A History of the Strike
The strike for home rule was precipitated by the high-handed and provocative actions of JD McLean, the local authority in the Torres Strait. The 'bu' (trumpet shell) or curfew whistle, the 'morality laws', the travel permit system, the discontinuance of the practice of self-management of the clan boats including the sale of the shell and distribution of the money earned among the men, had closed up the free spaces which earlier colonial practice had left open. In the preceding December, McLean had hit Marou Mimi, the Council Chairman, and then sacked him. According to his Department, he could no longer visit the Murray Islands without an escort. As anger rose, another leading Murray Islander threatened 'to take his gills out'.
Men like Marou, who was born in 1884, travelled far beyond the Torres Strait. Taking his own traditions seriously he wrote down and fostered Malo's law, he was also knowledgeable in the ways of Europeans. He was ready and prepared to say, 'Not your way. Our cultural way.'
'Tow the boats to TI, Thursday Island.' We will not work them under your conditions. The Meriam had stockpiled food; they were now preparing to sit it out doing their gardens. But the Meriam also continued to display their independent spirit and to demand full autonomy in Island affairs. They knew this meant controlling their own finances.
By the time an Inter-Island Councillors' Conference was held at Masig, Yorke Island in July 1937, JD McLean had been replaced, the most directive of the rules had been scrapped, and a 'New Law' introduced returning some powers to Island Councils. The 'Company boats' at Mer did not return and a Department pearling fleet came to be anchored off Badu, one of the Western Islands. In October 1939, a Torres Strait Islanders Act giving some powers to Island Councils was passed by the Queensland Parliament. However, the 'backdown', itself carried out silently behind the scenes where possible, was not without its costs to Islanders. The 'troublemakers' were to be isolated if possible; the Administration waited a return of confidence. A new style was introduced into the new Department of Native Affairs. The man who had managed the outcomes of the strike, CD O'Leary instituted a system of soft control which was to carry 'the Department', as the Islanders called the superseded Aboriginals Department, through to the 1980s. O'Leary was, as one Murray Islander described him in 1979, 'the sugar around the same bitter pill of Queensland rule.'
Etched in the memories of both Islanders and Con O'Leary was the same peak moment of the strike. On his retirement as Director of 'the Department' 30 years later, O'Leary said the outstanding moment for him was the day in the Murray Island school-house in 1936 when he raised the question of manning the 'Company boats'. All the men refused to discuss the matter and jumped through the windows. Among Islanders this way of saying 'no' is still known as 'Giving them the O'Leary treatment.'
The Murray Islanders were behaving like free people and they had the support of the Anglican Bishop of Carpentaria. In seeking the right to run their boats and their island affairs the way they wanted to, they were demanding to be free people with the same standing as white Australians. They were challenging the central plank of colonial rule: that they were backward. This was why they had to be defeated.
Keywords: home rule, Malo's laws, Mer, Stars of Tagai, strike, 1930s-1980s
Sharp, Nonie 1993, 'Stars of Tagai, The Torres Strait Islanders', Aboriginal Studies Press.