Torres Strait Islanders - Orientation

Identification. The Torres Strait Islanders are a Melanesian group who live on the islands of Torres Strait and in coastal communities of Queensland, Australia. The strait is named for its Spanish discoverer, Captain Luis Baez de Torres, who first explored the region in 1606. The islands and their inhabitants are among the most famous of ethnographic subjects as a result of the Cambridge University expedition of 1898, organized and led by A. C. Haddon.

Location. Torres Strait, which connects the Coral and Arafura seas, lies between the southwestern coast of Papua New Guinea and Australia's Cape York. Out of the more than 100 islands in the strait, only about 20 were or are inhabited—the rest being too small or too lacking in resources to support a full-time population. The inhabited Islands are of four basic physical types. The Western Islands are large high islands, well-watered and fringed by mangrove swamps; the Central Islands are sand cays on coral reefs; the Eastern Islands are small, volcanic formations with fertile soil; and, to the north, near the coast of Papua New Guinea, there are large, low islands frequently subject to flooding, whose predominant vegetation is mangrove swamps.

Demography. At the time of European contact the Population of the islands was estimated at between 4,000 and 5,000, living in communities that varied in size from less than 100 people to more than 800. By the end of the 1800s, the population had dropped to about 3,000, largely as a result of the depredations of introduced disease and of overwork and ill-treatment by the European-controlled trepang and pearling industries. The first official population count, in 1913, showed 2,368 islanders. Figures for more recent times are rather questionable, because of methodological problems in ethnic identification, but a 1981 commonwealth census puts the figure at 15,232, about half of whom live and work in communities on the Australian mainland.

Linguistic Affiliation. Meriam Mir (or Miriam), the Language of the Eastern Torres Strait Islands, is a member of the Eastern Trans-Fly Family. On the other islands the language spoken (Mabuiag) betrays a mix of Melanesian and Aboriginal linguistic elements.

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