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).