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TORRES STRAIT LUGGER TELLS STORIES OF SOUTH SEA ISLANDER ROLE IN PEARLING INDUSTRY

Antonia A99 in 1960 with her record 22 tonne of pearl shell on deck. Photo courtesy of original owners the Zafer family

Antonia A99 in 1960 with her record 22 tonne of pearl shell on deck. Photo courtesy of original owners the Zafer family

Not all that long ago, hundreds of luggers worked the waters of the Torres Strait in what was a lucrative and often dangerous industry – pearling. Luggers were small sailing vessels, traditionally used in fishing and pearling. There’s not many of them left now, but there’s one under restoration that has many Torres Strait stories to tell. And when it’s restored, the Antonia A99 will return to Torres Strait, as a floating class-room, a mobile museum, to help keep alive the stories of a really important time in far north Queensland history.

People came from all over the world to be part of the Torres Strait pearling boom. It’s perhaps not widely known that a significant number came from the nearby South Sea islands, especially from what are now the Pacific nations of Vanuatu and Solomon Islands. This movement began several years before the notorious “black-birding” era, during which people of the South Sea islands were brought by trickery or by force to work the cane fields of Queensland, effectively as slaves.

Between 1863 and 1904, more than 60 thousand people were brought to Queensland from the islands of Melanesia. When black-birding ceased, not long after Australian Federation, many islanders went home, but a lot stayed here in Queensland. Most retained a strong sense of their Pacific islander identity, but they lost touch with family and communities in their homelands. Over the past decade, an organisation called Blackbird has been helping the descendants of those who stayed in Australia re-unite with the descendants of the families from which they were taken so long ago.

And Blackbird is driving the project to restore the Antonia A99 – the seemingly indestructible lugger that has survived many cyclones and has sunk three times. But she also holds records for pearl shell tonnage, is one of the largest and fastest luggers ever built, and has many dances and songs about her still performed today. It’s hoped Antonia A99 will go back to Torres Strait next year as a floating museum, visiting the islands she used to sail between, preserving the stories of those times and promoting awareness of the role South Sea islanders had in the Torres Strait pearling years. Mike Smith is the restoration project co-ordinator – LISTEN to my interview with Mike here

Fund-raising for the Antonia A99 project is underway now. You can get involved at http://www.pozible.com/project/31782

 
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Posted by on October 15, 2013 in Cairns Queensland, EFFINCUE, far north Queensland, indigenous, rd on the road

 

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STEADY STEADY – THE LIFE AND TIMES OF TORRES STRAIT MUSIC LEGEND SEAMAN DAN

8191b54bb741a385306da8361cd88241If you ever visit Torres Strait (and you really should) you’ll hear people use the expression “steady steady”. It might be in response to a “how you going” or advice on how to proceed. It’s a term from the old pearl diving days, describing a way the boat might be handled to give the diver a smoother time down deep, searching for pearl shells.

And Steady Steady is the name of the just published biography of a man who spent a fair amount of his life underwater diving for pearls – Henry Gibson Dan, better known these days as Seaman Dan, the ARIA award winning singer songwriter who released his first album in 1999 at the age of 70.

Uncle Seaman was born on Thursday Island in 1929. He lived at Coen, on Cape York Peninsula, as a young lad, and then in Cairns during World War Two. Just after the war, he began diving for trochus shell on the Great Barrier Reef, and later became a pearl diver in Torres Strait and the seas of northern Australia. Seaman Dan had loved music since his youngest days, and started to perform with bands during the 1950s in Darwin. He’s had many jobs over the years, diver, drover, ice man, gold prospector, taxi driver – but he always made time to enjoy and perform music.

seaman-dan_follow-the-sunIn January 1999, a chance meeting with music producer and academic Karl Neuenfeldt on Thursday Island led to an offer for Uncle Seaman to go to Cairns to record some songs. He had some original compositions and some traditional Torres Strait songs – the result was the award-winning album Follow The Sun. Over the next decade, Uncle Seaman made five albums, won two ARIA awards, and he’s performed for audiences all over Australia and overseas.

At age 83, Seaman Dan is one of Australia’s oldest active recording artists and performers. He still plays two gigs a week at home in the Torres Strait. He told me today music is the reason he gets up in the morning.

Steady Steady tells the story of a remarkable and adventurous life – and there are many Torres Strait folk of his generation who lived similarly adventurous lives. But there is only one Seaman Dan, a master of island style music and a true gentleman.

LISTEN Click on the red arrow to hear my interview with Uncle Seaman and some of his songs

Steady Steady – the Life and Music of Seaman Dan is published by Aboriginal Studies Press http://www.aiatsis.gov.au/asp/aspbooks/steadysteady.html

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