Yam Island (Queensland)

Yam Island (Queensland)

Yam Island (Iama Island) is an island in the Bourke Isles, 100km North East of Thursday Island Queensland, Australia in the Tancred Passage Torres Strait.

This island is one of the Torres Strait Islands. Its indigenous language is Kulkalgau Ya, a dialect of the Western-Central Torres Strait Language (see Kala Lagaw Ya).


Yam Island is also called Iama or Turtle-backed Island. The original inhabitants traded and fought widely in their sailing canoes. In 1792, they came aboard William Bligh's two ships seeking iron. Bligh named Tudu 'Warrior Island' after an attack they later made. The London Missionary Society established a station at Yam's western end making it possible for a permanent village with people settling around the mission. Many of the men took jobs on pearling luggers and a pearling station operated on Tudu during the 1870s with another at Nahgi (Mount Ernest Island, southwest of Yam). Pacific Islanders working at Nahgi station later settled on Yam. During the World War II, many Yam men enlisted in the army, forming C Company of the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion.

Despite their seafaring background, Yam people were fairly isolated from the outside world until well after the War. An airstrip was constructed in 1974 and the island's connection to the Torres Strait telephone exchange occurred in 1980. Yam has provided the Torres Strait with important political leaders including Getano Lui Senior (grandson of the first LMS teacher, Lui Getano Lifu) and Getano Lui Junior, former chairman of the Island Coordinating Council.


Yam Island also has interesting pre-history records in local legends in Papua and Torres Strait.

According to Mabuiag-Badu legend, Austronesian people from far-east Papua settled on Parema in the Fly Delta and married local trans-Fly women (of the group of peoples now called Gizra, Gidra, Bine, Meriam). Later they moved down to Torres Strait and settled on Yama, and then spread from there to different island groups. Westwards they went to Moa, Mabuiag, and there fought with local Aboriginal people and married some of the women, though apparently ‘purists’ who wanted to keep the blood clean moved north to Saibai, Boigu and Dauan. These initial settlements could have been anything up to around 2000 years ago. Eastwards they settled all the Central and Eastern Islands. They did not seem to have gone south to the Muralag group at this time. Much later, the Trans-Fly Meriam people of Papua moved to Mer, Erub and Ugar, taking most of the original inhabitants' land. These people, Western-Central Islanders, they called the Nog Le Common People, as opposed to the Meriam People, who are the noble people. Western-central Islanders in general are called the Gam Le Body People, as they are more thick-set on the whole than the slender Meriam.

This was the establishment of the Islanders as we know them today. Their languages are the mix of cultures mentioned above: the Western-central language is a mixed language with Austronesian and Papuan elements as a cultural overlay and Aboriginal as a 'mother’s' underlay, and the Eastern Language is dominantly Papuan, though with significant Australian and Austronesian elements.

According to Papuan legend [get reference], a developing mud island near the mouth of a river to the south of the Fly Delta was first settled by people from Yama (who named the island [Dhaaru] - Called officially Daru), before the time that the Kiwai conquered the coastal parts of the South-West Fly Delta (perhaps at most around 700 years ago). The Yama had long-established trading and family contacts with the Trans-Fly Papuans, starting from the original Austronesian settlements. When the Kiwai people started raiding and taking over territory, some of the Yama escaped to the Trans-Fly Papuans inland, and some went across to Saibai, Boigu and Dauan to join their fellow Islanders there. However, the majority wanted to keep their tribal identity, and so decided to get as far away from the Kiwai as possible, and headed to the far south of Torres Strait, and settled on Moa and the Muralag group. A small core of Yama people stayed on Daru, and became virtually absorbed by the Daru Kiwai. The Kiwai call these people the Hiamo (also Hiama, Hiamu), while the Yama people that moved to the Muralag group then called themselves the Kauralaigalai, in their modern dialect Kawalgal ‘Islanders’, in contrast to the Dhaudhalgal ‘Mainlanders of Papua’ and the Kawaigal or Ageyal ‘Aborigines of Australia’ (who are also Dhaudhalgal ‘Mainlanders’).

The Kaurareg and the Kulkalgal (Central Islanders) have this close relationship still, and traditionally considered themselves as closely related, much more than either is to the Mabuiag-Badu people. The Kulkagal (Yama and others) have also kept their teaditional ties with the Trans-Fly people, and also now with the Daru Kiwai, who after their beginning as conquerors, have now become a part of the traditional trade netwoek

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