The `Black White-Man': Torres Strait Islander and Papuan Participation in the Post-War Pearl-Shell Industry

By Schug, Donald M. | Australian Aboriginal Studies, Fall 1998 | Go to article overview

The `Black White-Man': Torres Strait Islander and Papuan Participation in the Post-War Pearl-Shell Industry


Schug, Donald M., Australian Aboriginal Studies


Introduction

Previous historical studies have focused on the extent to which Pacific Islander immigrants and their descendants transformed and, in some cases, dominated the island communities of the Torres Strait (Mullins 1990; Shnukal 1983, 1992, 1995). A key to the Pacific Islanders' success in acquiring economic and political influence was their ability to manipulate the traditional kinship system of Torres Strait Islander society (Shnukal 1992).

This paper extends these analyses by examining the complex kin ties between Torres Strait Islanders and the Papuans residing along what is now the southwest coast of Papua New Guinea. For centuries, these connections have been transmitted orally from one generation to the next and are well known throughout the Torres Strait (Lawrence 1994). The focus here is on the way in which Torres Strait Islander skippers, the most successful of whom were 'half-caste' descendants of Pacific Islanders, employed these ties in an effort to maintain their dominant position in the strait's pearl-shell industry in the decades following the end of World War II.

Post-war changes in the Torres Strait marine industry

When the Torres Strait marine industry recommenced after World War II, it was of a very different character from what it had been during the first half of the century. The Queensland government took advantage of post-war anti-Japanese sentiment within Australia to eliminate the Asian labour which had dominated the strait's pearl-shell fishery for more than 50 years (Beckett 1977). Also barred from further participation in the marine industry were Papuan wage labourers. Shortly before the war, the Queensland government, citing increases in the unemployment rate among Torres Strait Islander and Aboriginal people, had obtained the support of the Prime Minister in abolishing all indentured Papuan labour in the pearl-shell, trochus and beche-de-mer fisheries (Schug 1997). After the war, the Queensland government successfully pressed for a continued ban on all Papuan workers.

In place of imported labour, the Queensland Department of Native Affairs (DNA) endeavoured to train Torres Strait Islanders to provide the industry with all its manpower, including skippers, helmet divers and deckhands (Beckett 1977). The DNA also assisted island communities in obtaining commercial fishing boats and, within a few years, Islanders operated 40 luggers and cutters (Bleakley 1961). Islanders contributed towards the purchase of the vessels with wages they had earned during the war serving in the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion, but in most cases the DNA retained legal ownership of the boats (Beckett 1977). The department administered the accounts of the vessels and purchased through its trading agency, the Island Industries Board, all the pearl-shell and trochus harvested by Islanders.

During the 1950s, Torres Strait Islanders were hailed as `the foundation of Queensland's pearling, trochus-shell and beche-de-mer industry' (Cilento 1959, 227). But after a period of prosperity and high productivity, the fishery fell into an economic decline due, in part, to oversupply and competition from the plastics industry. Discouraged by the low returns, many Islanders emigrated to the Australian mainland where they sought better-paying jobs in the railways of Queensland and Western Australia. Others remained in the Torres Strait to fill the state and Commonwealth jobs on Thursday Island that became available to them or to take advantage of newly secured government welfare benefits. By the early 1960s, any incentive to continue to perform the hazardous work of diving for shell had largely disappeared.

One of the few Torres Strait Islanders who remained successful in the marine industry was Tanu Nona. Nona was the son of a Samoan seaman who, following the death of his Baduan wife, had gone to Saibai Island and married again (Beckett 1987). During the 1930s, he founded a dynasty, based at Badu Island, that dominated Islander involvement in commercial fishing for the next 40 years. …

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