Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Sam Passi (1912–1990)

by Nonie Sharp

This article was published:

Sam Passi (1912-1990), schoolteacher and linguist, was born on 29 August 1912 on Mer, in the Murray group of islands, eldest son of George Kanai Passi, and his wife Wanee, née Pokar.  Sam’s grandfather, Ait Passi, chief of Dauar, an island near Mer, had written a fifty-nine page manuscript for members of the 1898 Cambridge anthropological expedition to the Torres Strait.  Comprising narratives, names of places and natural phenomena, words and songs, it was described by the linguist Sidney Ray as ‘the first unassisted literary effort of a member of the Papuan race’.  Sam was educated at the Mer mission school and worked in 1928-30 diving for trochus and bêche-de-mer before returning home to train as a schoolteacher.

Between 1931 and 1973 Passi taught at schools on a number of Torres Strait islands; when at Purma in 1940 he was said to have a ‘brisk, stimulating manner’.  In 1965 he completed a four-month teacher-training course at Kedron Park Teachers’ College, Brisbane.  He was principal (1968-71) of the Lockhart River Aboriginal community school.  Retiring from teaching, in 1974-77 he was field officer for Applied Ecology, a company that in 1973-80 ran a turtle-farming scheme on several islands, including Darnley, Mer and Stephen.

A member of Murray Island Community Council for eleven years in the 1950s, mostly as chairman, Passi had been elected as eastern group representative on the Torres Strait Islands Advisory Council in 1956.  In 1967 he was appointed a justice of the peace.  As an eldest son, he was ‘nameholder’ of clan land at Giar Pit, on Dauar Island.  He was initially one of five plaintiffs in Eddie Mabo and Others v. The State of Queensland and the Commonwealth of Australia (1982) who, on behalf of the Meriam people, sought legal recognition of their ownership of the land in the High Court of Australia.  His younger brother, Rev. Dave Passi, carried through successfully the family’s claim to inherited land.

Gentle in demeanour, Passi was both intellectual and practical.  For Meriam people ‘gardening’ (that is, growing fruit and vegetable crops such as yams and bananas) was the most important aspect of their culture.  Passi declared in 1982 that ‘gardening will never end for me until my time is finished’.  He remembered what his father had told him about the stars, the atmosphere, signs from nature, and the annual ‘calendar’ and ‘wind circle’ of the Meriam.  Proud of his inheritance as a descendant of a high priest of the god Malo-Bomai, in 1984 he told the sacred narrative, as his grandfather had done for the Cambridge expedition.  Sitting beside his home at Zomared village, Mer, he sang the sacred chant, ‘Malo plants everywhere’.

Passi was a devout Anglican.  A respected linguist, he had helped to translate the church liturgy into Meriam in 1947-57 and to compile the Torres Strait Island Hymn Book.  On 1 July 1973 he was made deacon in the Quetta Memorial Cathedral, Thursday Island.  He was appointed MBE in 1979.  On 28 December 1938 at St James’s Church of England, Murray Island, he had married Rotannah Osia.  Survived by his wife and ten of their eleven children, he died on 1 October 1990 on Thursday Island and was buried at Zomared village, Mer.

Select Bibliography

  • S. H. Ray, Reports of the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to Torres Straits, vol III Linguistics (1907)
  • TSIMA Newsletter, no 12, 1985, p 12
  • N. Sharp, Stars of Tagai (1993) and No Ordinary Judgment (1996) and Springs of Originality Among the Torres Strait Islanders (PhD thesis, La Trobe University, 1984)
  • Mission schools inspectors report, Purma, October 1940, A/15999 (Queensland State Archives)
  • personal knowledge

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Nonie Sharp, 'Passi, Sam (1912–1990)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 17 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (Melbourne University Press), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


29 August, 1912
Mer, Queensland, Australia


1 October, 1990 (aged 78)
Thursday Island, Queensland, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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