Torres Strait Islanders - Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Kinship, bilaterally reckoned, is invoked as the organizing principle in island life, be it in putting together a work crew, justifying the establishment of Residence in a community, or cooperating in throwing a feast.

Political Organization. Torres Strait leadership was traditionally achieved rather than ascribed, and it was largely based upon a reputation for generosity and a willingness to help one's fellows. But the egalitarian nature of traditional society, and the relatively autonomous nature of households meant that there were limited occasions wherein leadership was required on a communitywide basis. Warfare was one such enterprise, as was land allocation and dispute settlement, and community elders provided the means for achieving consensus in such circumstances. With the establishment of island councils, communities elected representatives (councillors) to serve the traditional functions of elders and to mediate islanders and the government.

Social Control. Traditional mechanisms of social control were largely informal and mainly consisted of public censure or disapproval. But with the advent of the missionaries, social control often came under the auspices of the church and its representatives, and the threat of expulsion from the church provided an institutionalized means of securing individual compliance with social norms.

Conflict. All small communities give rise to interpersonal frictions, and the Torres Strait Islanders were not exempt from this. But friends or kin were always ready to mediate when possible, and if they failed, the community elders would attempt to reconcile disputants before hostilities could get out of hand. Conflicts between individuals of different Communities were commonly expressed in accusations of witchcraft or sorcery; within the community antagonisms found release in arguments or, more rarely, brawls.

Warfare and raiding was common throughout the Torres Strait, encouraged by traditional beliefs that the taking of a human head marked a boy's attainment of full manhood. Stated reasons for a particular raiding expedition usually included revenge for perceived insult to one's group. Over time, relations of enmity between two islands or communities assumed the character of tradition. Wars were fought with bows and arrows and stone clubs, and members of war parties carried braided cane shields and wore distinctive feather headdresses and shell ornaments. Prior to a raid, warriors sought out the offices of medicine men for magic to secure a successful outcome, and dances and chants were composed to celebrate victory. With the advent of colonialism and the influence of missionaries, a policy of pacification brought an end to warfare and head-hunting in the region.

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