This film is held by the BFI (ID: 20149).


INTEREST. Footage shot by A.C. Haddon during the 1898 Cambridge expedition to the Torres Strait, showing a series of native dances.

No credits. (MALU-BOMAI CEREMONY AT KIAM) Three men, each wearing a skirt made of leaves, perform a dance in a forest. They are in a line formation, the first man wears a mask headress made of leaves and the last man holds a tailpiece (51). Blank (58). (MURRAY ISLAND: ISLANDERS DANCING IN DARI HEADDRESS) Beach scene. Three men, each wearing a cloth skirt and a (feather?) headdress perform a dance (103) they go off (109) and reappear from right-hand side in procession (127). Blank (138). Same three dancers perform (158). Blank (167). (MURRAY ISLAND: FIRE MAKING) MCU of three men sitting cross-legged on the ground twirling a stick between their palms (195). Blank (203). (MURRAY ISLAND: AUSTRALIAN ABORIGINALS DANCING 'SHAKE-A-LEG' ON BEACH) Four young men wearing cloth skirts and with body paint perform a dance facing the camera. A fifth man keeps the rhythm by beating a long pole with a branch (224). Cut (245). The four men stand in a line clapping and stepping from one foot to the other (268). They stop and one turns his back to the camera (272).

Note: The films were taken 5-6 September 1898 by Alfred Haddon (or expedition photographer Anthony Wilkin) during the Cambridge ethnographic expedition to the Torres Strait. The final sequence features a dance by some visiting Australian Aborigines. The supplied titles for the individual sequences come from the Cinema Papers article cited below, which divides the second sequence into two. The films are known to have been exhibited in 1906, with accompanying phonograph sound recordings.

Refs: Chris Long/Pat Laughren, 'Surprising Survivals from Colonial Queensland', Cinema Papers no. 96 (December 1993) pp 33-36. 'The Cinematograph and the Phonograph', Optical Lantern and Cinematograph Journal, Jan 1906, p 64.



The islands of the Torres Strait came fully under the political control of Queensland in 1879, and by that time the small native population of the islands was already well acquainted with Europeans. The mid-nineteenth century had seen the growth of a rapacious maritime industry based on the exploitation of trepang (sea cucumber) and pearl-shell, a development which resulted in regular Islander contacts with European seamen and the large imported labour forces that they employed (the presence of these imported workers was the incentive for Queensland to move for control, since such workers posed a problem for existing labour laws). Such contacts were frequently unhappy: the Islanders had no defence against European weaponry, and they and their gardens were thus at the mercy of the notoriously dissolute pearlers and trepangers (Beckett, 1987, 34-9; Herle and Philp, 1998, 14; Beckett, 2004, 23-4).

The strain placed on the Strait’s various island communities by the fisheries may in part account for the peaceful reception that the first missionaries received, and the relatively eager uptake of Christianity by almost the entire population of the islands. The London Missionary Society first established a mission in 1871; their arrival at Darnley Island (Erub) on 1 July of that year is still celebrated annually as the festival of ‘July One,’ the ‘Coming of the Light’. In the absence of any concerned authority, the presence of the LMS afforded some protection against the depredations of the pearlers, and by the end of the nineteenth century almost the entire population of the isles had been Christianised (Beckett, 2004, 24; Herle and Philp, 1998, 17).

The Murray Islands (Mer, Dauar and Waier) received the Light in 1872, evangelised by two LMS missionaries named Mataika and Tom. In 1877 Mer (a tiny island less than 3km long, but nevertheless the biggest of the three) became the area headquarters of the LMS (Beckett, 1987, 110-13).

It was to Mer that Alfred Cort Haddon, a Cambridge graduate and professor at Dublin’s Royal College of Science, travelled in 1888. Haddon was trained as a zoologist, and the purpose of his first stay on Mer was to study the growth of the coral reefs that surround the island, and survey the reef fauna (though he had made modest preparations toward some ethnographical work: see Philp, 2004, 90-92). Whilst there he ‘made many friends among the natives’ (Haddon op.cit., xviii), and attempted to glean information about island history and custom: ‘Naturally, when opportunity offered, I spoke to them about their past and soon found that the young men knew extremely little about it and they always referred me to the old men’ (Haddon, 1935, xi). It was this circumstance that seems to have stimulated him to begin in earnest the collection of ethnological data about the people of the Torres Strait. Ten years after this first expedition, Haddon returned to the islands at the head of a seven-man anthropological expedition from Cambridge whose aim was to collect as much information ­about as possible the people of the Torres Strait Islands.

This now celebrated expedition is regarded as a critical event in the history of anthropology as a professional discipline, cementing and expanding the study of the subject at Cambridge. Haddon’s team determined the first comprehensive and scientific methodologies for anthropological fieldwork and would go on to establish early ground rules for the analysis of ethnological data. The findings of the expedition were published in six volumes between 1901 and 1935 as Reports of the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to Torres Straits (Haddon ed., 1901-35).



Haddon’s 1898 team made both visual and sound recordings in the Torres Strait, having taken with them wax cylinder phonographs for recording speech and song, and a variety of photographic equipment that included kit for stills, experimental colour photographs, and film. The surviving film from the expedition, probably taken by Haddon, was shot on a Newman and Guardia 35mm camera, purchased by Haddon in London (Long and Laughren, 1993, 34).

At the end of the nineteenth century there was no dispute about the use that the still photograph could serve for producing excellent ethnological evidence: Haddon himself wrote the entry on photography in the 1899 edition of Notes and Queries on Anthropology (Garson and Read eds., 1899, 235-40). Whether or not film was worthy of the same respect was a matter for debate, and it has been argued that the public appetite for film of exotic subjects and subsequent commercial exploitation of such films ‘helped convince many anthropologists that the medium had few serious applications’ (Griffiths 1996, 19). In the Reports, Haddon himself hardly mentions the films he took in the Torres Strait, though the films were shown in London in 1905 at the Royal Anthropological Institute, with sound from the relevant phonograph recordings (Philp, 2004, 106).

The reels that were successfully developed are the earliest known ethnographic films. All were shot in the first few days of September 1898. Many of the people shown are known by name, and appear in other photographs taken by Haddon during the expedition. The final sequence is considered to be the earliest known film of aboriginal Australians, and shows the aboriginal crew of a trepang lugger which had stopped at the island: they perform a dance on a beach, accompanied by a man beating a stick for rhythm (Long and Laughren identify this dance as ‘Shake-A-Leg,’ a generic description, op.cit., 36).

At no point in any of the sequences does the camera move, and occasionally in the first dance sequences the subjects move out of frame, leaving the viewer contemplating a well-composed landscape shot of overhanging palm trees on a sandy beach with a view to a boat moored a little distance out to sea. The immobility of the camera, although characteristic of filmmaking of the period, seems also both to reflect and to replicate the early anthropological attempt to align the nascent discipline with the exact sciences. It also seems to take upon itself some of the existing prestige of still photography, and it is perhaps telling that the only use to which the films were put was to produce touched-up stills for volume 6 of the Reports and for Haddon’s 1901 popular memoir of the expedition, Headhunters: Black, White and Brown (Haddon, 1908; Haddon, 1978, 49).

The five sequences show, in order: a Malu-Bomai ceremonial dance, in the forest; two consecutive sequences of dancers on the beach, wearing dhari head-dresses, shot from slightly different positions; three men (Pasi, Mana and Sergeant) fire-making; Australian visitors dancing on the beach (the shot location is identical to the earlier beach dance sequences). All the scenes are staged for the camera; it is worth noting that in almost all Haddon’s published photographs of Mer Islanders they are clothed in simple Western dress, and the minimal clothing in the fire-making sequence thus appears to have been intentional, presumably to reconstruct the look of past times. Of the four scenes, the occasion of the first is by far the best documented, as Haddon discusses it at length in Headhunters.

The filmed Malu-Bomai dance is a staged reconstruction of a defunct ceremony. Like other local beliefs, the Malu-Bomai cult had been suppressed by the missionaries and at the time of the expedition the rituals connected with it had not been performed for around 25 years. The cult focused on two mythic personages, Malu and Bomai, and was central to male initiation into adulthood. It was kept highly secret from women. The turtle-shell masks used in the ceremonies had long been destroyed by the missionaries; those which can been seen in the film were created at Haddon’s request by two of his friends on Mer named Wano and Enocha. They are made of cardboard which he supplied, and he paid 10 shillings of gold for them: his collaborators requested that he put the money ‘in the plate at the annual missionary meeting’ (Haddon, 1978, 46). The dance on the film took place at Kiam, an abandoned sacred ground in northern Mer which had been one of the locations of the Malu-Bomai initiation rituals.

The creation of the masks for the dance caused a stir. Haddon found himself in trouble for showing them to a woman, and received a stream of old men who seem to have been deeply moved by these shabby, makeshift reminders of their spiritual life before the Coming of the Light. ‘[I]t was quite pathetic,’ he writes in Headhunters, ‘to see the expressions of pleasure tempered with sadness manifested by the old men. They shook their heads and clicked, and even the tears started to their eyes’ (ibid., 47). Staged and commissioned or no, whatever truth about the Malu-Bomai ritual Haddon had hoped to capture in his film seems to be supplanted and surpassed by this poignant image of the tears shed by old men for a world gone by, an image which gives the recreated dance of the film a higher order of authenticity than Haddon had imagined for it.

Francis Gooding (September 2009)


Works Cited

Beckett, Jeremy  Torres Strait Islanders: Custom and Colonialism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987).

Beckett, Jeremy  ‘Writing About Islanders: recent research and future directions’ in Davis ed. 2004: 2-15.

Davis, Richard ed. Woven Histories, Dancing Lives: Torres Strait Islander Identity, Culture and History (Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2004).

Garson, J. G and Read, C. H  eds. Notes and Queries on Anthropology (London: Royal Anthropological Institute, 1899).

Griffiths, Alison ‘Knowledge and Visuality in Turn of the Century Anthropology: The early Ethnographic Cinema of Alfred Cort Haddon and Walter Baldwin Spencer’, Visual Anthropology Review vol 12 no. 2 1996/1997, 18-43.

Haddon A. C., ed. Reports on the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to Torres Straits, six vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1901-1935).

Haddon A. C. Reports on the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to Torres Straitsvol. VI, Sociology, Magic and Religion of the Eastern Islanders (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1908).

Haddon A. C. Reports on the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to Torres Straits vol. I, General Ethnography (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,1935).

Haddon, A. C. Headhunters: Black, White, And Brown (New York: AMS, 1978 [1901]).

Herle, Anita  ‘The life histories of objects: collections of the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to the Torres Strait’ in Herle and Rouse eds., 77-106, 1998.

Herle, Anita and Philp, Jude   Torres Strait Islanders: An Exhibition Marking the Centenary of the 1898 Cambridge Anthropological Expedition (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, 1998).

Herle, Anita and Rouse, Sandra eds. Cambridge and the Torres Strait: Centenary essays on the 1898 anthropological expedition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

Kuklick, Henrika  The Savage Within: the social history of British anthropology, 1885-1945 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991)

 Long, Chris and Laughren, Pat  ‘Australia’s First Films 1894-96, Part Six: Surprising Survivals From Colonial Queensland’, Cinema Papers no. 96, December 1993, 32-39.

Philp, Jude ‘“Embryonic Science”: the 1888 Torres Strait photographic collection of A. C. Haddon’ in Davis ed., 2004: 90-107, 



  • TORRES STRAIT (Archive)

Technical Data

Film Gauge (Format):
35mm Film
272 ft

Production Credits

Production Countries:
Great Britain
Camera Operator