Accepted paper:

The Torres Strait pearling industry: sheltered workshop or cultural hothouse?


Jeremy Beckett (Sydney University)

Paper short abstract:

The paper traces the transformation from engagement in the pearling industry in the Torres Strait under 'internal colonialism', through the collapse of the industry and reliance on the subsistence economy, to the move to employment on the Australian mainland. A common theme is the mediation of relations between employers and employees by Islanders.

Paper long abstract:

As an 'Internal Colony' the Torres Strait Pearling industry enabled the continuation of a marginal industry in an otherwise high labour-cost economy, and enabled several decades in which the 'new' Torres Strait culture could be consolidated. A majority of workers in the industry had no direct contact with the Anglo-Australians who controlled it, effectively 'at arm's length'. Rather the relation was mediated by a few Islanders, effectively indigenizing the industrial system as far as Islanders were concerned. The decline and eventual collapse of the industry in the 1960's initially forced men back into the subsistence economy, but with a sense that they needed and were entitled to the commodities to which they had become accustomed over the preceding three generations. The opening up of employment opportunities on the mainland provided not only an alternative avenue, but cash incomes which did not depend on subsistence production to be sufficient. However, much of the work could be achieved through adapting pre-existing ties among Islanders, dealings with employers being mediated by a few individuals.

panel P27
Indigenous participation in Australian frontier economies