A J Thompson | Andrew Thompson, Rockhampton Australia

Tale of The Twin Pearls ~ History, myths, and legends from the Kingdom of Irukandji

Irukandji Ministry of Heritage and Culture

Tale of the Twin Pearls

To the south and southwest of Tamita Island, both touched by the waters of Tiamo Reef, lie Manatu Island and Pinjarra Island, two low lying atolls lined up like a string of beads.

Tiamo Reef

Perhaps for this reason, or because pearling had once been the local industry, seafaring merchants of long ago referred to them as the Twin Pearls.

The two islands had once supported large native communities well into colonial times, and provided much of the wealth in the region.

Unfortunately, the native inhabitants of both islands shared the same fate as those of nearby Alantay Island, simply disappearing in the night without trace, be it under the watchful eye, or with the same eyes turned, of their colonial masters.

Distinct from Alantay though, is the legend of how Manatu and Pinjarra finally gained their names.

In 1896, fifteen years after the local population's disappearance, the islands remained abandoned. Native myth had grown on neighbouring islands of evil spirits who would eat any man who set foot upon the forsaken lands, and locals feared the same fate would befall them.

Then one day during stormy seas, a kayaking fisherman of the distant Weta Island tribe was nearly washed onto the shores of the Pearls. As he flailed about, fighting for his life amongst the coral outcrops, he saw what he believed to be two figures on the beach. One of them raised their hand towards him and he knew beyond doubt that they were demons, and the terrifying storm, a curse of their creation.

Manatu Island

Half mad, he drifted on his ruined boat and finally made his way home. He hid in his hut for days without telling another soul of his encounter. The elders of his clan, troubled by the man's unusual behaviour, finally intervened.

They plied the man with kava and summoned the wisdom of Tungatuna, the goddess of the sea. Finally, in his alcohol-fuelled trance, and in the protective arms of his goddess, the fisherman dared whisper, "Ona badlan saw manatu" - pidgin for "On the bad land, I saw a man or two".

The words were repeated from village to village, then island to island. Fear spread amongst the tribes, and soon, the news of ghostly demons cursing the sea reached the British Governor, Lieutenant Quintessa, on Tamita Island.

A practical man, and himself married to a native princess of the southern Aboyo clan, Governor Quintessa was unfazed by, yet accustomed to tribal myths. He was a man of Queen Victoria through and through. He feared not for demons but rather an attempt by the French to settle the island, further expanding their Pacific influence. He immediately ordered his men to the fabled beach the terrified Weta Islander had called 'manatu'.

When spotted, the two 'demons' made no effort to hide and were amiable enough. They turned out to be a native man and his nephew. The older man claimed to have been born on The Pearls, with the younger man born of his family's loins but in exile. He spoke of being taken by force along with his kin, to a faraway place called Queensland to labour on the sugar plantations, then unceremoniously dumped home again. History would later support their claims, and the birthright of the uncle, an elder named Pinjarra.

Manatu Island

Lieutenant Quintessa was sympathetic to the repatriated native, a rare quality for his ilk at the time. Whether driven by pressure from the other tribal princes of his tropical domain, or by guilt over the mother empire's complicity, he installed Pinjarra as elder of the westernmost atoll, and named it for him.

Of the other atoll, which had been dubbed Manatu Island by some eager, young cartographer, it would be added to the territories of the Aboyan tribe who claimed ancestral domain over its fishing grounds.

Unpopulated, and with ample historic evidence to support the Aboyans' claim, Manatu Island passed to them without opposition from the other Irukandji tribes. The only criticism of the day came from a local journalist who questioned the Governor's neutrality, given that his Aboyan wife, Uba Uba was elder of her tribe, and thus Manatu would pass on to their children.

Regardless, the greater Irukandji tribes were content and their elders deemed the matter settled. For the white population as well as the black, life returned to normal, and any lingering doubt over Lieutenant Quintessa's decision died away.

Alas though, the same degree of peace would not be enjoyed on neighbouring Pinjarra Island. No longer paired culturally to Manatu, its status was in flux as hundreds of repatriated natives continued to arrive home from faraway Fiji and Australia. The vast majority were Pinjarran-born and the population of the island quickly grew.

Although the newly returned natives were treated kindly and fairly, they were bitter - the elder, Pinjarra, most of all. He could not forgive his abductors. Kidnapped in his youth, then maligned and discarded as an adult, Pinjarra had no intention of becoming a puppet in his own home. His eyes had been opened to the ways of a larger world beyond the Irukandji islands, and the ways of imperial colonisers such as his present British overlords.

In whispers at first, he began to spread the first seeds of revolution, but eventually he over-stretched. When his whispers finally became too loud, his masters took his life for treason at the end of a hangman's rope. Perhaps predictably with the benefit of hindsight, the harsh penalty backfired on the British. Rather than silence the rebel leader, a martyr was born.

Over the next forty years, the British were harangued at every chance, and their retaliation was brutal. Many lives were lost on both sides. After World War II, when the British Empire was at its weakest, Pinjarra's grandson, Kebo Kebo, helped unite the local tribes to oust the British.

Full independence for Irukandji would take another thirty years, but was finally gained in 1975, eighty years after Pinjarra's return from indentured slavery.

A kingdom was established, with Daniel, the eldest son of the Weta tribe installed as ruler of all the islands. However, his reign was a short four years due to a weakened heart, and worse still, a sudden coup saw all eight of his children assassinated.

The perpetrators were identified as Pinjarran warriors acting on orders from old Kebo, the Pinjarran leader, who was attempting to gain control of Irukandji. With that one disgraceful act, the hard-earned legacies of Kebo, and that of his forebear, the great Pinjarra himself, were destroyed.

Recommended further reading:
The Tamita-Pinjarra War
The Matriarch of Manatu

Andrew Thompson a.k.a. Xay Tomsen