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Tanu Nona (1902–1980)

by Jeremy Beckett

This article was published:

Tanu Nona (c.1902-1980), pearler and Torres Strait Islands councillor, was born about 1902 on Saibai Island, one of eleven children of a Samoan seaman known locally as Tipoti Nona and his wife Ugari, a Saibai woman. Tipoti's Samoan name is said to have been Moses Nonga. Soon after Tanu was born the family moved to Badu Island where Tipoti found a job with the mission-run Papuan Industries Ltd. The Nonas became integrated into the Badu community through the traditional mechanisms of adoption and friendship.

Like most Torres Strait Islander boys, Tanu had a brief schooling before joining a pearling boat. He quickly revealed the qualities of drive and dominance that were to mark his later career, and at the age of 18 was made a skipper. In 1931 he won a contest among the leading captains of the strait by gathering ten tons of trochus-shell in six weeks. Working the reefs along the Queensland coast from Cape York to Gladstone for months on end, he acquired a detailed knowledge of the sea, the winds and the tides. He attributed his success to the work ethic:

You must have a strong captain to make [the] boys work. If they not get much shell I not let them into the dinghy to eat dinner, midday. They got to eat their piece of damper standing on the reef.

On 12 February 1924 at the Court House, Thursday Island, Tanu had married Naianga (d.1964), daughter of Tamwoy, a prominent skipper and Badu community leader. Their marriage laid the ground for Nona's entry into public affairs. Elected to the Badu council in 1929, he was chosen to direct the construction of a new church on the island. While at sea, he drove his men to earn money to pay for the materials; while ashore, he drove the villagers to take on much of the building work themselves. That Badu was able to complete the project and pay off its debts within a few years—despite the Depression—was a remarkable accomplishment, for which Tanu was given much of the credit.

Tanu's achievements as a skipper attracted the notice of the Queensland government's Aboriginal Department (Department of Native Affairs), which managed a pearling fleet on behalf of the Islanders. The department provided him with the best and biggest boats. From the late 1930s he operated these vessels as a family business, assisted by his brothers and, later, his sons and nephews. In time the elder members of the family took luggers and cutters of their own, but remained part of Nona Bros, under the management of Tanu.

Pearling was suspended during World War II. When hostilities ended, the Nonas resumed with only one boat. They soon regained their pre-eminence. In the peak year of 1959 they controlled eight government vessels, all equipped with diving gear, and accounted for well over 50 per cent of the catch of the government fleet. The Nonas and their associates also provided skippers for four boats in the industry's private sector. Badu prospered during those years, and the island's feasts were the most opulent in the strait.

In the 1960s the pearling industry went into decline. Although the Nonas' boats kept working longer than most and some younger members of the family took up other types of fishing, the Nonas lost their economic supremacy. Tanu, however, remained a powerful figure in local government, almost without interruption, until his retirement in 1976. He and his family dominated the Badu council, and, as the representative of the Western Islands group, he ensured that his influence prevailed throughout the region.

When the Queensland government encountered increasing restlessness among the Islanders, Nona remained loyal. In 1972 he was appointed O.B.E. Survived by his daughter and seven sons, he died on 10 December 1980 on Badu Island and was buried with Anglican rites in the local cemetery. A few years later, the ceremony to mark the unveiling of his tombstone was attended by more than a thousand visitors from other island communities and farther afield.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Beckett, Torres Strait Islanders (Cambridge, 1987)
  • N. Sharp, Stars of Tagai (Canb, 1993).

Citation details

Jeremy Beckett, 'Nona, Tanu (1902–1980)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 23 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (Melbourne University Press), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


Torres Strait Islands, Queensland, Australia


10 December, 1980 (aged ~ 78)
Torres Strait Islands, Queensland, Australia

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