Thursday Island, also known as TI or Waiben, is the administrative and commercial centre of the Torres Strait Islands. Lying 39 km north of Cape York Peninsula, Queensland in the Torres Strait, Thursday Island has an area of about 3 km² and an estimated population of 3,500. Thursday Island experiences a tropical climate with an average daily temperature of 29 degrees Celsius: The hottest month is traditionally November (31.4 degrees Celsius) while the coldest is July (27.6 degrees Celsius). January typically experiences the highest rainfall (389 mm) and September and October average 3 mm.
The island has been populated for thousands of years by the Melanesian Torres Strait Islanders, who named the island Waiben, thought to mean ‘dry place’, owing to the scarcity of fresh water on the island. In 1877, an administrative centre for the Torres Strait Islands was set up on the island by the Queensland Government and a township developed over the next decade.
A lucrative pearling industry was founded on the island in 1885, attracting workers from around Asia, including Japan, Malaya and India, seeking their fortune. Additionally, many south Pacific Islanders were also imported to work in the industry, many against their will. While the pearling industry has declined in importance, the mix of cultures is evident to this day.
The pearling industry centred on the harvesting of pearl shell, which was used to make shirt buttons. Pearls themselves were rare and a bonus for the owner/crew. The boats used were a very graceful two masted ” lugger” with, in good times, a stern diver, one midships, and one diver off the bow. A manual air compressor was used. Two crew men, generally Torres Straits Islanders, would stand, one at each wheel, and turn the wheels to compress the air for the diver. The divers wore a corslet on their upper body with a diver’s hardhat attached to it.