Thursday Island (Waiben)


Thursday Island is situated approximately 40km from the mainland of Australia and is part of the ‘Prince of Wales’ island group or ‘inner Islands’ of the Torres Strait. Historical records indicate that the Kaurareg Aboriginal people are the Traditional Owners for this area[1] however there are no active Native Title claims over Thursday Island[2]. The Kaurareg people refer to Thursday Island as ‘Waibene’. For thousands of years the Kaurareg followed traditional patterns of hunting, fishing and agriculture and maintained close cultural and trading ties with the Aboriginal groups of the Northern Peninsula Area of Cape York[3].

Thursday Island acts as the commercial, transport and administrative hub for 20 communities spread across a geographical area spanning approximately 48,000 square kilometres[4]. Australian and state government agencies and other services to the region are primarily based on Thursday Island.

Waibene acquired the name ‘Thursday Island’ in 1848 when Captain Stanley, who was in charge of HMS Rattlesnake recorded the names of three islands in the area; Wednesday, Thursday and Friday Islands. Admiralty maps made in 1855 however, reversed the order of the islands as set down by Captain Stanley[5].

Thursday Island is often referred to simply as ‘TI’.

History of Thursday Island

Early history

The Aboriginal people of Cape York Peninsula and the adjacent islands had little contact with Europeans until the settlement of Somerset was established on the eastern tip of Cape York in 1864. Somerset was established in response to the Queensland colonial government’s wish for a major trading port in the north and the British government’s need to establish a strategic outpost to guard the Torres Strait, which was becoming an increasingly important trade route, linking the Pacific and Indian oceans[6].

The British and Queensland governments agreed on a joint venture whereby the British would supply a Royal Navy ship to establish and resupply the settlement and the Queensland Government would pay the cost of a contingent of Royal Marines to be stationed there for protection. In August 1864, the British Royal Navy ship the Salamander and the supply ship Golden Eagle landed the men and supplies at Somerset. This group included John Jardine (who had been appointed the Police Magistrate in charge of the settlement) and a detachment of 22 Royal Marines[7].

Before long there was conflict between the Royal Marines and the local Aboriginal people[8]. A report written by John Jardine in 1865 stated that two Marines had been seriously wounded in the conflict but that Aboriginal aggression had been ‘met with severe and just punishment’[9].

Due to the high cost of maintaining the Royal Marines at Somerset, they were returned to Britain in 1867 and were replaced by Queensland police officers accompanied by three Native Police troopers[10].

In April 1869, 28 crew members of the cutter Sperwer were murdered after the ship anchored off Prince of Wales Island (Muralug Island). The Aboriginal people of the island were blamed for the killings and retaliatory action was organised by the authorities at Somerset. The Police Magistrate at Somerset accompanied by Native Police troopers conducted raids on Prince of Wales Island and the adjacent Wednesday Island and a number of the islanders were killed[11].

By the early 1870s, the Queensland Government had concluded that Somerset was an unsuitable location for a settlement. The government buildings were being destroyed by white ants and strong tidal currents presented difficulties for mooring and docking ships. With an increasing number of ships passing through Torres Strait every year, the government sought a new location for a settlement with a better harbour[12].

In 1872, the Queensland Government sought to extend its jurisdiction and requested the support of the British Government[13]. Letters Patent[14] were issued by the British Government in 1872 creating a new colony which encompassed all islands within a 60 nautical mile radius of the coast of Queensland. This boundary was further extended to 96km by the Queensland Coast Islands Act 1879[15] 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[16].

In 1875, George Heath, the port master of Brisbane, selected Thursday Island as the new site for the administrative centre of the region. Thursday Island was proclaimed a government reserve for public purposes in December 1876[17].

In July 1877, the administrative settlement at Somerset was officially closed. The following month Magistrate Henry Chester and the government staff at Somerset moved into new buildings and facilities located at Port Kennedy on Thursday Island. Chester maintained Thursday Island as an administrative settlement and resisted calls from pearling and beche-de-mer operators to use the island as a base for their boats. In 1884, the former Premier of Queensland, John Douglas, was appointed to the position of government resident magistrate of Thursday Island and he opened Thursday Island to private settlement in 1885.

The island rapidly became the commercial centre of the Torres Strait, with hotels, stores, schools and churches established to service the new community[18]. An underwater telegraph cable was laid between the island and Cape York in 1887, providing a communications link with the Australian mainland. In August 1891, work began on the Green Hill fort on Thursday Island, which was built by the Queensland Government to serve as a deterrent to foreign invasion[19].

Following the decision to open Thursday Island to private settlement, thousands of immigrants from Asia, the South Pacific and Europe moved to Thursday Island to work in the pearling industry. The Japanese were the most numerous of the new immigrants and played a significant role in every aspect of the pearling industry, including diving, captaining vessels and construction and maintenance of pearl luggers. Thursday Island had its own ‘Japanese town’, with boarding houses, stores, a divers club and a public bath house[20].

In 1897, the Queensland Government passed the Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act 1897 (Qld). Under this act and subsequent Aboriginal protection acts, local protectors were appointed to districts across Queensland. In 1899, the Shipping Master of Thursday Island was appointed local protector by the Queensland Government; but he was mainly engaged in overseeing the work of Aboriginal men and women employed in the Torres Strait region[21]. John Douglas, the government resident at Thursday Island, initially shielded Torres Strait Islanders from the controlling provisions of the protection acts. Over time, the Queensland Government began to exert more influence on the lives of Torres Strait Islander people. After Douglas passed away in July 1904, the administration that followed asserted control over Torres Strait Islander labour and savings accounts and imposed restrictions on Islander movement to and from the mainland[22].

By 1918, a full time Protector of Aboriginals had been appointed to Thursday Island. 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 total of 86 documented removals from Thursday Island occurred between 1901 and 1965[23]. In December 1930, amendments to the Elections Act 1885 (Qld)[24] extended the disqualifications of the right to vote to include Torres Strait Islanders, ‘half-castes’, residents of reserves, and anyone requiring ‘the protection’ of the Chief Protector. The amendments caused ‘uncertainty and unrest’ in Thursday Island, where more than 70 people, including grocers, pearl cleaners, labourers, clerks and seamen, faced being struck off the state electoral rolls[25].

In 1936, around 70% of the Torres Strait Islander workforce went on strike, in protest against government interference in wages, trade and commerce. The strike produced a number of significant reforms and innovations, including the replacement of unpopular Thursday Island Protector J.D McLean with Cornelius O’Leary. As protector, O’Leary established a system of regular consultations with elected Islander council representatives, and convened the first Inter Islander Councillors Conference in August 1937[26].

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[27].

Following Japan’s declaration of war in 1941, the majority of Thursday Island’s civilian population was evacuated to the mainland. In their absence, many houses and businesses on the island were left to deteriorate and were vandalised. All Japanese residents on Thursday Island were rounded up and interned by the government in camps in New South Wales and Victoria. During the war, Thursday Island became a centre for military operations in the Torres Strait. Military authorities ordered the demolition of many residences (including most of ‘Japan Town’) to make way for barracks, and requisitioned dwellings and civilian boats of all sizes. An engineer’s wharf and fortifications were constructed. The island became a base for thousands of American and Australian personnel, including the members of the locally recruited Torres Strait Light Infantry[28].

In 1942, the Director of the Queensland Government’s Department of Native Affairs, J.W. Bleakley, was replaced by Thursday Island Protector, Cornelius O’Leary and the Office of the Director of Native Affairs was relocated from Thursday Island to Brisbane.

After World War Two, Torres Strait Islanders were permitted to work and settle on Thursday Island and on the Australian mainland.

The Office of the Director of Native Affairs was again relocated from Brisbane to Thursday Island in 1948. Director O’Leary believed that this would enable ‘a greater measure of control, direction and management’ of the 15,000 Indigenous people living north of Townsville[29]. Director O’Leary also oversaw the transfer of the Island Industries Board headquarters from Badu to Thursday Island, the migration of Saibai families to the Northern Peninsula Area of Cape York, as well as the establishment of a new settlement in the Northern Peninsula Area named Bamaga. O’Leary and the Office of the Director of Native Affairs returned to Brisbane in 1957[30].

Housing was built for the Islander residents of Thursday Island in 1957 in a new suburb named Tamwoy. Additional housing areas were also constructed in the suburbs at Rosehill, Aplin, Waiben and Quarantine. Collectively the 5 suburbs are known today as TRAWQ[31]. During this period, the movement of Thursday Island’s Indigenous residents was controlled via a permit system.

Between the 1950s and 1960s, the pearling industry declined across the Torres Strait and today, only a small number of seeded pearl farms operate in the region[32].

Local government and Deed of Grant in Trust community

After the position of government resident magistrate was abolished in 1917, Thursday Island was administered at a local level by a town council under the direction of a government appointed administrator. In 1974, this system was replaced with an elected council and, since 1994, Torres Shire Council has been providing local government services to shire residents under provisions of the Local Government Act 1994. Since 1994 (under the Local Government Act 1994) the Torres Shire Council has been administered by a mainstream local council which comprises a mayor and 4 elected Councillors[33]. The communities falling within the boundaries of the shire include the following:

  • Horn Island
  • Albany Island
  • Dayman Island
  • Entrance Island
  • Friday Island
  • Goods Island
  • Horn Island
  • Little Adolphus Island
  • Mount Adolphus Island
  • Packe Island
  • Port Lihou Island
  • Possession Island
  • Prince of Wales Island
  • Thursday Island
  • Turtlehead Island
  • Wednesday Island.

End notes

  1. N Sharp, Footprints Along the Cape York Sandbeaches (Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra; 1992) 14, 106-108.
  2. The Native Title rights of the Kaurareg have however been recognised over the islands of Ngurupai (Horn Island), Mipa, Tarilag, Yeta, Damaralag, Murulag and Zuna: Kaurareg People v Queensland (2001) 6 AILR 41; [2001] FCA 657.
  3. Sharp, above n 1.
  4. Australia, Torres Strait Regional Authority Community Profiles<> at 4 February 2013.
  5. J Foley, Timeless Isle, An Illustrated History of Thursday Island (Torres Strait Historical Society, Thursday Island, 2003) 9-10; Queensland, Placenames Database, Dept. of Environment & Resource Management, 
  6. D J Farnfield, ‘Shipwrecks and Pearl Shells: Somerset Cape York 1864-1877’ ch6 in B J Dalton (ed), Lectures in North Queensland History (James Cook University, Townsville; 1975) 66-76.
  7. D J Farnfield, ‘above n6, 66-76.
  8. Queensland State Archives, Colonial Secretary’s inwards correspondence, COL/A59, 1864/2744.
  9. Queensland State Archives, Colonial Secretary’s inwards correspondence COL/A63, 1865/39, report from John Jardine re conflict between Somerset settlement residents and local Aboriginals.
  10. ‘The Cape York Settlement’, The Queenslander, 29 August 1868; Queensland State Archives, Colonial Secretary’s inwards correspondence, COL/A120, 69/1108, letter from the Under Secretary to the Police Magistrate at Somerset re the deployment of Queensland police and Native Police to Somerset. Further information about the Native Police can be obtained from: J Richards, ‘Native Police’, Queensland Historical Atlas, at 25 February 2013. For comprehensive studies of the Native Police in Queensland see: L E Skinner, Police of the Pastoral Frontier: Native Police 1848-59 (University of Queensland Press, St Lucia; 1975) and J Richards, The Secret War: A True History of Queensland’s Native Police (University of Queensland Press, St Lucia; 2008)
  11. Colonial Secretary’s inwards correspondence, COL/A153, 71/524, report on the massacre of the crew of the Sperwer.
  12. J Foley, above n5, 10-13.
  13. S B Kaye, Jurisdictional Patchwork: Law of the Sea and Native Title Issues in the Torres Strait (2001) 2, Melbourne Journal of International Law.
  14. Queensland, Queensland Statutes (1963) vol.2, 712.
  15. See also Colonial Boundaries Act 1895 (Imp); Wacando v Commonwealth (1981) 148 CLR 1.
  16. S Mullins, Torres Strait, A History of Colonial Occupation and Culture Contact 1864-1897, (Central Queensland University Press, Rockhampton; 1994)139-161.
  17. J Foley, above n5, 10-13.
  18. J Foley, above n5, 14-21.
  19. J Foley, above n5, 24-25.
  20. Y Nagata, ‘The Japanese in Torres Strait’ in A Shnukal, G Ramsay and Y Nagata (eds) Navigating Boundaries: The Asian Diaspora in Torres Strait (Pandanus Books, Canberra; 2004) 139-159; R Ganter, The Pearl Shellers of Torres Strait (Melbourne University Press, Melbourne; 1994) 99-100.
  21. Queensland, Report of the Government Resident at Thursday Island for 1899 (1900) 1053.
  22. J Beckett, Torres Strait Islanders: Custom and Colonialism (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge; 1987) 45-47.
  23. Twenty four people were removed to Palm Island and twenty were taken away to Mapoon, Department of Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander and Multicultural Affairs, Community and Personal Histories Removals Database.
  24. Section six of the legislation specifically excluded ‘Natives’ and other foreign minorities from voting. This carried over to both the Elections Act Amendment Act 1905 and the Elections Act 1915.
  25. R Kidd, The Way We Civilise (University of Queensland Press, St Lucia; 1997) 138-140.
  26. N Sharp, Stars of Tagai, The Torres Strait Islanders (Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra; 1993) 181-186; J Beckett, Torres Strait Islanders, 54-55.
  27. Queensland, Annual Report of the Department of Native Affairs for 1939, 1; N Sharp, Stars of Tagai, 214-216.
  28. J Foley, above n5, 66; R Ganter, above n20, 92, 99, 125.
  29. R Kidd, above n25, 149, 188.
  30. Australian Dictionary of Biography, entry for Cornelius O’Leary, at 2 May 2013.
  31. J Singe, The Torres Strait, People and History (University of Queensland Press, St Lucia; 1979) 217; Queensland, Annual Report of the Director of Native Affairs for 1957 (1958) 42; Queensland, Annual Report of the Director of Native Affairs for 1958 (1959) 50; Torres Strait Regional Authority website,
  32. R Ganter, above n20, 225-227.