Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Kapiu Masi Gagai (1894–1946)

by Jenny Rich

This article was published:

Kapiu Masi Gagai (c.1894-1946), pearler, boatman, mission worker, carpenter and soldier, was born about 1894 probably on Mabuiag Island, Torres Strait, Queensland, second son of Newa Gagai and his wife Kubi. Kapiu belonged to the Kodal (crocodile) clan and the Badu tribe, and was later adopted—in the Islander way—by a married couple Nomoa and Kaidai. Taken to Badu Island as a child, he received a basic education at the local school, religious instruction from London Missionary Society and Church of England missionaries, and was trained as a carpenter. From the age of about 15 he worked as a swimmer-diver, sailing in the Islander-owned pearling lugger, Wakaid.

On 22 December 1915 at Bethlehem Church, Badu, Gagai married with Anglican rites a local woman Laina Getawan (d.1923), daughter of Getawan and Dabangai; they were to have three daughters. In June 1921 Rev. James Watson recruited him to join the staff of (South) Goulburn Island (Methodist) Mission, Northern Territory, as a boat captain and lay mission worker. Gagai's wife and children accompanied him there. He later worked at Milingimbi Mission. At Goulburn Island Mission on 26 October 1929 he married Mujerambi (Marjorie), daughter of Alfred Joseph Voules Brown, trepanger and trader, and Mumuludj, an Iwaidja-speaking Aborigine; Kapiu and Mujerambi were to have ten children.

In April 1932 Gagai took his family back to Badu where he was employed as a carpenter and went to sea in another Islander-owned pearling lugger. The anthropologist Donald Thomson hired him in May 1935 to take charge of the auxiliary ketch, St Nicholas, which he sailed off Arnhem Land. Thomson named Kapiu Point, near the entrance to the Koolatong River, in his honour, but this name has not been officially recognized. When Thomson left the Territory in 1937, Gagai resumed his former occupations at Badu before operating a punt for the Queensland Main Roads Commission.

Despite being over-age and classified as medically unfit, he enlisted in the Australian Military Forces on 27 October 1941 and immediately joined the 7th Military District's Special Reconnaissance Unit, commanded by Thomson. Gagai was boatswain of the unit's armed vessel, Aroetta, which patrolled the coast of Arnhem Land in 1942-43. He was twice placed in charge of an outpost at Caledon Bay, became an expert Vickers-gunner and was promoted acting sergeant. In recommending him for a decoration, Thomson praised his sense of responsibility, devotion to duty, leadership, loyalty, unselfishness and the example he set for others. The unit was disbanded in mid-1943 and Gagai was posted to the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion on Thursday Island.

In late 1943 he was seconded to the 11th Infantry Brigade and took part in a hazardous expedition led by Thomson in Netherlands New Guinea. Thomson subsequently wrote:

I well remember the quiet, steadfast courage of Sergeant Kapiu . . . [who] was a first-class waterman. He was strong and he had no nerves. He could work and when the tension was over he could sleep like a log. He did not fret and worry and waste nervous energy . . . He was powerful—massive is a better word—impassive; even stolid. But he could laugh—a laugh halfway between the angels and Rabelais.

Thomson, Gagai and another soldier were wounded when New Guineans attacked the party close to Japanese outposts on the Eilanden River. After recovering in hospital at Merauke from a deep machete cut to his neck, Gagai returned to Thursday Island. From January 1944 he was with No.14 Australian Small Ship Company, supervising Islander and Aboriginal soldiers, and occasionally piloting small craft in Torres Strait and around Cape York. He served in the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion from March 1945 until he was discharged on 28 March 1946.

Gagai was 'a loyal churchman' and a chorister who loved his people's traditional songs and dances. Big and strong, he was kind, patient and wise, and greatly respected by the Islanders, Aborigines and White Australians who knew him. He spoke Kala Lagaw Ya, English and some Aboriginal languages, and had a detailed knowledge of Torres Strait waters and the coasts of Cape York and Arnhem land. Like other Islanders in the A.M.F., he did not receive the same pay and conditions as his White counterparts. Gagai died of lobar pneumonia on 21 August 1946 at Thursday Island and was buried in Badu Island cemetery. His wife and seven of their children survived him, as did two daughters of his first marriage.

Select Bibliography

  • L. Lamilami, Lamilami Speaks (Syd, 1974)
  • J. Beckett, Torres Strait Islanders (Canb, 1987)
  • Geographical Journal, 119, pt 1, Mar 1953
  • J. Rich, Sergeant Kapiu (manuscript, privately held)
  • D. Thomson papers (Museum Victoria)
  • Methodist Overseas Mission records, Northern Australia papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • AWM 54, item 741/5/9 (Australian War Memorial)
  • private information.

Citation details

Jenny Rich, 'Gagai, Kapiu Masi (1894–1946)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 29 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (Melbourne University Press), 1996

View the front pages for Volume 14

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


Mabuiag Island, Queensland, Australia


21 August, 1946 (aged ~ 52)
Thursday Island, Queensland, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.