Time travel through TI cemetery

To wander through the Thursday Island cemetery is to take a 135-year time travel journey through the complex and fascinating history of the region.

With a population which from 1890 comprised Europeans, Chinese, Torres Strait Islanders and Aborigines, South Sea Islanders, Malays, Filipinos, Japanese, Singhalese, Indians and a few Thais, Arabs and Africans, visits to the cemetery are always going to be an interesting adventure.

The cemetery itself is as inhomogeneous as the many ethnic and cultural communities that lie within. Some sections are mown and well-kept, while others are overgrown and inaccessible. Different parts of the cemetery are so unalike as to have their own ecosystems. Some parts are flat, others steep and rocky. The cemetery stretches from the ocean-side flats to a high rise in the centre of the island – the green rectangle in the map below.

The most high-set graves are in the cemetery’s earliest section, in the middle of the island, along Summer and Blackall Streets.

John Douglas’s grave in the Thursday Island cemetery. Behind, almost in the scrub, is the grave of Archibald Watson.

The proclamation of a permanent cemetery reserve  of eight acres was made on July 8, 1887 and soon after,  cemetery trustees were appointed. One of those was John Douglas, seventh premier of Queensland, who by then was the island’s Government Resident.

His blue granite grave is one of the most prominent in this upper section of the cemetery – but still requires some effort to get to, especially if it’s a while since the whipper snippers have been through during the wet season.

Click here to read about John Douglas‘s life and burial .

Also buried in this section is Archibald Watson (stone pictured below) who overcame early notoriety and fled the possibility of incarceration, to become a leading surgeon and academic.

His story can be found here.

The trustees soon found that much of the reserve was too steep and rocky for burials. The paths would become washed out during the wet season – even today there are numerous drains and gullies amidst the long grass, waiting for an unwary visitor to turn an ankle.

In 1894 the cemetery was doubled in size to 16 acres, towards the northern side of the island, and again in 1896, to take in what is now the Japanese Divers Cemetery.

It  was pearl fishing in the Torres Strait in the early 1870s that kicked off the ethnic diversity of the region. An exemption from the White Australia Policy, which started in 1901, meant that diversity continued where in other parts of Australia, it was stymied.

Imported labour gangs from Pacific Islands in the early years were replaced, as technology changed, by Malay and Filipino divers and by the 1890s Japanese divers and tenders dominated.

Japanese graves certainly dominate the cemetery.  There are over 700, although more than 1200 Japanese workers are thought to have died during the 60  years they were in the industry – most were deported after  World War II.  

But Japan has not forgotten its fallen. Some of the  post-like grave markers have been replaced by Japanese funding and a monument has been  erected by the Monument Building Committee of Japan to “commemorate the Japanese who worked, lived and died in Torres Strait between 1878 and 1941”.

And each year on August 15, the Japanese Day of the Dead, known as Obon, a Buddhist ceremony is held, where a recital and the name of the known dead are called out.

A Japanese resident has established a trust of about $100,000 to ensure future maintenance of the gravestones.

Torres Strait Islander’s burial cultures have changed since colonization, but still retain, or more accurately, have reintroduced, unique aspects.

In a two-part process, a funeral is held, then the grave/tombstone is covered with materials. About a year after the death, a ceremony is performed, known as an unveiling or opening. It is meant to be a joyous event, representing the release of the person’s spirit. It usually involves feasting and dancing.

The hand-carved animals below were found on Torres Strait Islander’s graves.

Other interesting graves in the cemetery include that of James Price, murdered in a pearl fishing venture gone wrong, and Mary Earl, a young missionary who met an unfortunate end while passing through. Click on their links to read their stories.

And there are graves which tell of events, like the influenza epidemic of 1919, which took the life of Snowy Yates.

It took several weeks to explore the cemetery, with different parts being exposed as the maintenance crews worked around the unsettled wet season weather. It was almost like a gift being slowly unwrapped.

cemetery explorer in 2022

Sources: Ganter, Regina Queensland Historical Atlas, Pearling at https://www.qhatlas.com.au/content/pearling

https://monumentaustralia.org.au/themes/technology/industry/display/92662-japanese-pearling-memorial

Tombstone unveiling ceremonies https://www.mabonativetitle.com/info/tombstoneUnveiling.htm

https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/people/torres-strait-islander-culture

https://cspm.csyw.qld.gov.au/practice-kits/safe-care-and-connection/working-with-aboriginal-and-torres-strait-islander/seeing-and-understanding/respect-for-cultural-protocols-and-practices

Published by Sharyn Moodie

Travelling around Australia for work, I've found so many amazing headstones. But what is more amazing is the stories behind some of these deaths, and the way newspapers of the day reported them.

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