Boigu Island forms part of the north western island group of the Torres Strait. Dauan and Saibai islands make up the remainder. The people of all 3 islands consider themselves one people.[1] As the most northerly inhabited island of mainland Australia,[2] Boigu Island is one of the closest islands to the border of Papua New Guinea. The island is relatively small and low-lying, stretching for 18km with an approximate area of 89.6km.[3]

The islands of Aubisi and Moimi are also located close to Boigu and while these islands are not permanently settled, they are still considered to be part of Boigu.[4]

When addressing the Traditional Owners of Boigu,[5] it is customary to acknowledge all the clans by saying, Malu Ki’ai (Maloo Kee’ai) which includes everyone within the Boigu community. The people of Boigu also consider it respectful to acknowledge the Elders, both past and present when addressing the community.

According to the oral history of the island, a man named Kiba and his brothers were the first to discover the island when they landed at its western end. The main settlement today remains in this spot.[6]

The original inhabitants of Boigu are of Melanesian origin. Living in village communities, they followed traditional fishing, hunting, farming and trade practices for thousands of years prior to first contact with Europeans. Today, these traditional practices continue to exist alongside the strong kinship and trade ties between the people of Boigu, Saibai and Dauan and the coastal communities of Papua New Guinea.[7]

History of Boigu Island

European contact

Boigu was sighted by Captains Bampton and Alt in the ships Hormuzzer and Chesterfield in 1793. They gave it the name Talbot Island; however, this name has rarely been used. It is more common to refer to the island as Boigu Island or simply Boigu. Due to its distance from the main sea passages in the Strait, few Europeans had visited Boigu prior to the 1870s.[8]

Soon after visiting Erub and Tudu ‘Warrior’ Island on 1 July of 1871, the London Missionary Society moved on to Boigu Island in July of 1871. Torres Strait Islanders now refer to the arrival of the London Missionary Society as the ‘Coming of the Light’.

The missionaries were led by the Reverend Samuel McFarlane and the Reverend A W Murray, guided by a Dauan man called Aiwa. When they reached Boigu, the Islanders rushed down and broke the outriggers of their canoes, wanting to kill the white strangers. Aiwa spoke on behalf of the missionaries and convinced the Islanders not to harm them. After their visit, a South Sea Islander lay preacher named Pani was appointed to work at Boigu.[9]

In the 1860s, beche-de-mer (sea cucumber) and pearling boats began working the reefs of the Torres Strait. Pearling bases had not yet been established on Boigu. In the 1870s, European operators began recruiting men from the north western Islands to work on their luggers. Boigu men mostly worked as skin or swimmer divers and did not use the heavy diving suits and helmets.[10]

In 1872, the Queensland Government sought to extend its jurisdiction and requested the support of the British Government.[11] Letters Patent[12] were issued by the British government in 1872 creating a new boundary for the colony which encompassed all islands within a 60 nautical mile radius of the coast of Queensland. This boundary was further extended by the Queensland Coast Islands Act 1879 (Qld)[13] and now included the islands of Boigu, Erub, Mer 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.[14]

From the late 1870s onwards, the coastal communities of Papua and the islands of Boigu, Dauan and Saibai were raided by warriors of the Marind-Anim or Tugeri people from Dutch controlled West Papua. In 1881, a government vessel, the Pearl, visited Dauan and found the people of Boigu had taken shelter on the island. It was reported that Marind-Anim raiding parties had killed 11 Boigu Islanders and burned their villages to the ground. Government officials Henry Chester and Frank Jardine led a punitive expedition against the raiders but could not find them. Chester left a quantity of firearms with the people of Boigu for their self-defence.  In 1896, a retaliatory expedition led by British officials based in Daru diminished the threat of the Marind-Anim,, but sporadic raids on Boigu, Dauan, Saibai and coastal Papuan communities continued well into the 1920s.[16]

Around 1900, a missionary named Reverend Walker established a philanthropic business scheme named Papuan Industries Limited (PIL). This business encouraged Islander communities to co-operatively rent or purchase their own pearl luggers or ‘company boats.’ These were used to harvest pearl shells and beche-de-mer, which were sold and distributed by the company. The people of Boigu purchased their first company boats around 1904. The boats not only improved transport and communication between the islands, but provided Islanders with income and a sense of community pride.[17]

In November 1912, approximately 20,500 acres of land on Boigu was officially gazetted as an Aboriginal reserve by the Queensland Government. Many other Torres Strait islands were also 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, the provisions of the Aboriginals Protection and the Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act 1897 were strictly applied to Torres Strait Islanders.

In 1936, 70% of Torres Strait Islander workers went on strike, protesting against government control over their livelihoods.[19] The strike produced significant reforms including the establishment of a system of government consultations with elected Islander council representatives. The new island councils were given a degree of autonomy including control over local island police and courts.[20]  The first Inter Islander Councillors’ Conference was convened at Masig in August 1937 with representatives from 14 Torres Strait communities including Boigu, in attendance. Jacob Matthew, Daniel Abai and Gibuma Asa represented Boigu at the conference.[21] In 1939, the Queensland Government passed the Torres Strait Islanders Act 1939, which incorporated many of the recommendations made at the conference.[22]

During World War Two, the Australian Government recruited Torres Strait Islander men to serve in the armed forces. Enlisted men from Boigu and other island communities formed the Torres Strait Light Infantry.[23]

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.[24]

After World War Two, the pearling industry declined across the Torres Strait and Islanders were permitted to work and settle on the Australian mainland.

In December 1978, a treaty was signed by the Australian and Papua New Guinea governments that described the boundaries between the two countries and the use of the sea area by both parties.[25] The Torres Strait Treaty, which commenced in February 1985, contains special provision for free movement (without passports or visas) between both countries.[26] Free movement between communities applies to traditional activities such as fishing, trading and family gatherings, which occur in a specifically created Protected Zone and nearby areas.[27] The Protected Zone also assists in the preservation and protection of the land, sea, air and native plant and animal life of the Torres Strait.

Local government and Deed of Grant in Trust community

On 30 March 1985, the Boigu community elected 3 councillors to constitute an autonomous Boigu Island Council. On 21 October 1985, the island, 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).[28]

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.

The first Torres Strait Island Regional Council (TSIRC) was elected on 15 March 2008 under the Local Government Act 1993.[29]


  1. Queensland, Torres Strait Islander Regional Council, Boigu Island (2013) at 14 January 2013.
  2. Queensland, Torres Strait Islander Regional Council, Boigu Island (2013) at 14 January 2013.
  3. Queensland, Torres Strait Islander Regional Council, Boigu Island (2013) at 14 January 2013.
  4. Queensland, Torres Strait Islander Regional Council, Boigu Island (2013) at 14 January 2013.
  5. Boigu People v Queensland [2004] FCA 1575.
  6. Boigu Island Community Council, Boigu, Our Culture and History (Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, 1991) 2.
  7. Boigu Island Community Council, above n 6, 19-44, 102-115; R E Johannes & J W MacFarlane, Traditional Fishing in the Torres Strait Islands (CSIRO, 1991) 162-168; M Raven, The Point of No Diminishing Returns: Hunting and Resource Decline on Boigu Island, Torres Strait (PhD Thesis, University of California, 1990) 90-154.
  8. J Singe, The Torres Strait, People and History (University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 1979) 67; Raven, above n 7, 46-47.
  9. Boigu Island Community Council, above n 6, 118-120; Raven, above n 7, 55.
  10. S Mullins, Torres Strait, A History of Colonial Occupation and Culture Contact 1864-1897 (Central Queensland University Press, Rockhampton, 1994) 65; Boigu Island Community Council, above n 6, 132-134.
  11. S B Kaye ‘Jurisdictional Patchwork: Law of the Sea and Native Title Issues in the Torres Strait (2001) vol.2, 2, Melbourne Journal of International Law, 1.
  12. Queensland Statutes (1963) vol 2, 712.
  13. See also Colonial Boundaries Act 1895 (Imp); Wacando v Commonwealth (1981) 148 CLR 1.
  14. Mullins, above n 10, 139-161.
  15. Queensland State Archives, Colonial Secretary’s Correspondence, COL/A305, 1881/154.
  16. Mullins, above n 10, 146-148; Singe, above n 8, 74-76, 83; M Raven, above n 7, 56-57.
  17. R Ganter, The Pearl Shellers of Torres Straits (Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1995) 68-75; Queensland, Annual Report of the Chief Protector of Aboriginals for 1904 (1905) 21; N Sharp, Stars of Tagai, The Torres Strait Islanders (Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, 1993) 158-161; Boigu Island Community Council, above n 6, 132-134.
  18. Queensland, Queensland Government Gazette, vol.99, no.138 (1912) 1330.
  19. Sharp, above n 17, 181-186; J Beckett, Torres Strait Islanders: Custom and Colonialism (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1987) 54.
  20. Ibid, 54-55.
  21. Sharp, above n 17, 210-214; Boigu Island Community Council, above n 6, 135-136.
  22. A key section of the new act officially recognised Torres Strait Islanders as a separate people to Aboriginal Australians. See Queensland, Annual Report of the Department of Native Affairs for 1939 (1940) 1; Sharp, above n 17, 214-216.
  23. Boigu Island Community Council, above n 6, 89-100; Beckett, above n 19, 64-65; Australian War Memorial, Wartime Issue 12 ‘One Ilan Man: the Torres Strait Light Infantry’ (2000) at 31 January 2013.
  24. Beckett, above n 2, 64-65; Australian War Memorial website, Wartime Issue 12 ‘One Ilan Man’,
  25. Australia, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, The Torres Strait Treaty (date unknown) at 31 January 2013; N Sharp, above n17, 226-227.
  26. Under Art. 11.
  27. Art 12 of the Torres Strait Treaty.
  28. The Boigu Island Council was established under the Community Services (Torres Strait) Act 1984. The Act conferred local government type powers and responsibilities upon Torres Strait Islander councils for the first time; 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.
  29. In the elections conducted, members of the fifteen communities comprising the TSIRC local government area, each voted for a local councillor and a mayor. This constituted a council consisting of fifteen councillors plus one mayor.