The islands of the Torres Strait have been inhabited for at least 2,500 years and possibly much longer.
The first recorded European navigation of the strait was by Luis Váez de Torres, a Spanish pilot who was second-in-command on the Spanish expedition led by Pedro Fernandez de Quirós who sailed from Peru to the South Pacific in 1605. After Quiros's ship returned to Mexico, Torres resumed the intended voyage to Manila via the Moluccas. He sailed along the south coast of New Guinea, and may also have sighted the northernmost extremity of the Australian mainland, however no specific records exist that indicate he did so.
In 1769 the Scottish geographer Alexander Dalrymple, whilst translating some Spanish documents captured in the Philippines in 1762, had found Luis Váez de Torres' testimony proving a passage south of New Guinea now known as Torres Strait. This discovery led Dalrymple to publish the Historical Collection of the Several Voyages and Discoveries in the South Pacific Ocean in 1770-1771, which aroused widespread interest in his claim of the existence of an unknown continent. It was Dalrymple who named the strait after Torres. Dalrymple was bitterly disappointed that it was Captain Cook and not him who was appointed commander of the expedition which eventually led in 1770 to the British encounter and charting of the eastern coastline of Australia.
In 1770 Cook claimed the whole of eastern Australia for the British Crown, and sailed through the strait after proceeding up the eastern coast of the continent. The London Missionary Society arrived on Erub (Darnley Island) in 1871. Although some of the Torres Strait islands lie just off the coast of New Guinea, they were annexed in 1879 by Queensland, then a British colony.
In 1823 Lieutenant John Lihou, then Master of HMS Zenobia, was on passage from Manila to South America and chose a route through Torres Strait. This was the first occasion a ship was navigated through Torres Strait from west to east. It was also the first occasion a ship was navigated through the Coral Sea from Torres Strait, south-eastward to the southward of New Caledonia. Lihou saw Sir James Saumarez' Shoal (now Saumarez Reefs) on 27 February and named the reef system after Vice-Admiral James Saumarez. On this same trip, Lihou discovered the Lihou Reef and Cays and Port Lihou.
There was an important pearling industry from the 1860s until about 1970 when it collapsed in the face of competition from the plastics industry. Pearl-shelling was responsible for the arrival of experienced divers from many countries, notably Japan.
In 1978 an agreement between Australia and Papua New Guinea determined the maritime border in the Torres Strait.
Torres Strait is mentioned in Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea as a dangerous strait where the submarine, the Nautilus, is briefly stranded.
The people of the Torres Strait have a unique indigenous culture, which has been the centre for anthropological work completed by Cambridge Universities, Alfred Haddon in 1898 and Australia's Margaret Lawrie in 1960 - 1973.
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