Kubin (Moa)


Moa Island is a part of the Torres Strait’s western island group and is the second largest island in the Torres Strait[1]. There are 2 communities on Moa: Kubin community, located on the southern side of the island, and St Paul’s community, located to the north. The communities are connected by a road.

The Mualgal [Moo-al-gul] people, known by locals as Italgal [Itu-gul], are the Traditional Owners of the island[2] and refer to the island as ‘Mua’ or Moa. The Kubin community today is made up mainly of the original Italgal, the Mualgal from northern Moa, some of the Kulkalgal of Nagi, and the Kaiwalgal (Kaurareg) people, who were moved to Poid, on the south-western corner of Moa in 1921[3].

History of Kubin

European contact

Captain William Bligh, in charge of the British Navy ships Providence and Assistant, visited Torres Strait in 1792 and mapped the main reefs and channels. The island was named Banks Island by Captain Bligh in honour of his patron and friend, the botanist Sir Joseph Banks[4]. In the 1860s, beche-de-mer (sea cucumber) and pearling boats began working the reefs of Torres Strait but few Europeans visited Moa before the 1870s. The European beche-de-mer and pearling boats extensively worked the sea beds between Moa and Badu Islands in the 1870s and recruited local Islander men to work on their boats. A small pearling station was established on Moa Island by John Gay between 1872 and 1875[5].

In 1872, the Queensland Government sought to extend its jurisdiction and requested the support of the British Government[6]. Letters Patent[7] 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)[8] and 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 previously had operated outside its jurisdiction[9].

Torres Strait Islanders refer to the arrival of London Missionary Society (LMS) missionaries in July 1871 as ‘the Coming of the Light’. Reverend A W Murray and William Wyatt Gill were the first LMS missionaries to visit Moa Island in October 1872. South Sea Islander lay preachers were appointed as teachers to work on the island the following month. While the South Sea Islander teachers established a mission settlement at Totalai on the northern side of the island, by 1901 the settlement had been completely abandoned[10].

A new settlement named Adam was established on the western side of the island during the 1900s. People from the villages of Totalai and Dabu moved to Adam under the leadership of Elder Abu Namai. The village of Adam had better access to the facilities of Badu Island, including its school and the stores and trading stations operated by Papuan Industries Limited (PIL)[11]. PIL was a philanthropic business scheme designed by the LMS missionary Reverend Walker to promote ‘independent native enterprise’ by encouraging them to co-operatively rent or purchase their own pearl luggers or ‘company boats’. The company boats were used to harvest pearl shells and beche-de-mer, which were sold and distributed by PIL. The Queensland Government supported the scheme and worked in partnership with PIL. Company boats provided Islanders with income and a sense of community pride and also improved transport and communication between the islands[12]. The community at Adam operated a number of company boats including the Moa and the Adam. Men from Moa Island also regularly worked with pearling crews from Badu[13].

On 20 May 1908, the Queensland government formally gazetted 500 acres as a reserve for the benefit of South Sea Islander people on the eastern side of Moa Island[14]. In 1908, with the encouragement of Hugh Milman (the government resident at Thursday Island), the Anglican Church founded a mission specifically for South Sea Islander families on the reserve land. Milman suggested that the new mission should be named St Pauls, after the famous cathedral in London[15]. In November 1912, 36,000 acres of land on Moa Island were officially gazetted as an Aboriginal reserve by the Queensland Government, exclusive of the land already gazetted for the South Sea Islanders. Many other Torres Strait Islands were gazetted as Aboriginal reserves at the same time[16]. In 1922, the name of the settlement at Adam was changed to Poid[17].

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.

In the early 1920s, the Queensland Government made the decision to remove the Kaurareg people from Hammond Island, publicly stating that their close proximity to Thursday Island encouraged drunkenness and immorality in the community. Preparations for the removal began in 1921 with the construction of new quarters at Poid on Moa Island[18]. In March 1922, the Kaurareg community were forcibly removed by government authorities from Hammond Island and transported to Moa Island on a Papuan Industries vessel named Goodwill. Three members of the Hammond Island community who protested against the removal were arrested without charge by police armed with revolvers[19].

In 1936, around 70% of the Torres Strait Islander workforce went on strike in the first organised challenge against government authority made by Torres Strait Islanders. The nine-month strike was an expression of Islanders’ anger and resentment at increasing government control of their livelihoods. The strike was a protest against government interference in wages, trade and commerce and also called for the lifting of evening curfews, the removal of the permit system for inter-island travel, and the recognition of Islanders’ right to recruit their own boat crews[20].

The strike produced a number of significant reforms and innovations. Unpopular local Protector J.D McLean was removed and replaced by Cornelius O’Leary. O’Leary established a system of regular consultations with elected Islander council representatives. The new island councils were given a degree of autonomy including control over local police and courts[21].

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. Wees Nawie and Sailor represented Poid at the conference. After lengthy discussions, unpopular bylaws, including the evening curfews, were cancelled and a new code of local representation was agreed upon[22]. 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 from Aboriginal Australians[23].

During the 1920s and 1930s, the settlement at Poid experienced regular epidemics of malaria and dengue fever, as well as shortages of fresh water[24]. In 1943, the community at Poid made the decision to move to a new location named Kubin, situated on the south-west coast of Moa Island. The country near Kubin had fresh water springs and was believed to be a far healthier environment than Poid. By 1945, a church and school had been constructed at Kubin and the entire population of Poid had moved to the new settlement[25].

During World War Two, the Australian Government recruited Torres Strait Islander men to serve in the armed forces. Enlisted men from Moa and other island communities formed the Torres Strait Light Infantry. While the Torres Strait Light Infantry were respected as soldiers, they only received one third 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[26]. 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 government in the 1980s[27].

The mineral wolfram was discovered on Moa Island in the 1930s and members of the Kubin and St Pauls communities began mining wolfram in 1938. During the 1950s and 1960s, a Christian co-operative ran mining operations on the island. All mining activity ceased on the island in 1973, when the price of the mineral dropped on world markets[28].

In 1946, a group of 10 Kaurareg men from Kubin community, led by Elekiam Tom, made the decision to move to Horn Island. They built houses and a church for their families in an area inland from the main wharf, which came to be known as Wasaga village. Other Islanders from Kubin community left the Torres Strait region to work on the Australian mainland[29].

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 the use of the sea area by both parties[30]. The Torres Strait Treaty, which has operated since February 1985, contains special provision for free movement (without passports or visas) between both countries[31]. 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[32]. 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[33].

Local government

On 30 March 1985, the Kubin community elected 3 councillors to constitute an autonomous Kubin Island Council. On 21 October 1985, 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[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. The first Torres Strait Islands Regional Council (TSIRC) was elected on 15 March 2008 in elections conducted under the Local Government Act 1993[35].

End notes

  1. Australia, Torres Strait Regional Authority, Community Profile: Moa – Kubin at 1 February 2013.
  2. Mualgal People v Queensland [1999] FCA 157.
  3. Queensland, Torres Strait Island Regional Council, Kubin (Moa Island) (2013) at 12 February 2013.
  4. M Flinders, A Voyage to Terra Australis, (W Bulmer and Co, London, 1814); A Shnukal, ‘Historical Mua’ (2008) vol.4, 2, Memoirs of the Queensland Museum, Cultural Heritage Series, 186-187.
  5. S Mullins, Torres Strait, A History of Colonial Occupation and Culture Contact 1864-1897 (Central Queensland University Press, 1994) 163; Shnukal, above n 4, 188-191.
  6. 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.
  7. Queensland Statutes (1963) vol .2, 712.
  8. See also Colonial Boundaries Act 1895 (Imp); Wacando v Commonwealth (1981) 148 CLR 1.
  9. Mullins, above n 5, 139-161.
  10. Mullins, above n 5, 21; Shnukal, above n 4, 192-195.
  11. Shnukal, above n 4, 201-202.
  12. R Ganter, The Pearl Shellers of Torres Straits (Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1994) 68-75; N Sharp, Stars of Tagai, The Torres Strait Islanders (Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, 1993) 158-161.
  13. Shnukal, above n 4, 204-210.
  14. The size of the reserve was increased to 2000 acres in 1909, see Queensland Government Gazette (1908) vol.1, 1303; Queensland, Annual Report of the Chief Protector of Aboriginals for 1908 (1909) 24; Queensland, Annual Report of the Chief Protector of Aboriginals for 1909 (1910) 19.
  15. T Hall-Matthews, From Village to Mission then Community, Celebrating the Centenary of St. Paul’s – Mua Island (Carpentaria Consulting Services, Yungaburra, 2004) 16-17.
  16. Queensland Government Gazette, vol.99, no.138 (1912) 1330.
  17. Shnukal, above n 4, 222.
  18. Queensland, Annual Report of the Chief Protector of Aboriginals for 1921 (1921) 7; Queensland State Archives, Home Secretary’s Correspondence, HOM/J538, 1925/228, removal of Hammond islanders; Shnukal, above n 4, 203-204.
  19. N Sharp, Footprints Along the Cape York Sandbeaches (Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, 1992) 110-112; Queensland State Archives, Home Secretary’s Correspondence HOM/J419, 1922/1962 re Hammond islanders; Sydney Morning Herald 8 March 1922, 13; The Queenslander 11 March 1922, 17.
  20. Sharp, above n 12, 181-186, 278; J Beckett, Torres Strait Islanders: Custom and Colonialism (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1987) 54.
  21. Beckett, above n 20, 54-55.
  22. Sharp, above n 12, 210-214; Queensland State Archives, A/3941 Minutes of Torres Strait Councillors Conference held at Yorke Island 23-25 August 1937.
  23. Queensland, Annual Report of the Department of Native Affairs for 1939 (1940) 1; Sharp, above n 12, 214-216.
  24. Shnukal, above n 4, 214-218.
  25. Ibid, 273-276.
  26. Australian War Memorial website, Wartime Issue 12 ‘One Ilan Man’, at 27 May 2013.
  27. Beckett, above n 20, 64-65; Australian War Memorial website, Wartime Issue 12 ‘One Ilan Man’, at 27 May 2013.
  28. Queensland, Annual Report of the Department of Native Affairs for 1939 (1940) 4; Sharp, above n 12, 169-170; A Shnukal, ‘Wolfram Mining and the Christian Co-operative Movement’ (2008) vol.4, 2, Memoirs of the Queensland Museum, Cultural Heritage Series, 349-383.
  29. Sharp, above n 19, 113 -116; Shnukal, above n 4, 274, 288.
  30. For further information see the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade website:; Sharp, 226-227.
  31. Under Art 11.
  32. See also Art 12.
  33. Further information about the Protected Zone can be found at
  34. The Kubin 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.
  35. In the elections conducted under the Local Government Act 1993 members of the 15 communities comprising the TSIRC local government area each voted for a local councillor and a Mayor to constitute a council consisting of 15 councillors plus a mayor.