Not all that long ago, pearl luggers worked Torres Strait waters in their hundreds. Pearling was a lucrative and often dangerous industry. 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.
Fund-raising for the Antonia A99 project is underway now. You can get involved at http://www.pozible.com/project/31782