Torres Strait Islander culture

What exactly are the differences between Torres Strait Islanders and Aboriginal peoples? Learn about Torres Strait history, who the Islanders are, their languages and about some famous but little-known Islanders.

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Selected statistics

Number of communities in the Torres Strait islands.
Percentage of people in the region who identify as Torres Strait Islander.
Percentage of people in all of Australia who identify as Torres Strait Islander.
Population of the Torres Strait islands in 2011.
Population of the Torres Strait islands in 2016.
Percentage of people living on the islands in 2016 who had migrated from mainland Australia since 2011.

The Torres Strait and its islands

The Torres Strait is named after a Spanish navigator and captain, Luís Vaz de Torres, who was the first European to sail through Torres Strait in 1606 on his way to Manila in the Philippines, 150 years before Captain Cook. It is the waterway separating far northern Australia (Cape York Peninsula) and New Guinea, between the Arafura Sea in the east and the Coral Sea in the west.

The Torres Strait Islands are a group of about 274 small islands, distributed across an area of around 48,000 km2. At its narrowest point the area extends around 150 km north-south, and at its widest point around 300 km from east to west.

Not all islands belong to Australia, only those that lie within 60 nautical miles (97 kilometres) north from the coast of Cape York.

In August 1770, Captain Cook took possession of Australia's east coast in the name of King George III on Bedanug, an island he named Possession Island. In 1879 Queensland annexed the islands which put them under the control of the same policies of protection and segregation as the rest of Australia.

Without consultation, former prime minister Gough Whitlam in the 1970s proposed to move Australia's northern border with Papua New Guinea south, effectively cutting in half the area of the Torres Strait Islands. But his proposal was unsuccessful, and a new conservative government signed a treaty with PNG in December 1978, maintaining the original border.

Torres Strait Island groups

A map showing the five groups of Torres Strait Islands.
Map showing the five Torres Strait Island groups. Each group has similar geology, ecology and location. Original source:

Culturally, the islands are divided into 5 groups, represented by the five-pointed star on the Torres Strait flag. Each has similar characteristics for geology, formation and location:

  • Northern islands (also called Top/North Western (Gudamaluilgal) islands). Also known as the hunting islands, they are drier, low-lying larger islands with abundant wildlife, formed by deposition of sediments and mud from New Guinean rivers, close to the southwestern coastline of New Guinea.

    Includes: Saibai (Australia's most northerly island, less than 4 kms from PNG), Boigu (Talbot Island), Dauan (Mt Cornwallis Island), Warul Kawa (Deliverance Island).
  • Western islands (also called Near/Lower Western (Malvilgal) islands). Also known as the rocky islands, they lie south of the Strait's midway point, largely consisting of high granite hills with basaltic outcrops, formed from old peaks of the now submerged land bridge, an extension of the Great Dividing Range.

    Includes: Moa (Banks Island), Badu (Mulgrave Island), Mabuiag (Jervis Island), Pulu Islet, Nagi (Mt Ernest Island).
  • Southern islands (also called Inner (Kaiwalagai) islands). They lie closest to Cape York Peninsula and host most of the population. Some have permanent freshwater springs and have been centres of pearling and fishing industries. Their inhabitants have a strong connection to mainland Aboriginal people.

    Includes: Muralag (Prince of Wales Island), Waiben (Thursday Island), Ngurupai (Horn Island), Kiriri (Hammond Island), Bedanug or Bedhan Lag (Possession Island).
  • Central (Kulkalgal) islands. Also known as the fishing islands, they are widely distributed and most consist of many small sandy cays with little fresh water, surrounded by coral reefs. Some have high basaltic outcrops.

    Includes: Aureed (Skull Island), Gerbar (Two Brothers), Iama (Yam Island), Poruma (Coconut Island), Warraber (Sue Island), Masig (Yorke Island).
  • Eastern (Meriam) islands. Also known as the gardening islands, they are the peaks of former volcanoes with rich and fertile red volcanic soils and thick vegetation. Many have historic fish traps along their coastline.

    Includes: Mer (Murray Island), Dauar (Cornwallis Island), Waier Island, Erub (Darnley Island), Ugar (Stephens Island).

Only 17 of the islands are inhabited, and only 20 islands have sufficient fresh water for permanent human settlement.

How many Islanders are there?

Among the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population in 2011, 6% (38,100) identified as Torres Strait Islanders only, while another 4% (25,600) were of both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander origin.

But not all Islanders live on the Torres Strait Islands. 64% of them (24,386) live in Queensland, both the mainland state and the islands. Of those, only 28% (6,885) actually live on one of the islands. The remainder (17,501) live in communities along the coast of Queensland, particularly Townsville and Cairns, but also Bamaga and Seisia. This phenomenon is sometimes referred to as the ‘Torres Strait diaspora’.

Most islands have populations of between 100 and 200 people.

Torres Strait Islanders live in all states and territories of Australia, in urban, regional and remote areas, where they might practice their islander culture. The majority live in Queensland and New South Wales, but there are also large communities in Victoria and Tasmania.

Torres Strait Islander culture is also known as ‘Ailan Custom’.

Where did they come from?

More than 8,000 years ago sea levels were about 100 metres lower than today and much of the Torres Strait formed a land bridge between Papua New Guinea and Australia. It helped people move from southern New Guinea to Cape York. Some animal and bird species which live in both Papua New Guinea and North Queensland (e.g. the Spotted Cuscus and Southern Cassowary) are evidence of this connection.

Archaeologists found evidence of human settlement dating back at least 2,500 years, but this might change if they discover older sites. Archaeologists agree that evidence may be found in the future that dates settlement up to 4,000 years ago. Like mainland Aboriginal history, Torres Strait Islander history grows both ways, into the future and into the past.

The problem is that older camp sites Islanders made near the shoreline at a time of lower sea levels are now submerged.

The first inhabitants of the Torres Strait are believed to have migrated from the Indonesian archipelago 70,000 years ago.

What languages do they speak?

The two main traditional languages of the Torres Strait Islands are Meriam Mer (spoken in Eastern Islands) and Kala Lagaw Ya (spoken in Near Western Islands).

Meriam Mer is connected to the Papuan languages and has two regional dialects, Mer and Erub. It is the language of the older inhabitants of some of the eastern islands, especially Mer. It is spoken by close to 2,000 Islanders.

Examples: Yawo (goodbye), maiem (welcome), baru (yes), nole (no).

Kala Lagaw Ya, still spoken on the main western islands, is linguistically connected to the mainland Aboriginal languages and has four regional dialects, Mabuyag, Kalaw Kawaw Ya, Kawrareg and Kulkalgau Ya. It is spoken by around 3,000 Islanders.

Examples: Yawa (goodbye), sew ngapa (welcome), wa (yes), lawnga (no).

Torres Strait Creole (or Kriol), also known as Ailan Tok, Yumplatok or Broken (Brokin), is a mixture of Standard Australian English and traditional languages. It developed from pidgin English while missionaries were on the islands in the 1850s. It has its own distinctive sound system, grammar, vocabulary, usage and meaning.

Most Torres Strait Islanders speak Creole, as it helps speakers of the other languages communicate with each other, and each island has its own flavour. Islanders speak Creole in daily life and on some local and regional radio programs. Creole also spread to the Cape York Peninsula with the Islanders’ migration to the mainland.

Sadly, government policies prohibited Torres Strait Islanders from using their traditional languages, just like on mainland Australia, and Islanders lost a lot of culture and language.

How is their culture different or similar to that of mainland Aboriginal people?

Islanders are a sea-faring people who trade with people of Papua New Guinea. Their culture includes elements from Australia, Papua and the Austronesian region.


A Torres Strait Islander man dances wearing a dhari.
Torres Strait Islander wearing a dhari during a dance performance on Australia Day.

The didjeridoo, used in all of mainland Australia, is not used at all across the Torres Strait Islands. Islanders used rattles (or kulup) made from beans or nuts, flutes and pan pipes from Papua New Guinea, and island drums as musical instruments.

Torres Strait Island songs used to be very short, with some imported from other cultures without the knowledge of what the words meant. Missionaries, eager to abolish traditional songs and dance, and the introduction of Polynesian music and new instruments such as guitars and ukuleles, created a rich blend of styles and contents that produced a distinctive new island music.

Each island has its own particular style of dance. Dances are often performed in rows, with stamping. Dancers wear grass skirts or lap-laps and distinctive hand-held masks, often with moving parts ("dance machines") portraying the topics of the dance. These can include aircraft models in dances about WWII.

Dance machines are called zamiyakal in Kala Lagaw Ya, and Kab Teir in Meriam Mer. The dances, songs, headdresses and dance machines are an important means for community members to pass on important knowledge about survival and social structure.

The traditional feathered headdress (dhari) that features prominently on the Torres Strait Islander flag consists of a row of feathers attached to an arched cane border. The feathers are clipped to represent fishtails. A single black feather sits on top of the dhari. The vertical cane lines across the centre of the dhari symbolise the forehead crease lines – a sign of wisdom.

Contrary to many references the dhari was traditionally not associated with peace, but used during war and payback between clans. With the arrival of the missionaries the function of the dhari changed to a dance apparel. Despite many creative changes to the dhari, it remains a powerful and sacred symbol of the Torres Strait Islands.

The Winds Of Zenadth (Torres Strait Cultural Festival) is a four-day festival which began in 1987, celebrating Torres Strait Islander culture on Thursday Island every second year in September.


Poster advertising the Torres Shire Garden Fair 2017.
Gardeners, not nomads. For thousands of years, Torres Strait Islanders cultivated herb gardens and crops, a practice they still celebrate today.

Torres Strait Islanders were fishermen and hunters, but also agriculturalists because they kept herb gardens and crops, particularly in the central and eastern islands. Archaeologists found remnants of banana farms that they dated back 2,145 years. Islanders kept pigs which were probably introduced from Papua New Guinea. The traditional fish traps of the Eastern Islands caught snapper, turtles, dugong and sharks.

When out fishing, the Islanders used large outrigger canoes that could remain at sea for long periods and hold large sea animals such as dugongs and turtles. The canoes allowed them to hunt as far south as the Great Barrier Reef. With few trees on many islands, canoes were the main source of wealth and were traded for pearl shell.

Economic development of the Torres Strait region is difficult because the marine environment is fragile, unpredictable and often dangerous. The tides are said to be the most complex in the world. The Torres Strait is extremely vulnerable to ecological damage and climate change. Islanders depend on unpolluted waters for their survival and physical and spiritual wellbeing. Rising sea levels will submerge many of the islands and destroy freshwater habitats.

From the 1870s to the early 1960s, Torres Strait Islanders worked in Australia’s pearling industry as divers and skippers. The pearl rush brought profound change to islander culture as thousands of people from all over the world descend upon the area. Pearling came to an abrupt end in March 1970 when an oil tanker hit a reef near Wednesday Island and lost more than 100,000 litres of oil that killed over 80% of the Torres Strait's oysters.

Islanders also laid railways and worked in mines and on cane fields. Well-known for their strength and skill, Torres Strait Islander men were sought to work on a 427 kms railway from Port Hedland to the Newman iron ore mine in Western Australia. Islanders made up a third of the track-laying men. On one day during construction, they laid 4 1/4 mile of heavy-gauged track, breaking the world record in track-laying, which still stands today.

Fishing remains the main economic activity, and many families also have small farms.


Torres Strait Islander people have to find their ways within to two groups: one people – the Islanders – and their own, local identity which formed from differing ecological, cultural and historical circumstances.

Some Torres Strait Islander people identify strongly with their "Island" roots, including Papua New Guinea, while others identify with the mainland or home country when discussing their identity.

There is variety in labels Torres Strait Islanders are comfortable with, similar to the diversity of names for mainland Aboriginal people.

Some people prefer to be called "Torres Strait Islanders" while others prefer just "Islanders". Some people prefer local Island names and language names to be used in recognising themselves and their identity, for example Badulaig, which refers to the people and not their link to the land.

Like mainland Aboriginal people, Torres Strait Islanders can have mixed ancestry. Theirs is likely to also be South Sea Islander, Samoan, Chinese and mainland Aboriginal.

Unique to Torres Strait Islander families, you can distinguish their houses from the street by the traditional medicinal and magic plants which surround them (cassava, taro, sweet potato and bananas), and the clam shells placed near the entrance. People leave their shoes outside on the veranda as they would in the Strait and the floors are covered with woven mats.

For Torres Strait Islanders, courtesy and kindness are very important. This is known locally as ‘Good Pasin’, meaning good fashion or behaving with a degree of sophistication and charm.

We are the mariners, the people who can navigate by the stars to small dots of islands beyond the horizon, ‘reading’ the wind and tides, the reefs and skies.

— G Mye
Torres Strait Islander flag
Torres Strait Islander flag.

The Torres Strait Islander flag was first launched on 29 May 1992. Its colours stand for:

  • Green: the two mainlands of Australia and Papua New Guinea;
  • Blue: the Torres Strait waters;
  • Black line: the Torres Strait Islanders;
  • The five pointed star: the five island groups (Northern, Western, Southern, Eastern and Central Islands);
  • White: Christianity and peace;
  • Dhari head dress: represents Islanders and their customs.

Watch 'Tagai Buway - 'Culture Remainz' (I am the Future)' where young Torres Strait Islanders express their contemporary identity and what is important to them. The video also shows you many elements of their Ailan Custom:

View lyrics


Kaiwalawgal [Inner Islanders]
Maluilgal [Near Western Islanders]
Guda Maluiglgal [Top Western Islanders]
Kulkalgal [Central Islanders]
Kemer Kemer Meriam [Eastern Islanders]

Wiswei my Pamle, where yupla gor?
[How are you my families, where are you going?]
Where the Tagai [star constellation] shine,
and the sager [southeast trade winds] blow,
White sand, blue sea where the wongai grow
This TI, Tagai Buway, Oh!

North, South, East, West
We representing the Zenadh Kes [Torres Strait]
Island dress – bu shell [traditional instrument] come.
Warup [traditional drum] – kap kar [traditional dance]
Pite the thrum! [beat the bamboo drum]

Kaka nali Kari ker kerem [I am the future]
Ngay wagelaw goeygapa [I am the future]
Kaka nali Kari ker kerem [I am the future]
Ngalpa wagel goeygayka [we are the future]

Zuzi's [grass skirt] to skinnies – canoes to dinghies
Dharis [head dress] to snap-backs –
Maka mak [dance marker] to Air Jordies
Turtle to Big Mac – dugong to snack pack
Kapkar, warup, kulap [seed rattle] to rap track.

Dress code, language, diet changed.
Pride in yumi [our] culture remains.
Four winds at my back, my plans are made –
Warrior blood flowing in my veins

Bipor Taim [in the past] peeps got ruled by the man
Ration system, no pride, no land
Slap to the face my people of the Straits
Never even got a chance to dice they own place

Don't just mark time [dance in one spot] – it's time to move on
One voice. Create a new song
Bigger than King Kong it's island rap.
I am the future – best believe that!

Kaka nali Kari ker kerem [I am the future]
Ngay wagelaw goeygapa [I am the future]
Kaka nali Kari ker kerem [I am the future]
Ngalpa wagel goeygayka [we are the future]


Torres Strait society is organised in totemic clans. Totems are the foundation of their culture and can be living creatures, rocks, winds or stars. A clan gives rights and obligations and comes via one's kinship relationships and the connection to land and sea.

Torres Straits Islanders have traditional or customary adoption practices, called Kupai Omasker. Kupai is a Western Island word for 'umbilical cord', and Omasker is an Eastern Island word for 'children'. The words used together can be interpreted as 'the caring of all our children'.

The underlying principle is that giving birth to a child does not necessarily mean that the mother is also raising that child. Traditionally the adopted child had the same bloodline as the adoptive parents and remains with the extended family permanently. Both families agree to the process which is confidential and very sensitive. Strict cultural protocols govern when the children learn about their adoption.

There are several reasons for customary adoption:

  • maintain family bloodlines and/or family name by adopting a child from a “blood” relative;
  • a childless family member (married or otherwise) gets an opportunity to raise their own child;
  • strengthen bonds between two families;
  • distribute boys and girls evenly between families who may only have children of one sex;
  • replace a child who has been adopted out to another family;
  • provide company and care for an older relative;
  • maintain family inheritance rights.

The practice was long at odds with Australian laws and created challenges, e.g. when issuing birth certificates, wanting to attend high school, or obtain a driver's licence or passport. The Torres Strait Islander community lobbied for more than 30 years for legal recognition of island adoption through the Kupai Omasker Working Party.

Finally, in 2020 and after extensive consultation, the Queensland government introduced the Meriba Omasker Kaziw Kazipa (Torres Strait Islander Traditional Child Rearing Practice) Bill 2020 to legally recognise the continued use of traditional child rearing practice and allow for a permanent transfer of parentage from the biological parents to the "cultural parents". The bill is the first of its kind to align Torres Strait Islander lore with Queensland law and required amendments to a string of other laws including the Adoption Act, birth registrations, the criminal code, family violence protection, rules of evidence, integrity and industrial relations.


Just like mainland Aboriginal people are often multilingual, some Torres Strait Islander people identify as bilingual or trilingual.

While there are 3 distinct languages on the Torres Strait Islands (excluding dialects), mainland Aboriginal people spoke around 250 languages prior to invasion.

Like traditional Aboriginal names more and more replace European place names on mainland Australia (e.g. 'Uluru' instead of 'Ayers Rock'), you should prefer traditional Torres Strait Islander place names over European names.

Use “non-Torres Strait Islanders” when comparing the Australian population with the Torres Strait Islander population, just as you'd use "non-Aboriginal".


Like mainland Aboriginal people, Torres Strait Islanders have claimed native title for their country. But they have been more successful with their claims because they suffered less dislocation from these areas. But for Islanders native title is as much about land rights as it is about sea rights.

There is native title over the majority of land and sea. This means that there are traditional owners over nearly all areas of the region except for those areas that are held privately under freehold title or are designated government facilities or spaces.

If you want to visit an island, always contact the local council to request permission, whether for work or personal reasons. All islands are considered private domains and are not open to general traffic.

There are four seasons associated with the wind changes in the Torres Strait:

  • Kuki: Strong north-west winds from January to April, wet season (monsoon).
  • Sager: South-East trade winds from May to December, dry season.
  • Zey: Southerly winds, blowing randomly throughout the year.
  • Nay Gay: Northerly winds from October to December, both heat and humidity are at their highest.

Climate change

The Torres Strait's islands are extremely vulnerable to inundation by the sea.

Islanders have already abandoned Warrior (Tudu) Island, and its graves are slowly consumed by the sea. On Boigu Island, a sacred place where the local population conducted ceremonies for thousands of years it is now completely under water.

Saibai Island rises only a metre above sea level, and after severe king tides destroyed properties and polluted wells with sea water in 1947, a large number of families left the island for the mainland. They settled at Mutee Head where they founded Bamaga, named after an elder from Saibai Island.

In May 2019, a group of eight Torres Strait Islanders submitted a petition against the Australian government to the United Nations alleging that Australia is violating fundamental human rights because its government fails to address climate change.

Public holidays

3 June marks the day of the High Court of Australia's Mabo decision in 1992.

1 July is the Coming of the Light Festival.

23 August celebrates when Torres Strait Islanders gathered for the first formal council meeting at Masig (Yorke Island) on 23 August 1937.


In 1936, the Islanders claimed more control over their own affairs by staging a strike against the Queensland government. After several months it was agreed that elected island councils would take charge of local government. The council system was formalised under the Torres Strait Islanders Act 1939. It allowed all Islanders aged over 18 to vote. Councils could make bylaws and appoint their own police and courts. The regional administration is based on Thursday Island.

In 1988 the Torres Strait Islanders wanted to become separate or independent of Australia, but abandoned this plan after the Australian government promised them more funding and invested in improving the Islands' infrastructure.

The Torres Strait Regional Authority, established in 1994, helps Torres Strait Islanders manage their own affairs. Its elected representatives follow Ailan Custom (‘island custom’ in Creole) and still hope for more autonomy. Ailan Custom is “the way that Torres Strait Islander people do things” and a mix of Torres Strait, Melanesian, Polynesian, Aboriginal and European elements.

Examples of Ailan Custom include:

  • shaving a boy’s beard and putting clan marks on his face to say that he is now a man;
  • a girl preparing a feast with the help of her aunts to say she is now a woman;
  • the celebration of anniversaries and special occasions with dancing and feasting;
  • waiting for the old to eat first at a feast;
  • tombstone openings;
  • the creation of sophisticated warrior’s head dresses;
  • the Coming of Light ceremony;
  • dugong and turtle hunting and pearling;
  • grass skirts and laplaps; and
  • unique musical instruments, such as island drums.

Thursday, Horn and Prince of Wales Islands are governed by the Torres Shire Council, all other island communities are governed by the Torres Strait Island Regional Council (TSIRC), and the Torres Strait NPA communities are governed by the Northern Peninsula Area Regional Council (NPARC).

Spirituality & customs

While the mainland Aboriginal concept of the Dreaming is well known both in Australia and around the world, very few know the equivalent concept of Torres Strait Islanders.

Islander culture distinguishes between 4 main time periods:

  • Before Before Time refers to the Creation Period.
  • Before Time ('Augadth/Zogo Time') refers to time after the Creation Period but before European contact and defines Torres Strait Islander values and beliefs and their relationship with every living creature and feature of the land, sea and air. It is linked with the present.
  • Athe Time represents the recorded and popular history of the Torres Strait Islander peoples, including totemism, which determines identity, behaviour and relationships.
  • Our Time represents the living history of the Torres Strait Islander peoples.

As with mainland Aboriginal Dreaming knowledge, there are some aspects of Augadth/Zogo Time that are secret or sacred and should not be mentioned.

On 1 July each year, Torres Strait Islanders celebrate the Coming of Light, an event that commemorates the arrival of the London Missionary Society (LMS) on 1 July 1871 at Erub, the birth of Christianity in the islands, and in many cases the end of witchcraft and headhunting. While celebrations vary, common elements include a church service (like Christmas) where the story is retold and reenacted, a large evening feast with traditional food and a traditional dance where visitors are invited to participate. But not all Islanders embraced Christianity, and some mourn the division and breakup of families it brought, and that it should be second to traditional culture. They claim Christianity was brought on to "civilise" the Islanders.

Today Christianity is the dominant religion in the Torres Strait. The Islanders accepted it “because Christianity provided us with the opportunity of continuing the spirituality which our traditional religion, the Zogo, embodied”. The concept of "Island passin" (also 'proper Island way' or 'big passin') combines elements of Christianity with respect for the authority of Elders and for traditional custom.

Giving gifts is an important part of Torres Strait Islander culture and is a highly respected practice. Emphasis is on the time, effort and spirit exchanged between the parties, and not the value of the gift itself. The recipient is under no obligation to reciprocate the action. This custom is called Sibuwanay in Kala Lagaw Ya and Tar Digri in Meriam Mir. Individuals, families and communities show their appreciation for a visit by selecting objects which best represent their community.

While mainland Aboriginal people dispose of the bodies of their deceased (e.g. by cremation), Torres Strait Islanders’ burial rituals span 3 years. The period of mourning begins with the funeral. On the first anniversary of the death the deceased’s possessions are shared among their friends and relatives. After 2 years a mason prepares the tombstone which the family keeps in their home for a few weeks. Then they install it on the grave, but cover it.

A festive tombstone opening ceremony follows. The tombstone opening is a joyous event open to the public and performed to release the spirit of the deceased. Also called an unveiling, it has nothing to do with exhumation, but refers to the moment when the last veil is unsheathed from the tombstone for everyone to see for the first time. This marks also the end of the period of mourning. Most tombstone openings happen during the Christmas and New Year period.

Video: Tombstone opening ceremony

The video shows preparations for a tombstone opening ceremony in a Torres Strait Islander community. Members of the family decorate the gravesite, and the deceased's daughters cover the tombstone with colourful fabrics. Men and women are also shown preparing for the feast that will follow the unveiling, with the men tending the earth oven. The narrator speaks Yumplatok which is subtitled.

Torres Strait Islanders interpret several constellations of the night sky as a representation of their warrior hero Tagai, his canoe, anchor and crew. They used this constellation as a guide to the seasonal cultivation of their vegetable gardens, when to hunt certain animals and to predict the weather before travelling.

Besides warrior Tagai, Torres Strait Islanders also know stories of Kuiam (also spelled Kwoiam) who originated in Cape York and travelled to Prince of Wales and Mabuiag islands, and of the heroic beings Malo and Bomai which are linked to the eastern islands.

Malo travelled from New Guinea to Mer, transforming himself into sea creatures. When he arrived at Mer he took the form of an octopus. He gave his law to the Meriam people which teaches about not trespassing other peoples' land.

Story: Warrior hero Tagai

Tagai was a great fisherman. One day he and his crew of 12 were fishing from their outrigger canoe. They were unable to catch any fish, so Tagai left the canoe and went onto the nearby reef to look for fish there.

As the day grew hotter and hotter, the waiting crew of Zugubals (beings who took on human form when they visited Earth) grew impatient and frustrated. Their thirst grew, but the only drinking water in the canoe belonged to Tagai. Their patience ran out and they drank Tagai’s water.

When Tagai returned, he was furious that the Zugubals had consumed all of his water for the voyage. In his rage he killed all 12 of his crew. He returned them to the sky and placed them in two groups: six men in Usal (the Pleiades star cluster) and the other six Utimal (Orion). He told his crew to stay in the northern sky and to keep away from him.

Tagai can be seen in the southern skies, standing in a canoe in the Milky Way. His left hand is the Southern Cross holding a spear. His right hand is a group of stars in the constellation Corvus holding a fruit called Eugina. He is standing on his canoe, formed by the stars of Scorpius.


Traditionally, Torres Strait men spun tops and held model boat races, and racing model outrigger canoes is still popular today. Mainland sports involved ball and spear throwing games.

Traditional equipment

Torres Strait Islanders made bows and strings from bamboo to use with arrows which were often traded from Papua New Guinea and used as far south as the northern Cape York Peninsula. They also used clubs and harpoons.

While Aboriginal people on the mainland used stone and flaked stone in their tools, Torres Strait Islanders used pearl and turtle shells, fish bones and other organic materials which they used for tools, spearheads and fish hooks, and as ceremonial and ornamental objects.

To travel on water, Islanders used a double outrigger, which is unique to their area. Mainland Aboriginal people used single outriggers and bark, reed or dugout canoes. The double outrigger was probably introduced from Papuan communities and later modified in design and construction. It was a strong, stable and safe means of transport, about 14 metres long, with two bamboo masts and pandanus-mat sails. They were equipped with washboards, a platform and often carried a fire on a sand layer. They could carry as many as 12 people and sailed up to 80 kilometres.


Traditionally, Torres Strait Islanders were a warrior race and headhunters, but they also have a long history with the Australian army. In 1892 the British built a fort at Battery Point on Thursday Island because they feared a Russian invasion, and during Word War II the Torres Straits was the furthest northern allied base in Australia with an air field on Horn Island. Islanders volunteered to not only protect the base, but also their country.

By 1944, almost every male Torres Strait Islander had joined the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion (800 of a population of 3,000 ). This was the only all-Indigenous battalion ever to exist in Australia. It was never involved in conflict, but patrolled important strategic areas.

But Islander soldiers only received half the wages of their white peers. Inspired by industrial action in the pearling business, the soldiers of Charlie Company went on strike in December 1943. The Queensland government offered an increase to only 66%, which the Islanders reluctantly accepted. By that time their strike had lasted 9 months. They finally received full back pay in 1986.

The war service of the Islanders had a profound impact on all Torres Strait Islander people, introducing them to a Western diet (which brought diabetes), alcohol and cigarettes.


The Torres Strait was the second most bombed place in Australia after Darwin.

Who are some famous Torres Strait Islanders?

Following are some samples of the many Islanders who stood out, were firsts or helped shape Australia.

Eddie Koiki Mabo

Undoubtedly the most known and celebrated Torres Strait Islander, nationally and internationally, is Eddie Koiki Mabo, born on Mer, whose life and work have been celebrated in two documentary films (Mabo and Mabo – Life of an Island Man), a written biography and hundreds of other books and articles.

Mabo was exiled from his home island as a young man because he rebelled against council authority but went on to create a new life on the mainland. Always courageous and politically aware, he co-founded the Black Community School in Townsville in 1973 and in 1982 he began his ultimately successful challenge to the principle of terra nullius, the legal fiction that Australia was unowned at the time of settlement.

The Torres Strait Islands were annexed by Queensland and thus passed to the crown, but it was not until the legal challenge that most Islanders realised that, despite their continued occupation, they were not the legal owners of their islands, but the crown.

Mabo, together with four other senior Murray Islanders, school teacher Samuel Passi, Reverend David Passi, James Rice and Celuia Mapo Salee, in 1982 successfully challenged the Federal Government and achieved recognition of traditional Indigenous ownership of land, not only for the Islands, but for all of Australia, with the passing of the High Court's Mabo decision in 1992.

Bernhard Namok

Bernard Namok (Senior) from Thursday Island designed the Torres Strait Islander flag in 1992. The flag was officially presented to the people at the 6th Torres Strait Cultural Festival on 29 May 1992. Namok passed away in 1993 at only 31 years old and is buried on his home island.

Everyday heroes

Muara (Lifu) Wacando from Erub was the first Indigenous Australian woman to receive a Royal Humane Society medal for rescuing two men during the Mahina cyclone in March 1899. This was Australia’s worst maritime disaster with over 300 deaths. Wacando became the heroine of the disaster, swimming for almost seven hours through turbulent seas while supporting the men in the water.


Robert Lewis (Bob) Maza, whose father came from Mer, and his daughter Rachel Maza are actors whose stage and screen work is known to a national and international audience. Robert Maza, who died in 2000, achieved success not only as an actor but also as a playwright and producer. He was awarded an AM for service to the development of Indigenous dramatic arts in 1993.

Bangarra Aboriginal Dance Company has included Torres Strait Islanders among its members, one being the internationally known singer, dancer and actor, Christine Anu, whose mother comes from Saibai but who grew up on Mabuiag. Christine Anu released her successful debut album, Stylin’ Up, in 1995 and her second, Come My Way, in 2000. She was the first Torres Strait Islander (and only the second Australian Indigenous) woman to be featured on the cover of Vogue Australia and sang at the closing ceremony of the Olympic Games in Sydney.

Earlier singers include George Assang (Vic Sabrino) and Ken Assang, Fay Guivarra (Candy Devine), Dulcie Pitt (Georgia Lee) and Heather Pitt, Wilma and Heathermae Reading and Mick Thaiday.

More recent singers are the Mills Sisters (Cessa, Ina and Rita), from a well-known Nagi family, and Henry (Seaman) Dan from Thursday Island, composer of the unofficial local anthem, T.I. Blues.

The best known Torres Strait Islander visual artist is probably Ken Thaiday Snr from Erub, internationally celebrated for his beautifully crafted moveable headdresses. Ken Thaiday’s work was featured in the visual arts component of the Adelaide Festival 2000. He is also a celebrated traditional dancer and choreographer who was chosen to perform before Her.Majesty Queen Elizabeth II during her visit that year.

Other visual artists include Destiny Deacon from Erub, James Eseli from Mabuiag, Ellen Jose, who is descended from Ngarupai and Mer, Victor McGrath from Thursday Island, Clinton Nain from Erub, Dennis Nona, from Badu, Brian Robinson from Thursday Island, Edrick Tabuai from Saibai and Alick Tipoti from Badu.


The first Islander to gain a university degree was Mary Garnier from Puruma, who became Sister Marietta AD and who graduated with a BSc from the University of Papua New Guinea in 1965.

Martin Nakata from Thursday Island was the first Torres Strait Islander to obtain a PhD (in Education) in 1997. He went on to become Director of the Aboriginal Research Institute at the University of South Australia.


Roy Whittaker of the Bourne family from Erub and St Paul’s was the first Torres Strait Islander doctor.

Law & politics

Torres Strait Islander members of the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI) included Jacob Abednego, Duclie Reading Flower, Koiki Mabo, Ettie Pau, Fred Walters and Elia Ware.

Pedro Stephen from an Ugar family was appointed the first Indigenous Quarantine Officer in 1982 and was subsequently elected the first Torres Strait Islander mayor of Torres Shire Council.

Catherine Anne Pirie (née Smith) of the William family from Ugar became the first Torres Strait Islander solicitor.


Charles Mene from Mabuiag, was already enlisted and serving in integrated units when war broke out. Mene went on to fight with the Second AIF in the Middle East, Borneo, Papua New Guinea, Korea

and Malaysia. He served with the British Commonwealth Occupation Forces in Japan, was awarded the Military Medal and served for 26 years in the army.

Kamuel Abednego rose to the rank of lieutenant within the US Navy on one of the ships the US operated during WWII around the Torres Strait. No other Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander served as a commissioned officer at that time in the Australian services.


Danny Morseu, born on Thursday Island and descended from a Mer family, began his celebrated basketball career with St Kilda in Melbourne and then moved to the Brisbane Bullets, Toowoomba Mountaineers and Brisbane Southern Districts Spartans. He had an international career, representing Australia 27 times at 12 World Cup and 15 Olympic Games matches.

Eric Pitt from Mossman played first-grade Rugby League with North Sydney as did Ted Mosby, the late Anglican Bishop of Torres Strait. Winger Wendell Sailor, a member of Queensland’s premier Rugby League team, the Broncos, is descended from a large Erub family.

Torres Strait trivia

  • The Torres Strait Islands Treaty, signed by Australia and Papua New Guinea in 1978, defines the boundaries between the two countries and allows for free movement (without passports or visas) between Australia and Papua New Guinea for traditional activities in a ‘Protected Zone’ covering about two thirds of the Torres Strait.
  • The Queensland Torres Strait Islanders Act 1939 legally recognised Torres Strait Islanders as a separate people for the first time, and the 1971 census was the first to include a specific ‘Torres Strait Islander’ category.
  • The Federal Court made its first native title determination for the Torres Strait (Moa and Saibai islands) in February 1999.
  • Besides the well-known Thursday Island, the Torres Strait Islands also include Wednesday Island and Friday Island.
  • Up to 300 words in coastal languages of the Top End have Austronesian (Malayo-Polynesian) origin. Examples include pekang (fish hook, rod), balase (sack, bag) and lepalepa (dugout canoe).
  • The northernmost island, Boigu, is only 6 kms from New Guinea.
  • The dingo was first observed by the crew of a passing ship in the Torres Strait Islands in 1792 and was most likely introduced to Australia from coastal Papuan villages.
  • The distance between Papua New Guinea and the Cape York Peninsula is 150 kms.
  • Bet, Sue, Coconut, Yam, Halfway and Stephen are all names for an island of the Torres Strait.
  • Possession Island (which belongs to the Inner Islands) is where James Cook took possession of the whole of the east coast of Australia in 1770.
  • The Queensland government didn't allow Torres Strait Islanders to leave their islands for the mainland before 1947.

Where can I learn more?

Knowledge about Torres Strait Islander culture is limited because communities can only share information that gives you a basic level of understanding (“outside knowledge”). Information private and sacred to families and communities (“inside knowledge”) cannot be shared with the greater public.

The Torres Strait Regional Authority allows Torres Strait islanders manage their own affairs according to their own Ailan Kastom (island custom).

The Torres Strait Island Regional Council has some information about island communities and history.



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Korff, J 2022, Torres Strait Islander culture, <>, retrieved 20 July 2024

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