Tag Archives: Torres Strait

Telling the forgotten stories of Indigenous servicemen in the first world war


Jim McKay, The University of Queensland

Warning: This story contains images of Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander people who are deceased.


The number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who served with Australian forces in the first world war is estimated to be in the range of 1,000-1,200. But the precise figure will never be known, because a number of those who served changed their names and birthplaces when they enrolled to get around racist enlistment practices.

Despite fighting and dying for Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders still weren’t considered citizens upon their return from the war. Many of these veterans were also denied repatriation benefits, and excluded from returned services clubs.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have long sought to gain recognition for the service and sacrifices of their men and women. Some do this by telling stories in their families and local communities about the military careers of their forebears.

These stories often take the form of oral histories. Oral history projects by groups of Aboriginal people have proven valuable for redressing the unrecognised service and racist treatment of their ancestors who served in the Australian Light Horse during the Sinai-Palestine Campaign of 1916-18.




Read more:
On Anzac Day, we remember the Great War but forget our first war


Commemorating the Battle of Beersheba

Although most Australians know little or nothing about the Battle of Beersheba, the Australian government funded its centennial commemoration at Beersheba (now in southern Israel) in October 2017.

One hundred Australian and a few New Zealand military history reenactors attended the joint service as part of a commercial tour, during which they rode in period military outfits along the route of their ancestors.

A group of Aboriginal men and women, who were descended from some of the estimated 100 Aboriginal members of the Australian Light Horse, also participated in the tour. Several had ancestors who were in the “Queensland Black Watch”, a predominantly Aboriginal reinforcement unit.

The group’s participation was enabled by a transnational network of organisations, but the key driver was Rona Tranby Trust, which funds projects to record and preserve Aboriginal oral histories. In 2017, it a group of Aboriginal men and women to complete 11 histories of their ancestors who fought and died in the Sinai-Palestine Campaign.

Like the other reenactors, Aboriginal participants were honouring their ancestors’ courage and sacrifice. But they also wanted to document the neglected stories of their service, and the racial discrimination their forebears experienced.

Here we share, with permission, some of the stories that came from the trip, and from the family history projects the group members continue to work on.

Ricky Morris

Gunditjmara man and retired Army Sergeant Ricky Morris was officially invited to lay a wreath on behalf of all Indigenous veterans at the service in Beersheba. Morris is the 19th of an astonishing 21 men and women Anzacs in his family. He served in a progeny of the Light Horse unit of his grandfather, Frederick Amos Lovett.

Frederick Amos Lovett of the 4th Light Horse Regimen and his grandson Ricky Morris.
Rona Tranby Trust

At a time when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders were neither citizens nor counted in the census, Frederick and his four brothers left the Lake Condah Aboriginal Mission, 300 km west of Melbourne, to sign up.

But their service counted for nothing. Gunditjmara people were subjected to a “second dispossession” when they were forced off Lake Condah under the Soldier Settlement Scheme. The scheme granted land to returning soldiers, but like almost all Aboriginal applicants, the brothers were denied soldier settlement blocks.

Morris is a member of the Victorian Indigenous Veterans Association Remembrance Committee and gives talks at schools about Aboriginal culture and his family. He interviewed two elderly aunts for his family history project, which he described as:

…a unique opportunity to follow in the footsteps of those who fought and died for Australia, and the diversity of Australians who put their hands up to answer the call.




Read more:
In remembering Anzac Day, what do we forget?


Mischa Fisher and Elsie Amamoo

Mischa Fisher and her daughter, Elsie Amamoo, undertook the tour to obtain information for a website about Mischa’s grandfather, Frank Fisher.

Trooper Frank Fisher was an Aboriginal serviceman who enlisted in Brisbane on 16 August 1917.
Australian War Memorial

Frank was born into the Wangan and Jagalingou community in the goldmining town of Clermont, 1,000 km north of Brisbane. He was one of 47 men from Barambah Aboriginal Settlement who enlisted in the first world war. While Frank was away, his wife Esme was prevented from accessing his salary. After Frank was discharged, he was again placed under the control of the superintendent at Barambah.

Mischa and Elsie have interviewed Frank’s descendants, and accessed archival footage from the Ration Shed Museum – an Aboriginal heritage, educational and cultural centre. Elsie only recently learned that Frank, who is also the great-grandfather of Olympic 400m champion Cathy Freeman, was a member of the “Black Watch”.

While training for a reenactment of the Light Horse charge at Beersheba, she tearfully told a reporter what the project meant to her:

To me, it feels like I have got a missing piece of the puzzle of who I am […] That’s what it basically means to me: just being able to have that ability to close the gap in terms of my identity and knowing who I am and where I fit in the Australian history, but also within my family as well.

Michelle and Peta Flynn

Peta Flynn, great niece of Charles Fitzroy Stafford.
Rona Tranby Trust

Sisters Michelle and Peta Flynn are descendants of “Black Kitty”, a Cannemegal/Warmuli girl, who, in 1814, was among the first group of Aboriginal children placed in the Parramatta Native Institution at the age of five.

The sisters have been researching their family history for over 20 years. Their ancestors include the three Stafford brothers, who were in the Light Horse.

At Beersheba, Peta explained her motivation for writing a book about her great uncle, Charles Stafford:

My daughter, niece and nephews will be able to take [the book] into their schools and communities and actually be proud of who we are and where we come from – and ensure our family’s history will not be lost to future generations.




Read more:
Indigenous soldiers remembered: the research behind Black Diggers


Lessons and legacies

The experiences of Ricky Morris, Mischa Fisher, Elsie Amamoo, and Michelle and Peta Flynn show how exploring family histories can generate feelings of solidarity, honour and closure.

Although group members were on a reenactment tour, their emotions were typical of the inward pilgrimages often experienced by genealogical tourists. Past and present family connections were heightened by being there; feelings of sadness, solidarity and pride arose.

At the same time, these stories show the benefits of combining academic, public and vernacular accounts to study silences and absences in the histories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

The official commemoration at Beersheba will only ever be studied by a handful of specialist scholars, but the family histories of this group will have enduring value for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians alike.The Conversation

Jim McKay, Honorary Senior Research Fellow, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Archaeology is unravelling new stories about Indigenous seagoing trade on Australia’s doorstep



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A Motu trading ship with its characteristic crab claw shaped sails. Taken in the period 1903-1904.
Trustees of The British Museum, CC BY-NC-SA

Chris Urwin, Monash University; Alois Kuaso, Papua New Guinea National Museum and Art Gallery; Bruno David, Monash University; Henry Auri Arifeae, Papua New Guinea National Museum and Art Gallery, and Robert Skelly, Monash University

It has long been assumed that Indigenous Australia was isolated until Europeans arrived in 1788, except for trade with parts of present day Indonesia beginning at least 300 years ago. But our recent archaeological research hints of at least an extra 2,100 years of connections across the Coral Sea with Papua New Guinea.

Over the past decade, we have conducted research in the Gulf of Papua with local Indigenous communities.

During the excavations, the most common archaeological evidence found in the old village sites was fragments of pottery, which preserve well in tropical environments compared to artefacts made of wood or bone. As peoples of the Gulf of Papua have no known history of pottery making, and the materials are foreign, the discovered pottery sherds are evidence of trade.

This pottery began arriving in the Gulf of Papua some 2,700 years ago, according to carbon dating of charcoal found next to the sherds.




Read more:
Explainer: what is radiocarbon dating and how does it work?


This means societies with complex seafaring technologies and widespread social connections operated at Australia’s doorstep over 2,500 years prior to colonisation. Entrepreneurial traders were traversing the entire south coast of PNG in sailing ships.

There is also archaeological evidence that suggests early connections between PNG and Australia’s Torres Strait Islands. Fine earthenware pottery dating to 2,600 years ago, similar in form to pottery arriving in the Gulf of Papua around that time, has been found on the island of Pulu. Rock art on the island of Dauan further to the north depicts a ship with a crab claw-shaped sail, closely resembling the ships used by Indigenous traders from PNG.

It is hard to imagine that Australia, the Torres Strait and PNG’s south coast were not connected.

The region termed the ‘Coral Sea Cultural Interaction Sphere’ where archaeology is gradually uncovering evidence of ancient interconnections.
Author provided

An unconventional trade

The trade itself was quite remarkable. When British colonists arrived in Port Moresby (now the capital of PNG) in 1873, some 130 kilometres from the start of the Gulf of Papua to the west, they wrote in astonishment of the industrial scale of pottery production for maritime trade by Indigenous Motu communities.

Each year, Motu women would spend months making thousands of earthenware pots. Meanwhile the men built large trading ships, called lakatoi, by lashing together several dugout hulls. The ships measured 15-20 metres long and had woven sails in the shape of crab claws.

In October and November, Motu men would load the pots into the ships and sail west towards the rainforest swamplands of the Gulf of Papua. The trade on which they embarked was known as hiri. The voyages were perilous, and lives were sometimes lost in the waves.

Rows of Motu pots ready for shipment to the Gulf of Papua. The pots are arranged on a beach situated in today’s Port Moresby region. Taken by Reverend William G Lawes in 1881-1891.
Trustees of the British Museum, CC BY-NC-SA

When the men arrived – having sailed up to 400 kilometres along the coast – the Motu were in foreign lands. People living in the Gulf of Papua spoke different languages and had different cultural practices. But they were not treated like foreigners.

Sir Albert Maori Kiki, who became the Deputy Prime Minister of PNG, grew up in the Gulf of Papua in the 1930s. He described the arrival of the Motu in his memoirs:

The trade was not conducted like common barter […] the declarations of friendship that went with it were as important as the exchange of goods itself […] Motu people did not carry their pots to the market, but each went straight to the house of his trade relation, with whom his family had been trading for years and perhaps generations.

In exchange for their pots, the Motu were given rainforest hardwood logs from which to make new canoes, and tonnes of sago starch (a staple plant food for many people in Southeast Asia and across the island of New Guinea).

The Motu would stay in Gulf villages for months, waiting for the wind to change to carry them back home.

Quantity overtakes quality

Pottery has been traded into the Gulf of Papua for 2,700 years, but the trade grew larger in scale about 500 years ago. Archaeological sites of the past 500 years have much larger quantities of pottery than those before them. The pottery itself is highly standardised and either plain or sparsely decorated, in contrast with older sherds that often feature ornate designs.

In the past 500 years it seems that pottery makers valued quantity over quality: as greater quantities of pottery were traded into the Gulf of Papua, labour-intensive decorations gradually disappeared.

Fragments of a decorated earthenware bowl dating to within the past 500 years. Found in an excavation at Orokolo Bay (Gulf of Papua, PNG) in 2015.
Photographs by Steve Morton (Monash University)

We think this is when the hiri trade between the Motu and rainforest villages of the Gulf of Papua began in earnest.

The coming decades promise further findings that will help unravel the forgotten shared history of PNG and Indigenous Australia across the Torres Strait. But it is becoming increasingly clear that Indigenous Australia was not isolated from the rest of the world.The Conversation

Chris Urwin, Researcher, Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage, Monash University; Alois Kuaso, Deputy Director for Science Research and Consultancy Division at the Papua New Guinea National Museum and Art Gallery, Papua New Guinea National Museum and Art Gallery; Bruno David, Professor, Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage, Monash University; Henry Auri Arifeae, Cultural Coordinator, Papua New Guinea National Museum and Art Gallery, and Robert Skelly, Archaeologist, Monash University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


The mystery of the La Pérouse expedition survivors: wrecked in Torres Strait?



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Louis XVI giving final instructions to the Comte de La Perouse in 1785, before La Perouse embarked on his fateful expedition to the Southern Hemisphere.
State Library of NSW

Garrick Hitchcock, Australian National University

The final fate of the expedition led by Jean-François de Galaup, Comte de La Pérouse, has been a mystery ever since the frigates L’Astrolabe and La Boussole sailed out of Botany Bay in March 1788, vanishing, it seemed, into the vastness of the Pacific.

The expedition left the French port of Brest in 1785. The two vessels, with a complement of 225 officers, crew and scientists, were crammed with supplies and trade goods for a four-year long Pacific voyage that sought to emulate the feats of discovery of Captain James Cook. King Louis XVI took a personal interest in the undertaking and helped draft the plans and itinerary.


Read more: When it comes to disappearing ocean history, HMAS Perth is the tip of the iceberg


La Pérouse also had orders to investigate the new British colony in Australia. He arrived off Botany Bay, New South Wales in January 1788 to see Arthur Philip’s First Fleet at anchor, and so witnessed the beginning of European settlement of the continent. For six weeks the French camped on the northern shores of the Bay: the area now home to the south-eastern Sydney suburb bearing his name.

Portrait of Comte de La Perouse, circa 1792.
National Portrait Gallery, Canberra

Before departing Australia to continue his voyage, La Pérouse left letters with the British for forwarding to the French Naval Ministry. In them he detailed how he planned to leave the Pacific Ocean via Torres Strait, the narrow waterway separating Australia and New Guinea, and be back in France by June 1789. Concern mounted when they did not arrive as expected. In 1791 the French National Assembly commissioned an expedition to search for the overdue navigator, without success. It is said that King Louis XVI, on his way to the guillotine in 1793, enquired of his captors “Is there news of La Pérouse?”

A dogged Irish captain finally solved the puzzle almost four decades later. In 1826 Peter Dillon saw European objects at Tikopia in the Solomon Islands, which locals told him came from a nearby island called Vanikoro. He suspected they were from La Pérouse’s ships. Eventually, he was given command of the survey vessel Research and arrived at Vanikoro in 1827, going on to learn the awful fate of L’Astrolabe and La Boussole: both frigates had smashed against the island’s fringing reef during a storm. Artefacts collected by Dillon were taken to Paris where they were identified as belonging to the expedition vessels.

The Vanikoro Islanders also related how survivors from Le Pérouse’s ships had spent several months constructing a small two-masted schooner, using timber salvaged from wreckage and hewn from the island’s dense forests. Once completed, they launched the vessel and sailed away.

What became of this vessel and its crew, desperate to return to France, has been an ongoing mystery. Subsequent books and articles about La Pérouse have asked the same questions: did the vessel even make it out of the Vanikoro lagoon, or was it attacked by locals in canoes? If it did get away, did it founder and sink beneath the waves? Or did the survivors die of thirst or starvation at sea? Or did they again suffer shipwreck elsewhere in the Pacific?


Read more: Transit of Venus: a tale of two expeditions


An Indian newspaper article from 1818 can perhaps shed light on the fate of the Vanikoro escape vessel. The December 1818 issue of The Madras Courier related how, in September that year, the ships Claudine and Mary, bound for Calcutta from Sydney, anchored off Murray Island in the Torres Strait Islands. There they rescued a castaway Indian seaman, Shaik Jumaul, who had survived the sinking of the merchant ship Morning Star four years earlier off the north Queensland coast.

On board the Mary, Shaik Jumaul was interviewed about his experiences on the island. He reported that he had seen swords and muskets on the islands, “differently made from English”, as well as a compass and a gold watch. When he asked the Islanders where they had obtained these things, an old man explained how thirty years earlier a ship was wrecked on the Great Barrier Reef, within sight of Murray Island. White men had come from her in boats, but in the fighting that followed all were killed except a boy, who was spared and brought up as one of their own.

Western part of Mer (Murray Island) and the neighbouring islands of Waier (L) and Dauar ®, 1 December 2016.
Garrick Hitchcock

The expedition crew list includes a ship’s boy, François Mordelle, from the port town of Tréguier in Brittany, northwestern France. Could this be last survivor of the La Pérouse expedition?

The article featuring the castaway’s account was reproduced in several other newspapers of the day, in Australia, Britain, France and other countries, and observers noted that this might refer to the La Pérouse expedition. Somehow, Shaik Jamaul’s story was largely forgotten in subsequent years.

The chronology fits nicely, for it was 30 years earlier, in late 1788 or early 1789, that the La Pérouse survivors departed Vanikoro in their small vessel. Furthermore, historians are not aware of any other European ship in the region at that time.

Torres Strait, which includes the northern part of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, is studded with reefs, rocks and sandbars. It has been described as a “graveyard of ships”, as over 120 vessels are known to have come to grief in its treacherous waters. The vessel reported by Shaik Jumaul is the earliest known shipwreck in the Strait and indeed, eastern Australia.

Could it be that the final phase of the La Pérouse expedition ended in tragedy in northern Australia? Future recovery of artefacts from the wreck site on the Great Barrier Reef – yet to be discovered – or the islands, will hopefully provide final confirmation.

One La Pérouse mystery, however, will likely remain unsolved.

The Murray Islanders showed Shaik Jamaul the young castaway’s clothing, and cried as they recalled how he, together with two young girls, left the island one night in a canoe. His island friends searched for them, but they were never seen again. Was he seeking to return to France? Did he suffer an accident at sea? Or was he shipwrecked elsewhere a third and final time?

The ConversationA last crewman, a survivor, a castaway. Though his identity and fate are unknown, he is not lost to memory.

Garrick Hitchcock, Honorary Senior Lecturer, School of Culture, History and Language, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


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