Growling at the sea

Ailanman never growl the sea or anything. Not say anything bad about
the sea when you are on it. Because the sea we treat like a polite thing ...
– Flo Kennedy

IN THE EARLY 1990s, I spent three years living and working in the Torres Strait. The Army had commissioned me to recruit and lead men and women living in the region to serve in the Australian Army as reconnaissance soldiers. The Islanders' nickname for the unit is ‘Sarpeye'. In English, the word means ‘sharp-eye'.

I lived on Thursday Island with my wife and infant daughter. I travelled extensively through the region: by dinghy, Sharkcat and sometimes aboard an Army Blackhawk helicopter or Navy patrol boat. I tried to merge with the place. I kayaked across the Strait, patrolled on horseback throughout Cape York, visited hundreds of islands and points of strategic interest, and worked with every Islander community. I was young and driven by ego and ambition. I was also possessed of a sense of duty akin to missionary zeal. The experience left an indelible mark on me. I have written this piece in recognition of the Indigenous people of that place.

I am sitting at my office desk staring through tinted windows at Sydney's labyrinth of office towers, thrusting and shoving upwards towards the mottled, greying skies. The smog blanketing the city makes everything look mean and selfish. I am eating a mango. I roll it vigorously between my hands until the pulp is soft and then bite a small hole in one end. I suck out the cold, sweet juice and mouthfuls of stringy flesh. I learnt to eat mangos this way when I lived in the Torres Strait. The smell of the fruit is strong and mingles with my recollections. The cityscape evaporates as my mind floods with sacred memories.

I am wearing garb of mottled green
And boots of salt-stained leather,
I see the palms, the reef, the bush
And feel the untamed weather.
I recall the dark skinned soldiers strong
A parade of timeless faces.
The West, the East, the North and Central isles
The pride of Island races.

I can smell salt-laden ocean air, the parched dry season and the smoke from a dozen bushfires that burn unchecked on Muralag. The fires burn for weeks but are too lazy to cause much damage as they stroll about the island like bored tourists ... until the rains come. I smell the wet season, exploding in lightning, thunder and a torrential downpour. New life erupts, growing into a tangled green mass, hiding the ravages of the dry. I smell wet, sweating jungle, fragrant frangipani and pungent pawpaw. I smell the stench of my stale, salt-water sodden camouflage uniform. I draw in a deep breath and savour the rancid stink of rich, rotting mangrove mud.

Islanders first arrived in the Torres Strait more than two thousand years ago, around the time Socrates was walking barefoot through the streets of Athens. I arrived in late 1989, from Melbourne; from trams, tennis courts and cold winters to Thursday Island, the epicentre of the Torres Strait and probably one of Australia's few remaining frontier towns. Thursday Island's historical zenith as the epicentre of the pearling industry has long gone, but the island's untamed past is patent. An anonymous poet writes:

Up in regions equatorial
Blessed with scenery piscatorial
Is an island known to fame.
Pearlers live and pearling thrives there,
Island races live in hives there,
White men only risk their lives there.
Thursday Island is its name.


THURSDAY ISLAND HAS has witnessed the evolution of Islander culture as it emerged from the ravages of invasion and 200 years of exploitation. Most Australians know the Torres Strait as the home of Eddie Mabo. Some may have read Ion Idriess's Drums of Mer (1933) or Head Hunters of the Coral Sea (1940). Those who have sought a deeper understanding of the Islander culture may have read Nonie Sharp's workStars of Tagai (Aboriginal Studies Press, 1993). Many Australians have heard the ‘Deadly Sounds' of Christine Anu singing My Island Home or the Mills Sisters' harmonic version of T.I. Blues. Recently, the television series Remote Island Nurse gained popular appeal. Nearly all of us recognise the Torres Strait Islander flag, but most Australians have, at best, an incoherent understanding of the culture and people bound by history to that place – these things remain camouflaged and hidden.

The numerous wrecks that litter the Torres Strait's shallow waters are testament to its treachery: indifferent and irrepressible. During the wet season, heavy rain and sea mist often limit visibility, making navigation difficult. At this meeting place of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, the tidal streams are fierce. Matthew Flinders, arguably one of the greatest navigators and seaman of his age, noted: ‘Perhaps no space of 31⁄2 degrees in length represents more dangers than the Torres Strait.' Yet it is here, in this harsh place, that the ‘saltwater people' make their home. It is a place worth knowing.

The Strait is named after a Spanish sailor, Lui Vaez De Torres, who commanded the San Pedro and Los Tres Reyes, high-prow ships that lurched their way across the Pacific from Peru, reaching for their Spanish home before wind and curiosity pushed them into the Strait's maze of reefs and confusing currents. But the first European to see the Strait was probably William Janzoon, a Dutch explorer who tentatively probed the region from the west a few weeks before Torres, who took a month to cross the Strait from the north-east. Torres took away more than memories and drawings. In the Central Islands, his crew abducted several women and killed two men. Not long after her abduction, one of the Islander women gave birth to a child. The captives' eventual fate is not known.

Torres and his crew were probably the first Europeans to traverse the narrow, shallow waters of the Strait. What did the Islander people make of the salt-blackened vessels and the white men, ‘Lamars' or ‘Markai', spirits of the dead, who stood on timber decks, their sails and pantaloons billowing? Did Torres and his men smell the smoke from a thousand cooking fires? The details of Torres' journey through the Strait were lost for nearly 150 years. Then the British serendipitously learned of the Strait in 1762, when they captured Manilla from Spain and found Torres' charts in an archive.

On August 22, 1770, James Cook sailed through Endeavour Passage and into the Strait. On Albany Island, Cook saw Islanders for the first time; men armed with bows and wearing breastplates made from pearl shell. On Tuin Island, Cook took possession of the east coast of Australia on behalf of England, a potently symbolic act with tragic consequences for Australia's Indigenous people. Two hundred years later, the Mabo victory enabled lawmakers to recognise the connection of the Islanders to their land and sea.

There are almost two hundred Islander myths and legends, and nearly all of them involve the sea and fishing. Such was the Strait's bounty that the Islanders had time to grow crops, build large canoes capable of carrying dozens of passengers, design and make a variety of weapons, carve the images of their totems in stone and traverse the oceans and seas on wauri trading voyages. These voyages were an important, if not vital, component of Islander life. They sought to exchange goods and established reciprocal bonds with people throughout the Strait, Cape York and Papua. The saltwater people developed a repertoire of stories, songs and dances about these trading journeys. They honoured those who could hunt turtle, dugong and men. Armed with shark-tooth swords, bows and wicked looking gaba-gaba, the warriors frequently sailed from their home island with serious and violent intent. Around their necks hung an upi, the bamboo headhunting knife. Decorated with chest ornaments, armbands and spectacular headdress, these men would have looked proud and terrifying; however, they couldn't stop the inevitable European invasion or the impact of musket bullets, grapeshot and disease.

During the second half of the nineteenth century, thousands of fortune-hunters flocked to the region from  Europe, Malaya, Japan, the South Sea Islands and the mainland, drawn by the mesmeric lure of pearl shell, beche-de-mer and trochus. Single-minded greed motivated the expeditions. They harvested wealth and delivered cultural despair. But it was the men wearing the sacred garb who inflicted the cultural coup de grace.

The saltwater people were, and generally remain, deeply spiritual. The ritualised worship of the deity Malo-Bomai, in existence for centuries, provided a lattice upon which Islander culture rested. On July 1, 1871, the vanguard of the London Missionary Society (LMS), led by the Reverend Samuel MacFarlane, arrived at Erub aboard the Sapphire. A small group of South Sea Islander followers from New Caledonia accompanied him. The missionaries arrived waving their bibles and preaching the notion of a Christian god and eternal salvation: ‘Bayu nagi ... let there be light.' It may have been a conscious act to go with the flow and to embrace rather than resist the cultural interlopers, but the saltwater people, bound to their islands and seas by the nature and the spirit of Zogo-god, received the missionaries enthusiastically. The LMS missionaries took hold of the Islands, often by harsh and cruel means. They banned warfare and broke the nexus between trade and reciprocity that had bound the island communities together for centuries. The frequency of waurivoyages declined and the powerful Islander bows were unstrung and hung as ornaments. Today, the ‘Coming of the Light' festival celebrates the arrival of the LMS.

Such was the impact of the LMS that scholars have found it difficult to reconstruct the life of the Islanders before 1871. In 1898, the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition, led by Arthur Court  Haddon, arrived to study the people of Mer. He was surprised to find the pre-1871 culture all but lost, due primarily to the missionaries' influence. His expedition meticulously mapped the genealogy and studied the language, customs and social structure of Meriam society. They photographed Meriams and collected hundreds of cultural artefacts. Today, the Haddon expedition retains its status as a formidable example of anthropologic research. The extensive collection of Mer artefacts resides in the Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology as historical curiosities, anthropological collectables and imperialist booty. The voluminous set of data collected by Haddon provided evidence to support the Mabo case.

The Zogo-house and sacred groves of wongai trees have long gone, replaced by churches and congregations wearing floral dresses and crisp white shirts. Pastors have replaced the Zogo-le, the traditional priests of Mer and Erub. The Islanders have exchanged warrior dress for Rugby jumpers. Tin-roofed shacks, some boasting antennae and satellite dishes, have replaced the beehive-shaped homes and sarokeg poles adorned with human skulls. Diesel generators drown out the sound of the ocean.

I can hear the sea: it never sleeps and its anger is terrifying. The wind blows across the hot sand; the tiny particles of silicon, shell grit and coral sting my legs. On the beach, the wavelets slap the calloused hull of an aluminium dinghy moored in the protected lagoon. A bony dog barks at scuttling crabs. Breakers charge relentlessly on to the home reef as they have always done. The wind rushes across the beach and swirls amongst the leaves and branches of a massive wongai tree and stirs the fronds of coconut palms. Winds of change blow persistently across the Torres Strait. Sager (the south-east trade wind) blows incessantly from May to October, sometimes for weeks without respite. Then the wind stops and the Doldrums descend. The air is still, hot and suffocating. The sea becomes calm and clear. Silence reigns, except for the sound of the ocean's breathing and distant clouds groaning, pregnant with rain.

I can hear the voice of my friend Kapua. His intelligent counsel guides my hand. I can hear the the languages; guttural, ancient languages link the people to their ancestors. Kala Lagaw Ya, the language of the Western and Central Islands, and Meriam Mir, the language of Mer, Ugar, Duar and Erub, the Eastern Islands. Torres Strait Creole binds them all.

I can hear boys shouting, calling for the Rugby ball. Once boys trained in the kwod where the older men taught fighting skills and the ways of warriors and dugong hunters. The whirring, chattering sound is from finely balanced spinning tops, made from stone. The spinning competitions were once a popular sport, but they have been replaced by Rugby and basketball. I listen to the sound of a canoe bow breaking smooth water as the hunters chase a dugong. The creature surfaces, expels a lungful of moist air through its two dorsal nostrils and dives for the safety of deeper water – but it will need to surface again, and the hunters are patient men. I hear the sun set on Thursday Island to the sound of twilight singing in the Quetta memorial church. I hear the bottomless beat of the warup (drum), goanna skin taut, tuned with small nuggets of beeswax – the heartbeat of a nation.

Shortly after I first arrived in the Torres Strait, I flew to Poruma, a small coral cay no bigger than a dozen Rugby fields. It sits between the volcanic monoliths of the Eastern Islands, the granite peaks of the Western Islands and the sedimentary island-swamps of the North-Western Islands, built from layers of alluvial sediment carried into the Strait by Papua New Guinea rivers. The aircraft flew very low, close enough to the ocean to let me see dinghies plying their way across the choppy sea. My eyes were unaccustomed to picking out sharks, dugongs and turtles. As I flew over the reefs and bare, rocky islands, I looked but did not see; by Islander standards, I was blind.

The Army had established a small Islander patrol in each community. We generally trained locally, although several times a year we came together for collective training in Bamaga or on Thursday Island. The Islanders were generally good soldiers, well suited to the privations of lengthy patrols and hard physical work. They knew their environment so well that even the slightest ambiguity stood out.

The pilot landed on Poruma's grass airstrip and taxied to a halt close to the beach. A group of children who had been playing touch Rugby on the airfield gathered about the plane and greeted us with a mix of shyness and intense curiosity. The simple, natural beauty of the island was a cliché, and I spent that first evening in awe of my surroundings and in the company of two elders – crayfish divers who once worked on a pearl lugger before plastic baubles crippled the industry. Their bodies were lean, grey hair cropped short, almost to the scalp. Broad, calloused feet told me they had spent most of their lives barefoot while their demeanour revealed a deep inner health.

In the evening, we drank tepid beer under the palms and watched island life float about us. A young girl plaited her sister's hair; a small boy played with a toy tractor; an elderly woman sang as she raked the sand in front of her home into neat furrows. The elders told me stories about their childhood and their way of life. They talked about fishing and hard-hat diving for pearls in the cold fathoms of the Darnley Deeps. They told stories about sharks and the dreaded bends. ‘It feels like bull ants crawling inside your skin, then the pain she comes.' They told me about serving during World War II with the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion. One laughed heartily as he told me that, as a soldier serving on Horn Island, his officer paraded him before the unit and beat him with a riding crop as punishment for spying on a group of white nurses while they swam in the sea.

They showed me the stars, which told them when the winds would change and when the rains would arrive. The rhythm of the place, the cycle of life, was dominated by the movement of the constellation ‘Tagai' which shepherds the seasons. Tagai is a warrior standing in a canoe. In his left hand, he holds the Southern Cross – his spear. Tagai is a massive constellation and includes Scorpio, Lupus, Centaurus, Crux, Corvus, Hydra and Ara. Tagai speaks to the Islander people about the seasons, telling them the time to trade, hunt and plant crops, reassuring them that everything in the world is ordered, that life follows a cyclic journey just as the stars follow a set route across the sky.

Manu has come to help launch the Sharkcat and take us to a place where we can dig for turtle eggs – a gift for some of the soldiers on Poruma. He knows the best places. He knows old stories about his people. He knows about the meaning of the dances. I enjoy listening to his tales over a cup of hot sweet tea – mixed with carnation milk and sugar. I can see Manu standing on the bow of the Sharkcat as we fly across the Strait. It's a fast boat, driven by two massive Mercury outboards and, like Mercury, we fly on winged keel. Manu nods his head, which means all is clear, a flick of his right finger means turn right, a tilt of his head means slow down. If you look hard, you can see the reef reaching up to rip out the boat's belly. Close your eyes and feel the reef rush beneath the hull, tickling the soles of your feet. Look out for the logs that float below the surface, washed into the Torres Strait from the Fly River, its origin deep in the dark green bowels of Papua New Guinea. Over there is a school of sardines – a dense, black mass numbering in the millions. Sharks carve through them, gorging, until they are too tired to eat another morsel. Looking into Manu's eyes, I catch a glimpse of something sacred, see what men have seen for 2,500 years. But it's a fleeting moment, and I will never know his secret – not now.

Beneath the stars, there was trouble in paradise – issues about land, border and fishing rights. There were calls for independence. Education issues prevailed and the local economy did not support a large number of jobs. I knew that in recent years turtle and dugong numbers had been devastated by pollution, starvation and hunting. Some island communities ran out of fresh water during the dry season. The cost of living was exorbitant. Some issues seemed overpowering. The most concerning seemed to be those associated with the state of Islander health. My wife worked for three years as a nurse at Thursday Island hospital. She made a difference and knew about the grass-roots issues as well as the broad sweep of cold government statistics.

I knew there was an inherent resilience that had helped the Islanders survive four hundred years of contact with my culture. I understood that the notion of exchange and mutuality existed still. I knew the sense of community, common purpose and spiritual communion was strong, qualities missing from the culturally myopic and over-indulged world that raised me. I knew the saltwater people, like Tagai, would rise.

Manu could hunt dugong. He hunted them with a wap, a harpoon made from wongai wood. He took me dugong hunting. We killed a creature. I rubbed its grey mottled skin, and looked into its weeping eyes and stroked its round muzzle. I touched its face and wiped away its tears. Manu died from diabetes before he was forty years old.

Manu knew the ocean; he knew how to beat storms. Strong winds had blown the seas of the entire Strait into a maelstrom, marooning several Islander patrols and me on small, uninhabited Gabba Island. There were fourteen of us making up the flotilla of dinghies and the Army Sharkcat. We sheltered from the weather in a bay and camped on the beach above the high-water line. The seas were enormous and the largest and most threatening I had seen, amplified by the effects of a king tide. We waited on Gabba for three days for the wind to abate, but it didn't. I decided we would make a run to the west, aiming for a narrow passage through the reef, about fifty kilometres away.

The journey was dangerous, so we planned the crossing in careful detail, burying heavy and unnecessary items in a cache so we could return for them later. I decided to time our run so we would arrive at the distant passage on high tide. Once on the lee of the reef, we could travel in safety to the south and home.

We set off with the rising tide, after midday, a flotilla of four small boats led by the Sharkcat, but the wind, waves and current conspired to disperse us. By late afternoon, I had lost sight of and communications with two dinghies and was fearful of what may have happened to them. We could not stop to search, and instead drove hard into the ocean, racing to beat fate. Rain and salt spray streamed down as we smashed into wave after wave. On and on we charged to make safe haven; that black-dog day was long. Manu kept us on track. He spent hours standing on the Sharcat's bow, drenched in spray, looking ahead intently and guiding us with subtle gestures. We did not fight the ocean, and learned quickly to steer within the flow of the turmoil and manoeuvre to the rhythm of nature's anger.

At last light, we spied the reef. We missed the passage by a few kilometres and turned north until we found it. There, waiting in the calm waters on the lee, were the missing boats, their crews safe, wondering what had kept us. We regrouped and travelled south until the light became too poor to navigate safely. One of the crews knew the area well and found a safe anchorage behind a tiny, rocky island. The dinghies rafted-up alongside the Sharkcat and we camped in our boats for the night. As I lay on the deck of the gently rolling boat, exhausted yet exhilarated by the experience, I stared at the running clouds illuminated by the full moon. At midnight, the wind stopped suddenly and the clouds disappeared. One of the crews started singing.

A telephone wakes me. The skyscrapers are blank faced, oblivious to my reverie; the sun is out and the smog has gone. Between the chrome and glass behemoths, I catch a glimpse of the sea connecting me to that far northern place. At that moment, I promise to take my daughter back there, when she is older, when she can make her own connection – to renew the cycle.

I remember the day I left the Torres Strait, bound for a new post in Papua New Guinea. A small band of Islander brothers, my soldiers, gathered at Thursday Island wharf to say good bye. The wisest of them all, Kapua, held my hand and asked me what I had learned. It was a strange question, without context, and one with a thousand possible answers. Only one came to my mind.

‘Kapua, I have learned not to growl at the ocean.'

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