Torres Strait Islanders

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Date: 2017
From: Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life(Vol. 4: Asia & Oceania, L-Z. 3rd ed.)
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Culture overview
Length: 4,702 words
Content Level: (Level 5)
Lexile Measure: 1440L

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Torres Strait Islanders

PRONUNCIATION: TOE-r-ess s-TRAY-t i-lun-dur-s

LOCATION: Torres Strait Islands (Australia), mainland Australia


LANGUAGE: Kalaw Lagaw Ya, Meriam Mir, Torres Strait Creole (Yumplatok), English

RELIGION: Christianity

RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 3: Australian Aborigines. Vol. 4: Melanesians


The Torres Strait Islanders are the indigenous people of the Torres Strait Islands, an island chain located between the Australian mainland and Papua New Guinea. Genetically and culturally distinct from Australian Aborigines, the Torres Strait Islanders are a Melanesian people who have lived in the island chain for millennia.

Thousands of years ago sea levels were approximately 325 feet (100 meters) lower than they are at present; at that time, Papua New Guinea and mainland Australia were connected by a land bridge. Prevailing theories posit that the Torres Strait Islanders migrated to the island chain from Papua New Guinea before sea levels rose and submerged the land bridge, an event that left a chain of islands, rather than a continuous stretch of land, between Australia and Papua New Guinea. Though this is thought to have taken place about 8,000 years ago, the oldest archeological evidence of human settlements found in the islands thus far is approximately 2,500 years old; researches believe that earlier remnants were likely submerged.

Torres Strait Islanders

Prior to contact with European explorers the Torres Strait Islanders practiced sustenance activities including fishing, hunting, and agriculture; they were also accomplished seafarers and had trade contact with the indigenous people of Papua New Guinea and northern Australia. However, the Torres Strait Islanders were not a unified people at the time; the populations living on the various islands in the chain considered themselves distinct from one another, and their civilizations were marked by both cultural and linguistic differences.

The first European to navigate the strait was Luis Vaz de Torres, a Galician-Portuguese sailor who was conducting an expedition on behalf of the Spanish crown in 1606. Archives that were rediscovered in 1762 show that Torres captured three girls from the Torres Strait Islands during his passage, along with twelve Mailuans from Papua New Guinea; the captives were taken to Manila in the Philippines, where they are presumed to have been baptized. Nothing is known of their ultimate fate.

In 1770 the English sea captain James Cook claimed eastern Australia for Great Britain, marking the beginning of European colonial activity in the region. During the first half of the nineteenth century hundreds of British ships passed from the ports of Brisbane and Sydney through the Torres Strait en route to Asia and India; some of these ships stopped to trade with the Torres Strait Islanders and to perform repairs on their vessels. These interactions introduced the islanders to European goods including iron tools and tobacco.

By the 1860s commercial fishing ventures had developed in the Torres Strait, though they turned only meager profits until the islanders directed British fishermen to the pearl shell-rich Warrior Reefs. This marked a sharp increase in fishing and pearling activity in the Torres Strait Islands, and within a few years hundreds of Torres Strait Islanders were working with colonial crews in the region. British missionaries arrived in the Torres Strait Islands in 1871; this event is marked with an annual holiday known locally as the Coming of the Light.

Relative to the Aborigines of mainland Australia, the Torres Strait Islanders were given preferential treatment by British colonial officials owing to their mastery of agricultural techniques and their fierce warfare skills. The Australian colony of Queensland annexed the Torres Strait Islands in 1871, making the Torres Strait Islanders British subjects. Australia went on to federate in 1901, at which time the Torres Strait Islanders became subject to Australian federal administration. It was only during the twentieth century that the Torres Strait Islanders began to think of themselves as a single people, rather than distinct groups hailing from the various islands in the chain. During the 1960s the marine-based industries of the Torres Strait Islands suffered significant declines, prompting many islanders to relocate to the Australian mainland to seek more advantageous economic opportunities.

In 1992 the Torres Strait Islanders were the first indigenous people of Australia to gain legal title, which granted them privileged rights to their native lands. Today most Torres Strait Islanders live on the Australian mainland, primarily in the state of Queensland. Several thousand Torres Strait Islanders still live on the islands themselves.


The total population of Torres Strait Islanders was estimated in 2015 at forty-three thousand people, including those of mixed descent. Of that population about six thousand live in the Torres Strait Islands, with the remaining thirty-seven thousand living in mainland Australia. Most of the mainland Torres Strait Islander population resides in the state of Queensland, Page 1249  |  Top of Articleparticularly in the cities of Townsville and Cairns. With a population of approximately 2,600 people, the Thursday Island township is the largest settlement in the Torres Strait Islands.

The islands themselves are frequently grouped into five distinct clusters, including the top western, near western, inner, central, and eastern groups. The islands of the various clusters are significantly different in terms of geography and topography. The top western islands were formed by deposits of sedimentary rock, and consist primarily of flood-prone lowlands, except for Dauan Island (Cornwallis Island), one of the main islands in the group, which has much steeper elevations due to its location on the northern fringes of the Great Dividing Range of mountains. The near western Torres Strait Islands are also hilly, as are the inner islands; this cluster includes Muralag Island (Prince of Wales Island), which is the single-largest landform in the Torres Strait. The inner Torres Strait Islands are also noted for the presence of freshwater springs.

The central Torres Strait Islands also show significant geological range, with some consisting of sandy lowlands with coastal coral reefs, while others are rocky, with more rugged topography. Finally, the eastern Torres Strait Islands are volcanic, a feature that has created dense vegetation and fertile soil that was well-suited to agricultural development during the time when the Torres Strait Islanders were reliant on subsistence activities.

The Torres Strait Islands cover a total land area of 219 square miles (566 square kilometers), with the largest islands in the chain being Muralag Island (Prince of Wales Island), Saibai Island, Boigu Island, Narupai Island (Horn Island), and Buru Island (Turnagain Island). However, the islands themselves are scattered across an area of about 18,500 square miles (48,000 square kilometers) in the Torres Strait. They have a tropical climate, with a dry season and a rainy season. The wettest months usually span November through May, with January, February, and March typically seeing extremely high levels of precipitation. Temperatures show little variation throughout the year, usually reaching a daytime high of about 86°F (30°C) and an overnight low around 75°F (24°C).


In the distant past the populations of the various islands of the Torres Strait spoke a wide range of distinct languages; of these the two best-preserved examples are Kalaw Lagaw Ya, which is spoken in the western and central regions of the Torres Strait Islands, and Meriam Mir, which is spoken in the chain's eastern regions. Kalaw Lagaw Ya is part of the Pama-Nyungan language family, and is one of the few Australian languages that includes the s and z sounds; according to the 2011 Australian census, it was spoken by 986 people. Meriam Mir is considered a Papuan tongue, though some linguists classify it as part of the Eastern Trans-Fly language family of New Guinea. Just 186 people spoke the language in 2011. Numerous dialects of each language are also officially recognized.

During the nineteenth century, when British colonial activity in Australia was at its height, a pidgin tongue known as Torres Strait Creole also emerged. This tongue, also known as Yumplatok, is a fusion of English and regional indigenous languages and as of 2011 was spoken by 5,368 people. As the Torres Strait Islands belong to the Australian state of Queensland, English is the dominant language in the island chain and is widely, though not universally, spoken. The English of the Torres Strait Islands is a distinct dialect, with vocabulary, verb conjugation, and syntactic features that deviate from standard Australian English; for example, the phrase “you for [verb]” is frequently used in place of “you are [verb].”


Author Margaret Lawrie's (1917–2003) comprehensive works Myths and Legends of Torres Strait and Tales of the Torres Strait are considered the seminal written records of the mythological traditions of the Torres Strait Islanders. As Lawrie notes, “ownership” of specific myths and legends was ascribed to the peoples and cultures of particular islands in the chain. As such, it is not accurate to describe the mythology and folklore of the Torres Strait Islanders as having a uniform character. However, it can be said that the tales in Lawrie's works reveal a world of premonitions, dream states, omens, and magic, with interactions between human beings and the natural world as a strong recurrent theme. Moral fables involving quests and journeys are also a common story form, as are creation stories and origin myths intended to explain the genesis of the various birds, fish, and plants of the islands, as well as the islands themselves.

Lawrie also emphasizes that the content of specific myths varies very little. Some of these are confined to relatively small pockets of people living in isolated areas of the island chain. It is also common for myths and fables to “belong” to specific people, who are the only individuals considered authorized to tell them; any appropriations taken in the retelling of stories is considered a violation of traditional mores.


Few traces of the indigenous religion of the Torres Strait Islanders survived the Christianization efforts of British missionaries, which began in earnest in 1871. However, the scant few records that do remain seem to indicate that the traditional faith of the islanders focused on so-called “hero cults,” which lauded the divine exploits of legendary beings said to have traveled throughout the region, creating the islands and helping shape their landforms and prominent geographic features. It is also known that magic was part of this indigenous faith tradition, with established priests training new initiates to cast spells thought to be capable of everything from healing diseases to causing the death of a targeted individual. Magical relics known as zogo were used in the casting of such spells.

Indigenous beliefs about death held that the spirits of deceased individuals were capable of returning to the world of the living to bring harm. Ancient funeral rituals were designed to separate the spirit of the deceased from its earthly life, and send it safely to a mythical island of the dead, which was thought to be located somewhere in the distant west. During these rituals the bodies of male decedents were left to rest in the villages where they had lived, which were abandoned for a period of time by all residents except for the male relatives of the man's widow. After leaving the body of the deceased to rest on a specially constructed structure, the head would be removed and checked by a local magician in an attempt to determine whether the man had been killed by a malicious spell. If magic was determined to be the cause of the man's death, his widow's male relatives would attempt to exact revenge; this was thought to allow the spirit to reach the island of the dead and prevent it from being trapped in the world of the living.


Apart from the standard public holidays celebrated throughout Australia, the people of the Torres Strait Islands recognize Page 1250  |  Top of Articlenumerous regional holidays, of which the Coming of the Light is generally considered the most important. Celebrated on July 1 throughout the Torres Strait Islands, the Coming of the Light commemorates the 1871 arrival of British missionaries in the island chain, an event that brought an end to the interisland conflicts and infighting that had long created divisions among the Torres Strait Islanders. The Coming of the Light is marked by Christian church services, along with a reenactment of the first arrival of missionaries on Erub Island (Darnley Island).


As the Torres Strait Islanders of today are largely Christian, the rituals and rites of passage associated with Christianity are used to mark important occasions such as birth (baptism), marriage, and death. Contemporary funeral practices are akin to those seen in other Western countries with strong Christian traditions, save for a ritual known as the tombstone opening. During the tombstone opening a recently deceased person's grave is officially revealed to his or her family and friends. Such occasions are considered highly significant, with loved ones who live elsewhere often traveling great distances to attend. These ceremonies are punctuated with banquets and dances.


Rapport is a critical element of the social customs of the Torres Strait Islanders. When meeting a new person for the first time Torres Strait Islanders generally share warm introductions, followed by stories related to places of birth and personal history. Silence is also used to build rapport; it shows consideration for the speaker, and it can also express agreement with what the speaker has said. Postures, stances, and expressive hand gestures are all important forms of nonverbal communication and are usually considered more meaningful than spoken words in situations where there is a disconnect between what a person says and the manner in which he or she says it.

Torres Strait Islanders tend to shy away from direct, extended eye contact. Unlike many Western cultures, this is not taken as a gesture of dishonesty or mistrust, but is instead seen as a form a respect. Making continuous eye contact can be interpreted as aggressive, particularly in cross-gender situations.

“Aunty” and “uncle” are often used by younger people as informal terms of endearment for older people. Usage of these terms does not necessarily indicate a kinship, but rather a close friendship or positive personal relationship.


Australia's indigenous peoples, including the Torres Strait Islanders, have a significantly lower overall life expectancy than members of the country's non-aboriginal population. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reported that indigenous Australian males born between 2010 and 2012 had overall life expectancies of 69.1 years, which is 10.6 years lower than that of non-indigenous Australians; female aborigines born during that timeframe were expected to live to the age of 73.7, or 9.5 fewer years than non-aboriginal Australian females. While circulatory diseases and cancer are among the leading causes of death for aboriginal and non-aboriginal Australians alike, Australia's indigenous peoples are at far higher risk of dying from what are classified as “external causes,” a category that includes accidents, injuries, suicides, and homicides. Between 2008 and 2012, 6.3 percent of all deaths among male Australian aborigines were the result of suicide, which also accounted for 2.8 percent of all deaths among female Australian aborigines; these suicide rates far exceed those seen in the general Australian population. However, government statistics did not distinguish between Torres Strait Islanders and Australian Aborigines when compiling the report, so it is not known which of the two communities, if either, has a higher overall suicide rate. While Torres Strait Islanders have full access to Australia’ publicly funded health care system, government agencies note that cultural differences negatively impact the rate at which they seek care for health problems.

Statistics dating to 2008 also indicate that 28 percent of Australia's indigenous adult population lives in homes with significant structural problems, with rates being significantly higher (39 percent) in rural areas. However, statistical analysis of trends spanning the years from 2002 to 2008 did show significant improvement in this regard, indicating a positive trend.

Most of the Torres Strait Islanders living off the Australian mainland dwell in lightly populated urban areas where they have access to treated drinking water, improved sanitation facilities, and basic utilities. However, as of 2008, 28 percent of Australia's rural-based indigenous population and 13 percent of its overall indigenous population lived in a home with at least one nonfunctional cooking, refrigeration, washing, or sanitation facility. Telecommunications infrastructure in the Torres Strait Islands is also underdeveloped relative to mainland Australia, though telephone service and Internet connections are available on Thursday Island. Torres Strait Islanders living on the mainland generally enjoy living conditions similar to those of non-indigenous Australians, though they do tend to be of a lower overall standard.


While the Torres Strait Islanders largely adopted nuclear family structures following the Christianization of the islands, one traditional practice that has persisted is customary adoption. This practice involves the permanent transfer of children between extended family members, and it may be followed for several reasons. Male children are viewed as the way to continue the family name and bloodline, and as such, they may be transferred from a household with multiple male children to a household with no male children. Customary adoption is considered a traditional solution to infertility, and it is also used to create a more even gender distribution of children among the individual households in an extended family. In some cases children are assigned to provide care and companionship to aging relatives and grandparents with otherwise empty homes. Also, the nuclear family sizes of Torres Strait Islanders tend to be relatively limited, with two or three children being the norm. Families with four or more children may transfer one or more children to a household with fewer children to create a more equitable distribution of related offspring. The customary adoption practices of the Torres Strait Islanders are recognized and protected under Australian law.

Prior to European contact society in the Torres Strait Islands was organized in kinship clans and headed by senior males. It remains largely patriarchal today, with men being primarily responsible for providing the necessities of life and women tending to focus on childrearing and domestic duties.

Page 1251  |  Top of Article

A Torres Strait Islander prepares to dance at the Laura Aboriginal Dance Festival in Laura, Queensland, Australia. A Torres Strait Islander prepares to dance at the Laura Aboriginal Dance Festival in Laura, Queensland, Australia. © PAUL KINGSLEY/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO. © PAUL KINGSLEY/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO.


Modern Torres Strait Islanders dress in a manner similar to that of non-indigenous Australians. In traditional times, however, they wore very little clothing, owing to the hot, tropical climate of the islands; simple garments like loincloths and aprons were sometimes fashioned from natural items such as animal skins, twine, and leaves. Body adornments, including masks, headdresses, necklaces, bracelets, and armbands, were far more common than garments and took on added importance during festive and religious occasions. Elaborate ornamental headdresses known as dhoeri were traditionally worn by Torres Strait Islander warriors during battles; they remain the centerpieces of the costumes worn during traditional dance performances.


The traditional subsistence lifestyle of the Torres Strait Islanders centered on agriculture, which was supplemented by hunting and gathering activities. In addition to wild berries, seeds, and vegetables, the Torres Strait Islanders consumed copious quantities of fish caught in local coastal waters and other types of seafood, including shellfish, crab, crayfish, turtles, and dugongs. Fishing, turtle hunting, and dugong hunting have persisted as important traditional activities.

In the present day the Torres Strait Islanders generally consume lower quantities of fruits and vegetables than are generally recommended by nutritional experts. Australia's indigenous peoples are noted for having food security issues and nutritional deficiency rates that are much higher than those in the non-indigenous population.


Education in Australia is administered by state and territorial governments and consists of both public and private primary schools, secondary schools, and postsecondary institutions including vocational, trade, technical, and arts institutes, as well as diploma-granting colleges and degree-granting universities. In Queensland the standard education system includes a preparatory year akin to kindergarten, followed by twelve grade levels that students normally complete by the age of seventeen. The compulsory school age in Queensland begins at age six years and six months, and continues through age sixteen or the tenth year of the twelve-year system, whichever comes first.

However, functional inequalities within the Queensland school system result in Torres Strait Islanders having significantly lower literacy rates than non-indigenous state residents, as well as significantly lower school completion rates. Members of Australia's indigenous population are also statistically less likely to pursue higher education that non-indigenous students. With residents of the Torres Strait Islands being scattered across a wide geographic area, the state's compulsory Page 1252  |  Top of Articleschool attendance requirements are difficult to enforce, and children whose parents are not literate and/or did not complete school are more likely to be illiterate and/or fail to complete school themselves. Statistics dating to 2014 show that in “very remote” areas of Australia, a definition that includes some parts of the Torres Strait Islands, school attendance rates are as low as 14 percent, with less than 35 percent of students in “very remote” areas meeting or exceeding minimum literacy and numeracy standards. Poor access to education and related services are part of the root cause; less than one-quarter of all remote communities in Australia have a school that includes all twelve standard grade levels, and fewer than 40 percent of those communities have library facilities. The Australian government is continuing to explore ways to close the education gap that exists between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians.


Traditional music and dance continue to form a significant part of the cultural identity of the Torres Strait Islanders. Elaborate tribal dances consisting of coordinated leaping and stamping movements are still performed today, usually by groups of young men; drums, whistles, and rattles are now supplemented by musical instruments including flutes and panpipes.

One noteworthy Torres Strait Islander folk hero is the late Eddie Koiki Mabo, who was born on Mer Island (Murray Island) in 1936. After rebelling against the council authorities that ruled his home island, Mabo moved to mainland Australia, where he became a high-profile champion of indigenous rights. His campaigning was instrumental in bringing about the 1992 court decision that resulted in legal native title being granted to the people of the Torres Strait Islands.


Fishing remains the primary economic activity practiced throughout much of the Torres Strait Islands; while tourism is a noteworthy secondary industry, the islands do not have well-developed tourism infrastructure. Thursday Island is rapidly modernizing in this regard, however.

During the 1960s the Torres Strait Islands experienced a boom in pearling culture, until disease ravaged the population of pearl-bearing oysters by the turn of the 1970s. This triggered a collapse from which the local pearl industry has never completely recovered.

On Thursday Island, which is home to the largest urban settlement in the Torres Strait Islands, a large percentage of the population works in government administration and service-related industries. Employment data specific to the Torres Strait Islander population living in mainland Australia is not available.


Fishing, swimming, and canoeing form an essential part of the sporting culture of the Torres Strait Islands. Historically, the Torres Strait Islanders have been excellent seafarers, and their hand-carved canoes are among the people's most elaborate cultural products. Scuba diving is also popular in coastal coral reef areas, though it is practiced by visitors more than the islanders themselves.


Entertainment options are limited in the Torres Strait Islands, even in the township on Thursday Island that serves as the region's administrative capital. Socializing remains the top leisure activity, and Thursday Island has a noteworthy nightlife culture that is centered on the township's public houses. Hiking and nature excursions are also popular diversions.

The Torres Strait Islanders are also known for a string game called wame or wameya, in which two or more players suspend lengths of string in their hands and fashion detailed figures from it. In another string game played in the Torres Strait Islands, one player will wrap a length of string around his or her finger and challenge a second player to unravel it in a single pull.


The elaborate ceremonial sculptures and headdresses produced by the Torres Strait Islanders comprise the best-known examples of their arts and crafts tradition, with numerous examples on display in museums throughout Australia. Weavings, woodcrafts, and engraved items made from natural materials continue to be produced and are sold at retail outlets on Thursday Island and cities on the Australian mainland with large Torres Strait Islander populations. Canoe making is also a historically important folk art because it facilitated contact between the Torres Strait Islanders and the indigenous populations of other areas in the region during the era prior to British colonization.


The key social problem facing Torres Strait Islanders, and the Australian indigenous community as a whole, is that practically every measure of physical, economic, and social welfare shows that they are disadvantaged relative to the non-aboriginal population. Australia has a history of systematic discrimination against its indigenous peoples that is marked by failed assimilation policies. It is only since the late twentieth century that the Australian government has made significant investments in the welfare of its indigenous population with the intent of improving quality of life. As such, significant socioeconomic gaps continue to exist, and while they are slowly closing, equality is not on the horizon and many question whether it will ever be achieved.

Continued socioeconomic disparity is thought to be a key contributing factor to the relatively high rates of substance abuse, violence, and suicide seen in the Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Substance abuse problems include not only alcohol and illicit drugs, but also volatile compounds such as gasoline, solvents, and inhalants.

Climate change is also emerging as a major issue in the Torres Strait Islands. With global climate change causing sea levels to rise worldwide, and with many of the Torres Strait Islands having very low elevations, some islands are in danger of suffering potentially irreversible environmental damage. Studies have also shown that sea levels are rising in the Torres Strait at rates that exceed averages seen in other parts of the world. Climate change-related shifts in the marine environment and ecology are also endangering Australian coastal coral reef areas, including some in the Torres Strait Islands.

Some Torres Strait Islander politicians have voiced their support for an independence movement that would see the islands secede from Australia and become a self-governing polity. Page 1253  |  Top of ArticleIn 2011 a letter was submitted to Julia Gillard, then the prime minister of Australia, which urged her to consider the possibility of granting independence to the Torres Strait Islands.


A report published by the Australian government's Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission found that the key concern for indigenous women living in remote communities was access to housing, education, and basic social services. In particular, training and education programs specifically oriented toward indigenous women are scarce in Australia, creating a more challenging set of socioeconomic obstacles than those faced by indigenous men.

Family and domestic partner violence is also a pressing problem in Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, and government studies have shown that women make up the vast majority of victims in such cases. Rates of family violence are significantly higher in indigenous communities than they are among Australia's general population, and social assistance services are often not readily available in remote areas. In areas where they are available, victims frequently do not know about them, or do not understand how to access them.


“Australia's Cultural Diversity: Diversity of Language.” Racism No Way, New South Wales Government, Department of Education. (accessed August 21, 2016).

“Australia's Cultural Diversity: Diversity of Religion and Spiritual Beliefs.” Racism No Way, New South Wales Government, Department of Education. (accessed August 21, 2016).

Brandle, Maximilian, ed. Multicultural Queensland 2001: 100 Years, 100 Communities, A Century of Contributions. Brisbane, Queensland, Australia: The State of Queensland, 2001.

“General History.” Torres Strait Regional Authority, Government of Australia. (accessed August 21, 2016).

Lawrie, Margaret Elizabeth. Myths and Legends of Torres Strait. South Brisbane, Queensland: State Library of Queensland, 2012.

“Mortality and Life Expectancy of Indigenous Australians.” Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Government of Australia. (accessed August 21, 2016).

“The People and History of the Torres Strait Islands.” BBC News, August 24, 2015. (accessed August 21, 2016).

“Questions and Answers about Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Peoples.” Australian Human Rights Commission. (accessed August 21, 2016).

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3648200452