Frank was our taxi driver on Thursday island. He was a proud islander, so proud to share the history of his islands with us.
He was a big man with a broad grin. So what if the taxi had seen better days? We had Frank.
He drove us to the highest point on the island. There’s a fort there, built way back in the nineteenth century to ward off Russian attack.
But the attack when it came was not from Russians, but from Japan. He laughs. Who would have thought it? The Japanese were their friends, a high proportion of the island’s population were themselves Japanese pearl fishers. Although the other Torres Strait islands were attacked, he is sure Thursday island was spared the bombing in World War 2 because so many Japanese graves lie here.
We saw them in the cemetery, small, simple graves amongst the exuberant coloured and gold encrusted headstones of the islanders. Some of the islanders’ graves were wrapped in what looked like blue plastic tarp. Frank explained. When a family member dies, their in laws are responsible for organising and paying for the funeral and grave. One year later, the family repays them and the gravestone is unveiled, marking the end of the official year of mourning. And oh, what gravestones they were, made with marble from Italy, costing tens of thousands, the more elaborate the better.
There are fifteen different religious denominations on the island, fourteen christian churches and the fifteenth, the church of Rugby League! When we visited, the State of Origin match was about to be played. Houses were completely covered in awnings, displaying the colours of their team, NSW blue next door to Queensland maroon. The islanders take their rugby as seriously as their church attendance. Frank, together with about 90% of the population, can be seen in church on a Sunday morning.
The conversion to Christianity came in a flash, known as the Coming of the Light. An island elder received missionaries on to the island in the late nineteenth century and resisted the temptation to collect their skulls. Almost overnight he decreed that they would follow the new way. The islanders have thrown themselves into their new religion with gusto.
Soon our visit is over. It’s been an interesting trip. Thursday island feels like a foreign country. It’s not Australian, but it is part of Australia. The islanders, like Frank, have a pride in their identity. They laugh about their headhunting, cannibal forefathers. They seem to feel comfortable in themselves, markedly unlike the aboriginal people we have met on the mainland. Here they were not displaced. They have had to adapt to white colonial arrivals, but they are in their home and feel at home in it.
The boat trip back to the mainland is rough, the sea high in the rising wind. The boat crashes into the waves with the full force of its 500 HP motors. We leave Frank, the happy taxi driver, to his rugby, his church and his islander pride, an Australian from the Torres Strait.