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Torres Strait Islander and Filipino yarning

The team, led by Filipino Australian Deborah Ruiz Wall and Peter Sabatino of Hammond Island, have a dream of sharing stories of early pearl divers in Torres Strait more broadly. These divers formed families with the Islanders, and their descendants now mark seven generations since the late 19th century.

The day after arrival, the Sydney visitors attended a mass on Hammond Island. Fr Saju, a priest from India who looks after the Catholic parishes of Hammond and Thursday Islands, presided at the mass, which was held at St Joseph’s Church. Affectionately called the stone or the rock church, St Joseph’s was constructed “stone on stone”, primarily with the assistance of Filipino men called “Manila men”, Filipino pearl divers or pearl diver descendants.

From the 1860s to the mid 1880s, the pearling industry recruited Filipino, Malay, Japanese and South Pacific Islanders as divers. Some of the indentured workers who stayed on the islands intermarried with the locals. The team’s oral history project focuses on the stories of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and Kimberley Aboriginal people who are descendants of Filipino pearl divers.

It was at St Joseph’s Church where the team first met members of the Hammond Island community. After mass, we were led to a primary school at Hammond where we sat down, introduced ourselves and talked about the purpose of our project. After a few days of yarning and joining activities at the Home and Community Care (HACC) Centre on Thursday Island, where older and retired people gather once a week and socialise, we felt that we had gained locals’ trust and formed lasting relationships. At HACC, community members get together once a week and engage in craftwork, sing-along and dancing, and share a meal.

Several generations of Torres Strait Islanders, who were able to trace their heritage over seven generations, yarned with us over the week. Those who shared their stories included Peter Sabatino, Josephine David-Petero, Josie Cowley, Camilla Sabatino, Mary Binjuda, Mario

Sabatino, Regina Turner, Patrick Mau, Lillian Majid and Mary Bowie.

Bipo Taim (before time), a phrase used by elders, intrigued us. Bipo taim is a time of innocence as recalled by elders when they were children. It was a time when they frolicked in the sea, played in the sand, enjoyed relative freedom on their pristine islands, before the onset of colonial rule and missionary church regulations on orphanages and schools.

Adopting children “out” was another practice that drew our attention, when a young narrator enumerated his siblings and named one who was “adopted out”. The narrator explained that one or two of the children were given to the extended family to raise. In sparsely populated, isolated islands, one could imagine the sharing of responsibility for raising families that transcended Western notions of “exclusive” nuclear families. Some narrators, now in their seventies or eighties, were raised in families numbering ten or more children.

In an interview with Jenni Enosa of Radio4MW, Deborah Wall and Peter Sabatino explained how Filipino pearl divers ended up working in Australia’s pearl shell industry. One factor was the opening of the Philippines to international trade in 1834. Shipping links began between the two countries; coal was exported by Australia; and coffee, sugar and rope products were imported. Second was the migration revolution, where some Filipino men left the country at the onset of Filipinos’ revolutionary struggle against Spanish colonial rule. Third, the booming pearling industry in Australia recruited indentured labourers from the ports of Singapore, Hong Kong and Colombo.

Filipino cultural influences were also evident in Torres Strait Islander cuisine, such as dishes like dinuguan (using pig’s blood) and adobo (using vinegar in cooking pork and chicken), and rice wine called tuba, which some descendants recall their grandfathers produced.

The oral history team aims to publish a coffee-table book, which will feature people’s own stories and photos, both old and new, coming from two locations: Broome and Torres Strait Islands. Other spin-offs are also emerging, with folk wanting to explore their own heritage by one day visiting the islands in the Philippines where their ancestors were born.

Our narrators’ stories were captured on tape and film, and will be transcribed, and approved by storytellers before going to print. Assisting Deborah and Peter were Robyn Hutchinson who took photographs of the yarning journey and Denise Barry, artist, who sketched as we yarned.

The book project team also includes Dr Christine Choo from Perth and Dee Hunt from Brisbane. Apart from using contemporary photographs, they plan to include archival photographs and documents that reflect the policies and governance of earlier times that shaped the community’s past experiences.

A sign inscribed on the footpath on Thursday Island hit a chord that was a touchtone for our project: “The past must exist, for the present to create the future (E. Bani).

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