collapsed. but three years larger Padoon's partner, Charles Edwards, took the opportunity to exploit the preliminary work done by the Julia Percy when in 1864 he established the first beche-de-mer station in Torres Strait at Erub. By that time Edwards had formed a new association with the merchant-ship-owner Robert Towns, and from then to the early 1870s theirs was the most substantial investment of any of the Sydney merchant-ship-owners involved in the Torres Strait maritime industries. Towns' interest in the Queensland beche-de-mer industry went back some years. In 1862 he had a share in a small operation centred on Fitzroy Island near present-day Cairns, and his pioneering of the Torres Strait industry was in keeping with his company's overall entrepreneurial strategy. In about 1864 he quit the declining western Pacific sandalwood trade altogether to concentrate on shipping, and on his pastoral and agricultural investments in Queensland. His ships had been using the Torres Strait route since at least the 1830s, and by the 1860s he was investing in steam, and in 1855 his steamer the Phoenix was wrecked at Ipili Reef near Keriri (Hammond) in Torres Strait. the proposed harbour of refuge and coaling station at Cape York was therefore of interest to him because it might expedite the passage of his steamers westward, allowing them to refuel on their way, and thus to carry more cargo and return higher profits.
Reverend Samuel McFarlane
Towns also had substantial pastoral holdings at the head of the Gulf of Carpentaria. Early in 1864 he acquired the leases to over 2000 square kilometres of land in what was then known as the 'plains of promise'. His vessels were running regularly between Sydney, Cleveland Bay (present-day Townsville) and the Gulf with passengers and supplies, and only for his own stations, but for those of others in the region as well. This enabled Edwards to be in constant contact with him in Sydney, and it offset the cost of victualling and manning their beche-de-mer boats. The Sydney firm Bloomfield and Whittaker also had a schooner, the Spunkie, making regular voyages to the Gulf, and this probably influenced its decisions to invest in the Torres Strait beche-de-mer industry in 1867. It was no accident then that Towns' associate Edwards was at Cape York in September 1864 to see the first buildings erected at Somerset, and to assist the police magistrate in his disputes with the Aborigines. Towns' interest in Torres Strait went well beyond its potential for the production of beche-de-mer. it was pivotal in his plan to concentrate more of his capital in steam shipping to eastern ports, and is allowed him to neatly dovetail his shipping, maritime and pastoral interests.
Towns and Edwards gave some thought to establishing a depot on the south end of Pabaju (Albany) opposite Somerset, but decided instead to centre their operation at Erub (Darnley). No lease or other fees were required there because the island was in international waters, and it was required there because the island was in international waters, and it was fertile enough to produce the fresh fruit and vegetables which were essential, yet so hard to obtain in far north Queensland. The island was closer to the beche-de-mer grounds that Edwards intended to work, and the Islanders could provide labour if the need arose. There was no need to go to the extra expense of another station on Pabaju because Somerset served as an adequate centre of communication. towns and the other merchant-shipowners of Sydney thus emerged as the successors to Bowen in the vision for the area.
First Church in the Torres Strait, Erub, 1875
By 1866 towns had invested 6,602 pounds in what he called his 'Torres Strait venture', and three large vessels connected with himself and Edwards, Blue Bell, Melanie and Woodlark, were at work in north-eastern Torres Strait. In July 1865 William Banner returned to the Queensland coast, as master of the Telegraph, and in May 1866 he obtained the financial backing of the Sydney firm James Merriman and son, and with the Telegrah and Metaris set off for the beche-de-mer fishery. It is not certain where he was operating before 1869 when he moved to tutu (Warrior), but he probably returned to Lizard island for a time and then moved into north-eastern Torres Strait. john Delargy of the Edith and Laurence Godfrey of the Georgina Godfrey followed Edwards and Banner from the western Pacific. In about 1865 Delargy established a beche-de-mer station on Green island near present-day Cairns. With the backing of Bloomfield and Whittaker, and in partnership with Laurence Godfrey, he moved to Lizard Island in 1867. Two years later Godfrey had left the partnership and was engaged in general trading and salvage work in the Strait, and Delargy was beche-de-merring in the north-eastern islands with a new vessel, the Active.
For the next decade the Torres Strait fishery was completely dominated by masters and merchant-shipowners who had gained their experience in the western Pacific trade. the declining sandalwood industry, good prices for beche-de-mer, French expansion into the Loyalty Islands, and the prospect of opportunities in anew and rapidly developing colony attracted them to Queensland's far northern coast. In Torres Strait they first established their stations in the north-eastern islands. these were closest to the beche-de-mer grounds of the Barrier Reef, and the inhabitants were friendly. The way of life was similar to that which their Pacific Islander crews had left behind, and the extensive gardens on those islands and the nearby New guinea coast produced the fruit and vegetables necessary to keep them healthy and productive. Indeed it is not too much to say that for both masters and men Torres Strait was comfortably familiar.
* * *
The methods of operation and financial arrangements of the early Torres Strait fishery were much the same as those of the western Pacific sandalwood trade. Sydney merchants advanced credit to masters in return for the exclusive right to market their produce. they generally charged interest on the advance, and the vessels and equipment used were assigned to them as security. For some masters it was a precarious existence. For instance, after nearly six years of working to their agreement with Bloomfield and Whittaker, Delargy and his first mate James Dare were about 1000 pounds in debt to the company. In their case they suffered from bad luck, but most masters must have had to push their crews hard to realise a profit.
It is difficult to establish consistent patterns of behaviour for those engaged in the early Torres Strait fishery. Arrangements between masters and financiers, and between masters themselves, were complicated and often informal. sometimes they were valid for one season only, or a single speculation. Masters also tended to be secretive about their movements in order not to give away the location of their fishing grounds. As in the order not to give away the location of their fishing grounds. As in the mining industry, the speculative business of finding new grounds was known as 'prospecting' and sometimes extraordinary techniques were employed to present finds being 'poached'. Fank Jardine even reported that one vessel anchored on a rich patch of shell raised the 'yellow jack', which signified cholera aboard, to keep other vessels clear. some masters who claimed to be beche-de-mering were actually engaged in secret salvage operations or exploiting some other resource such as guano. As Jardine put it, 'to keep things in the dark' is the rule in the Strait.' Masters changed vessels with bewildering regularity and vessels were sometimes known by different names. Despite these complications, however, it is possible to draw a fairly accurate picture of what the early fishery was like.
The popular conception, both now and in the nineteenth century, is that the Torres Strait beche-de-mer and pearl-shelling industries were carried on by the very worst kind of men who were bound to abuse their employees. to support this contention modern writers often call on Henry Chester's 1877 observational: 'to say that they are as bad a lot as sail out of any port on earth, is not to say too much. But this has to be considered in its context. Chester, who is here repeating a comment made by George Elphinstone Dalrymple in 1871, was defending himself against a charge that he had 'acted tyrannically' in seizing the beche-de-mer vessel Emma and Margaret. The incident is instructive in a few ways and worth a closer look. The master of the Emma and Margaret, Nicholas Raven, had breached it for repairs at a spot where boats usually landed at Somerset. After three weeks Chester ordered it to be removed but raven informed him that he had not finished the repairs. the water police coxswain was sent aboard to force Raven to move the vessel, and, after an argument, Raven went on shore claiming that the coxswain had taken possession of the vessel. Chester asserted that Raven had been unsuccessful in the fishery and that when the coxswain went aboard he took the opportunity to abandon the vessel with a view to claiming compensation from the government for unlawful seizure. raven was unpopular at Somerset. Chester had received two complaints about 'the abusive and disgusting language he was in the habit of using,' and on one occasion a group of more 'respectable' masters attacked him near his boat in the middle of the night. Chester admitted that 'in consequence of an injury to his head, he (Raven) was not altogether responsible for his actions', and the owner of the Emma and Margaret wrote that he was 'under the impression that Raven is (at least) eccentric'. Whatever the state of his mind there is nothing to indicate that Raven abused his crew or that Chester meant to imply such a thing. Yet that is precisely how Chester's remark has been interpreted. to add to the confusion Chester himself quoted Dalrymple out of context. Dalrymple's letter to the Sydney Morning Herald, from which the passage is taken, was a plea for the British to assume sovereignty over New Guinea and other islands in the Pacific in order to control the recruitment of Pacific Islanders for plantation work. The masters he was referring to were those in the notorious labour trade.
Even so, Dalrymple's words hint at the generally low regard in which seamen everywhere at that time were held. The master of a British merchant ship made the point rather more vigorously:
The real fact must not be disguised, that the life and habits of the common sailor render him the most unfeeling, unprincipled being on earth. Whenever out of a ship, he is more or less in a state of beastly intoxication; during this time he is in the society of the very lowest and worst description that can be found; from the day of leaving his last ship he has, probably, never been quite sober, till he joins another; here he arrives plundered to the last farthing, and most probably, in debt the advance he gets in his new service; diseased in body and mind, and here he mixes with others from the same sort of dens of iniquity; and this is the picture of his life.
Closer to home, Alexander Harris wrote that sailors in Sydney were not admitted into respectable company in the 1840s, and in 1853 the captain of a French man-of-war described the white crews of trading vessels as being 'formed of whatever was most foul and abandoned of the outcasts of Sydney'. In the western Pacific, and later in Torres Strait, there were opportunities for common sailors to rise through the ranks. The issuing of master's certificates was not properly regulated in the colonies until the mid-a870s, and the skippers of smaller vessels often had no formal qualifications. After years of experience at sea sailors sometimes acted as mates, and then were placed in charge of vessels or purchased their own small craft. the majority of masters, however, had served apprenticeships in the navy or in the merchant service in the usual way and were properly qualified. They generally came from middle-class backgrounds, but like naval commanders their rank might give them entry to the colonial gentle man class.
The division between the qualified and unqualified masters was not rigid. A qualified master in the Pacific trade did not have the same prestige as, say, the master of an ocean-going passenger vessel, and an unqualified trading master was more highly regarded than a common sailor. The division largely depended on behaviour. But if an unqualified master did not throw off the habits of the common sailor his origins were held against him by those who regarded themselves as gentlemen. This was the root cause of the attack on Nicholas Raven. Captain Robert Scott, an instigator of the attack, confronted Raven with the challenge. 'If you were a gentleman, I would give you a gentleman's satisfaction, if you were not too great a coward to meet me with revolvers. The gentleman masters socialised with missionaries, naval commanders and government officials, whom they regarded as their equals, and tended to disassociate themselves from masters they regarded as their social inferiors. The intense commercial competition in the maritime trade encouraged the gentleman masters to denigrate their less respectable rivals, and they contributed to the generally low opinion colonial society had of the 'small-time operators'.
As the historian K.R. Howe points out, 'the sandalwood trade in Melanesia has had a bad press, the labour trade ... an atrocious one'. The majority of masters who went to Torres Strait before 1872 had been involved in either the sandalwood or labour trade, and in some cases both, and the odium that attached to those trades went with them. It is not surprising therefore that the early Torres Strait fishery also had a bad press. But a distinction needs to be drawn between what offended the moral sensibilities of missionaries and the gentleman class in the colonies, and what constituted abuse of the rights and welfare of the Islanders. Certainly there were Sydney-based masters and sailors who used profane and obscene languages, drank in excess, and cohabited with Islander 'boat wives'. some, such as the gentlemen who attacked Nicholas Raven, deplored, at least outwardly, this kind of behaviour, even though it may have been harmless enough. however, there were also those who arrived in the Strait with reputations for mistreating Pacific Islanders. Before making any judgement about the relationship between masters and men we need to know more about some of these.
Perhaps the most notorious was Albert Ross Hovell, master of the Australasian Packet. He was publicly criticised for selling muskets and ammunition to the Tanese in 1868, and accused by the missionary James Gordon of using deception to recruit Eromangan labour for Fiji. In February 1869 h was charged and found guilty of the murder of a New Hebridean recruit aboard the Young Australian in October 1868, and together with his second mate, Torki Rangi, sentenced to death at Sydney. There had been a riot amongst the recruits aboard the Young Australian and three were shot by the crew. It was clear from the evidence given that Hovell had ordered his men to fire at the recruits' legs, but the real issue was either one of the casualties was actually dead when Hovell ordered the bodies thrown overboard. All the witnesses except one insisted that the three were dead. Hovell was convicted on the evidence of one man, and the government later decided that this witness, a Rotuman, had not been properly sworn. the sentences were commuted to life imprisonment, and in late 1870 Hovell and Rangi were pardoned altogether. On release Hovell made immediately for Torres Strait where he had an extremely successful season in 1871, but his fortunes declined and by 1876 he was a hopeless alcoholic. In 1877 he was dismissed as superintendent of Parbury and Lamb's beche-de-mer station at Wai Wea (honeymoon), partly because when drunk he gave stores to the Kaurareg from nearby Muralag (Prince of Wales), and as a consequence they would not work. Despite his history Hovell was known in Fiji as a master who treated his Pacific Islander crewmen well, and though he was unscrupulous in his labour trade days there is nothing in his subsequent career to indicate that he was a brutal master.
William Banner, John Delargyh, and by association Laurence Godfrey, wee all accused at one time or another of illegally taking Islanders from the New Caledonia-New Hebrides region to work as crew. In 1867 it was rumoured that Banner had had his life threatened for breaches of faith with Pacific Islanders he had engaged, and for kidnapping others, and that Delargy had slipped away from Lifu (in the Loyalty islands) in the Active under cover of night to avoid arrest by a French man-of-war. In response to pressure from the French a royal commission was held at Sydney in 1869 to inquire into these and other cases. the governor of New Caledonia, Admiral Guillain, alleged that in May 1865 Banner had illegally taken six men and three women in the Telegraph from Lifu to Bowen, and that two men and a woman had not been returned. He also maintained that in April 1867 the Telegraph reappeared at Lifu under a different name, the Edith, and in command of a different master, John Delargy, and illegally took away five more men and two more women. In March 1869 Lt George Palmer of HMS Rosario was sent to Noumea to investigate the French complaints, and on arrival he found the Active detained in the harbour. The French suspected that its master, John Delargy, was the same Delargy who had taken Lifuans away in the Edith in 1867, so with the permission of the French, Palmer boarded the Active and found 27 Pacific Islanders. Delargy claimed he was in the process of returning them to their home islands, and learned, however, that Delargy was part-owner of both the Active and the Edith, and concluded from this that he was the man wanted by the French authorities.
This was not Delargy's first brush with the law. In March 1868 his beche-de-mer station at Lizard Island had been inspected by Lt Henry Bingham of HMS Virago. On that occasion Bingham interviewed him, spoke to the 40 or so Pacific Islanders he employed, and was satisfied that they were well treated, healthy and happy. He reported:
Taking an impartial view of the demeanour of these people (Delargy's employees), I don not imagine that any of them were brought away from their homes against their will, or maltreated.
The men had been at Lizard island for ten months and expected to stay another twelve. It was almost exactly twelve months later that Delargy was detained at Noumea, so evidently he had honoured his agreement. At the 1869 royal commission Henry Burns testified that the Edith and Telegraph were sister ships and similar in every way, and that after the loss of the Telegraph in 1866 Delargyh took command of the Edith. The vessel's name had not been changed to deceive the French. The Royal Commission concluded that Guillian's allegation that Sydney-based masters were using force and deception to engage crews was unfounded. there were cases of the use of unfair methods to recruit plantation labourers from the more remote parts of the New Hebrides, but it found that Loyalty Islanders were generally keen to serve on colonial trading vessels. The only crime men such as Banner and Delargy had committed was to avoid paying the head tax imposed by the French on Pacific Islanders taken from their territory. But the report did not specifically exonerate individual masters, and neither the evidence given before it, nor its findings, were made public. consequently the kind of rumours that were circulating in 1867 about Banner persisted. In 1872 Frank Jardine described Delargy as one of the 'scum' of the Strait, and did all in his power to ensure that Delargy was one of the first to be charged when the imperial Kidnapping Act of 1872 came into force. In a private letter to Premier Palmer he wrote: 'From the view I take of it, I much fear that Delargy will again get off 'scott free', my only hope is, that in the evidence something may come out to fix him. by 'again' he was referring to Delargy's supposed escape from a French man-of-war at Lifu in 1867. Jardine bore a grudge against Delargy and used the man's reputation as a weapon in his vendetta against him. yet Bingham's short report gives the impression that Delargy was popular with his men. In front of Bingham at least, they greeted him 'cordially' and shook his hand.
An incident in 1869 also indicates that Delargy was not the vagabond Jardine would have Palmer believe. shortly after Delargy's return from New Caledonia he made a voyage to the southern coast of New Guinea in search of a whaleboat which had gone adrift. In about August he arrived at Saibai with 30 Pacific Islanders, many of them armed with double-barreled guns. This was probably the first visit by a European vessel to the island, and on landing he and his crew were challenged by a large number of Saibai men. Delargy's Tanese crewmen were keen to fight but he ordered them to lay their weapons on the ground. This defused the situation and friendly relations were established. There was a feast, and Delargy managed to obtain a boat load of much needed taro and yam for a few yards of red calico. Henry Chester commented that had it not been for the 'courage and prudence' of Delargy there might have been a bloody confrontation.
Perhaps the most prominent master in the early Torres Strait fishery was Towns' associate Charles Edwards. He was a pioneer of the industry and made his last voyage to the Strait in 1875 as captain of the Chevert, the ship that took William Macleay's scientific expedition to the southern coast of New guinea. Unlike Delargy, Edwards was considered a respectable gentleman in Sydney. Even so, his methods of obtaining Pacific Islander crews and his treatment of them aboard have been called into question, in his own time and since. Richard Cannon, who was assistant naval surgeon at Somerset from 1864 to 1867, recollected how
Old Edwards of the Blue Bell used to relate with 'gusto' how he had inveighed (sic) the men on board (Pacific Islanders), got them down below, then made sail and cut their canoes adrift.
Cannon's account of his time at Somerset is highly coloured, so it is possible he was enlivening his lecture with this common 'blackbirding' annecdote. But his evidence cannot be dismissed out of hand.
In 1867 a New Hebridean 'chief' from Efate also accused Edwards of brutality. Monargonon, who was implicated in an attack on the labour vessel Mary Ida, argued in his own defence that he had acted in retaliation for the detention and murder of his countrymen aboard trading vessels. He specifically named Edwards as one of those who had beaten new Hebridean seamen to death. But William Blake, the royal Navy commander who had been sent to investigate the Mary Ida incident, doubted Monargonon's credibility. Monargonon had good reason to plea mitigating circumstances in retaliation to his role in the attack. In 1857 the Tanaese had been bombarded by HMS Iris for a similar offence, and in 1865 HMS Curacoa shelled both Tana and Eromanga. Monargonon had probably heard of these retaliations and may have thought it wise to portray the Sydney traders in the worst possible light to avoid a repetition at Efate. The British authorities thought that if the masters of colonial vessels had committed these offences they would have come to the notice of the missionaries at Efate who were normally highly critical of the traders. They had not, so no action was taken against Edwards.
There is no good evidence to suggest that Pacific Islanders were taken by force to work in Torres Strait. Some masters in the labour trade certainly kidnapped Islanders, but the methods of recruitment in the labour trade were different from the methods of engagement in the maritime industries. Once a recruiter landed plantation labourers from his ship he saw them no more, but men engaged for the maritime industries generally would be with the master who engaged them for three years. They could only be loosely supervised in the diving boats and at the stations, so discontented men were practically useless. Kidnapping was not really a visible option for the Torres Strait masters. This is not to say that life aboard a beche-de-mer or pearl-shelling vessel was anything but hard. Nineteenth-century sailing masters were autocrats accustomed to unconditional obedience, if only to ensure the safe management of their ships. the competitive nature of the industries meant that vessels frequented poorly charted reef-strewn waters where any slackness on the part of the crew could mean disaster. In these circumstances a measure of brutality on the part of masters and mates was regarded as a mark of competence. Voyages were long and acts of insubordination, if not dealt with swiftly, could rapidly escalate. Far from civil courts, and without recourse to the stratified dispute settling mechanisms of the navy, the masters of trading vessels were a law unto themselves. Confining a seaman meant that a vessel was left one hand short. It follows then that offences were often dealt with by the more convenient and less complicated method of giving the offender a beating. When at sea, disputes were settled internally, and even after Queensland extended its jurisdiction into 'Torres Strait in 1872 the police magistrate's court at Somerset was rarely used except to report cases of desertion.
A case brought against the Prussian master Edwin Redlich at Somerset in February 1873 by his Pacific Islander crew indicates a level of violence that was probably typical of life on an early pearl-shelling vessel. the crew had signed on the Franz at Sydney and various islands in the western Pacific, and had been at sea for six months. When the schooner arrived at Somerset some of the men complained that Redlich and the mate, August Baumgarten, swore at them, struck them, allowed them insufficient rations, and refused them medicine when they were sick. Baumgarten testified that Redlich sometimes called the men 'monkeys and pigs', but denied he had ever heard him refer to them as 'bugger' or 'son of a bitch'. The only time he could recall such language being used on the Franz was when the Chinese steward tried to hit him over the head with a tomahawk! Baumgarten admitted to giving one of the crew 'a cut or two over the rump' for refusing to delouse himself, and to striking another with his hand for being too slow to drop the boat's sail, allowing it to run stem on into the Franz. Another was struck by the captain because, when he was told to ease the fore topsail brace he let go the peak halliard, a mistake that would cause pandemonium on the deck of a topsail schooner.
Redlich, Baumgarten and the steward all testified that the crew were not served out rations, but were allowed to take whatever they wanted. Most of the men would not eat the pumpkins brought from Sydney, but Redlich took on fresh native foods at various islands. Baumagarten claimed he had administered quinine, castor oil and rhubarb to the men, and applied mustard poultices when needed, but that they were reluctant to say when they were ill. Predictably perhaps, Jardine ruled that the charges brought against Redlich by the crew of the Franz were 'frivolous and unfounded', but he did caution Baumgarten against 'using improper language towards the natives'. Redlich had sailed the Franz, a 148-ton schooner, from the west coast of New Guinea to Torres Strait with a crew of sixteen. Some of the men were weakened by fever, and this must have heightened tensions aboard the vessel. Nevertheless, the case does illustrate some of the problems that could arise when Pacific Islanders were engaged who were not experienced sailors. they were unused to the food, reluctant to complain, and subjected to beatings when they made mistakes. this could lead to pent-up resentment, ending in acts of insubordination or desertion. the primary concern of beche-de-mer and pearl-shelling masters was to maximise the chances of having a profitable voyage. As in the whaling industry, crews in the early Torres Strait fishery were paid, sometimes exclusively, by the 'lay'; that is they received a percentage of the profit of the voyage. this meant that the income of each crew member was reduced if part of the crew were not good workers. A variation of this system still operates on Islander-run crayfish boats in the Strait, and the best divers tend to gravitate to skippers who have reputations for working their men hard. Jeremy Beckett's fieldwork in the 1950s and 1960s also shows that Torres Strait Islanders believed that the best skippers were 'tough' skippers. Under them everyone on board could expect higher returns from a voyage.
There is no doubt, however, that a handful of masters did resort to extreme violence to extract all they could from their crews. A case in point is the notorious 1871 incident, almost always cited in histories of Torres Strait, involving the mate of the schooner Margaret and Jane. Acting on information received from the vessel's master, Frank Jardine issued a warrant for the arrest of nine Rrotumans for stealing a boat and deserting. The men were apprehended by the Somerset water police at Mer (Murray), where they were apparently employed at John Delargy's station. The Rotumans, who spoke English and were Christians, gave evidence that the mate of the Margaret and Jane had forced them to dive by firing at them in the water. They also claimed that he had killed to Torres Strait Islanders who were also employed on the schooner. This was subsequently confirmed, but by then the mate had escaped south on the James Merriman. The charges against the nine Rotumans were dropped and they were sent south on HMS Basilisk. But the mate of the Margaret and Jane was not typical of the men who employed Pacific islanders in Torres Strait, and we will look closer at his case in the next chapter. to have a profitable voyage it was essential for a master to maintain his crew. One who was touch but unfair risked losing men through desertion, and in the early fishery deserters were difficult to trace. Before 1872 men were often not legally signed on under the provisions of the Merchant Seamen Act or the Masters and Servants Act. Thee was intense competition for crew, and masters were willing to engage men who had nothing to prove that they had legally left their previous service. thus, the need to avoid desertions tended to moderate the degree of violence used to discipline crews. In any case, unrelenting physical brutality was a poor method of extracting work from crews. but there were other methods of management. One of these was to use the issuing of rations as a system of punishment and reward. the normal ration in the early fishery consisted of 'sharps' (a coarsely ground wheat flour), maize meal, molasses, tea, various condiments, sometimes preserved meats, and whatever fresh fish and turtle the crew could catch. In the agreements which many Pacific Islanders signed there was a column where rations were to be specified. It was common for masters to enter 'Sufficient without waste as in the south Seas trade'. Clearly the issuing of rations under these agreements was open to abuse.
William Walton, master of the barque Crishna, which was employed beche-de-mering on the outer Barrier Reef, divided his crew into two parties, the 'old hands' and the 'green hands'. The 'old hands' were always issued the normal ration, but the new men were only given two meals of maize meal 'porridge' each day. If they did not bring sufficient numbers of beche-de-mer from the reef their second meal was sometimes withheld. If their catch was better than usual they were given preserved meat as a reward. it is probable that this system of management was in common use in the early years of the fishery. There were two other features of the arrangements between masters and men which, when considered together, show how masters could constrain crewmen into staying with a ship. these were the 'lay' and the 'slop chest' systems. The 'lay' varied both on and between vessels. It could be anywhere between a 70th and a 200th. In the early beche-de-mer and pearl-shelling industries the 'lay was calculated as a percentage of the profit and a voyage, not, as in the whaling industry, as a percentage of the value of the catch. The average price of beche-de-mer in Sydney in the early 1870s was about 100 pounds a ton. But in 1872 on the Crishna the 'lay' was calculated on the basis of a profit of 30 pounds a ton, and on the Active 22 pounds a ton. the financiers and masters calculated the profit, and the Islanders were paid accordingly. On being paid off many Pacific islanders found that their earnings were very much less than they had expected, and it was difficult to understand how their 'lay' had been calculated.
The 'slop chest' was the store of goods kept aboard a vessel or at a station from which the men were able to purchase goods that were not supplied in their rations. The value of goods purchased from the 'slop chest' was deducted from the amount the men earned during the season. the accounting was done by the masters, and the men were often allowed to draw on their pay without any restriction. Consequently, an unexpectedly low pay-off and unexpectedly high 'slop chest' deduction could result in a Pacific Islander being in debt to the master at the end of the season. In this situation he had little choice but to sign on again for another term of service. Although the beche-demer and pearl-shelling industries have had a bad press, kidnapping and arbitrary brutality were not typical behaviour for masters in the early Torres Strait fishery. There was a fairly high level of violence aboard the vessels, but it generally did not go beyond what both masters and men deemed acceptable. 'Some masters deceived and exploited their employees, but the most successful were those who, like William Banner, encouraged camaraderie and friendly rivalry between their goat crews. With the discovery of pearl shell in the Strait the fishery became more lucrative, and the masters were anxious to retain experienced boatmen. consequently the Pacific islanders grew steadily more aware of the value of their labour, and the balance of power between masters and men began to shift more in favour of the men.
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Both the beche-de-mer and pearl-shelling industries were labour-intensive. It took between 8,000 and 8,700 of the beche-de-mer known in the trade as 'teat fish', and about 18,500 'red fish' to make a ton. Other varieties collected were even smaller. The slugs were taken from the reefs at low tide, and an ordinary whaleboat in fine weather could bring in up to 1,300 'teat fish' per trip. They were then boiled for about a quarter of an hour in shallow iron vessels generally about a metre and half in diameter to remove their entrails. If those attending the boilers could not keep up with the collectors, a holding pool had to be constructed to prevent the slugs rotting in the sun. After boiling, the larger slugs were slit open for drying and they were all placed on long wooden stages over a fire. over open fires the smoking process took from four days to a week. if the beche-de-mer were sufficiently plentiful in the locality, or if high winds or rain were expected, smoking houses were constructed. Finally they were put in the sun until thoroughly dry, then sorted and bagged. the fires, boilers and smoking 'batters' had to be constantly attended, and from the time of its being picked from the reef until it was bagged each slug might have been handled up to twenty times.
'Apparatus boats' for pearl shelling, that is boats equipped with air compressors and 'hard hat' diving suits, did not come into general use in Torres Strait until the mid-1870s. Before then most shell was gathered by free divers from what were known as 'swimming boats'. the boats were from four to eight tons, carvel built with two standing lugs and a jib, and drew about a metre-and-a-half of water. they were partly decked and accommodated between ten and fifteen men with rations for a week. They operated from shore stations or mother vessels, and were sailed to a pearl-shelling ground no deeper than about eight metres to work the weather tide. The divers went overboard and the boat, under jib and mizzen, made a series of short tacks through the divers, who tossed the shell into the boat. At the windward end of the ground the men were picked up and the process repeated until the tide grew too strong to work. Between 700 and 1000 pair of shell made a ton, and twenty pair for one boat was considered a fair day's work. Larger vessels operating in the early fishery had a few European officers and professional seamen of other nationalities amongst the crew. Aboard Walton's 256-ton barque Crishna there were men from Mexico, Mauritius, Java, Singapore and Sri Lanka, as well as New Hebrideans and Rotumans. however, most of th4 actual diving was done by Pacific Islanders. men from Mare, Life, Tana, Eromanga, Aneityum, New Caledonia and the Solomon Islands were aboard the Julia Percy in 1860-61, and in 1869 Banner, by then master of the Pakeha, was still employing crfew drawn from the same islands. three years later Archibald McAusland had nineteen New Hebrideans and nine Solomon Islanders aboard the Melanie, and Joseph Hastings ten New Hebrideans and eleven Solomon Islanders aboard the Western Star.
By the 1860s a large proportion of the male population of the Loyalty Islands had been to sea in whaling or trading vessels, and an even stronger sea-going tradition existed at Rotumah. Large numbers of New Hebrideans had also become semen during th4 years of the sandalwood trade. These experienced men could be engaged at 1 pound a month and were much sought after by Sydney masters. Many of the Pacific Islanders who arrived in Torres Strait were missionary-educated and could read English. Certainly this was true for almost all the Rotumans and Loyalty Islanders. In other words there were few crews in the fishery without men capable of putting grievances to their European officers. On the other hand, however, most vessels probably had a mix of 'green hands' and experienced men. Redlich's 1872 voyage to engage crew was probably a fairly typical one. the Franz left Sydney in July with seventeen hands all told. Besides himself there were two European mates, a Rotuman mate, a Chinese cook, and thirteen Fijian and Loyalty Islanders who had signed on in Sydney. Two more Islanders were signed on at Mare before the missionary Archibald Murray on a 200th 'lay'. they both spoke English and one was a Samoan. At Lifu two more we shipped at wages of 1 pound a month. With the assistance of an interpreter from Lifu, three Uveans were engaged at the same wage, and three more Lifuans signed on when Redlich returned to land the interpreter. Sailing further to the north-west he encountered groups of Islanders who would not come near the schooner for fear of being kidnapped. However, in the Duke of York Islands Redlich engaged seven more men at 1 pound a month. these were shipped through the agency of a local 'chief'.
The voyage of the Franz illustrates a number of points about the engagement of crews for Torres Strait. to begin with, a crew could be composed of men from widely disparate cultural backgrounds. Their pre-contact cultures varied, and thee were varying degrees of acculturation. Some were experienced men signed on before administrators and missionaries, and others were 'green hands' with little idea of the nature of their contract. the more experienced men acted as leading hands and showed the newcomers what was expected of them. the newcomers soon picked u beche-la-mar, the trade language of the Pacific, and if all went well became experienced seamen themselves. by the early 1870s a pool of these willing and competent workers had gathered in Sydney. since the 1840s Pacific islanders had been arriving in Sydney on trading, whaling and sandalwood vessels, and a proportion of them left their vessels to seek other berths, or to work on the docks. It was customary for Torres Strait masters to visit Sydney to pay off their crews, and many men chose to stay. In 1869, for example, about one third of the crew of the Active remained behind when Delargy set sail for Noumea. Some Islanders arrived from the Pacific as ordinary passengers, and others may have been time-expired plantation labourers from Queensland. Whatever the case, by the early 1870s it was possible to man a vessel with Pacific Islanders without leaving Circular Quay, and by the mid-1870s very few Torres strait masters went into the Pacific looking for crew.
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Work in the fishery was not as arduous as one might suppose. Indeed, the Pacific Islander crews enjoyed a considerable degree of freedom. the six luggers from Banner's station at tutu (Warrior) started for the reef at dawn on Monday morning and returned on Saturday evening, and while at sea the Islanders were their own masters. they only worked the weather tide, so the divers were probably in the water for less than three hours a day. new moon and full moon spring tides made diving almost impossible, and many days were lost when the south-easterly trade winds blew to gale force. during these times the boats would retreat to various islands in the vicinity of the reef or return to their base. Much of the day was spent fishing, or hunting for turtle and dugong to supplement rations. The boats also visited islands in northern Torres Strait to obtain taro, yams, coconuts and bananas from the Torres Strait Islanders, and sometimes would cruise as far as the coast of new Guinea for the same purpose. the 70 or so men at tutu lived in a variety of grass huts that reflected their varying cultural backgrounds. They were not required to work on Sundays, and whenever one of Merriman's large vessels arrived from Sydney they were given a few days off and celebrated with dancing and sailing races.
Life for those working from mother ships, or 'floating stations' as they were called, was less pleasant. Before 1872 there were no regulations stipulating minimum living standards aboard the vessels, and conditions were often cramped. Because the 'floating stations' shifted from one pearl shell or beche-de-mer ground to the next, the men generally returned to their vessels each evening. there was less chance for the divers to supplement their rations from the reef or to visit islands, and the system also gave
masters and mates a better opportunity to supervise their men in the water. but this is not to suggest that the men were powerless to improve their conditions. As Frank Jardine wrote in August 19723:
The great grievance and thorn (for the masters) is the South Sea Islander who will not remain the heathen Polynee that he was, but keeps pace with the times, and is already becoming too civilized and knowing to give twelve months service for a butcher's knife, a ninepenny tomahawk, and a dab of red ochre quarterly on each cheek, as was the case in the 'old times', but has already learnt the love of money, is a good judge of Queensland rum, and uses a toothbrush.'
In the early years the 'floating stations' regularly anchored together near large patches of shell, and sometimes hundreds of Pacific Islanders were out in boats working the same ground for weeks at a time. In September 1872 the governor, the Marquis of Normanby, on a voyage of inspection to Torres Strait, saw between 300 and 400 Pacific Islanders in the few kilometres of water separating Giralag (Friday) and Muralag (Prince of Wales). A few months earlier there had been a similar number working in the pass between Moa (Banks) and Badu (Mulgrave). This close concentration allowed men to get to know others from different vessels while they worked and they were able to compare wages and working conditions by others to desert and join them. All this accelerated an awareness on the part of the Islanders of the intricacies of their agreements, and fuelled discontent.
By July 1872 boat crews from the Melanie, Western Star and Woodbine were showing obvious signs of dissatisfaction. Eventually six men deserted from the Melanie and joined Colin Thompson's Enchantress. A short time later the master and mate of the Woodgine were mobbed by their crew and given a severe beating. the officers were powerless to restore order so James Ware, the master of the Woodbine, went to Somerset for help. Jardine made out a summons against two of the Woodbine's crew for attempted murder and sent the water police to arrest them. When the police arrived at Moa Pass where the incidents were alleged to have taken place the diving boats were out on Warrior Reef - the men were working as usual but refused to be directed by the shelling masters. The police arrested eleven ringleaders, clapped them in irons, and set sail for Somerset. On the return voyage one of the prisoners made a desperate attempt to escape overboard and probably drowned. At Somerset two of the Islanders were sentenced to 28 days and three to 21 days on bread and water for insubordination, and the rest agreed to return to their vessels. the intervention of the Somerset water police had thus restored order, but the masters had been made acutely aware of their vulnerability.
Jardine wrote to Premier Palmer that the Pacific Islanders had, 'struck work altogether and on the principle "might makes right" have ousted the whites and are now doing just as they choose. This statement, and the manner in which Jardine dealt with the case, indicate that he regarded the disturbance at Moa Pass as a strike. He disregarded the original warrant for attempted murder, and the five ringleaders were sentenced for what was essentially an industrial offence. Indeed their sentences were light when compared with those visually handed out to British seamen. The other five arrested, who were probably Torres Strait Islanders, were given the option of returning to their vessel. this was commonly offered to seamen charged with 'refusing to obey lawful commands'. After only a few seasons in Torres Strait the Pacific Islanders understood the value of their labour and had begun to combine to protect their interests. the Pacific Islander missionary teachers who arrived in July1871 encouraged this increasing awareness, and strikes were becoming a common feature of the fishery by the mid-1870s.
The men in James Morriman's fleet had always been engaged in Sydney under legal agreements. It was only this that allowed James Ware to bring his men before the Somerset bench to be charged. Immediately after the July strike, however, all the Pacific Islanders aboard Towns' vessels, the Melanie and Western Star, were brought into Somerset to sign agreements. The masters were beginning to accept that the 'old times' were indeed over, and that to protect their own interests the engagement of men for the fishery needed to be regularised. the Pacific Islanders were shaping their own destiny. By 1872 many deserters had left the European-dominated industry altogether and there were Pacific Islanders living on almost every island in the main shipping channel. some had children by Torres Strait Islander women, and had no intention of ever returning their own boats in competition with the Europeans. Douglas Pitt, a black West Indian who deserted from Carl Thorngren's John Knox at Erub (Darnley) in August 1871 was, beche-de-mering with a crew of Pacific and Torres Strait Islanders. Two other West Indians purchased a longboat from the wreck of the brig Crown and were beche-de-mering from Waibene (Thursday), and at the end of the 1871 season rumours were circulating that several boats owned and operated by Pacific Islanders would soon be in the Strait.
It was to be some time, however, before significant numbers of Pacific Islanders amassed the capital to buy their own boats. Men who wished to return to their home islands after having signed off were generally paid in vouchers negotiable in the stores of the Sydney merchant shipowners. this benefited both ,parties. the Islanders bought trade items at a fraction of what they cost on their home islands, and the merchants made more sales. Those who intended to stay in 'Sydney until next season were paid in cash. After working for two or three years at 12 pounds a year a few Islanders together could afford to purchase a lugger to work for themselves. but often in the later 1870s, when some Islanders were earning huge sums, this rarely occurred. After being paid off in Sydney they spent their earnings like sailors everywhere. Quayside boarding house proprietors and brothel keepers took them in, allowed them to run into debt, then crimped them to sailing masters at the beginning of the next season. by the mid-1870s the problem for Pacific Islanders in the Torres Strait fishery was not kidnapping, or the excessive brutality of masters, but the types of exploitation experienced by colonial seamen of all origins.
As Pacific Islanders became increasingly sophisticated in their dealings with the masters, the masters looked more to Torres Strait Islanders to make up their crews. Torres Strait Islanders were expert sailors in their own craft, and divers who had an intimate knowledge of the region's reef systems. They had been collecting and bartering shell to the people of the new guinea coast for generations, and knew where it was most likely to be found. Indeed it was the men of Tutu (Warrior) who shoed Tongatapu-Joe the first beds of pearl shell in 1869. those who had traditional links with the coastal new Guineans acted as interpreters when boats were sent there to seek out fresh provisions, and it is unlikely that colonial or Pacific Islander sailors would have entered the muddy waters of far northern Torres Strait without Torres Strait Islander navigators. the Islanders were anxious to avail themselves of trade goods and tobacco, and would work for less than the 1 pound a month that masters ne4ded to pay Pacific Islanders in order to compete with the 'Queensland plantation owners. 'what is more, unlike the Pacific Islanders, who often had to be retuned to the Pacific or Sydney, Torres Strait Islanders could be engaged and paid off in the Strait.
In 1830 Banner was employing about 40 Tutu (Warrior) men and several more from other Torres Strait islands. Walton was taking Paremar (Coconut) Islanders to the outer Barrier Reef to collect beche-de-mer by at least 1872, and in the same year Pitt had Islanders from Mer )Murray) in his crew. In 1872 Colin Thompson of the Peveril engaged 25 men from Mer and islands in the near the main shipping channel. while some Torres Strait Islanders, notably those from Mabuiag (Jervis) and Badu (Mulgrave), were collecting shell on their own behalf and trading it to the masters in the early 1870s., those in the central and north eastern islands were content to simply join the crews. In May 1873 Jardine could report that:
most of the men belonging to the N.E. Channel islands (of Torres Strait) have been employed in the P.S. and B.D.M. fishing boats for some time past, they can speak English, and are quite capable (if explained to them) of understanding the terms of an ordinary agreement.
Being a maritime people, Torres Strait Islanders were well qualified to do the work asked of them, and there is no doubt that many young Islanders were keen to work in the boats. the speed with which they entered the industry can not be adequately explained in any other way. The manner in which Torres Strait Islanders began to join the fishery is certainly indicative of their capacity for innovation, but it was also a function of the characteristics of the Pacific maritime trade. The masters were men with extensive experience of different Melanesian peoples, and they and their Pacific Islander leading hands were used to introducing new men to the industry. When Chester visited Banner's station in September 1870 he commented that the 'utmost harmony' prevailed between the Pacific and Tutu (Warrior) Islanders. However, being newcomers to the industry the Torres Strait Islanders were considered less sophisticated than the Pacific Islanders. 'when they joined the boats they experienced the same problems that other newcomers had before them. they also had to cope with the Pacific Islanders, who now were imposing themselves on their communities. th4ese things created tensions and there was violence. the degree and character of the disruption caused by the arrival of the maritime industries, and the impact of government attempts at regulation, will be considered in the following topics.
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The End of an Era
From the beginning of the occupation, the police magistrates, first at Somerset and then at Waibene (Thursday) were limited in the degree and type of authority they could exercise over the Torres Strait Islanders. Their resources were meagre, their territory was vast, and different circumstances prevailed not only amongst the different island groups, but within such group. By the late 1870s Chester did exert some control over the Islanders' day-to-day lives, but he achieved this mainly by exercising his authority over the pearl shelling masters who employed them, and by using his influence with the missionaries. the pearl-shelling industry and the mission were hierarchical systems through which he could implement his policies. wherever these systems were not firmly in place, ho3wever, the task of imposing state authority was more difficult. The annexation of "Boigu (Talbot), Dauan (Mt. Cornwallis), and Saibai by Queensland in 1879 did little to change things there. the people continued much as they had in the past. When one of Chester's successors, Hugh Milman, visited Saibai in 1886 he realised that the Islanders were only beginning to recognise the 'mystic authority' of the Queensland government. But Milman thought the northern Islanders peaceful enough and saw no reason to interfere in their affairs. He provided them with a stock of coconuts to plant, gave them a few rifles and some ammunition to allow them to defend themselves against the Marind-Anim, and a boat to enable them to reach Waibvene (Thursday) in the event of any aggression from Europeans.
To the south at Mabuiag (Jervis), things could not have been more different. almost the entire population was involved in the fishery, and by the late 1870s the missionary teachers and considerable influence. Mabuiag had been a centre of pearl-shelling activity since 1871 and at times there were as many as three stations on the island. After the discovery of what was known as the 'old ground' to the south-west of Mabuiag in late 1881, shelling crews from stations in the Prince of Wales group used to rendezvous at the island on weekends. All this activity meant that it was often necessary for the police magistrates to arbitrate in disputes and investigate disturbances. They dealt with complaints by Torres Strait islanders against station managers and Pacific Islanders who interfered in their affairs or abused them, complaints by station managers about the activities of the teachers, and actions brought by the pearl-shelling masters against their crews, both Pacific and Torres Strait Islander.
John Bell's operation, the largest at Mabuiag (Jervis), was stable and his managers were willing to cooperate with the police magistrate. In 1879 about 90 of the 120 or so Mabuiag Islanders in the industry were employed by Bell, and by 1882 his was the only permanent station on the island. by exercising his authority and personal influence over Bell's managers, Chester was able to achieve a degree of government control over the affairs of the island unmatched anywhere outside the Prince of Wales group. At Mabuiag the teachers' complaints were generally directed against Pacific Islanders from other stations, not Bell's men. but this did not to Bell's managers from complaining about the teachers. As we have seen, the teacher Saneish was accused of everything from encouraging the men to break their articles to running a common brothel. yet it would have been difficult for Chester to bring formal charges against him, and the main concern was that he was causing disharmony between the different groups on the island, not just between black and white, but also between his followers and those who chose to work for Bell, Chester pressured the missionaries to have him removed, and eventually they complied. this was an expedient Chester often employed: he simply removed troublemakers from the islands.
Further south at Badu (Mulgrave and Moa (Banks) there were a few frenetic years of pearl-shelling activity in the early 1870s in the narrow pass that separated the islands, but no permanent fishing stations had been established on either by the mid-1880s. In fact Badu is a mystery in this era. In 1871 Chester counted about a dozen canoes at what appeared to be the only village, but here is no reliable estimate of the island's population. Teachers were landed there in the early 1870s, but remained only a few months before retreating to Mabuiag (Jervis). the people of Badu, it seems, preferred to keep to themselves. the island is rarely mentioned in official or missionary correspondence until the late 1880s, and there was virtually no effort to exert government control over its population. teachers were sent to live permanently at nearby Moa once the mission station at Mabuiag (Jervis) was established, but they built their mission on the opposite side of Moa to where the Islanders lived. It seems they were content to concern themselves mainly with ministering to the twenty or so Pacific Islanders living on the island. Missionaries rarely visited, so Chester gave the teachers specific instructions about how far their authority extended - he even forbade them to perform marriages. but witho9ut constant supervision there was no way of ensuring that they compiled with his demotion of Josaia at Mer (Murray) would serve as a warning to them not to exceed their authority.
Chester's authority was even more tenuous in the central islands. There were no permanent mission or pearl-shelling stations after 1877, but there were a few beche-de-mer camps with Europeans in charge at Paremar to intervene to settle disputes between the beche-de-mer fishermen, investigate complaints made about their treatment of Torres Strait Islanders, and to caution Torres Strait islanders who acted aggressively towards Europeans. But the central islands had small populations and were remote from the centre of administration. Chester's resources were limited, and he could make his authority felt only by ensuring that most of the islands were visited by the Pearl every six months or so. some of the smaller central islands such as Waraber (Sue), where there were no Europeans, were not considered important enough even to warrant this limited supervision, and the people were left almost entirely to themselves. The north-eastern islands were certainly remote, but they had been the centre of missionary activity since 1871, and in 1877, the year the administration moved to Waibene (Thursday), the London Missionary Society shifted its headquarters to Mer (Murray). Although these islands were then outside Queensland's jurisdiction, Chester did have some official authority over them by way of a special commission granted by the High commissioner for the Western Pacific in 1878. In that year Chester visited Mer at the invitation of the missionary James Chalmers, and after consulting with Chalmers and McFarlane, decided that a system of limited local government should be inaugurated on the island. Chester hoped that this might benefit the preservation of order and relive him of the irksome responsibility of having to settle petty disputes which arose in the villages. he then appointed a leading man on each of the north-eastern islands whose authority he, as the representative of the government and the High commission, would recognise. At Mer, Booguie (Harry) was selected to set as mamoose, or leading chief, and eight minor chiefs were also recognised. Those comprised a court to administer local laws, and selected men were appointed as police to enforce them. but Chester could only discuss the new laws with the Islanders through interpreters, and he seems to have had only a vague idea of what was going on.
Not so the missionaries, and there is no doubt that they had the greatest say about how the new laws were formulated and who would act as officials. Although Chester was often at odds with McFarlane, he liked and respected the more diplomatic Chalmers, and both missionaries had had experience of similar kinds of governments in the Pacific. It was agreed that they should oversee the island court, but they were often away for long periods and the teachers, who were expected to advise the mamoose, used the system to consolidate their already considerable power. Under the influence of the autocratic Josaia the court at Mer became an instrument of repression and this situation continued until the 'whipping scandal' of 1880, when Josaia was 'de-frocked' and eventually relegated to the position of classroom teacher. But even before Josaia's fall from grace the officials at Waibene (Thursday) had become skeptical about the experiment, particularly following an incident that occurred earlier in 1880. Josaia sent word to Chester that several girls of 'tender age' had been raped at Mer, and that at least one had died from her injuries. Pennefather was sent to investigate but failed to gather sufficient evidence to warrant going ahead with a prosecution. According to him the two accused, a Mabuiag (Jervis) Islander called Wamee who was attending the Papuan Institute, and a Mer Islander known as Sunday, confessed to the crimes, but argued that their behaviour was 'native fashion and that they did not know the white man's law'. but these verbal confessions would not have stood up in court and Josaia, who might have been acceptable to the crown prosecutor as a witness, in the end refused to cooperate.
The missionary Tait Scott, who was in charge at Mer at the time, insisted that Pennefather whip the rapists, but he refused, arguing that such a formal penalty was beyond his authority. They did not go unpunished however. Pennefather had Wamee removed from the island and Sunday severely beaten. It had never been intended that the island court would be autonomous, and one of the expected benefits of the system was that local officials would assist the government in such cases. Pennefather was so frustrated by Josaia's and the other Islanders' unwillingness to cooperate in the matter that he revoked the local laws and incarcerated some of the police. but despite this Chester continued to support the appointed mamooses and the local laws because he lacked the means to maintain order on the islands in any other way. In the beginning the mamoose system and the island courts were little more than rudimentary instruments of state control. the idea of centralised authority within the communities was foreign to Torres Strait, and it was difficult for the mamoose to act independently. If he was not being directed by a missionary or Pacific Islander teacher he was obliged by traditional codes of conduct to favour certain groups. for instance, the first mamoose of Mer (Murray) had acquired his status in the community long before outside influences began to change the social order. Indeed, he was appointed mamoose precisely because of his standing as a clan leader, which meant that he had an understanding of, and respect for, the old ways. consequently, it was unreasonable to expect him to mete out justice or settle disputes without conforming to traditional social alignments.
Thee also were traditional offences that had no equivalent in nineteenth-century British law. the Islanders still believed that malevolent magic was the most common cause of injury to person or property, and offences involving magic could be dealt with only in traditional ways. The logic of the methods used to determine who was responsible for crimes of this sort was beyond the understanding of Europeans at the time, and the verdicts of the mamoose and his advisers in such cases could appear to be arbitrary. /some offenders, such as those who sexually interfered with colonial courts, while others, such as those who stole from another's fruit trees, were given relatively harsh sentences. In an effort to regulate the sentences, Milman introduced a code of penalties in 1886. he also distributed native mounted police uniforms to the island police to help reinforce their authority. But the contradictions that emerged in a system that tried to encompass the principles of traditional and British law, combined with the fact that the courts often did not discriminate between moral and legal offences, discouraged Chester and his successors from allowing them more authority.
To compound the problem, on many islands there were Pacific islanders who refused to acknowledge the authority of the mamoose or the court. At Mer (Murray) they looked to a Rotuman called Joe Simeon for leadership, and this was probably the decisive factor which convinced Douglas that they should be removed from the island. Nevertheless some continued to consider themselves beyond the authority of institutions set up to regulate the lives of Torres Strait Islanders, and because the courts had no formal legal standing there was nothing that Chester or Douglas could do to make them recognise such authority. It had always been intended that serious offenders would be brought before the police magistrate at Waibene (Thursday). The system of quasi-local government was put in place essentially to relieve the police magistrates from having to deal with petty offences and internal squabbles. But under Douglas,both mamoose and island court acquired a status and independence that would not be matched until after the Pacific War. Douglas ensured that the mamoose was chosen by the community, and be guarded against outside interference in the workings of the court. Indeed, it became a principle of his administration, and that of Milman who followed him, that station managers, school teachers and missionary teachers should stay out of 'native affairs'. Official recognition of the mamoose and the island court at Mer (Murray) in 1878 marked the beginning of permanent, if limited, local government on the islands, and they were the forerunners of the autonomous elected councils that exist today. by 1886 there were island courts at Mer, Erub (Darnley), Ugar (Stephens), Mabuiag (Jervis) and Saibai.
During Chester's administration each island community had a different experience of government authority, but as the mamoose system and island courts spread a unity of experience developed. In the more remote communities the Queensland Government may have been, as Milman put it, a 'mystic authority', but throughout the Strait the Islanders were generally willing to accept the new colonial order. true, a few of the older leaders such as Kebisu, the mamoose of Yam (Turtle-Backed) and Tutu (Warrior), resisted the changes. but Kebisu died in about 1885, and it was a sign of the times that his son Maino, the new mamoose, was a staunch supporter of the new order, presiding over the island court at Yam for more than twenty years. By the end of the 1880s the officials at Waibene (Thursday) wee pleased with the way the people on the islands were conducting their own affairs. There was very little serious crime, and drunkenness, which had become common the in the early 1880s, had ceased to be a problem. the mamooses owned their authority to the police magistrates, and they were unequivocal in their allegiance to Queensland, a fact they demonstrated regularly by a symbolic act repeated in all parts of the colony; on important occasions they hoisted the symbol of their authority, the blue ensign of Queensland. the most convincing testimony that the authorities considered the mamoose system and the island courts a success came from the Queensland police commissioner, W.E. Parry-Okeden. He thought the system of government on the islands 'answered excellently' and in 1897 wrote that it was 'the only rational attempt to govern natives by means of natives that has been known in Australia'.
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Although the Islanders now generally seemed willing to accept the authority of Queensland, they were unaware of the implications the 1879 annexation had for the ownership of their islands. Thee were no negotiations with them before annexation, and they had no idea that after the issuing of Letters Patent and the passing of the Queensland Coast Islands Act their islands became crown land. No specific reference was made to their prior title in either of the legal instruments of annexation, and according to the laws of Queensland the Islanders' title to their land was exactly the same as that of the Aborigines. This is not to say that it was exactly the same as that of the Aborigines. This is not to say that it was legally extinguished. As Henry Reynolds has pointed out, the mainstream of English common-law tradition supports the contention that while the discovery and annexation of occupied lands gave European nations the right to exclude other nations, and the sole right to acquire land from the original inhabitants, it did not extinguish 'native title'. The original inhabitants retained the right of occupancy unless specific legislation was enacted to deprive them of that right. In Australia this was never done. therefore both Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders were legally entitled to continue in occupation as they had done before. while this meant little for the situation on the mainland, the theory had some reflection in reality in Torres Strait.
The situation on the mainland was a clear case of the triumph of economic expediency over moral right, essentially brought about by the belief that Aborigines were a threat to the viability of pastoral runs. In Torres Strait the situation was different. Thee was no prolonged struggle for land, or even for natural resources, and the Islanders posed to real threat to colonial commercial activity. Just the opposite. The maritime industries were labour-intensive, and among the masters there was always competition for islanders to work the luggers. They were good divers and sailors, and had an intimate knowledge of the intricate reef systems of the Strait. the Islanders were keen to obtain European manufactures, and the masters needed their labour. In Torres Strait it was expedient for the masters to preserve and articulate, rather than destroy, many of the traditional patterns of activity, and, except in a few cases, colonial occupation did not involve physical dispossession.
Throughout the nineteenth century, observers commented on the fact that Torres Strait Islanders had a strong sense of their proprietary rights over land. Land usage varied from one corner of the Strait to another, and the systems of inheritance are difficult to define, but all land was owned. According to Barbara Thompson, there were laws regulating the ownership of every inch of ground on Muralag (Prince of Wales) and the surrounding possessions of the Kaurareg, and Haddon's expedition confirmed that this was the case throughout the Strait. In 1882 Pennefather wrote:
The natives of Mer are very tenacious of their land, and the island is divided into small properties which are handed down from father to son from generation to generation. They absolutely refuse to sell their land at any price but rent small portions to the beche-de-mer men and others.
In 1879 all the islands became the property of the crown, and Queensland claimed the right to lease them to anyone it thought fit. However, until 1881 no attempt was made to stop beche-de-mer fishermen and pearl-shellers from squatting wherever they liked. Only one lease was issued before then, a yearly lease on Nghir (Mt. Ernest) taken out by E.B. Forrest, a Brisbane commission agent acting on behalf of Frank Jardine. the lease was forfeited in 1876. After annexation the lands Office asked Chester for a report on Naghir and whether it should be put up for freehold sale by auction. He recommended against this and the island remained crown land. Chester believed that in the interests of the islanders none of the inhabited Torres Strait islands should be alienated from the crown, and the Lands Office continued to abide by his recommendation. Until recently the only island in the Strait where land has been sold under freehold title is Waibene (Thursday), the centre of administration. The legal mechanism that regulated and use in Torres Strait was the Pearl shell and Beche-De-Mer Fishery Act of 1881. Clause 10 provided for the leasing of land at a minimum annual rent of 5 pounds, but no lease was to include an entire island. During debate in the House about clause 10, W.D. box raised the point that it would be unfair if, for example, a leaseholder was granted five acres on an island five acres in size. Buzacott replied that
The difficulty was almost purely imaginary, for, before anybody could occupy land for the purposes of a fishery, he would have to obtain a license from the nearest commissioner for Crown lands, who would surely have some little intelligence.
Chester, who was commissioner for crown lands as well as police magistrate, did ensure a balance between the need of the industry for bases, and the land rights of the Islanders. He initially granted leases to five pearl-shellers, Joseph tucker had 25 acres on Peilalag (Goode), Walter Powell the south end of Keriri (Hammond), George Pearson the eastern half of Mabuiag (Jervis), E.I. Brown half of Erub (Darnley), and Frank Jardine renewed his lease on the north-west half of Naghir (Mt. Ernest). But by June 1882 Powell had left the colony and so relinquished his right to Keriri, and notice of resumption had been served on E.I. Brown because, in Chester's opinion, the lease interfered with native rights. Officially at least, this left only three pearl-shelling stations in the Strait. Chester also issued licences to a number of beche-de-mer fishermen and allowed them to continue on in their camps. there was one on Erub, one on Ugar (Stephens), one on Suragi (Burke) and one on Massid (Yorke). the only one that remained in 1886, however, was Edward Mosby's on Massid.
Bell's station manager, George Pearson, employed most of the young men of Mabuiag (Jervis) and supported their relatives. He had always cooperated with Chester in his attempt to establish order on the islands, and Chester believed him to be a fair employer who did not interfere with the Islanders' rights. Chester had no hesitation in granting Pearson a lease, and there is no evidence that any of the traditional population left the island because of the station. Jardine also supported the relatives of his workers at Nghir (Mt. Ernest). but when Aoplin inspected that island in late 1874 or early 1875 he found only about 40 Kulkalaig living there, whereas evidence as late as 1861 suggests a total Kulkalag population of about 135. the Kulkalaig had two home islands, Nghir and Waragber (Sue). What little evidence there is indicates that they often travelled as one group, but it is likely that some clans had territorial rights over Waraber, Kulkalaig together - their participation in the traditional trading network, traditional subsistence activities, and raiding parties - virtually had come to an end. In these circumstances the Naghir and Waraber clans may have become more settled on their respective islands, and a population of 40 Kulkalaig at Naghir, such as Aplin found, need not indicate a significant drift from that place.
Aplin reported that the people of Naghir were well treated by Jardine. He found them 'comfortably housed, healthy, exuberant, and in (high?) spirits'. but after visiting the island in November 1875 the Italian explorer D'Albertis gave a very different account: "The natives of the island are all but extinct, and the few that do still exist there are subjects, after a fashion, of a white man named Jardine.' D'Albertis was only on the island for a day, and it is possible that some of the men were away in the boats or elsewhere. Another possibility is that the Kulkalaig's numbers had been reduced by the measles epidemic which we know occurred between Aplin's and D'Albertis's visits. What is certain is that by 1900 there were only a few Kulkalaig left on the island. by that time the Samoan James Mills had taken over Jardine's lease, and the population of about 40 was almost entirely of mixed Pacific and Torres Strait Islander descent. Although there is no definite evidence it is probable that most of the remaining Kulkalaig moved to Waraber (Sue) during the 1880s. Naghir is now uninhabited.
The Kaurareg who owned the islands of the Prince of Wales group were certainly dispossessed. tucker's was not the only station on those islands. In 1886 three acres on Muralag (Prince of Wales) was leased to Robert Williams, and there were other stations that do not appear to have been legally established under the provisions of the 1881 Act. In 1882 the Queensland Pearl shelling col., an amalgamation of Parbury and Lamb with some smaller Sydney-based concerns, had stations on Wai Wea (Honeymoon) and Roko. Albert Collins was at Giralag (Friday), and John Cussen at Muralag. but the only person prosecuted for unlawful occupation of crown land up to the mid-1880s was the black West Indian Douglas Pitt. Possibly these pearl-shellers intended to abandon their stations and had been allowed a period of grace, because by the mid-1880s all the companies without leases had either left the industry altogether or had reverted to the 'floating station' system.
The Prince of Wales group was the centre of the new pearl-shelling population. Yet the Kaurareg still had ample territory in which to carry on traditional subsistence activities. Chester also reserved half of Keriri (Hammond), one of the largest and most fertile islands in the group for their exclusive use. In the late 1870s and early 1880s they worked in the pearl-shelling industry, chiefly at Wai Wea (Honeymoon) and Roko for Parbury and Lamb, and later for Joseph tucker at Peolalag (Goode). But close to the source of alcohol and exposed to the venereal infections prevalent amongst the floating population at Waibene (Thursday), the Kaurareg found it difficult to remain a cohesive group. they became, in effect, islander fringe dwellers. In 1921, supposedly for their own protection, the government shifted them from Keriri (Hammond) to a village built for them on Moa (Banks), and their land at Keriri was later handed over to the Catholic church to be used as a mission. In 1872, when Jardine first surveyed the Prince of Wales group for a site for the new settlement, he reported that 'the natives (Kaurareg) are evidently averse to the formation of a settlement on any of the Prince of Wales islands and exert every ruse and means in their power to prevent the discovery (of fresh water). but the passive resistance they displayed was not enough to prevent their islands from being occupied. Later their attitude changed to one of accommodation, but they faced an almost impossible task in adjusting to the new circumstances. by the 1820s they were quite wrongly regarded as the remnant of a once numerous and warlike people who had degenerated through contact with the European, and on the basis of this myth they were removed from their islands to save them from further degeneration.
the organisation that leased the most land in the Strait was, of course, the London Missionary Society. It rented two acres each on Mer (Murray), Saibai, Dauan (Mt. Cornwallis), and Mabuiag (Jervis), and the western half of Erub (Darnley). the missionaries had tried to secure legal title to land on the Islands when they first arrived. At Mer the Islanders gave the teacher Mataika a portion to build on, but this was only on a temporary basis. Murray wrote:
the teacher has made some acknowledgment to the former owner, but it has occurred to me that, as the land may be of great use to the mission in future years, it will be well to give something more and try to get it secured in a legal manner as the property of the London Missionary Society.
It is probable that wherever the teachers were given land to live on, or to establish churches and schools, the traditional owners did not totally relinquish their rights. On the other hand, however, after a few decades a community might come to recognise the society as the land's rightful owner. whatever the case, after 1879 the London Missionary Society was unable to secure freehold title and had to be content with its special reserves and leases. At the turn of the century Anthony Wilkin of the Cambridge anthropological expedition wrote:
Native land tenure apparently has not been in any way affected by Queensland Law, but the custom, which has grown up of late years, of living on the earnings of the numerous natives employed in the pearl-shell industry has certainly done much to weaken the force of ancient traditions with regard to property - and especially property to land.
Because of the introduction of flour, rice, fowls and various kinds of tinned and preserved foods, the Islanders became less dependent on their gardens and less jealous of their collecting rights. As well as this the measles epidemic of 1875 must have left some land without traditional owners. 'this allowed leeway for outsiders to be accommodated, and it made conflict over land less likely. the only pearl-shelling stations that continued to take up considerable portions of permanently inhabited islands were at Naghir (Mt. Ernetst) and Mabuiag (Jervis). The people of Mabuiag were committed to the new order, and probably accepted the occupation of part of their island as they accepted a new way of life. In 1885 the missionary Tait Scott commented that their struggle in the face of European and Pacific Islander intrusion made an interesting history, but in his opinion they had been successful. he found them 'very strong, wiry and independent', and capable of protecting their own interests. these sentiments were later echoed by Haddon and Douglas. At Mer (Murray) a similar situation existed. Although the whole of the island had been reserved exclusively for the Islanders early in 1882 the people were committed to the new religion and generally were content to hand some of their land over to the London Missionary society. In the northern islands of Boigu (Talbot), Dauan (Mt. Cornwallis) and Saibai the people rarely encountered Europeans, and except for one or two Pacific Islander teachers, no outsiders settled amongst them for long. At some of the small central islands populations moved but they did so in order to be nearer churches or schools, and they made these decisions largely for their own benefit. In short, except for the Kaurareg, and perhaps the Kulkalaig, the occupation of Torres Strait did not involve physical dispossession. Indeed it was not until well into the twentieth century that the Islanders even became aware that, technically at least, their islands were the property of the crown.
After the disastrous measles epidemic of 1875 the Torres Strait population stabilised and then began to increase. At Mer (Murray) it went from a low of about 300 in 1875 to over 400 at the turn of the century similar steady increases occurred at Saibai, Boigu (Talbot), Mabuiag (Jervis), and Badu (Mulgrave), and the populations of Moa (Banks) and the Prince of Wales group appear to have at least stabilised. the situation on the smaller central islands is less clear. Massid (Yorke) and Yam (Turtle-Backed), with about 100 each early in the 1900s, were still well short of their pre-occupation populations. In 1913 there were only about 100 Torres Strait Islanders on Waraber (Sue), Paremar (coconut) and Naghir (Mt. Ernest) combined. But in marked contrast to the situation on mainland Australia, twenty years after the colonial occupation began most Torres Strait communities remained intact, living peacefully on their traditional land.
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by the end of the 1880s a new culture had emerged in Torres Strait which, although shaped by the process of colonial occupation, was largely a product of interaction between Torres Strait and Pacific Islanders. As early as 1872 Frank Jardine had predicted that because of the interaction 'the inhabitants (of Torres Strait) will form a splendid bone of contention for our future 'Darwins', and his prediction proved to be accurate. When Haddon ar5rived in the 1890s to construct his ethnography h faced the difficult task of having to discriminate between traditional practices and those that had been introduced from the Pacific. On a few islands, particularly Erub (Darnley), the Pacific Islander influence had been so pervasive that little of the traditional lore remained.
changes in ritual and ceremony were the outward manifestations that Torres Strait Islanders had accepted a new order, and most of these were centred on the church. However, while Christianity was an integral part of the colonial order, the style of Protestantism adopted in the Strait Islanders to continue to perform their traditional dances and ceremonies, as long as they were of a secular kind and did not promote what he saw as immorality. but the teachers were adamant that their congregations should cast aside old customs. On many islands traditional dances were forbidden, and new ones, brought from the Pacific and taught by Pacific Islanders, replaced them. Mission meetings and festivals provided new opportunities for communities to come together, and these occasions were celebrated in Pacific Islander style. When the Islanders gathered for 'May meetings' or to open new churches, the day began with volleys of rifle fire, and there were long processions accompanied by the singing of Pacific-style feasts. The missionary Harry Scott was surely stating the obvious when he wrote in August 1884 that 'South Sea teachers bring South Sea fashion'.
Pacific Islanders introduced other changes as well. Haddon was puzzled to find single as well as double outrigger canoes in the Strait, until he discovered that the single outrigger configuration was a Pacific Islander innovation. Torres Strait islanders also learned how to sail luggers, the workhorse of the western Pacific maritime trade, from their Pacific islander skippers. they were able to adopt quickly to the use, partly because the method of manipulating its free-standing gaffs was similar to that used on the mat sails of their traditional craft. by the turn of the century traditional canoes were being rigged with masts and canvas sails adapted for the purpose from the luggers. The technology was European, but it had been transferred to the Torres Strait islanders by those who had mastered the use in the Pacific. More importantly, Pacific Islanders taught the Torres Strait Islanders the work practices of the fishery. It was to be some time before the Torres Strait Islanders learned to use the strike as effectively as their Pacific Islander counterparts. Torres Strait Islanders who were dissatisfied with their working conditions generally deserted and returned to their villages, and it was hardly worthwhile for the masters to prosecute them unless they left en masse. But this die occasionally happen. In November 1881 29 Muralag (Prince of Wales) men refused to dive at a place where one of them had been taken by a shark. For this they were charged with 'desertion from hired service'. After hearing the evidence Chester fined each man 1 pound, but stipulated that they not be asked to dive there again on pain of two weeks imprisonment. In another case seven Mabuiag (Jervis) divers were brought before the bench for refusing duty. They had had a ten-day spell over Christmas, and despite being offered another moth's holiday when the north-westerly season commenced, they would not return to work. Chester sentenced them to fourteen days hard labour.
In both these cases Pacific Islander skippers had been in charge of the boats, and they were as strict with their crews as the teachers were with their congregations. That swimming divers should be made to work a ground where one of them had been taken by a shark gives some idea of the hard regime which they maintained on their boats. In the second case the Mabuiag (Jervis) Islanders complained that their skipper, Kio Tanna, refused to supply rations to those he thought were not 'pulling their weight'. this tactic had been used by masters in the early fishery to coerce work from Pacific Islanders, and the Pacific Islanders had been quick to learn the lesson. When placed in charge of their own crews they applied the same sort of strong arm methods at least as rigorously as the masters had done, if not more so. But Torres Strait islanders grew to accept the fact that a 'hard skipper' was a good skipper because his boat would bring in more shell and his crew would be better paid. Eventually this kind of logic ensured that a work ethic became deeply ingrained in those communities most involved in the maritime industries.
The most obvious sign of change, however, was that Torres Strait Islanders had gathered in central villages. In the north-eastern islands the people formerly lived in dozens of small scattered beach communities, each surrounded by a bamboo palisade. by the mid-18980s the palisades were coming down and the people had moved to a few large villages near the mission houses and churches. In the south western, central-western, and central islands the change was the more remarkable because in the past the people and shifted camp according to the seasons. They also constructed more substantial dwellings, the teachers showing them how to build in the Loyalty Islands style. Although th4ese houses went up first in the western islands to replace the flimsy temporary huts of the people there, the practice soon spread to the north and north-eastern islands where the traditional houses had been large and sound. Haddon wrote that by 1888 a 'somewhat variable South Sea type house' prevailed everywhere in the Strait, and that the new type was accepted 'not so much because it was better than the old, as because it was associated with the new order of things'.
Yet crucial elements of the old culture, such as the kinship and land tenure systems, remained firmly in place. these underpinned the new culture and ensured that the communities remained well-knit. The Islanders were also reluctant to give up some practices associated with the old religion. Haddon encountered old men who retained their faith in the traditional oracles, and rain and garden charms were still in common use at the turn of the century. he was not surprised, however, to find that vestiges of the old religion remained. In fact Haddon thought it more remarkable that the Islanders had embraced so readily the new faith and the new ideas. As might be expected, initially change was more pronounced in the communities where Pacific Islanders were most numerous, but the fishery and the mission promoted an incr4aded level of interaction which allowed for the rapid transmission of new ideas. Men from different islands worked together in the boats and many left their home islands to attend the Papuan Institute at Mer (Murray). They returned with notions acquire from the Pacific Islanders who were their skippers and religious mentors. There was also considerable intermarriage, not only between Pacific and Torres Strait Islanders, but between Torres Strait Islanders from different parts of the Strait. thus a generation was born into a world of mixed traditions, and these it adopted as its own.
Torres Strait society was now more culturally cohesive than it had been in the past, and the medium for this new cohesion was the language of the western Pacific maritime trade, known as beche-la-mar. As we saw in Chapter one, bipotaim western and eastern Torres Strait Islanders spoke different languages. The north-eastern Meriam Mir was essentially Papuan and the language spoken in the western and central islands, called Kala Lagaw Yo, was Australian. the Islanders could communicate through bilingual. However, when Torres Strait islanders learned to speak beche-ka-0mar they were able to communicate more easily with Pacific Islanders, Europeans, and other Torres Strait Islanders. It is impossible to know when Torres Strait Islanders first began to speak beche-la-mar, but they appear to have adopted it in the early years of the colonial occupation. when McFarlane and Murray arrived at Erub (Darnley) in 1871 an Erubian leader called Dubat communicated with them in a kind of broken English that must have been beche-la-mar. By early in the twentieth century most Torres Strait islanders spoke a variation of Beche-la-mar, now known as Creole, which had become the primary language of some communities and the lingua frames of the Strait. While beche-la-mar allowed for the transmission of new ideas, its adoption and transformation into Creole also illustrates the process by which the new order came about.
For decades before the colonial occupation Torres Strait Islanders had traded with the crews of passing ships. they learned key European words - 'kinfe', 'axe', 'more', 'good' and many others. The crews and passengers on these vessels generally did not speak beche-la-mar. they were Europeans. Lascars or Malays, and they communicated with the islanders in a haphazard kind of broken English. but when beche-la-mar finally arrived the Islanders recognised many of the words as those used on the ships, and because of this associated it with Europeans. This was reinforced when they later saw that Europeans and Pacific Islanders used the language to communicate. but although beche-la-mar was inextricably associated with European wealth and power, it was introduced to the Torres Strait Islanders by Pacific Islanders. The linguist Anna Shnukal argues that Torres Strait Creole acquired much of its phonology, syntax, semantics and pragmatics from the traditional Torres Strait languages, in other words that the Torres Strait Islanders indigenised beche-la-mar. This is true. But there is also evidence which indicates that at a very early stage Pacific Islanders influenced the traditional languages. by the mid-1870s the teachers were producing religious texts in the indigenous tongues. they found it difficult to pronounce some Torres Strait words, and in translation these were changed. In January 1878 Chester wrote that under the tuition of the teachers the Torres Strait island4rs were adopting new pronunciations of old words, and introducing new words that were neither nglish nor traditional Torres Strait. Sidney Ray, the linguist with the Cambridge expedition, agreed that many biblical and Pacific words had become part of the traditional languages, and that the pronunciation of some sounds had become more nasal after the arrival of the missionaries. thus the evolution of Torres Strait Creole was a dynamic process. The notion of the European in the background encouraged the adoption of beche-la-mar, as with the cultural order, the interaction between Pacific and Torres Strait Islander determined how it evolved into something new.
* * *
The colonial occupation changed Torres Strait society, and in many ways the process was a painful one. but the fact that the people were predominantly Christian, were willing and capable workers., lived in village communities, and in many cases could read and write, encouraged local administrators to view them sympathetically and tow work conscientiously to promote their welfare. In 1887 Milman wrote, 'It is astonishing the progress these people have made in civilisation in the last ten years', and certainly Douglas, who was in charge in Torres Strait for nearly twenty years until his death in 1904, regarded the islanders as a peaceful, law-abiding people.
After MacFarlane left the Strait in 1885, the missionaries concentrated their efforts more than ever in the evangelisation of New guinea, and their visits to the islands were even rarer than they had been in the 1870s. Some attempts were made by traders to establish stores but these were mostly short lived. the Islanders had their own form of quasi-local government and European influence over their affairs was extremely limited. Although the police magistrates generally visited each island at least once a year, the people were largely left to themselves. they had accepted the colonial order, but within it they enjoyed a substantial degree of autonomy. In spite of this apparent success, however, the Queensland government was not content to allow the Islanders to continue adjusting to eh colonial order in their own way. In the late 1890s, in response to the deplorable state of affairs that had been allowed to develop on the mainland, its 'native policy' became increasingly 'protectionist'. The Aborigines appeared to be on the verge of extinction, and in an effort to alleviate the problem Queensland passed the Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act in 1897, which brought into being the Aboriginal reserve system that was crucial to state control of Aborigines in the twentieth century.
It has been argued that the 1897 Act became, to a large extent, a means of separating an unsightly and unruly Aboriginal remnant from the rest of the Queensland community, but most of its critics admit that in the first instance it was intended to protect Aborigines from the debilitating influence of introduced vices. The situation on the mainland was desperate, but this was not the case in the Strait. While it was thought the Aborigines were generally healthy and there was no idea of them dying out. Walter Roth, the first northern protector of Aborigines appointed under the 1897 Act, believed that they 'did not require protective legislation.' Police commissioner Parry-Okeden was adamant that different methods of management were required to deal with them., and both Douglas and Milman, the officials on the spot, did all in their power to see that the provisions of the 1897 Act were not extended to Torres Strait. In 1900 Douglas wrote:
The native-born population are British subjects. They marry and are given in marriage. They are human beings; they are our own flesh and blood, they are born under our jurisdiction, and they are entitled to the privileges we enjoy. The natives of the islands of Torres Strait are capable of exercising all the rights of British citizens and they ought to be regarded as such.
Nevertheless, after the turn of the century, officials with long experience in the region were replaced by professional bureaucrats who brought to the Strait ideas about 'native policy' formed on the pastoral frontier. They put their faith in a meagre paradox. for them there was no hope of the islanders becoming independent until their lives were more strictly regulated, and for the next half-century Queensland's oppressive protectionist regime denied Torres Strait islanders, who were Christian and law-abiding Queenslanders, the most basic human rights. With this one era ended and another began.
Torres Strait - Part 2 >
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