The Torres Strait region has long been part of the Australian frontier. Its long serving newspaper, the weekly Torres Straits Pilot, published on Thursday Island from 1887 to 1942, was not only an advocate for the area’s principal industry, pearl-shelling and beche de mer fishing, but strongly opposed to the implementation of the 1897 Protection of Aboriginals Act, which effectively removed Aboriginal labour from the fishery, created the system of reserves, and thus also effectively marked the closing of the frontier. This paper examines some of the attitudes revealed by the extant copies of the newspaper 1897-1914 as the north Queensland frontier closed and the era of protection began.
Hand in hand with the legislative agenda, was the attempt at pacification through the establishment of Christian missions, in itself a distinctively Victorian notion. At Somerset in 1866, the Rev F.C. Jagg made an unsuccessful attempt to start a mission for the SPCK (Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge), a Church of England mission agency).
Yet the initial impetus for European settlement on the tip of Cape York Peninsula was geopolitical. As a critical shipping gateway between the growing capitals of the Australasian colonies and Batavia, India and the Cape of Good Hope, the shoals of the Torres Strait needed careful navigation, and as the nineteenth century progressed, protection against the successive influences of the French, the Germans, the Russians and the Japanese.
In 1864, John Jardine, the Police Magistrate at Rockhampton established a settlement at Somerset, on the northern tip of Cape York Peninsula, as a garrison and coaling station (Austin 1949: 219). Somerset's unsuitability had necessitated the establishment in 1877 of a settlement known as Port Kennedy on Thursday Island, which then became the staging post for colonial and imperial adventures in New Guinea. The post of Government Resident and Police Magistrate at Somerset and then Thursday Island was a significant one.
Henry Chester occupied the post from 1875 to 1885, when he was succeeded by John Douglas, who remained in the office until his death in 1904. Part potentate, part policeman, part explorer of unknown parts, the Government Resident presided over Port Kennedy’s polyglot population. Both Chester and Douglas played an important part in the controversial annexation and administration of colonial New Guinea after 1883, and the Pilot carried fulsome accounts of Douglas’ activities – often contributed by Douglas - after its establishment in 1887. Indeed the newspaper was originally named the Torres Straits Pilot and New Guinea Gazette, only dropping the New Guinea Gazette sub-masthead in 1914.
It was, however, the growth of the pearl shelling industry in and around the Strait from the 1860s onward that created a community large enough to sustain a weekly newspaper. Moreover, it was as the partisan chronicle of the conflicts between pearl shellers (and their supporters) and officials who sought to bring the rule of law to the frontier, and not as the relator of any external threats to the security of the frontier, that the Torres Straits Pilot secured its place as an invaluable source of much of what we need to know about the closing of the northern frontier. Given the current debate among public intellectuals about the destruction of Aboriginal society, and given that the Pilot does not feature as a primary source in the history of the northern frontier, the extant copies of the Pilot (1887-1914) assume a new significance.
According to Austin (1949: 228), F.C. (Fred) Hodel, who arrived on Thursday Island in 1887, was the original editor-publisher of the Pilot. Hodel ran a provisioning business and commission agency on Victoria Parade. As the 1899 advertisement in the Pilot illustrates, he also engaged in pearl-shelling and beche de mer fishing, and acted as agent for both the London Missionary Society in the Torres Strait, and Moravian missions at Mapoon and Weipa on the western coast of the Peninsula. Alexander Corran succeeded Hodel as editor-publisher in 1896, the year he arrived on Thursday Island and was still editor at the time of the 1909 judicial inquiry into child abuse at the Mapoon mission.
Commercial fishing of pearl shell had commenced in the Torres Strait in the late 1860s. Many of those engaged in pearl shelling during the 1870s and early 1880s came from Sydney. The first Queenslander to engage in pearl shelling, Frank Jardine, entered the industry in 1872. As an explorer, magistrate, pearl-sheller and cattle grazier, Frank Jardine, a son of Somerset founder John Jardine, and a resident of Somerset for over half a century, exercised a not inconsiderable influence on the development of the Torres Strait and Cape York Peninsula region. If the figure of John Douglas holds the spotlight from his visit as Premier in 1877 until his death in 1904, in seeking to bring peace and security to the region, then the figure of Frank Jardine (1841-1919) who arrived in 1867 and remained until his death in 1919, casts a long shadow. Contemporary accounts clearly show that Jardine was personally involved in the killing of Aborigines in the area on a number of occasions, (Byerley 1867). Moreover, while police magistrate responsible for enforcing the law relating to the employment of indigenous labour, it is unclear, because of his own involvement in the pearl-shelling industry, whether he was gamekeeper or chief poacher (Prideaux 1988).
The paper to which Clark refers – the Torres Straits Pilot – was not only a cheerleader for the pearling industry, but an important form of information currency within the industry. A more accurate, quantitative indication of the growth and development of the Torres Strait pearl shelling industry during the 1890s can be found in the following statistics collected by the Torres Straits Pearl-shellers Association. In 1890, the number of boats licensed to engage in pearl shelling was ninety-two. By 1900, this number had risen to 341. The quantity of shell collected increased from 630 tons in 1890 to 1212 tons in 1900, whilst the value of shell collected increased from £64,606 in 1890, to £125, 294 in 1900 (Royal Commission1908: 748, Appendix XI).
The over-exploitation of the resource, so well described by Gartner (1994) led to a number of government inquiries into the sustainability of the fishery in the closing years of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth. In 1890 scientist William Saville-Kent was commissioned to inquire into the industry; a Queensland parliamentary commission made a report in 1897; Judge Dashwood made a report to the Commonwealth shortly after Federation in 1902, and in 1908 Queensland conducted a Royal Commission in the future of the pearl shelling industry, in particular on the use of white labour in the industry, given the newly legislated Commonwealth policy of White Australia. Each of these inquiries saw the Pilot advocate strongly for the industry. Indeed the paper was not only a cheerleader for the pearling industry, but an important form of information currency within the industry.
Of the adult Malay population of eighty-six, only eight were females; the Philippine Islands component of the population, sixty-one persons, was exclusively male; whilst of the fifty Chinese resident at Port Kennedy, only two were female; and of the Japanese population of thirty-two, eleven were females. In the European sector of the population there were 274 males, 123 females and 176 children. Of the eighty-two aborigines resident at Thursday Island, fifty were males, twenty-nine were females, and three were children. John Douglas reported, with some hyperbole, in 1892 that:
The seafaring people engaged afloat in the pearlshelling and beche-de-mer industries are recruited from almost every country under the sun. There is scarcely a nationality in Europe or Asia which is not represented. There are Negroes from Zanzibar and the Soudan, as well as creoles from Mauritius. From North America there are Negroes of the Southern States; and from South America there are Brazilians, Monte Videans and Chilians (Douglas 1892: 1030).
In the wake of the 1897 Act there was a widespread expectation that the Aboriginal people would die out. On the northern frontier there was a vigorous public debate about eugenics. Victorian notions of social Darwinism, popularised by Edmund Spencer, inevitably became part of the public debate in a place like Thursday Island, as missionaries like Nicholas Hey (right) and administrators like Walter Roth pondered the prospects of the indigenous peoples of the region.
Among such peoples were a substantial cohort of Pacific Islanders who has accompanied the maritime traders and the LMS missionaries from the western Pacific from as far back as the 1860s. In 1906 (June 30) a Pilot editorial mused:
It may come as news to most people that Mr. Hey, of the Mapoon mission, is somewhat perplexed regarding the large number of half-caste aboriginal girls now at the Mapoon industrial homes. Mr. Hey is reported to have recently said the only solution he sees is “marrying them to the full blooded natives as they attain maturity.” A leading resident on Thursday Island is also reported to have suggested marrying them to T. S. Island natives, there being a scarcity of women on the islands to provide wives for all the men. Mr. Hey has since stated that he fully concurs in the opinion that most of the island men would make better husbands. But Dr. Roth, whose opinion as Chief Protector of the Aboriginals has undoubted influence, does not think it fair to marry educated half caste girls to blacks which might mean in many cases a return to camp life with its abuses, privations, and depravities. “If suitable islanders or half-castes could be found for them,” the Chief Protector says, “which I doubt not, these girls would have an opportunity of making their influence for good felt, which would be a gain to the State.” Why not let them marry white men, if they can get the chance? The logic is that their influence for good may still be greater (TSP, 30 June, 1906)