Muralug, also known as Prince of Wales Island, is 204km squared and is the largest of the Torres Strait Islands, a group of at least 274 islands, with a population of around 100 people.
The islands are mostly part of Queensland, Australia.
The lone headstone reads: “Marama, marine diver, native of Rarotonga, died October 30 1885, aged 36-years, respected by all who knew him.”
The marble headstone was erected by his late employers Kelly and Cussen and his friends William Parkes and John Towrow.
The grave, located on the side of a hill looking across to Horn Islands, was surrounded by dense bush until recently when it was cleared by Australian war veteran Sean Byrne.
Byrne’s journey to the island of Muralug began when he helped a younger war veteran suffering with mental health issues who lived on one of the Torres Strait islands.
The younger war veteran is now being cared for in a rehabilitation centre in New South Wales.
Byrne thought perhaps there were more people in the islands suffering the same condition and decided to leave his Gold Coast home and move to Muralug where he had heard there may be a grave in the bush on the island.
“I am a forager for knowledge and heard there may be a grave there and when I eventually found it, it was in total disrepair,” says Byrne.
“Why is it so interesting to me, well I just had a feeling that given the inscription on his tombstone, our friend needed to know that even though he was far from home, maybe, just maybe, we all could assure him of acknowledgement of his resting place and that his people back home still kept the door open for him as one of their own.”
Byrne says that when he saw Marama’s resting place he thought about what his young adult kids would expect of him so he cleared the bush around the grave and began renovation work.
“When he died at the age of 36, his grave said he was so well respected by so many. Not many amongst us can attain that level of respect from all quarters,” says Byrne.
Byrne began his research on Marama by speaking with elders on the island, contacting Jean Mason at the Cook Islands Library and Museum Society in Rarotonga and conducting online searches.
“Pearl diving was a huge industry in all these islands and so many people, young people died getting them. From what I hear, plastic jewellery and plastic buttons were invented and the industry died overnight.”
Byrne believes Marama was a pearl diver.
“I would think that our friend Marama was a pearl diver and could have possibly died from the bends. We have over seven hundred graves of Japanese divers alone who are buried on Thursday Island, about fifteen minutes away, who met the same fate.”
Byrne says at 36, Marama, believed to have been born in 1849 (give or take a year either side) was a fairly old pearl diver as 90 per cent of the divers who died were under twenty one.
“Maybe he was exceptional. That would be a nice thought. He must have made such an impression on his employers and his two friends for them to have dug through solid volcanic rock and erected this headstone surrounded by an ornate wrought iron fence. Highly unusual in this area up here.”
Byrne has repainted the wrought iron fence in an ocean blue – to give it more of a feel of his home in the Cook Islands.
“I found out that his employers, Kelly and Cussen were dealers in pearl shell according to the "Australian Town and Country Journal" of Saturday 1 November 1879. They had a shipment of pearls listed on the cargo manifest of the ship RMS Somerset.”
Byrne says that of his two friends listed on his marble headstone, it’s possible that John Towrow was maybe of aboriginal descent as the name Towrow is the name of the net that the Stradbroke Island aboriginals used to use in conjunction with dolphins to herd and net fish to shore.
“Its a fascinating story and given how people were treated in those days as far as race goes, our friend must have stood out of the crowd somehow. It would have been unheard of in those days to do what his employers and two friends did. I wonder who in heavens name he was. People died of all sorts of disease up here, like the big measles epidemic, people were still eating each other on some of the islands, there were regular drowning, crocs and sharks, and all those divers dying and if you look at most of the monuments on Thursday Island’s cemetery, the ones like our friend are high government officials and all the rest are meagre recognitions of someone who died a long way from home. Our friend’s life and ending are highly unusual to say the least.”
Since being in contact with Jean Mason and the growing interest in Marama on the island he is buried on – plans are in the pipeline to honour Marama on October 30 to mark the passing of the pearl diver 129 years ago.
Byrne has also organised a group of seven people to be ‘Honorary Volunteer Custodians of Friend Master Diver Marama’.
He has selected Maori George, “because he is so well known in the Torres Strait islands and has a great DNA for a custodian position.”
Byrne has also nominated 45-year old disability carer Maria Duncan 45, 28-year old lawyer Seamus Byrne, 26-year old counsellor Liam Byrne, 24-year old lawyer Clare Byrne, 21-year old Hoot Byrne and Tom Tom Keenan who is the son of Marama’s neighbour.
“He (Tom Tom Keenan) is 17, honest, will always come back to the island here throughout his life and best of all, he is like our friend Marama, extremely respected by all who know him.”
Jean Mason has organised certificates to send to Muralug for the new volunteer custodians as well as invites for the dignatiries on the island who will attend the event to commemorate Marama.
Mason was also planning to pen a Maori poem and send this along with shell ei for the grave and surrounding area that is marked with a post reading – Kia Orana.
A post reading Kia Orana has been erected next to Marama’s grave. 14101723