Family Violence in the Torres Strait (with special emphasis on causal factors)

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Marriage Practice

While marriage customs and family organization varied to some extent in the different island clusters, there were some common practices (Finch 1977:16).

“Generally, a man was not permitted to marry a young woman from his own village or from his father’s or mother’s family group or village. Sometimes the marriage partners came from two different nearby islands (for example, Badu and Mabuiag), the wife-to-be occasionally being taken by force during an inter-island battle. In some communities, marriages were arranged for girls at the time of their birth”. (Finch 1977:16.)

If a young couple were attracted to one another of their own volition, when they came to tell “their parents of their intentions [to marry], the two family groups would confront each other and “fight”, generally not seriously and usually only verbally.” The expectation of the girl’s family was that they should receive something of value to replace the loss of their daughter (Finch 1977:16).

“When family agreement was reached and, in some cases, approval obtained from the village elders or district headmen, the contract was concluded with the exchange of gifts. The young man and his family would provide gifts of greater value than those given by the bride’s family, although the bride usually also was given a portion of land by her family. Men could take more than one wife, but only those from families who could afford more than one set of marriage gifts usually did so.” (Finch 1977:16.)

It was also customary to present the wife’s family with a gift at the birth of each child. If, in the course of the marriage, the husband and wife did not get along, the husband would send his wife back to her family, sometimes allowing her to take the youngest child. “Both were then free to marry again.” Thus, according to Finch, divorce was relatively a common practice throughout the Torres Strait. (Finch 1977:16.)

Clan Structure

All families and individuals belonged to a clan system which directed the overall social fabric of Islander societies (Hunter et al 1999:22). Cutts found that each family unit or clan belonged to a particular totem (augadh/lubabar) which could have been an animal, plant, wind, or constellation/star (1996:137-138). She further indicates that while some clans were closely related to Papuan clans, others were not. The founders of clans are called Muruig ‘patriarchs’, which is a term derived from the Western Islands’ language of Kalaw Lagaw Ya. “Clans are related to each other either by being of the same major buwai or the opposite major buwai (‘in‑law buwai’), hence the complex extended family” system that defines Islander society (Cutts 1996:138).

It is likely that the ‘clans’ referred to above, are the same units as Beckett’s descent groups.

Descent groups

Marriage and its associated custom of gift exchange that occurred throughout the lives of the married couple, mobilized the respective kinsfolk of husband and wife between certain villages and islands. Formally, the wife passed from her own descent group to that of her husband’s, however, personal preference enabled the couple to decide on their place of residence (Beckett 1987:29-30).

“Each community was segmented into a number of patrilineal descent groups in a manner that is broadly characteristic of southern Papua. Each group had a name and was associated with a place and perhaps a shrine and, in the case of the Central and Western Islanders, with a totem. But these groups emerged only occasionally in the performance of rituals, or as the units within which marriage was prohibited” (Beckett 1987:29).

Finch, however correlated totemism and residence at Saibai as late as the 1970s.


In the 1970s, Finch reported that “[c]lan membership still fulfil[led] a social function at Saibai, Boigu and Dauan.” On Saibai, Finch noted that the families living in each of the five clusters of houses that made up the village, belonged to the same totem (Finch 1977:21).

“People in most communities, except those of the Eastern Islands, belonged to clan groups associated with a particular totem (augud, augad). Some clans had more than one totem. Clan members lived in the one village or district, or in a section or ward of a large village on an island. An augud was not restricted to any one island. This was of great assistance when trading between islands because, as was the case with inter-island marriage links, people of a certain augud would be received with hospitality on another island if members of the same totem lived there. [Whereas a] person visiting an island where he had neither marriage nor clan ties, went in danger of losing his life.” (Finch 1977:20.)

Customary totemism was clearly still in practice at the time of the current author’s study. The consultant . from the Eastern Islands identified his totems as (i) mackeral (daburr), “a fast fish that lives in the deep, doesn’t play in the shallows, … comes up quick for a feed; Arrgi daburr is the big mackeral, the hard one to catch, and is usually the Narbid,” and (ii) frigate bird, lives high on cliff; comes down momentarily for a feed, a deep thinker and it waits for the right moment.” Some totems are held in common between several islands, whilst some are unique to an individual island e.g. Saibai has Emu Dreaming. Murray Island has Sardine totem clan, Shark clan and Turtle clan. (Turtle was at Dawur Island and lived at the end of the sandspit.)

Finch goes on to state:-

“Children inherited the totems of both their father and mother. The mother kept hers after marriage, but the father’s totem was the more important. At Badu and Mabuiag, a man was not permitted to marry a woman of the same totem, but on some islands, this did not appear to have [always] been the rule”.

“Men from different totems met together for initiation ceremonies, for preparation for war, and for social gatherings. These meetings were held in secluded areas, often in groves of coconut trees, fenced by bamboo poles. Such a sacred meeting-place (kwod) was forbidden to women and children, under pain of death” (Finch 1977:20-21).

Kinship, social relationship and morality

As in Aboriginal Australia, Torres Strait Island societies had an extended kinship system with particular categories of kin maintaining obligatory types of roles and behaviour to one another. Rivers explained that

“…the kinship system in Mabuiag was partly a system which regulated how one individual should address another. It was a means of regulating social etiquette, but it was much more than this. While going over the various names which one man would apply to others, I was occasionally told that such and such a man would stop a fight, another would bury a dead man, and so on. When the clues given by these occasional remarks were followed up, it was found that there were certain very definite duties and privileges attached to certain bonds of kinship.” (Rivers 1904:144.)

The values of traditional Torres Strait Islander societies were learnt from example and developed from social relationships. Haddon commented on ‘morality’ stating that “It is fairly evident that the obligations of the social life were at the basis of the morality of the Torres Straits islanders, indeed it would be scarcely incorrect to speak of it a social morality” (1904:272). “Such ‘social morality’ was informed by the common understanding of roles and responsibilities” which was reinforced from infancy (Osborne 1989).

Meriam Island Case Study

To exemplify some of the above features of social organization, we can consider the traditional social life of the Meriam people which has been described in depth by Beckett (1987). The Meriam occupied three proximate islands in the Eastern Island cluster: Mer, Waier and Dauar Islands.

“[T]he core of the household being a conjugal pair, or occasionally a polygynous marriage, together with the unmarried offspring. The wedding ceremony represented the wife as subordinate to her husband, and she was enjoined to work without ceasing, weeding, carrying firewood, fishing, cooking, weaving mats and caring for the children. Her girlhood would have prepared her for such a role.” (Beckett 1987:114).

Boys, on the other hand, “had few responsibilities before marriage, and even after marriage they were expected to spend much of their time in dancing and amorous adventures.” The men’s main tasks were gardening and the “cultivation of the great usari yams, the performance of rituals and occasional headhunting expeditions.” Beckett noted that the early ethnographer Haddon could gather little information on actual raids and that the Meriam were not particularly warlike. (Beckett 1987:114,115).

“A gift economy, which required the redistribution of food when life crises were celebrated or rituals performed, intensified agricultural production beyond the needs of the domestic unit. Marriage, in particular, required the man’s and the woman’s kin to make exchanges of food, small and large, as long as it lasted. A man’s reputation was at stake in these exchanges, which could take on a competitive edge and frequently resulted in quarrelling.” (Beckett 1987:115).

Land might be owned individually or brothers may “hold their inheritance jointly, and occasionally their sons continued the arrangement, either because relations among them were particularly close or because land shortage made division difficult. Owners were expected to leave the bulk of their land to sons,” and in particular in the hands of the eldest. A son who had given offence may be disinherited from the transferal of land from his father.

“(This inequality was unlikely to be transmitted to the next generation, since a man without land could not get a wife.) A daughter might receive a small marriage portion [of the land], which she could pass on to her heirs; [but] if she had no brothers she could inherit all the land, before more distance kin in the male line. The latter would inherit if there were no children, but this eventuality was commonly avoided by adoption. The outcome of the system was that, while an area of garden land might be mainly owned by agnates (people related in the male line), it was likely to have a number of owners who had inherited through a female connection at some point in the past. A garden place was thus a genealogical record, and the word for path (gab) was also the idiom for a kinship connection.” (Beckett 1987:115.)

A most valuable part of the estate was that of the coastline and adjacent sand platforms with associated food resources, springs, wells and inter-littoral rock platforms. Here…

“Residential land, situated on the foreshore, was inherited in the male line. This provided the basis for social placement. The association of people with named stretches of beach provided the means of dividing the society into units for the regulation of marriage and the practice of various cults. The minimal units, which Rivers called ‘villages’, numbered twenty-seven.” (Beckett 1987:115.)

Beckett goes on to discuss the pattern of inter-village marriage (villages exogamy) which seems to correspond approximately to clan exogamy.

“One could not marry into one’s own village, or that of one’s mother or father’s mother. Villages might have their own shrines; but the more important cults grouped a number of villages together, some occupying a continuous stretch of foreshore, others situated at various points around the three islands. Since there was a profusion of cults and most villages belonged to several, the division of ritual labour was kaleidoscopic rather than segmentary.” (Beckett 1987:116.)

“Whatever the intermittent importance of the hereditary cult and territorial units, daily life was organized so as to leave room for personal preference. Although marriage formally transferred the woman to her husband’s village, they did not have to live there, but might live with other kin elsewhere, even borrowing their garden land.” (Beckett 1987:116.)

“Weddings and the exchange of gifts that followed engaged the kin of bride and groom, called ‘sides (doge), rather than villages as such.” (Beckett 1987:116.)

The author’s consultant, gave an account of the religious cult that arose around Malo, the sacred Octopus. The name Zogo Malo (in Eastern language) is made up of Malo meaning ‘octopus’, and Zogo [or Zugo] meaning ‘holiness/worship.’ said this was the only sort of Council that existed in early and pre contact times, a Council of Priests. (Note that Malu means ‘saltwater’ in the western Torres Strait). . also spoke of how particular families had specialized roles in Torres Strait society including as (i) lead singers, and keepers of songs; (ii) keepers of the sacred drum (drum manufacture, tuning and repair); (iii) the Zogo-le or high priesthood which formed the Council of thinkers/priests; (iv) craftpersons; and (v)dancers.

Beckett wrote of the Malo cult in Meriam as follows:-

“Although Murray was remarkable for the richness and diversity of its religious life, the cult of Malu-Bomai seems to have become dominant, in the sense of pervading all branches of life and engaging all but a few immigrant villages in a ranked division of labour. The chief officiants, who controlled the fetishes, are supposed to have wielded awesome magical powers, and terrorized the rest of the populace through a secret society. They had more wives and larger holdings of land. Haddon understood them to be ‘a sort of hereditary government whose authority no one could question’…” (Beckett 1987:116).

Badu Case Study

Social organization in one of the Western Islands is summarized by Beckett, which reveals similar principles of social organization operating to those in the Eastern Islands:-

“Badu’s social organization was continuous with, if not an extension of Mabuyag’s. The basic building blocks of social organization were patri-clans, each identified with a number of totemic species. While they did not trace their origins back to a founding ancestor, they did retain genealogies of some seven or eight generations in depths, and membership was normally inherited from the father.

Clans claimed joint rights to fetishes, sacred places and ritual offices, as also to stretches of foreshore, off-shore islands and tracts of land in the interior. However, certain garden places and wild yam patches were associated with individuals, or their immediate descendants.

Adjacent totemic clans were further grouped into three districts, called ‘tribes’ in the post-contact period, namely Badu, Argan and Wakaid.”

There is some evidence “they came together for war under the leadership of a chief…” (Beckett 1987:150).

Beckett also describes marriage practices as being similar between Western and Eastern Islands and once again we note a type of ritual conflict associated with the courting phase, which is designed to be quelled upon the formalization of the marriage contract, through gift-giving and ritual feasting.

“Although the clans were in effect exogamous, marriage prohibitions were defined in terms of kin categories, in such a way as to exclude anyone with whom a blood tie could be established. Such persons formed the ‘sides’ of bride and groom, much as on Murray. Much as on Murray, also, the negotiation of the marriage was marked by expressions of antagonism, which were brought to an end by the presentation of gifts to the bride’s family or an exchange of sisters in marriage. Thereafter affinal relations were maintained through the periodic exchanges of goods and services, culminating in the funerary rites, which must be conducted by a wife’s brother or sister’s husband of the deceased” (Beckett 1987:150).

Beckett writes of the ancestral figure Kwoiyam associated with the Mid-Western Islands:-

“The clans were also grouped along with those of Mabuyag in a ritual division of labour that cut across territorial groupings, the cult of the mythical headhunter, Kwoiyam, being by far the most important.… Although it was important in warfare, the cult of Kwoiyam did not give rise to the kind of hereditary government that held sway on Murray. Evidently there were hereditary headmen – called kuwiku garka – of some kind, but Haddon supposed that their executive power was weak, except perhaps in times of war. …while Badu’s headman was appointed mamoose during the early period of colonial rule, the succession broke down around the turn of the century, leaving a vacuum that was soon filled by a succession of elected councillors” (Beckett 1987:151).

The kinship role of the awa

Beckett introduces the relation of the maternal male as follows:-

“The mother’s brother also assumed important responsibilities for his sister’s son, acting as his guardian in initiation and his advocate in marriage. As the people themselves conceived it, the relationship cut across lines of tension in the society, and even warring groups” (Beckett 1987:150.151).

A senior TSI leader described the uncle-nephew relationship to the current author as follows:-

“Uncle was the wop and spear teacher. Teach to share dugong, turtle, with kudpasion [sharing ethic]. Use of fish traps. These things are life to us. Taught to respect these things.” (E.C., 15/10/07.)

The role of the Narbit

The author’s consultant, who is from the Eastern Islands, identified the traditional role of the Narbit (or Narbid) as the head of the patriclan. Clan power is handed down to the eldest son of the eldest son within each family (an older parallel cousin will then call the Narbit EB out of respect, despite his being actually younger). If a Narbit has no son, he takes one by adoption as his successor. The Narbit could adopt a child from any suitable woman in his clan when they fall pregnant, which one interviewee said was an unquestionable right. The role of the Narbit starts from conception. He has potential power from age 0 and in later life receives a different sort of training in his initiation to other young men in the clan. His taking on the full role of Narbit was ritualized in the Tamir dance. The symbol of club in hand and handing over the club from dancer to dancer represents the passing over of Narbit to son (down the line). Then the father becomes an Elder and he relinquishes his leadership role, taking only an advisory role in the clan.

Male initiation

Hunter et al (1999:40) point out that the “corporate or community role in ensuring the development of responsibility is perhaps best demonstrated by the social and cultural stewardship provided by older male relatives as boys passed through initiation to become men. As Haddon (Cambridge, 1971 [1935]) observed: A definite system of morals was inculcated when lads were initiated into manhood; that given by the Western islanders was very thorough, perhaps more so than among the Miriam. The lads were then in a transition stage, when increasing virility stirred up new emotions and aspirations” (Hunter et al 1999:40).

In writing of male initiation, Hunter et al list a series of social values that were traditionally subscribed to. I have highlighted some of these traits as of being particularly relevant to the current study:-

“The injunctions were: remembrance of the admonitions, reticence, thoughtfulness, respectful behaviour, prompt obedience, generosity, diligence, kindness to parents and other relatives in deed and word, truthfulness, helpfulness, manliness, discretion in dealing with women, quiet temper. Bravery, ferocity, endurance of pain and hardship, and other warlike qualities, were regarded as great virtues. The prohibitions were against theft, borrowing without leave, shirking duty, talkativeness, abusive language, talking scandal, marriage with certain individuals and revealing secrets” (Hunter et al 1999:41).

We note that the positive traits countering Family Violence were offset by ferocity in warfare.

Early Coastal History - Pearlers and Missionaries

It is possible that bêche‑de‑mer (trepang) was sought throughout the Torres Strait by seamen from Sulawesi (in modern Indonesia) ahead of the Europeans who entered this trade at the beginning of the 19th century. Between the 1840s and 1860s, this activity expanded dramatically resulting in an increase in the arrival of mariners and crew from the Pacific maritime trade, who extended “the range of goods and services bartered with local Islanders.” In 1864, the first commercial bêche‑de‑mer station was established on Erub (Darnley) Island. Beckett (1998) notes that it was the increasing contact with trepangers in the Strait that led to “increasing episodes of violence, the experience of which varied across the Strait” (Hunter et al 1999:25.)

“The Torres Strait Islands were settled by fishermen from Sydney and New Caledonia and by missionaries. During the 1860s, fishing outposts were set up on the islands, bringing forced labour, violence and abductions to Torres Strait Islander communities. A number of violent clashes broke out between the Islanders and shipping merchants.” (HREOC n.d.)

Hunter et al (1999) provide further analysis on this early contact escalation of violence in the Torres Strait region:

“…Early non‑Melanesian mariners ruptured the certainties of a contained universe, introducing Islanders to new materials and behaviours. They also introduced Islanders to a new level of violence. This is not to suggest that violence was not common…Inter‑group rivalry and warfare was thus a fact of life, reinforced by the esteem attributable to a successful warrior and amplified in cycles of ‘payback’ (Wilson, 1988). However, this did not undermine investment in the importance of the family, as Osborne points out, “the headhunting men of the Torres Strait who were capable of extreme cruelty even to their wives were, nevertheless, family men with concern for the family unit” (p. 42). What mariners and later settlers introduced were new potentialities for warfare ‑ new technologies and motivations for violence. This introduced a transformation in the values associated particularly with the roles of men as warriors in Islander societies. These changes continued after the arrival of missionaries who discouraged or suppressed warfare among the Islanders.” (Hunter et al 1999:40.)

Early Contact History – Mission Time

In 1867, the Society for the Propogation of the Gospel were the first group of missionaries to visit the islands. They were stationed at Somerset on the tip of Cape York Peninsula (Lawrence 1998). In 1871, the London Missionary Society (LMS) established itself at Erub (Darnley) Island as it was in international waters, and therefore “outside the jurisdiction of colonial Queensland…[B]y 1870, Loyalty Islanders, many of whom were missionary-trained Christians, were working the Torres Strait fisheries” (Lawrence 1998). The missionary headquarters soon relocated to Mer in 1877, after difficulties, and set up a teacher-training institute for Torres Strait Islanders in 1879 called the Papuan Institute. (Hunter et al 1999:27). The missionaries played a leading role in putting an end to the cycle of warfare, exploitation and abductions on the islands. The arrival of the missionaries and the word of the Christian God became known in Islander culture as ‘The Coming of the Light’ and continues as an annual celebration (Lawrence 1998).

A settlement was established on Thursday Island, with the islands being made part of Queensland by the Colonial Parliament in 1879, but without any consultation with the traditional land and sea owners, the Torres Strait Islander people” (HREOC n.d.). The new Queensland Government attempted to link mission and Islander authority as Beckett explains: “When Queensland began appointing government chiefs, called Mamooses in 1879, they were instructed to carry out their duties in collaboration with the mission. The result tended towards theocracy, with Island authorities meting out punishments for such offences as fornication, adultery and Sabbath-breaking” (Beckett 1998:36). Missionaries in the Torres Strait were allowed to proceed much as they pleased, resulting more in the new kind of Protestantism of the Pacific than the mainstream Protestantism of Australia (Mullins 1995:119).

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