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Ware, Elia (1911–1987)

by Moilang Ware

This article was published:

Elia Ware, Canberra, c 1963

Elia Ware, Canberra, c 1963

AIATSIS Collection, MCGINNESS.JO1.CS-000141469

Elia Ware (1911–1987), soldier and Torres Strait Islander activist, was born on 8 December 1911 at (a location later known as ‘Ware Corner’) Wag, Moa Island, Queensland, one of six children of Alfred Aviu Pigin Ware, born on Erub (Darnley Island), and his wife Gaiba Petrie, born on Mabuiag Island. His paternal grandparents, Ned Cutay Ware of Ouvéa Island, Loyalty Islands, New Caledonia, and Uruba Demag of Mabuiag Island, were the first family to settle at Wag (later St Paul), Moa Island, in the early 1900s, preceding the church and the Queensland government. Elia Ware belonged to the Panai clan and his totem was dangal (dugong). On 17 January 1936 at St Paul’s Church of England, Moa Island, he married Sorby Oth, also known as Mary. He already had one son, Miseron Levi, and the couple would have nine children: Abigail Diat, Mary Peterie, Doso Dorothy, Elia, Grace Alvina, Aviu Ned, Kittie Pele Isobel, Elizabeth, and Moilang Rosalind (Rosie) Annie. An adopted son, Rosie’s nephew Jacky, also lived with the family.

Although mainly employed as a seaman, Elia Ware was working as a labourer, building roads on Waiben (Thursday Island), when the Australian Army started recruiting Torres Strait Islanders for service in World War II. On 14 July 1941 he enlisted and was assigned to the Torres Strait Infantry, later Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion, a garrison unit comprised almost entirely of Islander men. The Indigenous soldiers received one-third of the pay given to other soldiers. Frustrated over this inequality, three companies of the battalion, including Elia Ware’s ‘A’ Company, went on strike in December 1943. Their pay was increased to two-thirds of the rate of other servicemen in May 1944; however, as the money was paid to the chief protector of Aborigines and held in trust accounts, many did not receive the full amount. Elia Ware achieved the rank of corporal in November 1944 and was discharged on 7 September 1945, at which time deferred pay of more than £105 and a gratuity of £23 was paid to the chief protector on his behalf. It was not until 1982, after decades of campaigning by Elia Ware, Ettie Pau, and others, that the surviving members of the battalion received back pay, then valued in total at over $7 million.

In 1959 Elia Ware packed up his young family and left the Torres Strait in search of the kinds of employment opportunities and the quality of housing, education, and medical services that were not available in the islands. They sailed down the Queensland coast in his boat, the Marie Posa, landing at Holloways Beach just north of Cairns. With his dry work clothes held high on his head, he swam across the Barron River to Machans Beach, then walked to the Captain Cook Highway to get a lift into Cairns, where he found work laying sewerage pipes. Later he worked on sugar cane and tobacco farms, on a prawn ship, as a scrap-metal collector, and as a dealer in second-hand goods. The Ware family lived at Holloways Beach for the next two decades and Elia and Sorby purchased two homes and a block of land there. The prominent Aboriginal activist Gladys O’Shane and her family were neighbours.

O’Shane, Elia Ware, and Joe ‘Pumeri’ McGuiness were founding members of the Cairns Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders’ Advancement League in the early 1960s. In April 1963 Elia Ware attended a conference of the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement in Canberra as a representative of the league. He pushed to have Torres Strait Islanders named as a separate group in the FCAA; this was ratified in 1964, the national body becoming known as the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. In July 1963 he met with the Federal member of parliament and president of the Aborigines Advancement League, Gordon Bryant, in Melbourne to discuss the underpayment of Torres Strait Islander soldiers. On 27 September he was part of a deputation led by FCAA President Joe McGuiness that met with Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies in Canberra to call for a referendum to alter the constitution by eliminating the clauses that prevented the Commonwealth from making laws for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. It was the first time an Australian prime minister had received an Indigenous delegation. Elia Ware alerted Menzies to the discrimination faced by Torres Strait Islander ex-servicemen who were not receiving the same benefits as other ex-servicemen, including access to war service homes, and advocated the need for social services, full employment, and higher standards of schooling in the Torres Strait. The referendum, which resulted in a resounding ‘Yes’ vote, was held in 1967. The Queensland campaigners had to pay for their own fares to Canberra for meetings, so they organised Saturday night dances and sold raffle tickets. As Canberra could be very cold, especially in winter, Elia Ware and his daughters would rise early and go drag netting in a flattie (flat-bottomed dinghy) in Thomatis Creek to sell fish to raise extra funds for warm clothing.

Elia Ware and his brother Bobby registered Ware and Co. and began fishing for trochus in 1970. They purchased the Coral Pearl, a prawn trawler, and turned it into a trochus boat with a boiler installed at the back to cook the shellfish. The brothers worked the reefs off Cairns, the meat going to their families’ tables and the shells to market. In 1979 Elia and Sorby Ware moved to Waiben, where Sorby passed away, aged sixty-one. Returning to his home island of Moa, Elia Ware became a strong advocate of independence. Seeking to keep the island free of government control, he opposed the Deed of Grant in Trust that most Torres Strait Islands, including Moa, entered into with the Queensland government in 1985. He was building a stone house at St Paul when he suffered a heart attack on 10 October 1987. Two of his nine surviving children, daughter Grace and son Aviu Ned, finished the house after his death. He was buried beside Sorby on Waiben and their tombstone was unveiled in 1996.

In the Torres Strait, it is understood that the life work of an individual is supported, and made possible, by the efforts of others. Elia Ware is remembered as a man of vision, courage, strength, and integrity whose achievements reflect the collective decisions and efforts of family and others in the community. A street in the Canberra suburb of Bonner is named for him.

 

Rosie Ware is Elia Ware’s youngest daughter. She was born on Thursday Island, Torres Strait.

Research edited by Rani Kerin

Select Bibliography

  • Canberra Times. ‘Aborigines in Conference.’ 15 April 1963, 3
  • Canberra Times. ‘Welcome Hand from the PM.’ 28 September 1963, 3
  • National Archives of Australia. B884, Q85109
  • Personal knowledge of IADB subject
  • Torres News (Thursday Island). ‘Aboriginal Delegate.’ 5 November 1963, 11

Additional Resources

Citation details

Moilang Ware, 'Ware, Elia (1911–1987)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/ware-elia-30346/text37643, published first in hardcopy 2020, accessed online 17 September 2021.

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