The Torres Strait Islands are a group of at least 274 small islands which lie in Torres Strait, the waterway separating far northern continental Australia's Cape York Peninsula and the island of New Guinea.
The islands are mostly part of Queensland, a constituent State of the Commonwealth of Australia, with a special status fitting the native (Melanesian) land rights, administered by the Torres Strait Regional Authority. A few islands very close to the coast of mainland New Guinea belong to the Western Province of Papua New Guinea, most importantly Daru Island with the provincial capital, Daru.
Only 14 of the islands are inhabited, with many of the islands threatened by rising sea levels.
It was at Possession Island that Lieutenant James Cook first claimed British sovereignty over the eastern part of Australia in 1770. The London Missionary Society led by Rev. Samuel Macfarlane arrived on Erub (Darnley Island) on 1 July 1871. This is referred to by the Islanders as "The Coming of the Light" and is celebrated annually by all Island communities on 1 July. The Torres Strait Islands were annexed in 1879 by Queensland. They thus became part of the British colony of Queensland and after 1901 of the Australian state of Queensland although some of them lie just off the coast of New Guinea.
In 1898-1899 the Torres Strait Islands were visited by the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition led by Alfred Cort Haddon. In 1904, the Torres Strait Islanders become subject to the Aboriginal Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act.
The proximity to Papua New Guinea became an issue when it was moving towards independence from Australia, which it gained in 1975. The Torres Strait Islanders insisted that they were Australians, but the Papua New Guinea government objected to complete Australian control over the waters of the strait.
Eventually an agreement was struck whereby the islands and their inhabitants remain Australian, but the maritime boundary between Australia and Papua New Guinea runs through the centre of the strait. In practice the two countries co-operate closely in the management of the strait's resources.
From 1960 - 1973, Margaret Lawrie captured some of the Torres Strait Islander people's culture by recording the retelling of local myths and legends. Her anthropological work can be found at the State Library of Queensland and has recently been recognised and registered with the Australian UNESCO Memory of the World Programme.
In 1982, Eddie Mabo and four other Torres Strait Islanders from Mer (Murray Island) started legal proceedings to establish their traditional land ownership. Because Mabo was the first-named plaintiff, it became known as the Mabo Case. In 1992, after ten years of hearings before the Queensland Supreme Court and the High Court of Australia, the latter court found that Mer people had owned their land prior to annexation by Queensland.
This ruling overturned the century-old legal doctrine of terra nullius ("no-one's land"), which held that native title over Crown land in Australia had been extinguished at the time of annexation. The ruling was thus of far-reaching significance for the land claims of both Torres Strait Islanders and Australian Aborigines.
On 1 July 1994 the Torres Strait Regional Authority (TSRA) was created.