By Alan Lucas, SY Soleares
The concept of granting our indigenous
population the right to pursue their own justice system has a
lot of merit, but it carries with it the thorny question of tribal
rights versus international human rights, the division of a nation's
legal system and the possibility of ethnic groups demanding the
same consideration related to their own background. It also ignores
those rare but real moments in Australia's history when Aborigines
voluntarily joined white settlements just to escape their own
more brutal justice system.
For all that, it is hard to deny the
superiority of native justice in metering out punishment suited
to the crime, as I believe the following - supposedly true -
incident proves. The story has come down through Torres Strait
islander lore with all that that implies regarding its exact
time and detail, but having heard it under the most convincing
circumstances, I have no reason for doubt (see Footnote).
When the event took place, all Torres
Strait islanders were under the umbrella of the Queensland Department
of Native Affairs (DNA), a name destined to be refined many times
over subsequent decades by the recognition that islanders and
mainland aborigines were different races, plus the need to erase
the word 'native' during rising political-correctness. It was
later changed to Department of Aboriginal and Islander Affairs
with the word 'Affairs' soon after being changed to 'Advancement'.
Also changed was the department's well
intentioned but dictatorial attitude that led to the development
of regional indigenous councils. These councils were overseen
by a department manager and staff who encouraged them to make
their own decisions, which, ironically, produced many incidents
of media and civil rights groups railing against 'racist' decisions
that came directly - not from white bureaucrats, but from indigenous
councils. Back in 1961, however, when I heard the following native
justice story, the emphasis was very much on white control, even
to the crewing of all pearl and trochus shell luggers.
To illustrate how demeaning this policy
could be, imagine this: You are an experienced lugger skipper-diver
who has just returned to Thursday Island from months at sea to
unload your shell. Then, having refuelled and victualled ready
for sea again, crew requirements must be revised and possible
changes made - not by you, but by a young white clerk, fresh
from Brisbane, who knows nothing about islanders or the shell
industry or the sea, but everything about administration.
The system commonly ignored the innate
organisational skills of the skippers and the conspicuous fact
that they, more than anyone else, knew good divers from bad.
Importantly, they also knew who were best at co-existing peacefully
on a fifty-foot lugger for months at a time. Yet despite their
body of knowledge these men had little say in crew choice and,
as a result, occasionally had unwilling and unproductive crewmembers
foisted on them by an all-white administration. Even serious
troublemakers had to be taken at times, as happened in this story.
The person in question was a known layabout
who had proven troublesome on every lugger he had shipped aboard.
Despite this, he was directed by the DNA to join yet another
lugger whose skipper knew his reputation but was obliged to accept
him. This blighted ship then put to sea to dive trochus along
the reefs down to Cairns during which time the new recruit succeeded
in killing a diver when he murderously stopped the diesel-driven
air pump. When working in very shallow water, such behaviour
was not entirely unusual as divers skylarked amongst themselves,
but in this case the diver was down deep where he wasted too
much time trying to identify the problem before throwing the
helmet and ascending. He didn't make it and died on deck.
The whole crew - and soon the whole pearling
fleet, recognised this as a payback killing, but they also knew
the evidence was too thin to expect satisfaction from the Westminster
judicial system. They needed a punishment tailored to the crime.
They needed native justice.
A plan was hatched involving the entire
Torres Strait lugger fleet, the idea being to deny the killer
any chance of being freed by white justice or enjoying a normal
life on terra firma. He was condemned by a council of elders
to remain at sea for four years, even to the extent of being
transferred from one vessel to another before any port with its
opportunity for escape was reached.
Although never physically abused, he
lived in a perennially hostile environment and was worked hard
on the most basic of food. When released, it is said he disappeared
from Torres Strait and was never seen again, more than happy,
no doubt, if he never saw another lugger.
How his disappearance was explained to
the authorities was never clarified - or if it was, I have forgotten;
but burying the dead on barrier reef islands was accepted practice
in the absence of refrigeration and a handy morgue, so maybe
they reported him as dying from the bends. Whatever his true
fate, native justice worked in this case, as it possibly did
in many other unheard of incidents.
I heard this story in the Torres Strait, sitting on the rail
of a working lugger in 1961. She had just offloaded shell and
had returned to anchor not far from my own vessel. The smell
of trochus was overpowering and the cockroaches were unbelievable
(even to a bachelor sailor). Sipping tea needed two hands: one
to hold the mug, the other to cap it off between sips to prevent
a crawling brown army of cockroaches overwhelming its contents
The Torres Strait has set the scene for many extraordinary
and often unrecorded stories that can only be accepted - or rejected
- on their merit. I had no reason to doubt this one because it
was told over tea, not grog, the latter being illegal until the
late 1960s. I can also vouch for the department's involvement
in crew choice, whether you were black, white or brindle, as
I discovered ten years later when skippering a small cargo vessel
for the same department. By then indigenous councils called most
of the shots, but the obligation to present log books and discuss
crew requirements at the end of every passage with an office
clerk fresh from Brisbane, without any field experience, was
still alive and well.