Henry Kissinger once said that he had never visited Australia because he had never been on his way to Antarctica! Or so it is said – I can’t find the statement on Google. Apocryphal or not, the rest of the world does tend to think of Australia as utterly remote and isolated from the world.
In Australia too, the idea of ‘the tyranny of distance’ is pervasive – there’s something about sitting for 24 hours or more in an economy seat that tends to reinforce this perspective. Yet our sense of isolation is coloured by the fact that most of us live in the southeast quadrant of the continent – the last 5 to 6 hours of that gruelling economy flight is spent flying across Australia.
In North of Capricorn (2003), Henry Reynolds argued persuasively that if you go north, the situation is very different. North of the Tropic of Capricorn, in an arc stretching roughly between Rockhampton and Broome, there has always been another Australia, one that is multi-racial, with Aboriginal, Islander, Asian and European threads intertwining in fascinating ways, where white settlers were in a minority, though a politically powerful one. That arc passes through Torres Strait, where Australia’s border with the rest of the world almost touches the New Guinea coastline (thanks to some highly inequitable colonial map making).
Torres Strait was always an important, if dangerous, maritime route between the Pacific and the Indian Ocean. It is named after Luis Vaez de Torres, the first European to sail through the region in the early 16th century, but who knows how many other sailors passed this way in earlier times? It was certainly a crossroads well before Lieutenant James Cook raised a flag on Possession Island in 1770.
For a new perspective I can really recommend a wonderful memoir that illustrates Reynolds’ thesis well: Ina’s Story: The Memoir of a Torres Strait Islander Woman (2012).
I suspect the book was poorly distributed when it came out, and that’s a pity, because it’s a terrific read. It was published with support from the Torres Strait Regional Authority, and is available here.
Ina Mills was born in 1927, and grew up on Naghir Island in Torres Strait. In addition to her Torres Strait Islander heritage, her family included a great grandmother who was an Aboriginal woman of the Kaurereg people (the original owners of Possession Island, aka Bedanug), a grandfather from Samoa, and an Indonesian husband from Timor. She now also has a white daughter-in-law, Catherine Titasey, who has compiled this book based on Ina’s recollections, jotted down, tape recorded, and gradually transformed into a coherent narrative.
The result is an oral history that preserves the rhythms and flavour of Ina’s English, and introduces us to a vocabulary of Islander and Kriol words. Here’s a taste. In 1933 the Catholic priest visited Naghir to persuade her father to send the children to school:
He spoke a language I didn’t know, English. We spoke Broken English on Naghir and I could only make out a few words of Father’s language here and there like “lugger” and “Thursday Island”….
I no sabe nothing about time except dry season and wet season, time for plant garden, time for pick the maniyotha, cassava, and kumala, sweet potato. There was canoe time in the naygay, doldrums, when the people from Daru come down for trade pandanus mats. Also there was neap-tide time, spring-tide time, time for get up in the morning, time to come home for kai kai, eat.’ [p.15]
Church and State bear down on Ina and her family, the Church in the form of a forbidding convent school on Thursday Island; the Queensland government through the malign but omnipresent Department of Native Affairs, which controlled all indigenous people who were ‘under the Act’, and whose lives, work and wages were determined at the discretion of government officers. In researching this book, Ina and Catherine have found her family’s DNA files and used them to good effect.
The outside world intruded in a less personal way on 16 December 1941, a fortnight after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, when all civilians were evacuated from Thursday Island and Horn Island. The large part-Japanese population were interned, including the boy who would one day marry Ina’s twin sister. For the next year or more, the Mills family watched out the war from an evacuation camp on Naghir Island:
We saw plenty of planes fly over. Dad told us a bit about the planes and the war. We got to know the sounds of the Japanese and the American planes. The Japanese planes had a big red circle painted on the side, the rising sun, and they made an ooo-ooo-ooo sound. The American planes were different because they made one long smooth buzz like a mosquito. I could see stars and stripes painted on the sides. Also, the Japanese ones came from New Guinea way and the Americans from Horn Island way. The only time we saw any action was one night we heard an American plane come from the other direction. There were sparks and we knew the planes were fighting. One of the planes had fire coming from it and it went down, Coconut Island way, into the sea. [p.48]
There were grim times in the 1950s, when her husband Henry Titasey got TB. The family was left destitute, caught in a Catch 22 situation: Henry was ineligible for financial assistance because he was a foreign national. Indeed he would have been deported under the White Australia Policy, except that he was married to an Australian. Yet he had no savings from his many years of work because his wages had been held by the DNA ‘under the Act’. Most of the time, Ina’s comments on the racism of the time are held under control – ‘it was just the way things were’ – but her anger bubbles to the surface at this point.
Ina’s story ends on a high note – literally. In the 1960s, she and her sisters began to sing together at parties and pubs. They sang folk, country and western, and the songs of Torres Strait. The Singing Grandmas, later the Mills Sisters, went on to sing at Brisbane Expo in 1988. They were on the folk circuit in Australia, and in the early 1990s toured England, France and New Zealand. In 1995 they released an album, Frangipani Land.
Once the world passed through Torres Strait. Ina’s father Frank found an unusual coin on Naghir Island that the Queensland Museum identified as
an Indian example some hundreds of years old. The major characteristics agree with some coins struck during the reign of Aurangzeb Alamgir, one of the Mogul Emperors who ruled during this period 1658-1707. [p.86]
Who knows how many sailors passed this way? But I like to think of the Mills Sisters, Ina, Cessa and Rita, taking a little bit of Torres Strait to the world in their songs. This is a delightful book and I highly recommend it. It makes me even more excited about my own trip to Torres Strait next month.
Catherine Titasey, Ina’s Story: The Memoir of a Torres Strait Islander Woman (2012). I can’t find a publisher, but the ISBN is 9780646567433