For the people at the top end of Australia the date 1 July is a calendar highlight with the Coming of the Light holiday celebrating each year the coming of Christianity through the Torres Strait Islands communities.
Accompanied by South Sea Islander evangelists and teachers the Rev Samuel MacFarlane from the London Missionary Society anchored at Erub (Darnley Island) in the Torres Strait in July 1871.
Dabad, a Warrior Clan Elder on Erub defied tribal law to welcome the London Missionary Society clergy and teachers.
There are over 100 islands in the Torres Strait, but only 17 are inhabited by 8000 residents.
Some of the islands are quite small and others are closer to Papua New Guinea than the Australian mainland.
The acceptance of the missionaries and Christianity into the Torres Strait Islands is often credited with ending conflict between different island groups. However, Christian principles were already somewhat compatible with Islander religion.
The missionaries also brought a very practical benefit. Torres Strait Islanders had been exploited in the maritime industry and the missionaries provided some protection and assistance to Islanders in their negotiations with traders.
The acceptance of missionaries and Christianity into Torres Strait led to significant changes that affected every aspect of life from that time on.
Ever year this important event known as the ‘Coming of the Light’ is celebrated with church services and a re-enactment of the landing at Kemus Beach on Erub.
Many Torres Strait Islanders living on the mainland return home to honour this anniversary every year.
Eddie Mabo and four other Torres Strait Islanders from Mer (Murray Island) were the Islanders who in 1982, started legal proceedings to have their traditional land ownership recognised. Because Mabo was the first plaintiff named, it became known as the Mabo Case.
In 1992, after ten years of hearings the High Court of Australia, the latter court found that Mer people had owned their land prior to annexation by Queensland, a ruling which overturned the century-old legal doctrine of terra nullius (“no-one’s land”), which held that native title over Crown land in Australia had been extinguished at the time of annexation.
The ruling was thus of far-reaching significance for the land claims of both Torres Strait Islanders and Australian Aborigines.
Climate Change and rising sea levels are threatening the Torres Strait Islands, particularly those islands which do not rise more than one metre above sea level. Storm surge and high tides pose the greatest danger but other problems include erosion, property damage and contamination of drinking water.
Photo: Craft Australia Erub Erwer Artists Darnley Island Art Centre