30 October 2016 - EDDIE MABO


G'day folks,

Welcome to some background on a brave man. Eddie Koiki Mabo was an Australian man from the Torres Strait Islands known for his role in campaigning for Indigenous land rights and for his role in a landmark decision of the High Court of Australia.

Eddie Koiki Mabo (1936-1992) was born Eddie Koiki Sambo but changed his name later in life. A Torres Straits Islander, he is a famous figure in Australian history for his role in campaigning for indigenous land rights and his role in one landmark decision of Australia's High Court, overturning the legal fiction of terra nullius which characterised Australian law with regards to land and title.

Edward Mabo was born in 1936 on Mer Island (also known as Murray Island), one of the Torres Strait Islands. His mother died shortly after his birth and his maternal uncle, Benny Mabo and his wife were entrusted to raise him.

In his youth, Eddie Mabo like other Murray Islanders was educated about his family's land. But at that time in the Torres Strait Islands, life was strictly regulated by the Queensland Government through their Island Council, and as a result of a teenage prank the Council exiled him from his home.

After that point he worked on pearling boats and then when his exile was extended he moved to Townsville and worked there on the railways. This proved to be an important turning point in his life, for Eddie Mabo became the spokesperson for the Torres Strait Islander gang on the railroads, and in that capacity he frequently interacted with white Australian trade union officials.

In 1959, at the age of twenty-three, he married Bonita Neehow. Together, they would eventually raise ten children.

Over the next decade, Eddie Mabo worked on a number of jobs but when he was thirty-one years old he became a gardener with James Cook University in Townsville, Queensland. Being at the campus was a massively significant period in his life. He would sit in on lectures. He would go to the library and read books, particularly those written by white anthropologists about his people.

In 1974, this culminated in a discussion he had with with Professor Noel Loos and Henry Reynolds, who recalled Eddie Mabo's reaction as follows,

"...we were having lunch one day in Reynold's office when Koiki was just speaking about his land back on Mer, or Murray Island. Henry and I realised that in his mind he thought he owned that land, so we sort of glanced at each other, and then had the difficult responsibility of telling him that he didn't own that land, and that it was Crown land. Koiki was surprised, shocked and even... I remember him saying 'No way, it's not theirs, it's ours.'"

In 1981 a Land Rights Conference was held at James Cook University and to that audience, Eddie Mabo made a speech where he spelt out clearly land ownership and land inheritance in Murray Island. The significance of this in terms of Australian common law doctrine was not missed by one of the attendees, a lawyer, who suggested there should be a test case to claim land rights through the court system.

The Murray Islanders decided they would be the ones to challenge the legal principle of terra nullius in the High Court and that Eddie Koiki Mabo would be the one to lead that action.

Of the outcome of that decision Henry Reynolds said that "...it was a ten year battle and it was a remarkable saga really. After listening to the argument and after investigating it, Justice Moynihan came to the conclusion that Koiki Mabo wasn't the son of Benny Mabo and declared that he had no right to inherit Mabo land."

While personally devasted, Eddie Koiki Mabo persisted in pursuing the matter and appealed it to the High Court of Australia.

However, while he would take time out to relax by working on his boat or painting watercolours of his island home, after ten years the strain began to affect his health.

In January 1992, Koiki Mabo died of cancer. He was fifty-six years of age.

Five months later the High Court announced its historic decision, namely overturning the legal fiction of terra nullius - ('no-mans land') which the British declared before claiming Australia over two hundred years ago.

"...so Justice Moynihan's decision that Mabo wasn't the rightful heir was irrelevant because the decision that came out was that native title existed and it was up to the Aboriginal or Islander people to determine who owned what land." Henry Reynolds.

That decision is now commonly called Mabo in Australia, and recognised for its landmark status. Three years after Eddie Koiki Mabo died, that being the traditional mourning period for the people of Murray Island, a gathering was held in Townsville for a memorial service.

Overnight his grave site was vandalised. Koiki's body was reburied on Murray Island, the land he loved and fought for so hard. That night, the Islanders performed their traditional ceremony for the burial of a king, a ritual not seen on the island for eighty years.


Clancy's comment: Go, Eddie! Brave man.

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