Badu, also known as Mulgrave Island[1], is situated in the western island group of Torres Strait and is one of the larger islands in this region. The people of Badu are of Melanesian origin and prior to European contact had lived in village communities following traditional patterns of hunting, fishing, farming and trade for many thousands of years.[2] The Torres Strait Islanders of Badu have a reputation as fearsome warriors and inter-island warfare was a common occurrence before the arrival of Europeans.[3]

The Traditional Owners[4] of the island are known as the Badulgal and Mualgal people. When referring to Traditional Owners on Badu, it is customary to acknowledge all clans by referring to ‘Mura Badulgal’ (Moo-rah Bah-dool-gul). This is an inclusive term used to acknowledge the entire Badu Island community.

History of Badu

European contact

Captain William Bligh, in charge of the British Navy ships Providence and Assistant, visited the Torres Strait in 1792 and mapped the main reefs and channels. While sailing between Badu and Jervis Islands, Bligh’s crew fired a volley of warning shots after they observed a number of canoes approaching their ships from Badu. It was then that Bligh named the island Mulgrave Island.[5]

In the early 1860s beche-de-mer (sea cucumber) and pearling boats began working the reefs of Torres Strait. In the early 1870s Badu Islanders began collecting pearl shell, which they traded with the European pearl shell operators. The European operators worked the sea beds between the islands of Badu and Banks (also known as Moa)[6] in the 1870s but did not attempt to settle on Badu itself.[7]

In 1872, the Queensland Government sought to extend its jurisdiction and requested the support of the British government.[8] Letters Patent[9] were issued by the British government in 1872 creating a new colony which encompassed all islands within a 60 mile radius of the coast of mainland Queensland. This boundary was further extended by the Queensland Coast Islands Act 1879 (Qld)[10] and included the islands of Boigu, Darnley, Murray and Saibai, which lay beyond the previous 60 nautical mile limit. The new legislation enabled the Queensland Government to control and regulate bases for the beche-de-mer and pearling industries which had previously operated outside its jurisdiction.[11] By 1884 2 pearling stations were operating on Badu. One of the stations was owned by John Bell who also ran stations on Jervis Island.[12]

Torres Strait Islanders refer to the arrival of the London Missionary Society (LMS) missionaries at Erub in July 1871 as ‘the Coming of the Light.’ The LMS had made unsuccessful efforts to place missionary teachers on Badu in the 1870s.[13] In 1884 the people of Badu made contact with the LMS mission at Jervis Island and informed them they were now ready to receive missionaries.[14]

In the late 1890s, LMS missionary the Reverend Walker developed a philanthropic business scheme which he named Papuan Industries Limited (PIL). Walker’s scheme was designed to promote ‘independent native enterprise’ by encouraging Islanders to co-operatively rent or purchase their own pearl luggers. The ‘company boats’ were used to harvest pearl shells and beche-de-mer, which was sold and distributed by PIL. Company boats provided Islanders with income and a sense of community pride and also improved transport and communication between the islands.[15]

In 1904, the Reverend Walker established the main headquarters for PIL at Badu. The PIL buildings were constructed in a sheltered anchorage facing the sea channel between Badu and Banks Islands. Over time this area became the main administrative and residential centre of Badu. The people of Badu purchased their first company boat in 1906 and coconut plantations were also established on the island by PIL. The organisation employed local Islanders as well as South Sea Islander workers as part of their operations on the island. The Queensland Government supported the scheme and worked in partnership with PIL.[16]

The Queensland Government over time began to exert more influence on the lives of Torres Strait Islander people. John Douglas, the Government Resident at Thursday Island, initially shielded Torres Strait Islanders from the controlling provisions of the Aboriginal Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act 1897. After Douglas passed away in 1904, the administration that followed began to assert control over Torres Strait Islander labour and savings accounts and imposed restrictions on Islander movement to and from the mainland.[17]

In November 1912, the Queensland Government gazetted 22,000 acres at Badu as an Aboriginal reserve. Many other Torres Strait Islands were gazetted as Aboriginal reserves at the same time.[18] By 1918 a Protector of Aboriginals had been appointed to Thursday Island and during the 1920s and 1930s racial legislation was strictly applied to Torres Strait Islanders, enabling the government to remove Islanders to reserves and missions across Queensland.

Seventeen documented removals from Badu occurred between 1939 and 1950.[19] Papuan Industries Limited was taken over by the Queensland Government in July 1930 and re-named the Aboriginal Industries Board, managed by the Aboriginal Protector on Thursday Island.[20]

By the 1930s a number of Badu families had purchased and were operating their own pearl luggers. The Wakaid, a peal lugger operated by the Nona family, for many years won the government competition for the most productive lugger in the Torres Strait. Tanu Nona, Captain of the Wakaid, also served as community councillor and churchwarden at Badu. During the 1930s Tanu Nona organised the construction of a new church at Badu using local wages and labour. The church was dedicated by the Bishop of Carpentaria on 12 January 1936.[21]

In 1936, around 70% of the Torres Strait Islander workforce went on strike in the first organised challenge against government authority by Torres Strait Islanders. The nine-month strike was an expression of the Islanders’ anger and resentment at the increasing level of government control over their livelihood. The strike was a protest against government interference in wages, trade and commerce and called for the lifting of evening curfews, the removal of the permit system for inter-island travel, and the recognition of the Islanders’ right to recruit their own boat crews.[22] Around 30 men were gaoled by the government authorities at Badu because of their refusal to work.[23]

The strike produced a number of significant reforms and innovations. Unpopular local Protector J D McLean was removed and replaced by Cornelius O’Leary. Under O’Leary a system of regular consultations with elected Islander Council representatives was established. The new island councils were given a degree of autonomy including control over local police and courts.[24]

On 23 August 1937, O’Leary convened the first Inter Islander Councillors Conference at Yorke Island. Representatives from 14 Torres Strait communities attended the conference. Tanu Nona, Fred Bowie and Jacob Baira represented Badu. After lengthy discussions, unpopular bylaws were cancelled (including the evening curfews) and a new code of local representation was agreed upon.[25] In 1939 the Queensland Government passed the Torres Strait Islanders Act 1939 which incorporated many of the recommendations discussed at the conference. A key section of the new act officially recognised Torres Strait Islanders as a separate people to Aboriginal Australians.[26]

During World War Two, the Australian Government recruited Torres Strait Islander men to serve in the armed forces. Enlisted men from Badu and other island communities formed the Torres Strait Light Infantry. The men were respected as soldiers, however they received only one third of the pay given to white Australian servicemen.

On 31 December 1943, members of the Torres Strait Light Infantry went on strike calling for equal pay and equal rights. The Australian Government agreed to increase their pay to two thirds the level received by white servicemen. Full back pay was offered in compensation to the Torres Strait servicemen by the Australian government in the 1980s.[27]

The island of Badu itself also played an important role in the war as the location of the 341 radar station, which monitored the movements of Japanese planes.[28]

After World War Two, the Queensland Government transferred the headquarters of the Aboriginal Industries Board from Badu to Thursday Island.[29] The pearling industry declined across the Torres Strait and Islanders were permitted to work and settle on Thursday Island and the Australian mainland.[30]

After gaining its independence from Australia in 1975, Papua New Guinea asserted its right to the islands and waters of the Torres Straits. In December 1978, a treaty was signed by the Australian and Papua New Guinea governments that described the boundaries between the two countries and how the sea area may be used by both parties.[31] The Torres Strait Treaty, which became operational in February 1985, contains special provision for free movement (i.e. without passports or visas) between both countries.[32] Free movement between communities applies to traditional activities such as fishing, trading and any family gatherings that occur in a specifically created Protected Zone and nearby areas.[33]

Local government and Deed of Grant in Trust (DOGIT) community

On 30 March 1985, the Badu community elected 3 councillors who would form the autonomous Badu Island Council. Established under the Community Services (Torres Strait) Act 1984, local government-type powers and responsibilities were conferred upon Torres Strait Islander councils for the first time. The council area, previously an Aboriginal reserve held by the Queensland Government, was transferred to the trusteeship of the council under a Deed of Grant in Trust (DOGIT) on 21 October 1985.[34]

In 2007, the Local Government Reform Commission recommended that the 15 Torres Strait Island councils be abolished and the Torres Strait Island Regional Council be established in their place. In elections conducted under the Local Government Act 1993 on 15 March 2008, members of the communities that make up the Torres Strait Island Regional Council local government area, each voted for a local councillor and a mayor. The Torres Strait Island Regional Council was formed and included a council of 15 councillors and a single mayor.


  1. The island is more commonly known as Badu or Badu Island. These names will be used interchangeably throughout the document.
  2. R E Johannes and J W MacFarlane, Traditional Fishing in the Torres Strait Islands (CSIRO, 1991) 174-177; J Beckett, Torres Strait Islanders, Custom and Colonialism (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1987) 149-151.
  3. A Shnukal, ‘The Last Battle of Mua: Eleven Texts’ (2008) 4, 2 Memoirs of the Queensland Museum, Cultural Heritage Series, 159-183.
  4. Nona on behalf of the Badulgal People v the State of Qld [2006] FCA 1578; Nona and Manus v Queensland [2006] FCA 412.
  5. M Flinders, A Voyage to Terra Australis, (W Bulmer and Co, London, 1814) J Singe, The Torres Strait, People and History (University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 1979) 22-23.
  6. Moa is also spelt ‘Mua’. Further information about Moa is available in the Justice Resource Documents entitled ‘Moa: Kubin Community’ and ‘Moa: St Pauls Community’.
  7. S Mullins, Torres Strait, A History of Colonial Occupation and Culture Contact 1864-1897 (Central Queensland University Press, Rockhampton, 1994) 74, 163.
  8. S B Kaye, Jurisdictional Patchwork: Law of the Sea and Native Title Issues in the Torres Strait (2001) 2, Melbourne Journal of International Law, 1.
  9. Queensland Statutes (1963) vol.2, 712.
  10. See also Colonial Boundaries Act 1895 (Imp); Wacando v Commonwealth (1981) 148 CLR 1.
  11. Mullins, above n 7, 139-161.
  12. R Ganter, The Pearl Shellers of Torres Strait (Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1994) 65, 246.
  13. Mullins, above n 7, 132.
  14. Beckett, above n 2, 151-152.
  15. Ganter, above n 12, 68-75; N Sharp, Stars of Tagai, The Torres Strait Islanders, (Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, 1993) 158-161.
  16. Ganter, above n 12, 65; Singe, above n 5, 100-102; Beckett, above n 2, 50.
  17. Beckett, above n 2, 45-47.
  18. Queensland Government Gazette, vol.99, no.138, 1912, 1330.
  19. During this period 15 people were removed from Badu and sent to Palm Island, 1 to Peel Island and 1 to Woorabinda, Queensland, Department of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Partnerships, Community and Personal Histories Removals Database (restricted access).
  20. Ganter, above n 12, 86-88; Sharp, above n 15, 161-164.
  21. J Beckett, Torres Strait Islanders, 153-155; Author unknown, ‘Construction of Badu Church’, The Queenslander, 18 January 1939, 21; Queensland, Annual Report of the Chief Protector of Aboriginals for 1935 (1936) 18.
  22. Sharp, above n 15, 181-186, 278; J Beckett, above n 2, 54.
  23. Sharp, above n 15, 182.
  24. Beckett, above n 2, 54-55.
  25. Sharpe, above n 15, 210-214; Queensland State Archives, A/3941 Minutes of Torres Strait Councillors Conference held at Yorke Island 23-25 August 1937.
  26. Sections 3 (a) – (c) of the Torres Strait Islanders Act 1939; Queensland, Annual Report of the Department of Native Affairs for 1939 (1940) 1; Sharp, above n 15, 214-216.
  27. Beckett, above n 2, 64-65; Australian War Memorial website, Wartime Issue 12 ‘One Ilan Man’,
  28. J Singe, above n 5, 109.
  29. Queensland, Annual Report of the Director of Native Affairs for 1946 (1947) 13, 14; Queensland, Annual Report of the Director of Native Affairs for 1947 (1948) 22.
  30. J Beckett, above n 2, 168-170.
  31. Further information about this issue is also available from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade website:
  32. Article 11.
  33. Article 12.
  34. Queensland, Annual Report of the Department of Community Services for 1986 (1987) 3; Queensland, Annual Report of the Department of Community Services for 1987 (1988) 29.