Masig (Yorke Island)


Masig, also commonly known as Yorke Island, is a coral cay situated in the eastern area of the central island group of the Torres Strait. The island is approximately 2.7km long and 0.8km at its widest point[1]. The Masigalgal [Masi-gal-gal] people are recognised as the Traditional Owners of Masig[2]. The Torres Strait Islander people of Masig are of Melanesian origin and had followed traditional patterns of hunting, fishing, agriculture and trade for many thousands of years prior to contact with the first European visitors to the region[3].

History of Masig

European contact

In September 1792, Captain William Bligh, in charge of the British Navy ships Providence and Assistant, visited Torres Strait and mapped the main reefs and channels. In the 1860s, beche-de-mer (sea cucumber) and pearling boats began working the reefs of Torres Strait. William Banner established a beche-de-mer station at Warrior Island in 1863 and employed Islander men from Masig to work on his boats as divers and crew[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)[7] 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[8].

In 1871, an American whaler from Boston named Edward or ‘Yankee’ Ned Mosby arrived in Torres Strait. After working for Frank Jardine on Nagir Island, Edward Mosby established a beche-de-mer station on Yorke in the late 1870s, with his business partner Jack Walker. Mosby and Walker leased half the island from the Queensland Government for their business operations[9].

Captain Charles Pennefather, in charge of the government survey vessel Pearl, visited Masig in September 1882. Mosby and Walker lodged a complaint with Pennefather against the crew of the beche-de-mer operator Captain Walton, for cutting down wongai fruit trees on the island for fuel[10]. Steam powered ships often stopped at Masig to collect supplies of firewood, resulting in deforestation on the Island[11].

Torres Strait Islanders refer to the arrival of London Missionary Society (LMS) missionaries in July 1871 as ‘the Coming of the Light.’ The Reverend A W Murray and William Wyatt Gill were the first LMS missionaries to visit Masig in 1872[12]. Around 1900, the LMS missionary the Reverend Walker established a philanthropic business scheme named Papuan Industries Limited. This company encouraged Islander communities 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 was sold and distributed by the company.

The people of Masig purchased their first company boats around 1905. These boats provided Islanders with income, a sense of community pride and also improved transport and communication between the islands[13]. ‘Yankee,’ Ned Mosby’s son, also operated a number of pearl luggers from Masig, including the Yano and Nancy[14]

In November 1912, the Queensland Government officially gazetted 320 acres of land on Masig as an Aboriginal reserve. Many other Torres Strait Islands were gazetted as Aboriginal reserves at the same time[15].

A government school was established on the island in 1912[16]. 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.

A world-wide influenza epidemic reached the Torres Strait in 1920, resulting in 96 deaths in the region. The Queensland Government provided the islands of Masig, Iama and Poruma with food relief to help them recover from the outbreak[17]. In March 1923, Masig and Poruma were hit by a ‘violent hurricane’ which destroyed local crops and gardens[18]. The Queensland Government subsequently established new facilities on Masig during the 1930s, including an Aboriginal Industries Board store, a court house, and improved roads[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 the 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 the Islanders’ right to recruit their own boat crews[20].

This 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 island police and courts[21].

On 23 August 1937, O’Leary convened the first Inter Islander Councillors Conference at Masig. Representatives from 14 Torres Strait communities attended. Barney Mosby, Dan Mosby and William represented Masig 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 Islander 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 World War Two, the Australian Government recruited Torres Strait Islander men to serve in the armed forces. Enlisted men from Masig 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 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[24]. 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[25].

Following World War Two, the pearling industry declined across Torres Strait and Islanders were permitted to work and settle on the Australian mainland. Prawning and fishing enterprises were established at Masig in the 1970s[26].

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

Local government and Deed of Grant in Trust community

On 30 March 1985, the Masig community elected 3 councillors to constitute an autonomous Masig Island Council established under the Community Services (Torres Strait) Act 1984. This 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 be established. The first Torres Strait Island Regional Council was elected on 15 March 2008 in elections conducted under the Local Government Act 1993[31].

End notes

  1. Queensland, Torres Strait Islands Regional Council, Yorke Island,
  2. Masig People v the State of Queensland [2000] FCA 1067.
  3. R E Johannes & J W MacFarlane, Traditional Fishing in the Torres Strait Islands (CSIRO, 1991) 115-143; M Fuary, In So Many Words: An Ethnography of Life and Identity on Yam Island, Torres Strait (PhD Thesis, James Cook University, Townsville, 1991) 68-71.
  4. R Ganter, The Pearl Shellers of Torres Strait (Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1994) 19-20.
  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, Queensland Statutes (1963) vol 2, 712.
  7. See also Colonial Boundaries Act 1895 (Imp); Wacando v Commonwealth (1981) 148 CLR 1.
  8. S Mullins, Torres Strait, A History of Colonial Occupation and Culture Contact 1864-1897 (Central Queensland University Press, Rockhampton, 1994) 139-161.
  9. Ganter, above n 4, 27-28, 247; J Foley, Timeless Isle, An Illustrated History of Thursday Island (Torres Strait Historical Society, Thursday Island, 2003) 3; Mullins, above n 8, 169.
  10. Queensland State Archives, Colonial Secretary’s Correspondence, COL/A349, 1882/5869; N Sharp, Stars of Tagai, The Torres Strait Islanders (Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, 1993) 26.
  11. Fuary, above n 3, 145
  12. Mullins, above n 8, 121
  13. Ganter, above n 4, 68-75; Queensland, Annual Report of the Chief Protector of Aboriginals for 1905 (1906) 29; Sharp, above n 10, 158-161.
  14. Queensland, Annual Report of the Chief Protector of Aboriginals for 1916 (1917) 9.
  15. Queensland, Queensland Government Gazette, vol.99, no.138 (1912) 1330.
  16. Queensland, Annual Report of the Chief Protector of Aboriginals for 1912 (1913) 21; Queensland, Annual Report of the Chief Protector for 1913 (1914) 13.
  17. Queensland, Annual Report of the Chief Protector of Aboriginals for 1920 (1921) 7; Fuary, above n 3, 148.
  18. Queensland, Annual Report of the Chief Protector of Aboriginals for 1923 (1924) 6.
  19. Queensland, Annual Report of the Chief Protector of Aboriginals for 1932 (1933) 13; Sharp, above n 10, 184; Queensland, Annual Report of the Chief Protector of Aboriginals for 1931 (1932), 9; Queensland, Annual Report of the Department of Native Affairs for 1938 (1939) 14.
  20. Sharp, above n 10, 181-186, 278; J Beckett, Torres Strait Islanders: Custom and Colonialism (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge; 1987)
  21. Beckett, above n 20, 54-55.
  22. Sharp, above n 10, 210-214; Queensland, Annual Report of the Department of Native Affairs for 1937 (1938) 13; Queensland State Archives, A/3941 Minutes of Torres Strait Councillors Conference held at Yorke Island 23-25 August 1937.
  23. Sections 3 (a) – (c) of the Torres Strait Islander Act (Qld) 1939. See also the Queensland, Annual Report Department of Native Affairs for 1939 (1940) 1; Sharp, above n 10, 214-216.
  24. Australian War Memorial website, Wartime Issue 12 ‘One Ilan Man’,
  25. Beckett, above n 20, 64-65; Australian War Memorial website, Wartime Issue 12 ‘One Ilan Man’,
  26. Beckett, above n 20, 182; Johannes & MacFarlane, above n 3, 117-118.
  27. For further information see: Australia, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade website:; Sharp, above n 10, 226-227.
  28. Under Art. 11.
  29. See also Art 12.
  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) 29.
  31. 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.