Men of some 20-30 nationalities, sometimes accompanied by their wives, free men and 'indentured labourers', were drawn to the rich shell beds of the Torres Strait and its neighbourhood. The pearl shellers sought to acquire the rights to the reefs, the seabed and sea resources of the Islanders. They demanded water; many women were stolen in the early days and men were kidnapped ('shanghaied') to become 'food for the fisheries' of the new sea kings. In a world where possession of the seas was becoming at least nine-tenth's of the law, the inhabitants of the Islands, especially those of the central islands, could hardly resist the intrusions of the newcomers. The inhabitants of Yorke Island complained bitterly at the cutting down of their wongai trees. At Tutu, Warrior Island, the men buried the women and girls in the sand with only their noses showing as soon as the pearling boats were sighted.
The men who came were adventurers and fortune-seekers. On the rising crest of the wave of the pearl-rush, there came characters with outstanding sea and other worldly knowledge and skills; some were semi-outlaws with pirate pasts. In their pearling world where no-one could be trusted, their wives had to hold their life-lines when they dived. One of these men was the Jamaican, Douglas Pitt.
Keywords: Mer, pearling industry, sea rights, Torres Strait, Yorke Island, 1840s-
Author: Sharp, Nonie