Mabuiag (or Gumu as it is traditionally known) is situated in the western island group of Torres Strait and was formerly known as Jervis Island[1]. Moa and Badu Islands to the south make up the remainder of the western island group. Mabuiag is approximately 100km north of Thursday Island in the Napoleon and Arnolds Passage of the Torres Strait.

The Traditional Owners[2] of Mabuiag (also spelt Mabuyag) live in one of two areas on the island: The Gumuligal of Wagedagam reside on the northwest side of the island, and the Mabuygilgal people of the Paipaidagam, reside on the south east side of the island[3]. The people of Mabuiag had lived in the region for many thousands of years prior to European contact and today maintain close connections to their history and local lore.

History of Mabuiag Island

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. It was during this voyage that he gave Mabuiag the name ‘Jervis Island’.

In the early 1860s, beche-de-mer (sea cucumber) and pearling boats began harvesting the reefs of Torres Strait. The Mabuiag Islanders held the reputation as fierce warriors and their first meetings with the pearling boat operators often resulted in violent clashes. European operators such as John Bell and James Merriman established pearling stations on Mabuiag during the 1870s, with crews of South Sea Islander divers and seamen. At the same time, Mabuiag Islanders began harvesting pearl shell on their own behalf, as well as being employed by commercial operators[4]

In 1872, the Queensland Government sought to extend its jurisdiction and requested the support of the British government[5]. Letters Patent[6] 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)  to include 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[8].

Many South Sea Islander men also settled on Mabuiag during this period, with some marrying Mabuiag women[9]. Tensions between the South Sea Islanders and Mabuiag people resulted in 2 South Sea Islander families moving to Moa in 1904. By 1906, the majority of South Sea Islander families on Mabuiag had moved to Moa, forming a community which eventually became St Paul’s mission[10].

Torres Strait Islanders refer to the arrival of London Missionary Society (LMS) missionaries at Erub in July 1871 as ‘the Coming of the Light.’ Reverend A W Murray and William Wyatt Gill were the first LMS missionaries to visit Mabuiag in 1872. A mission settlement was established at Dabangai in the south east corner of Mabuiag. Two South Sea Islanders from Lifu, Waunaia and Gutacene were appointed as the first missionary teachers at Mabuiag[11].

In 1877, the mission settlement on Mabuiag was moved from Dabangai to Bau [Baawa] to improve access to the island’s supply of fresh water. Over time Bau became the administrative and residential centre of Mabuiag[12]. A church was officially opened at Mabuiag in October 1897, which the Islanders built and paid for with their own earnings. The discovery and sale of a sunken batch of copper ingots raised £250 towards the construction of the church[13].

The English scientist and anthropologist Alfred Cort Haddon first visited the Torres Straits in 1888. Haddon originally came to the Torres Straits to study the coral reefs but soon became fascinated by the traditional culture and way of life of Torres Strait Islander people. Haddon returned to the Torres Straits in 1898 with the Cambridge University Anthropological Expedition. The expedition spent 7 months in the Torres Straits, including a stay at Mabuiag, documenting the Torres Strait Islander people and their culture. The expedition collected artefacts, took down genealogies, recreated ceremonies and used wax cylinders and early movie cameras to make the first sound recordings and films in the Torres Strait[14].

In 1897, the LMS missionary Reverend Walker assisted the Mabuiag Islanders with the purchase of their own pearl lugger. This was the beginning of Papuan Industries Limited (PIL), a philanthropic business scheme designed by Reverend Walker to promote ‘independent native enterprise’ by encouraging them 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. The Queensland Government supported the scheme and worked in partnership with PIL[15].

A downturn in the pearling industry in 1906 resulted in the withdrawal of European commercial operators from Mabuiag. The sponsored company boats, however, picked up the slack and, by 1908, there were 2 company boats based on Mabuiag. Company boats provided Islanders with income and a sense of community pride and also improved transport and communication between the islands[16].

Over time, the Queensland Government 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 over savings accounts and imposed restrictions on Islander movement to and from the mainland[17].

In November 1912, 1,600 acres on Mabuiag were gazetted as an Aboriginal reserve by the Queensland Government. 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 them to reserves and missions across Queensland. A small number of documented removals from Mabuiag occurred between 1920 and 1949. Four people were removed from Mabuiag and sent to Palm Island, 1 person to Yarrabah and 1 person to Mapoon[19].

PIL was taken over by the Queensland Government in 1930. It was renamed the Aboriginal Industries Board and managed by the Aboriginal Protector on Thursday Island[20].

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. This was a strike 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[21]

The strike produced a number of significant reforms and innovations. Unpopular local Protector J D McLean was removed and replaced by Cornelius O’Leary, who 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[22].

On 23 August 1937, O’Leary convened the first Inter Islander Councillors Conference at Yorke Island. Representatives from 14 Torres Strait communities attended. Phineasa, Manesa Barney, Ephraim and Obedia Warria represented Mabuiag at the conference. After lengthy discussions, unpopular by-laws (including the evening curfews) were cancelled and a new code of local representation was agreed upon[23]. 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[24].

During World War Two, the Australian Government recruited Torres Strait Islander men to serve in the armed forces. Enlisted men from Mabuiag, Mulgrave and Banks Islands formed the B Company of the Torres Strait Light Infantry. The Torres Strait Light Infantry were respected as soldiers however 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. 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[25].

After World War Two, Torres Strait Islanders were permitted to work and settle on the Australian mainland. New infrastructure appeared on Mabuiag, including the construction of an Island Industries Board (the successor to the Aboriginal Industries Board) Store in 1946. A jetty and airstrip were later built on the island.

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[26]. The Torres Strait Treaty, which came into operation in February 1985, contains special provision for free movement (without passports or visas) between both countries[27]. 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[28]. 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[29].

Local government and Deed of Grant in Trust community

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

In 2007, the Local Government Reform Commission recommended that the 15 Torres Strait Island councils be abolished and the Torres Strait Island Regional Council (TSIRC) be established in their place. In elections conducted under the Local Government Act 1993 on 15 March 2008, 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.

End notes

  1. M Flinders, A Voyage to Terra Australis, (W Bulmer and Co, London, 1814); Queensland, Queensland Placenames Database, Department of Environment & Resource Management website, at 27 May 2013.
  2. Mabuiag People v Queensland [2000] FCA 1065.
  3. Queensland, Torres Strait Island Regional Council Community Profile: Mabuiag Island at 11 February 2013.
  4. S Mullins, Torres Strait, A History of Colonial Occupation and Culture Contact 1864-1897 (Central Queensland University Press, Rockhampton, 1994) 74, 79, 82-83; R Ganter, The Pearl Shellers of Torres Straits (Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1994) 245-246.
  5. 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.
  6. Queensland Statutes (1963) vol 2, 712.
  7. See also Colonial Boundaries Act 1895 (Imp); Wacando v Commonwealth (1981) 148 CLR 1.
  8. Mullins, above n 4, 139-161.
  9. Many South Sea Islander men were taken from their island homes in the Pacific during the 1860s and 1870s for the purposes of labour. The men were generally taken through deception or kidnapping from islands such as Papua New Guinea, New Caledonia, Vanuatu, and the Solomon Islands. The British government attempted to eradicate this practice known as ‘blackbirding’ with the introduction of the Pacific Islanders Protection Act 1872 (the ‘Kidnapping Act’). See: R Mortensen, Slaving in Australian Courts: Blackbirding Cases, 1869 -1871 (2000) vol.4, Journal of South Pacific Law, 1.
  10. P Eseli, Eseli’s Notebook (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies Unit, University of Queensland, St Lucia, 1998) 30; T Hall-Matthews, From Village to Mission the Community, Celebrating the Centenary of St Paul’s – Mua Island (Carpentaria Consulting Services, Yungaburra, 2004) 10-14.
  11. Eseli, above n 10, 24; Mullins, above n 4, 121.
  12. Eseli, above n 10, 25.
  13. Torres Strait Pilot, 23 October 1897; N Sharp, Stars of Tagai, The Torres Strait Islanders (Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, 1993) 100.
  14. Australian Dictionary of Biography, entry for Alfred Cort Haddon; D Moore, The Torres Strait Collections of A C Haddon (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1984) 10-12.
  15. Ganter, above n 4, 68-75; Sharp, above n 13, 158-161.
  16. Ganter, above n 4, 68-75; Sharp, above n 13, 158-161.
  17. J Beckett, Torres Strait Islanders: Custom and Colonialism (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1987) 45-47.
  18. Queensland, Queensland Government Gazette, vol. 99, no.138 (1912) 1330.
  19. Queensland, Department of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Partnerships, Community and Personal Histories Removals Database.
  20. Ganter, above n 4, 86-88; Sharp, above n 13, 161-164.
  21. Sharp, above n 13, 181-186; Beckett, above n 17, 54.
  22. Beckett, above n 17, 54-55.
  23. Sharp, above n 13, 210-214; Queensland State Archives, A/3941 Minutes of Torres Strait Councillors Conference held at Yorke Island 23-25 August 1937.
  24. See sections 3 (a) –(c) of the Torres Strait Islanders Act 1939. See also: Queensland, Annual Report of the Department of Native Affairs for 1939 (1940) 1; Sharp, above n 13, 214-216.
  25. Beckett, above n 17, 64-65; Australian War Memorial website, Wartime Issue 12 ‘One Ilan Man’, at 27 May 2013.
  26. Australia, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, The Torres Strait Treaty (date unknown) at 31 January 2013; Sharp, above n 13, 226-227.
  27. Under Art 11.
  28. See also Art 12.
  29. Further information about the Protected Zone can be found at
  30. 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).