Term Paper: What Impact Has European Colonialism Had on the Culture of Torres Strait

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European Colonialism & Torres Strait

European Colonialism and the Peoples of Torres Strait

The impact that European colonialism has had on indigenous cultures in the Torres Strait region is momentous; and, fortunately for those interested in factual history, it has been well documented. This paper will review important materials that have been published regarding the effect - much of it intrusive, negative and degrading - that colonial expansion has had on the peoples of the Torres Strait islands, an area of approximately 40,000 sq. km located between Australia's northern-most tip and the southern shores of Papua New Guinea. Some 91.2% of this vast region is ocean, 6.2% is reef flats, and just 2.6% is habitable land area, according to essayist and University of Sydney lecturer Leah Lui-Chivizhe (Lui-Chivizhe 1996) ("Cultural Identity and Development in the Torres Strait Islands").

Literature Review: In 1898, the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition, led by Alfred Haddon, visited the Islands of Torres Strait in order to collect and analyze ethnographic data which Haddon believed would be crucial to the fields of "psychology, physiology, medicine, linguistics and natural sciences" (Herle 2000). The expedition - in which seven scholars participated - was carried out ten years after Haddon's initial exploration of the islands in 1888.

At that time, according to Herle's research article in Ethnos, Haddon was very concerned that "...Islander customs were fast disappearing as a result of the influence of colonialists, missionaries and the marine industry." "Before it was too late," Haddon warned, studies were needed to preserve as much of the original native culturally history as possible. By 1898 it was almost too late already, as the tide was beginning to turn; colonial influences had arrived.

According to anthropologist Jeremy Beckett, a viable resource used by students studying the cultural history of Torres Strait in the Humanities Department of Central Queensland University (http://humanities.cqu.edu.au/abtorres/tsiwww/course/mudule1/chap3/chap3.htm),colonial influences in fact had already begun to take hold in Torres Strait in the mid-1860s. That was when colonial "occupation" arrived in the form of beche-de-mer fishermen from the western Pacific "...who came to gather and process sea-slugs [sea cucumbers] for the Asia market," Beckett asserts.

And while prior to this period, the Islanders "already had a long history of contact with Europeans," there were no true occupiers and/or permanent exploiters until the beche-de-mer fishermen, who established "semi-permanent beach camps" in order to cure their sea slugs immediately after harvesting them from the sea, Beckett continues. Those fishermen were followed in rapid succession by pearl-shelling vessels. Beckett explains that by 1872, roughly 20 "large" pearl-shelling vessels were anchored offshore from the Islands.

Each of those 20 vessels had around 500 crew and divers on board - adding up to around 10,000 non-native colonial interlopers - which dwarfed the population of Torres Strait Islanders of about 3,500. "The arrival of so many men so quickly had a profound impact," Beckett writes. Soon after the pearl-shelling industry arrived, the London Missionary Society (LMS) sent Samuel McFarlane and eight Pacific Islander evangelists to Torres Strait.

The initial purpose for the mission was not to convert Torres Strait peoples to Christianity but rather to use the Torres Strait Islands as "staging points," Beckett explains, in order to convert the native peoples of New Guinea. However, the LMS remained a force for European-style change for 45 years after their initial arrival on the Torres Strait Islands, and many more Pacific Islander Christian missionaries arrived and had impacts on native cultures.

By 1879, all the Torres Strait Islands became part of Queensland, an annexation that was put into pace, Beckett writes, "without any consultation" with Islanders. In terms of what impact the European colonizers had on Torres Strait Islanders, it took over 100 years of Australian political control over the Islands before the "Island Coordinating Council" (ICC) was established under the Queensland Community Services Act 1984, which "provided for the election of 18 Island Council Chairpersons to administer regional affairs" (Seebohm, et al., 1998).

Writing in Australian Geographical Studies, Kym Seebohm and Gerry Morvell assert that while the Islanders have gained a bit more autonomy (due to the establishment of the 1994 Torres Strait Regional Authority) in recent years, the exploitation of Torres Strait Island ecosystems by non-native interests is ongoing and destructive. To wit, there is "over-exploitation of certain fisheries"; there are the negative effects of "trawling on seabed communities"; the "discarding of by-catch" and the "mortality of turtles and dugongs caught in trawl nets" are enormous concerns, Seebohm explains. Moreover, endangered species in Torres Strait Islands lack protective measures and also, there are "human health concerns" resulting from the "heavy metal concentrations in traditional seafood" being harvested.

Pearling has continued on the Islands, and Islanders have been exploited by the "company boats" for many years; and indeed, in some senses, the impact Australian authorities had over the native Torres Strait pearl divers amounted to a form of slavery. An article in The Journal of Pacific History (Wetherell 2004) reported that the 27 "company boats" lay at anchor off "each major island" in the group in early January, 1936. When J.D. McLean, the "Queensland Government Protector of Islanders," went ashore one January day to sign up 400 workers, he discovered that "a strike amongst all the islands" was underway, Wetherell writes.

The Islanders were taking the bold step of a work stoppage - the first known strike by Torres Strait people against a European colonial power - to protest poor working conditions, and also to express their dissatisfaction with Queensland Government legislation in 1934 "...which had placed citizens of mixed Aboriginal, Torres Strait Island, European and South Sea Island parentage under government 'protection,'" Wetherell reports. In response to the Islanders' protest strike, E.M. Hanlon, Secretary for Health and Home Affairs in the Australian government, reflected the official government arrogance by stating that the Islanders "...had the impression that they should be allowed to spend their money as they earned it," Wetherell continues.

Armed police officers seized thirty male Islanders and placed them under arrest based on "their refusal to obey orders and join the boats on which the Aboriginal Department directed that they should work," according to the Brisbane Telegraph (quoted by Wetherall). The strike continued for periods of "between two and seven months," Wetherell writes, and when the "Commission of Enquiry" "made assurances of reform of Island regulations in July," the last hold-outs among striking divers returned to work.

How serious an infringement of human rights was the 1934 Queensland amendment placing Torres Strait citizens under strict "protection" of the government? In a letter to his wife, Anglican Bishop Stephen Davis of the Church of England (quoted in Wetherell's article) wrote that Torres Strait "is boiling over about the new amendment; I am sure that the fault is that the departmental officers will not realize the fact that the Aboriginal is a man, they want to herd him as an animal with no personality or individuality."

The fact that the amendment sought to "restrict their freedom of movement and access to alcohol" was seen by Bishop Davis as "an infringement of the rights of citizenship"; and Wetherell notes that the bold stance Bishop Davis took is "of some significance" since the Church of England's ties to the Queensland Government were long-standing and deeply entrenched. Indeed, the Church of England's Diocese that Davis headed was the "official" church of Torres Strait, Wetherell explains.

The irony of the pearl-diving contentiousness was that the "company boats" had been built - and owned - by Islanders, albeit the Queensland authorities "controlled" the boats. And further, the Islanders worked for "extremely low wages," Wetherell goes on, but the "Protectors' [Queensland authorities] active encouragement of pearling employment aided the economic exploitation of Islands divers." And while significantly higher wages were paid to divers who worked on the Australian mainland, the migration of Torres Strait Islanders to that "free labour market...was restricted," according to Wetherell.

It might be said, according to author / anthropologist Jeremy Beckett (referenced earlier in This paper), "that the marine industry carried the Islanders to the threshold of the industrial world and left them there..." (quoted by Wetherell).

Meanwhile, University of Sydney lecturer and native Torres Strait Islander Leah Lui-Chivizhe, quoted in the Introduction to this paper, writes in the book Interface of Cultural Identity Development that her people were seen "as pagans, heathens, uneducated" by the invading European colonists. "No recognition was given to the fact that there are other ways of living and that there may be people who wish to maintain a way of life quite unlike Westerners," she explained.

Lui-Chivizhe goes on to point out how the Torres Strait Islanders' social values, which are manifested in their work ethic, conflicted with the values of the Australian capitalistic society, and how that conflict led to the punishment of Islanders. To a Torres Strait Islander, Lui-Chivizhe explains, "production" of pearls is determined not by the idea of maximizing profit, but rather by "obligations, responsibilities and claims required by clan leaders." Sometimes, rather than selling produce, Islanders have chosen… [END OF PREVIEW]

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