This is an edited extract from Masked Histories, Turtle Shell Masks and Torres Strait Islander People by Leah Lui-Chivizhe. It’s published here with full permission.
The first turtle to be caught in the surlal was generally female (Editor’s note: The turtle mating season is known throughout the Torres Strait as surlal or surwal). Larger and fatter than their mating partner, the meat and oil they supplied could sustain many people. The likelihood that they also carried eggs made their procurement an even bigger prize.
For Islander women, their own reproductive rhythm as well as whether they were breastfeeding determined the types of contact they could have with turtle at this time. In the hunt for the first turtle of the surlal in the eastern islands, it was believed that if a turtle saw a pregnant woman or her husband it would evade hunters by diving into deeper water and chasing after it would be futile.
As a consequence, pregnant women were required to remain out of the line of sight of mating turtles. After the first turtle of the season was caught, the restrictions no longer applied.
For the women of Mabuyag during the surlal, they were not to go into a house where there was turtle meat and could not go near a fire where turtle was being cooked.
Mabuyag and Muralag women were required to stay away from the sea, and never walk below the high-water mark.
Restrictions were also placed on sexual conduct during the two months of turtle mating. Husbands were separated from their wives and sex between unmarried women and men was proscribed.
Beliefs about the contaminating effects of pregnant or menstruating women were common among Pacific Island societies to the east of the Torres Strait. As it relates to marine turtles in particular, on the Lau Islands of Fiji, it was believed that if a pregnant or menstruating woman touched or looked at a turtle net, the net would be ruined.
Menstruating women of Raroia, Tuamotu, were forbidden from eating turtle and large fish. Likewise, in the Marquesas, a chief preparing for a turtle hunt ‘must not enter any house frequented by women’. As in the Torres Strait, in these societies it was held that if the prohibitions were not observed, the results would be calamitous.
In the eastern Pacific examples, the observance of rituals and ceremonies was associated with the ‘religious’ characteristics of men’s and women’s fishing. Women’s fishing was seen to be ‘more secular’ and ‘rarely involving the use of magic or ritual’, while men’s fishing was ‘often surrounded by complex beliefs and taboos because it can be risky and, at times even dangerous … women are actively prohibited from participating in such fishing’.
Similarly, in the Torres Strait, the hunting of turtle by Islanders involved the strict observance of taboos related to menstruating women and food, the use of magic and ritual performance.
On Mabuyag it was believed that the canoes that men hunted in could also be vulnerable to curses or malevolent magic and so they were carefully prepared before hunting trips. Twigs of the urugi plant (Uvaria sp.) were burnt and the ashes were made to fall into the canoes. This process cleansed a canoe in the event that it had been ‘contaminated’ by ‘a menstruous woman who might have eaten a turtle caught by that canoe or infected it by her touch’.
In the formation of the hunting party, the husband of a pregnant woman could not be the harpooner, but he could be one of the crew, provided that when a turtle was sighted he rubbed his armpits with the leaves of paiwa or lewer pas (Ocimum canam), a scented basil-like plant.
While there were a number of occasions that excluded women, there were in fact some practices that required their participation or presence. A practice from the central islands of Auridh and Poruma that exemplified the role of women in first turtle ceremonies was documented by WH MacFarlane.
On both islands, MacFarlane observed that when the first turtle of the season was caught, it was brought onto the beach and turned onto its back and the people danced around it and sang. This, Haddon wrote, was ‘an expression of joy mingled with thanks and earnest entreaty that plenty more turtle might be sent.
An old woman took a fresh young coconut and split it so that the water was sprinkled over the body and poured into the mouth of the turtle’. Haddon recorded this custom on Poruma, where ‘an old woman named Largod split and holds the coconut’. On these two occasions, ‘old’ women, presumably beyond childbearing age, acknowledged the first turtle.
As can be seen from these stories stretching across place and time, hunting for turtle was not merely a process of strength and self-confidence—it was part of an intersecting network that required the coming together of material, spiritual and human readiness. It was not just the hunters who needed to be ready but the entire community. The same was true for the cooking and eating of the first turtle.
- Masked Histories is out now
Please note feature image is a stock photo of a green turtle.
Historian and curator Leah Lui-Chivizhe is a Torres Strait Islander with enduring family connections to the eastern and western Torres Strait. Her research focuses on how nineteenth-century collections from the region can be useful for reconnecting Islanders with our pre-colonial histories of human and other-than-human relations. Leah teaches in indigenous histories at University of Technology, Sydney.