Mabo, Eddie Koiki (1936-1992)
The word Mabo will forever be linked to native title and land rights in Australia, as it was Eddie Mabo, a Torres Strait Islander, who successfully challenged the Queensland government and established beyond doubt, that, he did in fact own his traditional family land on Murray (Mer) Island, in the Torres Strait. This victory overturned two centuries of accepted legal tradition that Australia had been terra nullis (empty land) when the British arrived in 1788. It is now recognised that indigenous land ownership existed in Australia before European settlement and that, in some cases, was not subsequently extinguished.
An activist, visionary and patriot, Mabo was a tireless and tenacious campaigner for upholding the rights of Torres Strait Islanders. A leader in the large and diverse Townsville Torres Strait Islander community, he was one of the first to call for self-rule for Torres Strait communities. Mabo was a man of enormous energy and vision, coupled with passionate and unwavering opinions, that, while putting many offside, enabled him to single mindedly challenge the existing status quo and relentlessly pursue his ten year struggle for justice against the Queensland government.
Born Koiki Sambo on 29 June 1936, at Murray Island, to Robert Zezou Sambo and Annie Mabo, his mother died shortly afterwards, and he was then adopted, in accordance with Torres Strait Islander custom, by his uncle, Benny Mabo. His formal education was limited to primary school, where he was strongly influenced by his white school teacher, Robert Miles, whom he lived with for two years and through whom he gained proficiency in English, his third language. From 1953-7 he worked in the fishing industry on various trochus luggers operating out of Murray Island. In 1957 he moved to mainland Queensland, working in a variety of labouring jobs, including as a railway fettler, deck hand and cane cutter.
Mabo married Bonita Nehow in 1959, whom he had met in Innisfail while cutting sugar cane, and they settled in Townsville and raised a family. It was here that he immersed himself in black community politics. As president of the Council for the Rights of Indigenous People, he was instrumental in establishing Australia’s first Indigenous community school, the Townsville Aboriginal and Islander Health Service and a legal aid service. He became involved in the trade union movement, as a representative and spokesman for Torres Strait Islanders on the Townsville-Mount Isa rail reconstruction project in 1960, and in 1967, initiated, with trade union support, a seminar in Townsville, We are Australians – What is to Follow the Referendum? which involved over 300 people.
In 1973 he was refused permission by the Murray Island Council to return to home to see his dying father. This incident galvanised Mabo into what would become a lifetime of activism on behalf of his land, his people, and his right to return to his beloved homeland. In the mid 1970s Mabo was further shocked to discover that his family holdings on Murray Island were, along with all the outer Torres Strait Islands, actually owned by the Queensland government. He resolved to win his land back, determined that no one could take it away from him.
In 1982 Mabo, along with four other Murray Islanders, commenced court action to gain legal title to their family land, Mabo and others v. the State of Queensland. In 1985, the Queensland government retaliated through the Queensland Coast Islands Declaratory Act, intending to defeat Mabo’s claim by extinguishing retrospectively any native title that may have existed on his land, through passing responsibility for all coastal islands to their nearest authority. However in 1988 this Act was invalidated by the Supreme Court on the grounds that it was contrary to the Commonwealth Racial Discrimination Act, 1975.
In 1991 the High Court of Australia heard the case, ruling on 3 June 1992, in favour of Mabo, (Mabo v State of Queensland (No 2) (1992)) overturning the principle of terra nullis and for the first time recognising that a form of native title still existed in Australia. Tragically Mabo did not live to celebrate the victory, dying of cancer five months earlier. On 4 June 1995, the day after his tombstone in Townsville was unveiled in a traditional ceremony, his grave was desecrated by vandals in a racist attack. Subsequently his remains were relocated to Murray Island, where he was laid to rest in a traditional ceremony on 18 September 1995.
Eddie Mabo. Born on 29 June 1936 on Murray (Mer) Island, Torres Strait.
Education. Primary School, Murray Island. Diploma of Teaching, James Cook University, 1981-4 (Not completed). Employment. Fisherman, Murray Island, 1953-7. Labourer, Townsville Harbour Board, 1962-7. Secretary, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advancement league, Townsville, 1962-9. Gardener, James Cook University, Townsville, 1967-75. President of the Council for the Rights of Indigenous People, Townsville, 1970 Director and Principal, Black Community School, Townsville, 1973-85. Member, Aboriginal Arts Council, 1974-8. Member, National Aboriginal Education Committee, 1975-8. President, Yumba Meta Housing Association, Townsville, 1975-80. Member, Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies Education Advisory Committee, 1978-9. Assistant Vocational Officer, Aboriginal Employment and Training Branch, Commonwealth Employment Service, Townsville, 1978-81. Field Officer, Aboriginal Legal Service, Townsville, 1985-6. Director, ABIS Community Cooperative Society Ltd, Townsville, 1986-7. Assistant Director, Aboriginal Arts, Moonba Festival, Melbourne, 1987. Community Liaison Officer, 5th Festival of Pacific Arts, Townsville, 1987-8. Vice-Chairman, Magani Malu Kes, Townsville, 1987-8. Awards: Member, Aboriginal Arts Board of the Australia Council. Member, National Education Committee, mid 1980s. Chairman, Torres Strait Border Action Committee. Posthumously awarded the Human Rights Medal, Australian Human Rights Commission, 1992. Named Australian of the Year by the Australian Newspaper, 1993. Died in Brisbane, 21 January 1992. Funeral held on 1 February 1992, Belgian Gardens Cemetery, Townsville. Reburied on 18 September 1995, Murray Island, Torres Strait, Australia
Selected Works [E. Mabo]
“Perspectives From Torres Strait,” The Torres Strait Border Issue: Consolidation, Conflict or Compromise, edited by James Griffin, Townsville, Townsville College of Advanced Education, 1979
“Land Rights in Torres Strait,” in Black Australians: Prospects for Change, edited by Erik Olbrei, Townsville, James Cook University, 1982
“Music of the Torres Strait,” Black Voices, 1, no. 1, (1984)
“Murray Island,” in Workshop on Traditional Knowledge of the Marine Environment in Northern Australia, edited by F. Gray and L. Zann, Townsville, Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, 1985
Edward Koiki Mabo: His Life and Struggle for Land Rights, with Noel Loos, 1996
Atwood, Bain, and Andrew Markus, The Struggle for Aboriginal Land Rights: A Documentary History, Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1999
Bartlett, Richard. The Mabo Decision, and the Full Text of the Decision in Mabo and Others v State of Queensland, Sydney: Butterworths, 1993.
Cunningham, Adrian. Guide to the Papers of Edward Koiki Mabo in the National Library of Australia, Canberra: National Library of Australia, 1995
Sanders, William G., editor, Mabo and Native Title: origins and Institutional Implications, Canberra: Australian National University, 1994
Sharp, Nonie. No ordinary Judgement: Mabo, the Murray Islanders’ Land Case, Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 1996
Stephenson, M and Suri Ratnapala. Mabo, a Judicial Revolution: The Aboriginal Land Rights Decision and Its Impact on Australian Law, Brisbane: University of Queensland Press, 1993
I worte this for an encyclopedia in 2001/02