This artwork’s focus is on narrative rather than its aesthetics. Battle of Bikar is a series of contacts in the Torres Straits I am currently producing. Battles in the Torres were not meaningless or merciless killings they were primarily based on protection of territory and resources. This battle happened on Erub (Darnley Island) in the Eastern Torres Straits.
Ships’ journals of the Fly, Bramble and Prince George record coming to Bikar to procure water because it was a well that could supply the ship with sufficient quality. The transcript below is from John Singh’s, 1979, book: The Torres Straits, People and History, University of Queensland Press:
The Chesterfield and Shah Hormuzearhad anchored off Erub on 9 July 1793. A party sent ashore for water met Islanders who appeared friendly and agreed to barter for “emu” (cassowary) feathers. Consequently, a group consisting of Captain Hill (New South Wales Corps), Shaw (first mate of the Shah Hormuzear). Carter (a friend of Bamptons), Ascott (an ex-convict from Norfolk Island) and four Lascars, went ashore to barter for feathers and look around.
While Hill and the Lascars remained with the boat on the beach. Carter, Shaw and Ascott, who carried a musket, climbed a hill. As they pushed up through the thick scrub Carter, who was ahead, was suddenly attacked and struck down. Ascott hearing his screams fired into the scrub and the attackers fled. Carter’s skull had been shattered by stone clubs and he was barely conscious. Supporting the injured man between them, Ascott and Shaw struggled down the hill. On approaching the beach however they found that their five companions had already been killed and dragged some distance away to where a fire was blazing. On the beach, unguarded, sat their boat. Somehow the three managed to launch the boat but, strangely, decided to run for Timor instead of making for the two ships in the vicinity.
Oral history describes the reason for this battle as:
When the sailors were given permission to obtain water, it was based on trust, as those that came before them showed the Islanders they could be trusted. The sailors filled their casks with clean fresh water from the underground aquifer, they also bathed and washed their clothes with soap. These men were probably not aware to the Lores of the island concerning natural resources. While filling their casket with water they decided to bath and wash their clothes with soap. The people of Bikar came and found them using soap and set upon them for the taboo they committed (artist’s version).
While the men from the ship were given permission to resupply their ship with water in good faith, they violated a valuable resource: fresh water – a treasured element for life for the Islanders who are surround by seawater.
Soap was the reason why the sailors were attacked and killed. Soap (from the Islanders’ life experiences) dries up wells. It kills the eels that keep the mouth of the wells open, by cleaning debris and animals that fall in. Wells are a life source for the Islanders and without them they would need to find and dig others well or move to another island.
The sailors’ actions are what multinational corporations and governments are doing to indigenous lands in the world today – ignoring resources and the Lores that protect them by indiscriminately reaping and raping the land and its resources, disregarding what is vital and important and taking what man needs to feed the material world they have created, leaving Indigenous Peoples, nature and humanity with polluted lands, changed environments and landscapes of uninhabited waste lands.
Battle of Bikar was the winner of the Works on Paper category in the 2016 Telstra Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards