Pearling luggers, Thursday Island, 1959. Slides by Lionel Bevis, Collection of the Centre for the Government of Queensland

Copyright © Lionel Bevis and Collection of the Centre for the Government of Queensland

Pearl swimming diving with goggles, 1917. The divers usually made such goggles from tortoiseshell. Collection of Regina Ganter

In 1917 some 550 Torres Strait Islanders worked on pearling boats, about half of them on community-owned ‘company boats’, typically employed as swimming divers. The community lugger scheme had been started by philanthropic effort in 1897 to free indigenous people from dependence on large and exploitative companies. For many years it was jointly conducted by the Papuan Industries Limited and the Queensland Government’s Department of Native Affairs, and became very popular among Torres Strait Islanders, who used the luggers which they were able to purchase through this scheme for transport, visiting, and various kinds of subsistence fishing. It was for this very reason that the Department considered it an economic failure and continued to tighten its grip over the scheme, until it could no longer be said that the communities were owning the luggers. This led to a ‘lugger strike’ against the paternalism of the Department in 1936, and to separate legislation for Torres Strait in 1939 (separate from mainland Aborigines) with some limited self-government.  

Collection of Regina Ganter

Pearling became the largest industry in far north Queensland in the 1890s and had a massive impact on coastal Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

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