ICA Australia Yarning in the Torres Strait

W&W 36 Australia yarningOur small team from Sydney visited the Torres Strait Islands in August to continue an oral history project which will be published in a coffee table book.

The Strait, more than 150 kilometres wide, separates Australia and Papua New Guinea. There are at least 274 small islands, most of which are a part of Australia’s Queensland state, but only 14 are inhabited.

From the 1860s and during the mid-1880s, the pearling industry recruited Filipino, Malay, Japanese and South Pacific Islanders as pearl divers. Some of the indentured workers who stayed on the islands intermarried with the local residents.

We planned to visit Hammond, Horn and Thursday islands. Deborah, a Filipino Australian who led the team, Robyn and Peter Sabatino of Hammond Island, who hosted us, are members of ICA Australia. We aimed to gather stories of the Torres Strait Islanders, who are descendants of Filipino pearl divers, who were called “Manilamen”. We had already collected similar material from Aboriginal Manilamen descendants from the Kimberley in Broome, Western Australia.

W&W 38 Australia yarningThe day after our arrival, we went for mass at St Joseph’s Church on Hammond Island. It was presided by Father Saju, a priest from south India who looks after the Catholic parishes such as Hammond and Thursday Islands. The “rock church” had been built “stone on stone,” primarily with the help of Manilamen and their descendants.

We met some members of the Hammond Island community at the church. After mass, we were led to a primary school where we sat down, introduced ourselves and talked about our project.

During the week, we joined in the activities at the Home and Community Care (HACC) Centre on Thursday Island, where older people and retirees gather once a week to socialise, engage in craft work, sing-along, dancing and share a meal.

By then, we had developed enough trust for “yarning”. That took place over the week with several generations of Torres Strait Islanders, who traced their heritage over seven generations. Those who shared stories with us included Peter Sabatino, Josephine David-Petero, Josie Cowley, Camilla Sabatino, Mary Binjuda, Mario Sabatino, Regina Turner, Patrick Mau, Lillian Majid and Mary Bowie.

Bipo Taim (before time), a phrase used by the elders, intrigued us. They used it to refer to a time of innocence when they were children, when they frolicked in the sea, played in the sand and enjoyed relative freedom on their pristine islands — before the onset of colonial rule and the missionary church regulations at orphanages and schools.

The practice of adopting children “out” drew our attention when a young man named a sibling who had been “adopted out”. He explained that one or two of the children were given to an extended family. We appreciated such sharing of responsibility for raising families in sparsely populated and isolated islands, something that transcended Western notions of “exclusive” nuclear families. Some residents in their 70s and 80s who yarned with us had been raised in families with 10 or more children.

W&W 39 Australia yarningDuring our visit, Deborah and Peter were interviewed by Jenni Enosa of Radio4MW, Torres Strait Radio. They talked about the developments that had brought foreigners to work in the pearl shell industry. One was the opening of the Philippines to international trade in 1834. Shipping links were established as Australia began exporting coal to the Philippines and importing coffee, sugar and rope products from there. Another was the revolutionary struggle against Spanish colonial rule, which led some Filipinos to leave the country. A third factor was the boom in the pearling industry in Australia which led to the recruitment of indentured labourers from the ports of Singapore, Hong Kong and Colombo.

Filipino cultural influences were evident in local cuisine such as dinuguan, a dish made with pig’s blood, and adobo, pork or chicken cooked with vinegar. Some of the residents remembered their grandfathers making a wine called tuba.

The visit was captured on tape and film. Robyn assisted Deborah and Peter by taking photographs of the yarning journey. Artist Denise Barry sketched as we yarned.

The team also includes Dr Christine Choo from Perth and Dee Hunt from Brisbane. They plan to add to the book archival photographs and documents that reflect the policies and governance of earlier times that shaped the community’s past experiences. They expect to have the book published by 2016.

Our visit inspired the residents, some of whom plan to explore their heritage by visiting islands in the Philippines where their ancestors were born. The meaning of our mission was captured for us in the words of Ephraim Bani, a traditional chief and Torres Strait islander leader. As we walked on Thursday Island, we saw inscribed on a footpath the following quote from him:

The past must exist, for the present to create the future. – E. Bani

This post was first published in Winds & Waves, December 2015.

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