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Torres Strait Islanders (hereinafter referred to as Islanders) are the natives of the Torres Strait Island. They are distinct from the Aboriginal people because they are genetically and culturally of Melanesian origin (Dudgeon, Wright, Paradies, Garvey, & Walker, 2010). However, Aboriginals and Islanders are the first inhabitants of Australia. Aboriginals encompass diverse Aboriginal nations marked by their own traditions and language. Unlike the Islanders who have lived on the Torres Strait Island, Aboriginal people have historically resided on the mainland of Australia and Tasmania among other offshore islands. Within the context of Australian studies, the term ‘Indigenous people’ is widely used to refer to both Torres Strait Islanders and Aboriginal people. They are referred to as indigenous people because they were the original inhabitants of their territories before new settlers came to colonize them. Indigenous Australians are the subject of study since they help to learn the impact of colonial activities and government legislation on social, cultural, political and economic life of indigenous people on the early stages of the 20th century. Through human history, whenever settlers expanded to new territories and acquired land forcefully, the socioeconomic and political aspects of indigenous people were endangered. Threats to the Islanders and Aboriginals’ lands and cultures as well as to their legal rights and status as distinct citizens and groups were propelled by new settlers and governments (Holmes, Hughes, & Julian, 2014). For these reason, they were largely affected by the legislation and policies that altered their lives. The current paper explores how the government treated Torres Strait Islanders between 1900 and 1960 and then provides a discussion of the impact of this treatment on the Islanders as compared to the Aboriginals.
How the Government Treated Torres Strait Islanders between 1900 and 1960
Torres Strait Islanders were subjected to an array of legislative and other forms of control. One of the infamous sources of legislative control of the Islanders was the Aboriginal Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium 1897 Act (Qld), hereafter termed as the 1897 Act. The 1897 Act resulted in the establishment of the Office of Chief Protector (State Library of Queensland, 2016). Through the Office of Chief Protector, Queensland government ushered in the era of segregation and protection during which both the Islanders and the Aboriginals lost their legal status as British citizens (Flood, 2006). For example, the provision of the 1897 Act led to the formulation of the Protection Policy, whereby Indigenous children were removed from their families and deprived of an opportunity to follow their traditions as from the late 18th century and the removal process continued until late 1960s. According to Dudgeon, Wright, Paradies, Garvey and Walker (2010), the government hoped that the Protection Policy would aid to integrate the Indigenous population into the European society. The idea was to place Indigenous children into institutions designed to assimilate them into the European culture. The targeted indigenous children were mostly of one parent and below the age of 15 (Swain, 2014). The children affected by this policy were later referred to as the ‘Stolen Generation.’ The Chief Protector served as the legal guardian of the children removed from their families.
Alongside the provisions of the 1897 Act, the successive amendments Act of 1901, 1928 and 1934 gave the Office of the Protector more power and control over virtually all aspects of lives of Torres Strait Islander people (Queensland Government, 2016). Additionally, numerous documents were entered on people who were subjected to these legislations. In other words, every aspect of the Indigenous people was carefully regulated. Still, the freedom of movement was restricted. The Islanders remained prone to racial disturbances. In 1912, the Queensland Government gazetted most of the Torres Strait Islanders as Aboriginal reserves (Queensland Government, 2016). From 1911, following the takeover of Northern Territory, the Commonwealth strived to ensure that the Indigenous people had a legal right to owe land. Regional administrative control of the Islander was achieved by dividing Queensland into Protectorates administered by local Protectors who acted as a police officer. The responsibilities of local protectors included administration of wages and employment of the Indigenous people. Special conditions governed employment with personal property under control of the government. In line with Torres Strait Islanders Act of 1939 (1939 Act) and the Aboriginals Regulations of 1945, Native Affairs Office (1939-1966) continued implementing the provision of the 1897 Act (Palmiste, 2011). It increased the control over property, police and courts. With the transfer of the Native Affairs Office to Thursday Island in 1949, Islanders were given wider measure of control and management than before. Additionally, the transfer gave them encouragement, public amenities and industrial progress.
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The Impact of the Government’s Treatment of Torres Strait Islanders Compared to Aboriginals
Prior to independence, British laws disregarded the rights and culture of the Indigenous communities (Swain, 2014). For instance, the implementation of the Protection Policy disregarded the lifestyle of Islanders. To address the social and economic injustices experienced by the Indigenous people the government was pressurized to take a vibrant role in the protection of the Islanders and in the enhancement of social welfare. Such special treatments entailed passing legislation and formulation of policies that improved access to education and economic opportunities while ensuring that both human and civil rights were upheld. The negative attitudes towards the Indigenous people and the Protection Policy proved to have devastating effects on both Islanders and Aboriginal people. The removal of Islandic children affected their families during that period and has a severe impact on Indigenous families today (Palmiste, 2011). In addition, the denial of contact meant that Stolen Generation lost care, love and education about their indigenous heritage including, knowledge about customs and traditions. The 1897 Act also led to the micromanagement of all aspects of the Islanders’ lives, including employment, marriage and bank savings. For example, the money deducted from wages and banks could only be accessed by permission from a local protector. Segregation limited the economic activities of the Indigenous people, by limiting their investment and exposing them to unhealthy competition. Moreover, the isolative policies resulted in underrepresentation of the Islander in highly skilled jobs, leading to low incomes (Dudgeon, Wright, Paradies, Garvey, & Walker, 2010). According to Holmes, Hughes and Julian (2014), the induced poverty resulted in malnutrition and difficulties with obtaining private property.
In line with the 2011 Australian Census, only 13.7% of Indigenous Australians lived in remote parts of Australia (ABS, 2013). It proves the socioeconomic impact of government’s treatment of the Indigenous people. From a positive perspective, the improvement in the right of the Indigenous people has enabled them to seek education and jobs beyond their native land without racial discrimination. On the other hand, this migration is a result of poor infrastructure and educational facilities, which were caused by marginalization. The Aboriginal Provident Fund established in 1919 aimed at developing settlements and mission for the benefits of the Indigenous people (Close, 2009). However, it was insufficient for infrastructural development because the deductions were insignificant. Following this development, the Australian Government makes continuous efforts meant to achieve better results for Torres Strait Islands and Aboriginal people in areas such as improving access to education, providing adults with work and building safe communities.
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From the review of literature and discussion above, it is apparent that the socioeconomic and political life of Indigenous Australians was greatly altered by legislations and policies enacted by the colonialists and the government that ensued after the independence. By setting focusing on the period between 1900 and 1960, this paper demonstrates how biased government policies and legislations affected the people of Torres Islands’ life. These policies have continued to have enduring and detrimental effect on those populations. Despite being the original inhabitants, each group had its distinct features, including culture and genetic origin. Torres Strait Islanders and Aborigines have in common the original occupancy of their land before the arrival of colonialists. Both Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders were marginalized and mistreated by government until late 1960s. Consequently, Torres Strait Islanders and Aboriginal people suffered from the protection (segregation) policies due to their indigenous nature.