October 2014


Island time

By Thornton McCamish
Warren Entsch at the Coming of the Light festival on Thursday Island, July 2013. © Aaron Smith
Warren Entsch at the Coming of the Light festival on Thursday Island, July 2013. © Aaron Smith
A trip through the Torres Strait to see the Coming of the Light festival

Just before dusk on 1 July 1871, the Reverends Samuel McFarlane and Archibald Murray of the London Missionary Society, together with eight New Caledonian mission teachers, arrived off the coast of Erub, or Darnley Island, in the far eastern Torres Strait. Their vessel, the Surprise, hove to off Kemus Beach and lowered its boat. From a nearby hill, a warrior called Dabad watched this motley group’s approach, and then, calling his men to follow him, made his way down to the water’s edge. McFarlane led the way ashore. He sploshed over the volcanic rock pools and dropped to his knees on the beach before the fearsome Erubians. Dabad prepared to slay them all. McFarlane grasped his Bible in both hands and thrust it towards Dabad. (“Never did men feel more than we did then their absolute dependence on Divine Help,” McFarlane wrote later.) Then something remarkable happened: Dabad stayed his spear. The warrior accepted the book he couldn’t read, and its promised light, and, though he can hardly have known it at the time, a new era for the islands of the Torres Strait.

It’s an episode that could have come straight out of a South Seas Adventure omnibus. It’s also a cherished foundation story. Every year, Torres Strait Islander communities all over Australia celebrate this encounter, often with an elaborate re-enactment. There are different versions on some islands, but the essential plot and characters come from the Darnley ur-meeting. I’d seen re-enactments on YouTube. I’d heard from festival veterans how the “villagers” act out the transition from darkness to light, from glum headhunting to peace and happiness. It’s an all-in community party where there’s often hilarity amid the solemnity, and always feasting afterwards.

In the village on the other side of the little island stands a small stone memorial to Dabad. One evening a woman noticed me trying to read the inscription, and wandered over. She told me she was a direct descendant of the warrior who’d welcomed McFarlane. I nodded, but wasn’t sure how to respond. That must be a great honour? “Of course it is. He did a great thing.” She looked me over shrewdly, and then broke into a smile. “You should be happy too,” she said. “If he hadn’t accepted the Bible, you might be in the pot tonight.”

I had come to the Torres Strait to see the Coming of the Light, and though I’d only been here a few days, I’d already discovered how fond Islanders are of quips about cannibalism, especially when wide-eyed outsiders are around.

Still, the jokes are a reminder that this windy archipelago of nearly 300 islands, the northernmost only a few kilometres from the coast of Papua New Guinea, is a very different part of Australia’s indigenous heritage, the part that seems somehow hidden in plain sight in the rote phrase “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders”. The Strait is, of course, the homeland of Eddie Mabo, whose land claim changed Australian politics forever, and the homeland of the musicians Christine Anu and the Mills Sisters, but it’s also pretty remote and thinly peopled. Only about 5000 people live on the Strait’s 20 or so inhabited islands, so it’s perhaps not surprising that it nudges into public consciousness only rarely – when the basketballer Patty Mills won this year’s NBA championship with the San Antonio Spurs, say, or when another horrifying clip of someone butchering live turtles turns up on social media.

The villagers McFarlane encountered on Darnley were unrelated to the indigenous people of the mainland; these were sea-going Melanesians who lived in round huts, worshipped in temple complexes and grew food in family gardens. That world was transformed by this first sustained contact with outsiders, as were countless indigenous cultures across the globe. There was frontier violence in the Torres Strait too, but the Islanders were not dispossessed, like Aboriginal Australians. And despite more than a century of colonial rule, and mixed feelings about the long, unwinding consequences of colonisation, Islanders have continued to celebrate the arrival of outsiders with the Coming of the Light. The festival is also a powerful symbol of the Strait’s relationship to the world outside. As I began to discover when I first arrived on Thursday Island, the Strait’s administrative hub and most populous island, that’s a relationship that’s still being worked out.

Bishop Saibo Mabo at this year’s Coming of the Light festivities in July. © Aaron Smith

At the landward end of Engineers Wharf on Thursday Island, or TI, as everyone calls it, several significant dates and quotations are set into the cement flagstones. One quotes the late Ephraim Bani, a leader in the revival of traditional Islander culture in the 1980s and ’90s: “The past must exist for the present to create the future.” This struck me as encouraging support for my idea, worked up over some hasty pre-trip research and with all the blithe confidence of the newcomer, that the Torres Strait was a place that has managed to keep its distance from global culture – largely thanks to an intense engagement with its own history.

The Coming of the Light is certainly a big deal on TI. It’s a gazetted bank holiday. Pictures of the re-enactment always lead the Torres News. Last year’s front page showed the federal member for Leichhardt, Warren Entsch, holding out a Bible in both hands, the Word his shield against the spear of the warrior. Leo B Akee, a community activist and arts administrator, was Dabad. An animated man with a contagious laugh, Akee has played the role for the past five years. His passion for the festival is not about piety – he’s actually a Mormon – it’s about his love of community. Akee was supplying the canoes for the re-enactment this year; his band would be playing at the feast afterwards.

Some years the re-enactment is more elaborate than others. Sometimes the Erubians are represented by thatched huts, woven specially for the occasion and filled with women and thrilled children. Some years you just make do. One Islander told me she once saw a re-enactment on Cape York at which McFarlane, evidently forced to improvise, devoutly presented to Dabad a copy of the local Yellow Pages.

There is no set script. “I call out in Meriam language and tell the people to come out and see what’s coming,” Akee explained over lemonade. “And then I say, ‘The missionaries are here! There are some strange people coming!’” The warriors head down to the water to intercept the two lamars, or white ghosts, and their Pacific Islander colleagues. “At this stage, basically, we’re going down to the beach to kill them. Of course, the white man can’t understand language. So McFarlane shows me the Bible, and then I’m like” – with knitted eyebrows – “What’s this? And I flick through it and I’m not sure.” Akee mimed Dabad’s struggle with temptation. “I’m like, ‘Mmm, I dunno … I want a head. I want a head!’ And we just ad lib from there.”

Entsch seems to have made a convincing McFarlane. “Yeah,” said Akee, smiling at the memory, “Warren was holding up the Bible and trembling like a leaf … It’s good that he came up to get involved. Puts us to shame, really – a couple of outsiders have come and given their time, and I’m grateful for that. It’s about celebrating an event that had a big impact on all our lives.”

The key to the drama is that Dabad resisted temptation. It’s easy to miss if you don’t realise how radically his restraint departed from standard practice. In the time before the missionaries, a period known as bipotaim in Torres Strait Creole, Islanders traded and intermarried between islands, but they also terrorised their enemies. Raiding parties ranged across the Strait in fast 20-metre outrigger canoes, pillaging villages and carrying off women. And taking heads, of course: skulls were precious, and not just to their original owners. Skulls represented strength and power.

Thanks to the re-enactment, every Islander grows up knowing the story. Deb Belyea, who teaches Torres Strait history at TI’s Tagai State College, encourages her senior students to reflect on the nuances of the Coming of the Light. But for most people, she says, there are no shades of grey. “It’s just a given: we were fighting before, and then we broke the bow and arrow. Now everyone was safe. No more raids. No more fear about enemies putting bad magic on you – through your food, for example. Now it was safe to eat together as a community.”

Across the Strait, people converted to Christianity, largely under the guidance of the Pacific Islander teachers deputised to establish church missions on the islands. The Bible was translated into local languages. Islanders raised churches with traditional skills and local materials. Darnley’s is made of coral limestone. They used local granite for the Catholic church on Hammond Island, which is only a quick dash from TI by tinnie. I went out to look at it with Mario Sabatino, the local councillor. The stout building stands on a bluff overlooking the water, and has an appealing handmade look. It’s renowned for its “stained glass” windows, sections of pipe set high in the walls and filled with racked glass bottles. “You’ll have people argue that faith is the worst thing that happened to Torres Strait, that it decimated our culture,” Sabatino half-shouted over an ear-clubbing wind. “And you’ll have people who say we’d still be eating each other if the missionaries hadn’t turned up.”

Within a decade of the encounter on Kemus Beach, Her Majesty’s colony of Queensland had annexed the entire Torres Strait.

It occurred to me as I was pumping Leo Akee for details that I was merely another in a long line of nosy visitors who have been coming up here since the 1800s. Perhaps because colonisation came to the Torres Strait so late, and with less devastating impact to traditional life than elsewhere, the islands retained an irresistible whiff of the exotic well into the 20th century. You can see all the curiosity-seekers in the jittery old newsreels: the daytrippers off their steam yachts, and celebrities like Lord Kitchener and Douglas Fairbanks, quick-time marching up the jetties in their tropical suits and sun helmets. Frank Hurley, already famous for his photographs of the Western Front, visited in the 1920s. He found the Islanders to be excellent talent, and eager participants in mock attacks staged for his movie cameras. “The young men have the blood of their forefathers still hot in their veins: & the wild look comes into their eyes, and their song and yells betoken the primitive man again,” Hurley enthused in his diary.

Another storyteller drawn to the Strait was the popular novelist Ion L Idriess, who spent years sailing around the islands in the ’20s, fishing and yarning with elders. This field research he poured into four floridly adverbial novels, all telling true-ish tales of white shipwreck survivors or runaways adopted by Torres Strait island communities in the 19th century. Headhunters of the Coral Sea, for instance, describes the fate of 19 people who survived the shipwreck of the barque Charles Eaton in 1834. After drifting for days on makeshift rafts, the castaways are intercepted by a war canoe from Aureed Island. The “befeathered warriors”, in war paint, shark-tooth necklaces and pearl-shell breastplates, escort the lamars to a nearby beach. There’s an amicable feast. Then, when their exhausted guests have fallen into a deep postprandial sleep, the warriors attack, leaving only two small boys alive. In the story’s less sensational conclusion, both boys eventually make it to Mer (Murray Island), where they are adopted by kindly elders and live quite happily until they are rescued several years later.

Idriess is said to have stayed at TI’s Grand Hotel, where I was staying, though today’s version is a rebuild of the original. It burnt down in 1990. Somerset Maugham tossed off a few South Sea tales here. The Mills Sisters – headliners of the Australian folk festival circuit in the ’80s and ’90s – got their start as the Singing Grandmas here.

I had Idriess’ book with me, but I was having trouble channelling the warrior vibe with cable-TV NASCAR roaring on the flat screens in the breakfast area. I had more luck with the frontier ambience at the Federal Hotel further along Victoria Parade, a proudly unrefurbished place where you can overhear old hands telling newcomers tales about hairy helicopter rides and P-plate pilots wrestling their gale-tossed Cessnas onto tiny airstrips around the islands. Best of all, there’s a mural, in faux-scroll treasure-map style, depicting the days when there truly was treasure in them waters.

The treasure was pearl shell. Pearl-shellers first appeared in the Strait in the 1860s, and for the next hundred years the industry cycled through booms and busts. TI was only established as an administrative base in 1879, but by 1885 it had become a thriving entrepot crowded with the workers – Malays, Chinese, Japanese and Pacific Islanders – who created the rich ethnic diversity of today’s islands. From the safe distance of a 21st-century bar stool, there’s a certain romance to all this. The luggers were beautiful boats; the divers used the old-school helmets you see Tintin wearing. But it was a brutal business. Many Islanders were press-ganged into work as deck crew on luggers crawling with rats. Divers risked shark attack and suffered agonising, sometimes fatal, episodes of the bends. And as people and money poured in, TI became notorious for the tough pearl-boat crews, the knifings in the alleys, the drunken sprees. As late as the 1920s, trinket-hunters could buy shrunken human heads that came from PNG if they asked around.

In TI’s Gab Titui Cultural Centre, you can sit in the softly lit gallery and watch looped documentaries about the pearling days. The industry finally keeled over in the early 1960s, when manufacturers started to make shirt buttons out of plastic instead. That world has gone, leaving only a ghostly afterimage in old-timers’ memories and on gift-shop tea towels. Apart from fishing, the Torres Strait has been looking for steady work ever since.

Some 3000 people live on TI, including about half of all Torres Strait Islanders actually resident in the Strait. Just 40 kilometres from the tip of Cape York, TI looks much like any other neat, quiet regional centre, except that everything revolves around the sea. Community noticeboards bristle sociably with flyers for raffles and fundraisers, and dengue fever warnings, but also lots of ads for reconditioned outboards. In front yards, coconut palms and almond trees are draped with old buoys and fishing nets. The Anglican church’s walls are studded with portholes and other sad mementos recovered from a 19th-century wreck. A teacher I met there said she’d been startled, when she arrived, by prep students’ what-I-did-on-the-weekend drawings featuring crayon tinnies towing trussed dugongs. But she got used to it. When southerners say TI is a great place to raise small children – and they all do – they’re talking about the chance to dive for painted cray, to sail, handline from the wharf, cheer Islander dance teams at festivals, and generally experience a different culture and a different way of life. And all at an unapologetically restful tempo known as “island time”. “To use the old cliché,” observes a local history book, this is “a place where time stands still … In many ways progress has either passed the island by or failed to reach it.”

But not for want of trying. In 1995, the then prime minister, Paul Keating, travelled up to TI to talk about independence for the Torres Strait. Independence had been a hot topic since 1988, when Islanders celebrated the bicentennial year by threatening to secede. In the early ’90s, there were even riots – smallish ones – in TI’s main street. After a hundred years, it had become clear to many Islanders that when Dabad welcomed the Light, he had also unwittingly opened the door to a permanent condition of what anthropologists call “welfare colonialism”. Keating’s visit reached its climax in Anzac Park, where an enormous crowd had gathered in blazing sunshine. He stepped up to the microphone and explained that there would be no independence because the Torres Strait had no economic base. “He said it all in one sentence,” wrote John Singe, a long-time resident who witnessed the anti-occasion. “The audience listened in stunned silence.”

There’s still not much of an economic base. Most things have to be brought in: the new houses barged up in prefab sections; KFC, which locals consider a delicacy, carried up in noisome bucketfuls on the Cairns flight; and the public servants of nearly 30 government departments imported from the mainland. Their hardship bonuses are partly blamed for TI’s high grocery prices and inflated rents. In this small town with endemic joblessness, a three-bedroom house can rent for $1600 a week.

These seem like remarkable numbers, I later suggested to the mayor of Torres Shire Council, Pedro Stephen. “I agree with you,” he said. “Someone once asked me, ‘What is the focus that you can use to promote tourism in the Torres Strait?’ And I said, ‘Invite everybody to come up and see the bureaucratic zoo we have here.’”

There are three types of southerners here on TI, said Aaron Smith, a former bit-part TV actor, now a self-described gonzo journalist and editor of the Torres News. “There’s the people who aren’t good enough to get a job anywhere else. There’s the mercenaries who come up for a couple of years for their 30% salary loading and just don’t give a fuck. And then there’s the people who really do give a fuck, and are up here because they want to help.”

So which would he be? “I’m in-between,” he said with a grin. “I guess I’m one of the ones who care … But then I also couldn’t get a job I wanted down south.” Editor, chief reporter, photographer and paperboy rolled into one, Smith works out of a tiny one-desk office at the back of a pretty harbourside house that comes with the job. He has the worldly air of someone who has done lots of things in lots of exotic places, but his slightly frustrated affection for the place became obvious as he filled me in on his beat and its issues. There are all the community events and celebrity visits; the job-creation initiatives and negotiations over traditional fisheries; bureaucratic boondoggles; and running crises like the Strait’s world-leading rates of type 2 diabetes. And, of course, the “flood” of asylum seekers streaming through the Strait – 12 last year, Smith noted, with an eye roll of mock horror. Up from 11 the year before.

We drove out to Green Hill Fort, which was built in the 1890s to protect Queensland from Russian ironclads. From up here, you can see tankers riding silently on the horizon beyond Hammond Island, plying the shipping channels nervously mapped by Admiralty hydrographers in the 19th century. On the sea below are the ruffled tracks of dinghies crossing between the inner islands. But getting around the Strait is not as simple as it looks. Flights are expensive. The whole area is a tightly monitored quarantine zone. Non-residents need permits to visit all but the inner islands around TI – as the minister for immigration, Scott Morrison, discovered earlier this year when he came up to inspect the border-security frontline on Boigu Island, just off the coast of PNG. This is still one of Smith’s favourite stories. Morrison flew to Boigu from TI in a chopper, but his party had neglected to secure prior permission to land from the traditional owners. The minister was left haplessly circling the island, possibly pondering the meaning of the phrase “unauthorised arrival”.

I sensed that Smith wasn’t that fussed about the Coming of the Light, that the festival wasn’t close to the strangest thing he’d seen in his time up here. But don’t miss the political angle, he said. Warren Entsch played the missionary on TI last year; this year it was to be the state MP, David Kempton. Both Nationals. And the Torres Strait is traditionally Labor territory. You can see why pollies would want to be involved, Smith said. “It plays well. It’s not often people here get to see a white man on his knees in front of a black man.”

Still, that gratifying spectacle wasn’t enough to get the mayor of the Torres Shire Council to the re-enactment this year. Pedro Stephen had a bad cold and couldn’t make it. But it sounds like he mightn’t have made it anyway. “For me, the re-enactment is like a zombie,” he told me. “You’re just dressing a dead thing now. When it’s politicised, you miss the real point.”

I had dropped by the council offices to introduce myself as a courtesy, but it soon became clear that the mayor, a charismatic speaker even in one-on-one conversation, had a lot to say about the uses of history in the Torres Strait. “To understand anything,” he said, “you have to always reflect on the past to know where you are in your present so you can progress to the future.”

In the 1990s, Stephen said, there was a lot of community debate about the meaning of the Coming of the Light. He was one of those in favour of rethinking the celebration as the Going of the Light. If the light’s coming, he explained, it implies that the Islander is there waiting for someone from outside to “come and anoint you to have the light”. To Stephen, that seems like a one-way transaction, since the Islander needs the Light to come “only if we’ve come from the darkness”. It positions the Islander “as someone forever sitting down, waiting for things to come – it’s the welfare mentality. Always receive. Someone will always give you something.”

Stephen has led an all-indigenous council since 1997, and local leaders have been trying to cut free of mainland interference for at least that long. One thing that’s stopping them is a legacy of over-government, the tangled net of acronyms that still governs the Torres Strait. As well as layers of state and federal government, and the Torres Shire, there’s the Torres Strait Island Regional Council (TSIRC); the Registered Native Title Body Corporate (RNTBC) bodies, each island community’s trustee under native title; and the Torres Strait Regional Authority (TSRA), a statutory body established in 1994 to invest federal funds in enterprises and cultural programs.

The “one boat” policy is many Islanders’ favoured solution to this mess. “One boat” aims to replace layers of governance with a single authority and so end the duplication and over-regulation that stifles enterprise and generally drives locals crazy. Stephen offered an example. He recently attended a court case in which a local fisherman was being prosecuted because he’d been found with mackerel in his dinghy. The fisherman’s state licence didn’t cover mackerel. “In his defence he asked the magistrate, ‘Why, with all the government fisheries agencies and officials around, is nobody educating the fish? Why isn’t someone telling the fish not to bite my line because that fish is a Commonwealth fish?’” Stephen threw up his hands. “It takes maybe ten days to enact a policy. Then it takes ten years to undo that same policy.”

Out on Hammond Island I’d heard the same thing from Mario Sabatino. Sabatino is the island’s TSRA member and local councillor, and another fierce critic of bureaucratic waste. Like many middle-aged Islanders, Sabatino was educated at boarding school in Queensland, and is grateful he had a chance to work down south and learn how to “survive in both worlds”. These days he runs a couple of businesses and tries to change attitudes to change. It was hard not to warm to his thoughtful optimism and stream of sometimes disconcerting ideas. For instance: Islanders should think about offering sanctuary to climate-change refugees from the Pacific. “Yeah, why not? Let’s offer our bloody services, and say, ‘Instead of sticking you in a regional city, let’s bring you into a setting you’re used to.’” Sabatino admits that some locals may not be ready for this. In the short term, Sabatino plans to start up an NGO to run a quarrying operation on Hammond. But the big vision is about making the Strait’s strategic location pay. You could set up a feeder station to tap into the shipping traffic in the Strait, for instance. You could offer resources companies a secure staging area for operations in PNG or Timor.

“For me, the re-enactment is like a zombie,” Pedro Stephen told me. “You’re just dressing a dead thing now."

Tourism is another perennial opportunity. It looks like a no-brainer, or it did to me. On these friendly islands, every day seems to conclude with a palm-fringed sunset just crying out for cocktail hour. Swimming can be dicey, thanks to the sharks and crocodiles, but you can hike and bird-watch. And it’s an angler’s paradise. Shallow fringing reefs are full of octopus, coral trout and painted cray; Spanish mackerel dart about in the inky blue currents further out.

The weather is not always ideal. Sure, it was delightful in July, one former fishing charter operator told me. But it can be horribly hot. In the Wet (from December to May), it’s really wet. “Then there’s the wind,” she added. In what promised to be a promotional coup, Ernie Dingo was persuaded to come up to film a TV segment out on her boat. But it was impossible to go out fishing. Too windy.

Still, in the pleasant dry months especially, a steady flow of visitors arrives from Cape York by ferry. Most people only stay for a day or two, perhaps taking in the World War Two sights on Horn Island, the cultured pearl farm on Friday Island and Gab Titui on Thursday Island. The challenge is persuading visitors to stay longer. And persuading Islanders that tourism isn’t just an attempt to monetise ailan kastom. A lot of people have got it into their heads, Pedro Stephen told me, that more tourism means turning into Fiji. No one wants high-rise resorts full of tourists expecting to see the natives dance. Mario Sabatino sees nothing wrong with cultural tourism, as long as it’s done right. The more immediate issue is the lack of facilities.

On the way back to TI from Hammond, I tried to peer beneath the water’s flashing surface, hoping to glimpse a fish, Commonwealth or state, I didn’t mind. So far I’d seen no fish, though Sabatino had pointed out to me a dugong poo floating under the jetty. Hunters track dugong that way, he said – by what suddenly seemed a touchingly mammalian, human-scale turd.

The young fisherman running me back confessed that he wasn’t that keen on more tourism either. Why? He nodded at the empty sea. “Well, look at it,” he said. “It’s beautiful because there’s hardly anyone here.” There’s hardly anyone here, it has to be said, because most people who identify as Torres Strait Islanders – around 42,000 – live on the mainland. It did look beguiling from my perch on the dinghy’s tackle box. It looked a bit like a half-forgotten archipelago where several thousand or so crayfishing Team Australia refuseniks could live a devout, stress-free existence. But no one gets out of modern times that easily.

For most of the 20th century, Islanders were encouraged to forget about pre-missionary times. But then, with Mabo, and the growing clamour for independence, that began to change. “Just lately,” the historian Steve Mullins wrote in the mid ’90s, “the Islanders have begun to look back on bipotaim more favourably, and while they remain devoutly Christian, a growing number now seek in elements of the pre-colonial culture the means to reaffirm their identity as Torres Strait Islanders.” This cultural rediscovery drew on the work of the Strait’s nosiest ever visitor: Alfred Cort Haddon. He led the 1898 “Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to Torres Straits”, one of the seminal field studies in modern anthropology.

Haddon’s team lived among the Islanders for nearly a year, and then returned to Cambridge with trunks stuffed with weapons, tortoise-shell masks and wax cylinder recordings. It sounds like a classic colonial heist disguised as science. But it wasn’t only that. As Ephraim Bani says in Cracks in the Mask, a documentary about his 1995 visit to the European museums where those artefacts are still kept in climate-controlled vaults, “Haddon in a way preserved our culture.” When they were dusted off in the ’80s, Haddon’s journals and the expedition’s reports – six massive volumes published between 1901 and 1935 – helped nourish a renaissance in traditional arts and language in the Torres Strait that continues today.

Islanders gave Haddon access to sacred objects and taboo information, Deb Belyea told me, because they knew that things were being lost. But even in the repressive decades under Queensland’s director of native affairs, the Islanders’ traditional life wasn’t lost, or even discontinued; it adapted. While noodling among the displays at Gab Titui, I’d been struck by an exhibit from Badu Island: the Badu Plane headpiece. A model of a US Army Air Force bomber, made of wood and wire and about the size of a large tennis racquet, it’s designed to perch above the head and is worn during dances depicting aircraft movements out of the Horn Island military airfield during World War Two. My first thought – it wasn’t the first time I’d thought it – was What an extraordinary thing not to have known about my own country. My second thought was that this wasn’t some carefully preserved relic of extinct Australiana, like a stuffed, sad-eyed thylacine. These songs are still sung. Planes like this still swoop and dive on the heads of dancers, young and old.

Still, I was beginning to sense an ambivalence about the Coming of the Light that had nothing to do with warrior spirit. Rosie Ware, another high-profile Islander, gave the re-enactment a miss this year too. The renowned textiles artist says that at her age – 55 – she can “take or leave all the culture stuff”. The festival was great fun when she was a child growing up in Holloways Beach, north of Cairns; back then it was an opportunity for Islanders living in “foreign country” to see one another and celebrate family. But these days, she sees it as part of a tendency for people to marinate themselves in culture and hope the future will look after itself. “You get so much culture here,” she said, “and we’re sort of sick of it. Community events all the time. It’s in our face. You’ve got to work and put food on the table, and all this culture stuff sucks up a lot of our time and energy.”

Ware had been recommended to me as a counterpoint to what she herself calls “the men’s club that runs this place”, and I could see why. She was equally forthright on autonomy.

“All this talk about autonomy – they’re all talking through their arse,” she said. “If you want autonomy, you’re going to need your own doctors, nurses, bankers, lawyers – everyone has to be Torres Strait Islanders. So you need education. The kids need to be learning English first. And they need to be training in something useful.”

“I don’t know why you didn’t come talk to me earlier,” she added brightly. “Is there anything else you want to know?”

There was, but for that I had to go out to Darnley Island.

I flew to Darnley with another visitor, a Sydney writer called Beatrice who was researching a novel partly inspired by her father’s prewar visits to TI as a junior ship’s officer. Like most visitors to Darnley – the fisheries people, researchers, electricians – we stayed with Auntie Norah and Uncle Bully at Norah’s Ark, a large, airy guesthouse on the water overlooking the old stone fish traps. The Ark did feel a bit like a sanctuary, especially at night when the clattering timbers took the full force of the south-easterlies. Norah feeds her guests with Samoan coconut and yams and sweet potato from her own garden; from the mysterious depths of her kitchen cabinets she dispenses home remedies, most of them involving applications of Promite and tea, for all kinds of minor ailments.

Mario Sabatino had told me I’d get the “real cultural experience” out on remote Darnley. But distance hasn’t insulated this island from change. In the evening there was to be traditional dancing in the village, and while everyone waited for the beer canteen to close I got talking to a man who was trying and genially failing to keep track of his lively little daughter among all the plastic chairs and eskies in the picnic area. “We used to live by the tides,” he told me, with what I was beginning to recognise as an Islander flair for epigram. “Now we live by time.”

Not long returned from an extended stint working on the mainland, he had noticed several regrettable developments. There’s no respect for tradition now. He likes to wear his lava-lava (a length of cloth worn as a skirt), but only at home because all the kids just laugh if he wears it down the street. But it was time that had changed most: everyone’s too busy now with 9-to-5 life, he said. It surprised me to hear this, considering how profoundly unhurried things looked on Darnley. But he was serious: the mad rush is squeezing out island ways. He said that the old way was if you were having dancing, then you were having dancing, and that was where everyone should be, it didn’t matter if you stayed up all night. He gazed around the modest gathering, shrugging, amused. “Where is everyone?” I had no idea. “Facebook, probably,” he said. “Watching telly.”

On the morning of 1 July this year, everything looked set on Darnley Island for the arrival of the missionaries. The wind was up, and the clouds had a wild look to them, but kids were still roaming Kemus Beach in pressed shirts and hand-sewn party dresses. A couple of hundred metres offshore, the Surprise was in place. It was a large, unprepossessing motor yacht, and I couldn’t see any activity aboard. No sign yet either of McFarlane or Dabad. But at the edge of a clearing above the historic beach, one of the priests had got the portable generator going for the microphone speaker, and for the tea urn and rice-cookers over on the picnic table, where women in richly patterned mumus with red hibiscus flowers in their hair unpacked a feast of sandwiches, damper and casserole dishes. The stage itself was set in the centre of the clearing.

In this clearing, time itself seemed to hang over everything with a palpable weight. Or maybe it was just my self-consciousness that I could feel. Despite the warm welcome of at least a dozen total strangers, I felt uncomfortably like another white man on safari, another outsider who would soon depart with a heist of wry observations scribbled in his notebook.

This feeling dissipated somewhat as it became clear that there wasn’t going to be a re-enactment. The menacing weather had thrown out the arrangements. I’d been wrong about the ugly motor yacht – no one knew whose it was or what it was doing there. Some yachtie had anchored in the Surprise’s historic spot by pure coincidence.

There was going to be a service, though. We gathered around the stage. “Even though the program changed,” said the first preacher to speak, “we can still celebrate because we can still bring surprises in our lives, and we can still shine! Amen!”

There were Bible readings, and preaching, and singing in Meriam Mir, the old language of the eastern islands. I think it was the singing that undid me. The keening sound of the women was exquisite and harrowing, and it seemed to be coming from everywhere at once: from the wind, the shifting jungle canopy, the past. I hadn’t expected the service to be so intensely moving, or to see people openly weeping during the sermons as the pastors spoke of gratitude for God’s love, for the island’s salvation. There was nothing abstract about this gratitude. It really wasn’t that long ago, only five or six generations back on an island where everyone has ancestors on one or both sides of the historic encounter. When McFarlane came, Darnley had been devastated by raids and its gardens had been pillaged by the Pacific Islander trepang fishermen who’d been squatting on the island for some years. Soon measles would complete the reduction of a pre-contact population estimated at 500 to barely a hundred. Another preacher said: “We might be a small nation but we are a strong one, because the Lord is with us.” The nation he was referring to was the Torres Strait.

After the service, I strolled down to the beach and ran my hands through the crumbling shell, looking for an exotic specimen to take home. A small boy joined me there and we chatted for a bit while he carefully spelt my name in the sand with a stick. He mentioned that he could speak three languages. I told him my kids could only speak one, which seemed to please him very much. Together we gazed across the water at the motor yacht, still sitting out there, still motionless, curtains drawn in its big square windows. Then he pointed to where Beatrice was sitting on a plastic chair with a cup of tea in hand, laughing with a group of women. “That lady that you came with,” he asked, in a confidential tone, “is she Queen Elizabeth?”

Reluctantly, I said she wasn’t. But the boy just nodded. I got the feeling that he would have been pleased by a royal visit, but not surprised, and not in the least intimidated.

Thornton McCamish

Thornton McCamish is a Melbourne-based journalist and author. His most recent book is Our Man Elsewhere: In Search of Alan Moorehead.

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