There are an estimated 274 small islands in Torres Strait, which separates Australia’s Cape York Peninsula from Papua New Guinea.
The islands and their waters and reefs are home to many rare and unique species.
Torres Strait is named after a Spanish captain, Torres, who sailed through the strait in 1606 on his way to the Philippines. In the first half of the 19th century, trader ships regularly sailed up Australia’s east coast and through the Torres Strait on their way to ports in India and Asia.
In the 1850s western traders discovered the seas close to the Great Barrier Reef and Torres Straight were rich in the much-sought after sea animal bêche-de-mer (Sea cucumber).
By the 1870s, there was a rush on pearls in the waters around the islands and before long the Colonial Secretary in Britain decided to annex the profitable territory to the then colony of Queensland.
In the Torres Strait, families travel from island to island by small boats
The Torres Strait Islander peoples are of Melanesian descent, as are the people of Papua New Guinea, with whom they share similar cultural traits and customs. These islands can be divided into five cultural groups, which are represented by the white five-pointed star on the Torres Strait Islander flag: the Eastern (Meriam), Top Western (Guda Maluilgal), Near Western (Maluilgal), Central (Kulkalgal), and Inner Islands (Kaiwalagal). The flag’s green, black, and blue stripes represent land, people and sea.
Designed by the late Bernard Namok of Thursday Island, the flag symbolizes the unity and identity of Torres Strait Islanders.
Like the Aboriginal flag, the Torres Strait Islands flag is recognized as an official “Flag of Australia” under the Flags Act 1953.
The Torres Strait Islander peoples speak two distinct languages. The traditional language spoken in the Eastern Islands is Meriam Mir, and in the Western, Central, and Inner Islands the language spoken is Kala Lagaw Ya or Kala Kawa Ya, which are dialects of the same language. Since European colonization of Australia, the Torres Strait Creole (Kriol) language has developed as a mixture of Standard Australian English and traditional languages. The Torres Strait Islander peoples use Creole to communicate with each other and with non-islanders.
The spirituality and customs of the Torres Strait Islander peoples reflect their dependence on the natural world of their home islands and the surrounding waterways. Torres Strait Islander culture and spirituality are closely linked to the stars and the stories of Tagai, a great fisherman and spirit being who created the world in their traditional religion before Christianity was introduced to the islands by missionaries, created the world. Tagai is represented by a constellation of stars in the southern sky. Torres Strait Islander law, customs, and practices are shaped by the Tagai stories. The Torres Strait Islander peoples’ deep knowledge of the stars and sea provide them with valuable information regarding changes in the seasons, when to plant gardens and hunt for turtles or the manatee-like dugong, and how to circumnavigate the seas.