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Change in continuity: an archaeology of Mualgal missions, western Torres Strait, northeastern Australia

posted on 30.01.2017, 22:51 by Ash, Jeremy
This thesis is an archaeological examination of the colonial history of the Mualgal people (the Indigenous people of Mua, western Torres Strait, northeastern Australia) from their first entanglements with the London Missionary Society in the late nineteenth century, to their later supposed "absorption" into the Queensland State bureaucracy following the turn of the twentieth century. The two case studies considered - Totalai and Poid - are seminal ancestral village sites for the Mualgal today. They offer a rare opportunity for researchers to examine changing Mualgal traditions of the colonial era with relatively fine-grained temporal resolution. Occupation of each village during this colonial period was short (although an even earlier village at Totalai has a pre-colonial antiquity) and relates to a different phase in Torres Strait's colonial history: the indirect "rule" of the LMS years (c.1871 - 1904) and the colonial authority of the Queensland Government Protectors (c.1904- 1950). The key question pursued in this thesis is essentially an issue of representation, and, more specifically, the difficulties archaeologists confront in conceptualizing the actions of Indigenous peoples when writing about mission- and reserve-based entanglements. For the most part, archaeologies of Indigenous missions and reserves in Australia have been approached in academia through one dominant theoretical lens: hegemony. While such approaches have undoubtedly elicited important insights into dynamics of power relations within institutional settings, I argue that hegemonic and related frameworks are inadequate to address how Indigenous peoples approach and think about their own post-contact past. In part, this inadequacy reflects the ways in which archaeologists interested in power dynamics have, for the main, overlooked Indigenous notions of material culture and landscape - a reflection that unconsciously mirrors a researcher's own preunderstanding or preconceptions. Such oversights have broader disciplinary and political implications, not least of which is the potential to reinforce a general perception that missions and reserves were in essence Western places of quarantining (and cultural incarceration and rehabilitation), of steps towards cultural extinction ("the dying pillow" trope) and disconnection, to the neglect of a counter, Indigenous view of a rich, Indigenous postcontact history of emplaced cultural vitality and dynamism. In this sense, missions cannot and should not be reduced to institutional spaces, but recognised as personal places that have been and continue to be socially and culturally experienced. This thesis, therefore, attempts to investigate these "other" narratives of mission and reserve-based entanglements; that is, it aims to depart from narratives highlighting rupture and control, toward an analysis that explores and traces themes that transcend and connect. I attempt to do so archaeologically through the perspective of "biography", and in particular, the biographies of "traditional" Mualgal objects and places as they became involved in new sets of social relations and political fields, taking on new kinds of cultural relevance. In tracing the biographies of Mualgal things through time, I argue that the histories of Totalai and Poid involve histories of both loss and regeneration, of colonial relationships and ancestral entanglements, and of displacement and emplacement in complex iterations that link Mualgal people today with Mualgal people as they once were.


Principal supervisor

Ian McNiven

Year of Award


Department, School or Centre

Geography and Environmental Science


Doctor of Philosophy

Degree Type


Campus location



Faculty of Arts