Prince of Wales Island, called Muralug by the indigenous population, is the largest island in the Torres Strait, with an area of 203 square kilometres. It contains a number of small leased and freehold areas, Muralug, Country Woman's Beach, and Long Beach.
The majority of the Island is vacant Crown land. The Island is used predominately for recreation purposes by the people of Thursday Island; the western coastline is mostly local government camping and recreation reserves. Islands in close proximity, Entrance, Packe and Port Lihou are primarily Crown land.
Being inhabited only by a few Kaurareg families, it is very sparsely populated, however the island does not have established facilities for electricity, water, waste and sewerage. Most rely on power generators to supply electricity, water tanks for clean water, and a daily pick up by contractors to collect and dispose of refuse in the temporary landfill on the island. The village in the north is called Muralug, after the native name of the island. The northeastern corner of the island, Kiwain Point, is only 830 m away from Vivien Point of Thursday Island, the main and most populous of the Torres Strait Islands, separated by Normanby Sound.
As it is so large, the island has a wide range of natural vistas and environments, and has long been a popular place to visit for recreational purposes, especially for those from nearby Thursday Island. A particularly popular spot for visitors to the island is Pandanus Falls, also known locally as Kai Irrki Nguki, so called by islanders who tell the story of a warrior named Irrki who died close by and turned to stone.
The first recorded sighting of Prince of Wales Island by Europeans was by the Spanish expedition of Luis Vaez de Torres on 3 October 1606, when he passed through the strait later named in his honour. It is generally believed that Torres took a route close to the New Guinea coast to navigate the 150 kilometre strait that now bears his name. In 1980 the Queensland master mariner Captain Brett Hilder proposed that it was more likely that Torres took a southerly route through the nearby channel now called Endeavour Strait. From this position, he would certainly have seen Cape York, the northernmost extremity of Australia. According to 19th-century Australian writer George Collingridge, Torres "had discovered Australia without being aware of the fact". However, Willem Janszoon had made several landfalls on the west coast of the Cape York Peninsula 7 to 8 months prior, while Torres never claimed that he had sighted the southern continent. "Here there are very large islands, and more to the south" he wrote.
Torres followed the coastline of New Guinea, and claimed possession of it in the name of the King of Spain on 18 October 1606. On 27 October he reached the western extremity of New Guinea and then made his way north of Ceram and Misool toward the Halmahera Sea. At the beginning of January 1607 he reached Ternate, part of the Spice Islands. He sailed on 1 May for Manila arriving on 22 May. The expedition proved that New Guinea was not part of the sought after continent.
Some time between 1762 and 1765, written accounts of the Torres expedition were seen by British Admiralty Hydrographer Alexander Dalrymple, who named Torres Strait in 1769. Dalrymple provided a sketch map which included the Queiros/Torres voyages to Joseph Banks, who undoubtedly passed this information to James Cook. Prince of Wales Island and Cape Cornwall were named by James Cook on 22nd August 1770, on the day Cook took possession of New South Wales on nearby Possession Ialand. Both were named after George Augustus Frederick, Prince of Wales, Duke of Cornwall (1762-1830), later King George IV. The island was marked on early Dutch charts as 't Hooge Eylandt ("the high island"), probably by the 1623 Carstenszoon expedition. It is also called Muralug Island, being its Aboriginal name.
In 1872, Letters Patent were sent from the Colonial Secretary in Britain and Queensland annexed the islands of Torres Strait up to sixty miles from the coast of Cape York. The administrative centre was moved from Somerset (established in 1864), on Cape York, to Thursday Island, although not until 1877.
As with other places in Torres Strait and elsewhere throughout Australia, there has been conflict with Europeans at various times, as the newcomers first moved through the area or sought to trade with local communities. Misunderstandings were common and unfortunately these misunderstandings occasionally led to trouble, or even bloodshed. One particular example took place in 1869 when the cutter Sperwer, on route from Melbourne to New Guinea, called in to Prince of Wales Island to trade for pearl and tortoise shell. Whether through misunderstanding or the crew's own inappropriate actions, the islanders took offence and attacked, killing all members of the crew and destroying the ship. Later investigations into what had actually taken place were inconclusive, but many of those interviewed or expressing a view were surprised at the events, saying they had always been treated well by the islanders and that, in their memory or experience, there had been no similar conflict previously.
Pearl shell was exported for some time, but the decline in world demand for pearl shell since the 1950s has led many islanders to migrate to Queensland.
George Augustus Frederick, Prince of Wales, Duke of Cornwall