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What differentiates an Aborigine from a Torres Straight Islander?

Aborigines and Torres Straight Islanders share a category of “Indigenous”, which basically means that they have ancestors that occupied Australia prior to British colonisation; however, there are some differences in the two group’s collective cultures and history in relation to Britain. These differences have led to different labels being used today.

In regards to Aborigines, at the time of colonisation, people living on mainland Australia were nomadic. The British either referred to them by the name of their tribal group or by the collective term of "natives". After their tribal identities broke down and the word native started being used by people born in Australia of European descent, the generic term for an indigenous population (Aborigines) came to be used by default. In recent years, there has been a revival of the use of traditional tribal names.

In regards to Torres Straight Islanders, in 1879, the colony of Queensland annexed the Torres Straight Islands (between North Australia and Papua New Guinea) on behalf of Great Britain, which annexed the southern half of Papua New Guinea a few years later. The northern half of Papua New Guinea was annexed by Germany around the same time. Although the people of the Torres Straight and Papua New Guinea had black skin like mainland Australian Aborigines, they were agricultural peoples, which resulted in them having a hierarchical culture in comparison to the egalitarian nomads of the mainland.

The entire island of Papua New Guinea was transferred to Australian administration following Germany’s defeat in World War 1. In the 1970s, some activists in Papua New Guinea started calling for independence from Australia and wanted the Torres Straight islands included in their new country. The Australian government was happy for Papua New Guinea to become independent but vocal Torres Straight Islanders asserted their desire to remain part of Australia rather than join Papua New Guinea. The Australian government agreed to let the Torres Straight remain part of Australia. This was somewhat challenged in 1981 when one Torres Straight Islander, Eddie Mabo, launched a case in the Australian High Court to have his people granted traditional land rights over vacant crown (Australian government) land. A victory in 1992 was subsequently applied to mainland Aborigines. Eddie Mabo stated his desire for Torres Straight independence and some Australian politicians have likewise suggested that the islands become independent.

 

 

 

 

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