Mer (Murray Island)


Mer (also known as Murray Island) is a small island located in the eastern section of the Torres Strait and is one of the 3 islands generally known as the Murray Group. Erub (Darnley) and Ugar (Stephens) Islands make up the remainder of this group. Mer is the most eastern island in the Torres Strait, and is located about 225km from Thursday Island. For many thousands of years, Mer has been, and continues to be, home to the 8 tribes of the Meriam [Meri-am] people; the Komet, Zagareb, Meuram, Magaram, Geuram, Peibre, Meriam-Samsep, Piadram and Dauer Meriam.

History of Mer

European contact

Captain Edwards of the HMS Pandora named Mer ‘Murray Island’ (and its neighbouring islands of Waier and Dauar) the ‘Murray Islands’ in 1791[1]. In 1802, the British navigator Matthew Flinders, in charge of the HMS Investigator, mapped the Torres Strait, describing the people of Mer as friendly and eager for trade[2]

In the 1860s, beche-de-mer (sea cucumber) and pearling boats began working the reefs of the Torres Strait. A West Indian seafarer named Douglas Pitt arrived in Torres Strait around 1871 and established an off-shore base at Mer for harvesting beche-de-mer. Pitt worked with a mixed crew of Torres Strait Islander men and South Sea Islanders and two European business partners, James Doyle and J S Bruce[3].

In 1872, the Queensland Government sought to extend its jurisdiction and requested the support of the British Government[4]. Letters Patent[5] 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)[6] 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[7].

In May 1882, the Queensland Government ordered Douglas Pitt to leave Mer. Pitt was later charged and found guilty of unlawfully occupying land on the island. Pitt was then evicted from the island, and transferred his beche-de-mer and pearling operations to Halfway Island[8]. In 1885, all South Sea Islander families living on Mer were also evicted from the island and moved to Erub[9].

Torres Strait Islanders refer to the arrival of London Missionary Society (LMS) missionaries at Erub on 1 July 1871 as ‘the Coming of the Light.’ In 1872, the LMS appointed two South Sea Islander lay preachers named Tom and Mataika to work on Mer[10. In 1877, the Reverend Samuel MacFarlane was appointed the resident missionary at Mer.

Mer became the headquarters of the LMS in the Torres Strait and the ‘Papuan Industrial School and Teachers’ Seminary’ was established by MacFarlane on the island around 1879. The school provided religious training for Islanders who wished to become LMS missionaries, but also acted as an industrial school, teaching trades such as boat building and smithing. The mission buildings, church and school house were built on the northwest side of the island which eventually became the administrative and residential centre of Mer[11]

The English scientist and anthropologist Alfred Court Haddon first visited the Torres Straits in 1888. Haddon originally came to the Torres Strait to study the coral reefs but soon became fascinated by the traditional culture and way of life of the 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 Strait including a stay at Mer, documenting the Torres Strait Islander people and their culture. The expedition collected artefacts, recorded genealogies, re-created ceremonies and used wax cylinders and early movie cameras to make the first sound recordings and films of the Torres Strait[12].

In 1904, the LMS missionary the Reverend Walker formed Papuan Industries Limited (PIL), a philanthropic business scheme 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. Islanders from Mer purchased their first company boat the William in 1903 for £100. Additional boats the Barb and Gelam were soon purchased and operated by the people of Mer. Company boats provided Islanders with income and a sense of community pride and also improved transport and communication between the islands[13].

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[14].

In November 1912, the Queensland Government gazetted 1200 acres of land on Mer as an Aboriginal reserve. Many other Torres Strait islands were gazetted as Aboriginal reserves at the same time[15]. 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. There were 18 documented removals from Mer to Palm Island between 1921 and 1936[16].

Papuan Industries Limited was taken over by the Queensland Government in 1930. It was re-named the Aboriginal Industries Board and managed by the Aboriginal Protector on Thursday Island[17]. During the 1920s and 1930s, the Queensland Government installed various facilities on Mer, including a medical aid post, recreation hall, court house and an Island Industry Board (the successor of the Aboriginal Industries Board) Store[18].

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 over their livelihoods. The strike protested 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. The leader of the strike on Mer was Marou Mimi, the island’s Chief Councillor[19].

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 island police and courts[20].

On 23 August 1937, O’Leary convened the first Inter Islander Councillors’ Conference at Masig (Yorke Island). Representatives from 14 Torres Strait communities attended. James William, Meb Sallee, Asai Ses and Joseph Gokisa represented Mer at the conference. After lengthy discussions, unpopular bylaws, including the evening curfews, were cancelled and a new code of local representation was agreed upon[21]

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[22].

During World War Two, the Australian Government began recruiting Torres Strait Islander men to serve in the armed forces. Enlisted men from Mer 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 for all soldiers. 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. After World War Two, the pearling industry declined across Torres Strait and Islanders were permitted to work and settle on Thursday Island and the Australian mainland[23].

After gaining its independence from Australia in 1975, Papua New Guinea asserted its right to the islands and waters of the Torres Straits. A proposal was put forward to divide the Torres Strait between the 2 countries at a longitude of 10 degrees. This proposal was completely rejected by both the Queensland Government and the Torres Strait Islander community. In December 1978, a treaty was signed by the Australian and Papua New Guinea governments that described the boundaries between the 2 countries and the use of the sea area by both parties[24]. The Torres Strait Treaty, which came into operation in February 1985, contains special provision for free movement (without passports or visas) between both countries[25]. 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[26].

Local government

On 30 March 1985, the Mer community elected 3 councillors to constitute an autonomous 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 for the first time. Unlike other Torres Strait communities, the Mer community declined at the time to accept a Deed of Grant in Trust over the islands of Mer, Waier and Dauar on the basis that the land was not the government’s to give, meaning that the land tenure remained an Aboriginal reserve (this changed on 14 December 2012, when Mer, Dauar and Waier Islands were in fact, transferred to a Deed of Grant in Trust). On 24 April 2002, the council’s name was changed to Mer Island Council[27].

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 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. J Singe, The Torres Strait, People and History (University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 1979) 20.
  2. M Flinders, A Voyage to Terra Australis, (W Bulmer and Co, London, 1814); S Mullins, Torres Strait, A History of Colonial Occupation and Culture Contact 1864-1897 (Central Queensland University Press, Rockhampton, 1994) 18.
  3. R Ganter, The Pearl Shellers of Torres Strait (Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1994) 28, 246; Queensland State Archives, Colonial Secretary’s Correspondence, COL/A263, 1878/3059, Henry Chester reporting on Murray Island.
  4. 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.
  5. Queensland, Queensland Statutes (1963) vol. 2, 712.
  6. See also Colonial Boundaries Act 1895 (Imp); Wacando v Commonwealth (1981) 148 CLR 1.
  7. Mullins, above n 2, 139-161.
  8. Ibid, 73-74, 158.
  9. N Sharp, Stars of Tagai, The Torres Strait Islanders (Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, 1993) 43; Mullins, above n 2, 158-159; A Shnukal, The Expulsion of Pacific Islanders from Mer (1996) 18, Oral History Association of Australia Journal, 79-83.
  10. Sharp, above n 9, 100.
  11. Sharp, above, n 9, 103; J Beckett, Torres Strait Islanders: Custom and Colonialism (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1987) 117.
  12. Australian Dictionary of Biography website, entry for Alfred Cort Haddon; D Moore, The Torres Strait Collections of A. C. Haddon (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge; 1984) 10-12.
  13. R Ganter, above n 3, 68-75; Sharp, above n 9, 158-161; Queensland, Annual Report of the Chief Protector of Aboriginals for 1904 (1905) 21.
  14. Beckett, above n 11, 45-47.
  15. Qld Government Gazette, vol.99, no.138 (1912) 1330.
  16. Queensland, Department of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Partnerships, Community and Personal Histories Removals Database.
  17. Ganter, above n 3, 86-88; Sharp, above n 9, 161-164.
  18. Queensland, Annual Report of the Chief Protector of Aboriginals for 1929 (1930) 8; Queensland, Annual Report of the Chief Protector of Aboriginals for 1930 (1931) 8; Queensland, Annual Report of the Chief Protector of Aboriginals for 1932 (1933) 9, 13.
  19. Sharp, above n 9, 181-187; Beckett, above n 11, 54.
  20. Beckett, above n 11, 54-55.
  21. Sharp, above n 9, 210-214; Queensland State Archives, A/3941 Minutes of Torres Strait Councillors Conference held at Yorke Island 23-25 August 1937.
  22. Sections 3 (a) – (c) of the Torres Strait Islander Act (Qld) 1939. See also: Queensland, Annual Report off the Department of Native Affairs for 1939 (1940) 1; N Sharp, Stars of Tagai, 214-216.
  23. Beckett, above n 11, 64-65; Australian War Memorial website, Wartime Issue 12 ‘One Ilan Man’,
  24. Australia, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, The Torres Strait Treaty (date unknown) at 31 January 2013; Sharp, above n 9, 226-227.
  25. Under Art. 11.
  26. See also Art 12.
  27. 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).