It’s not often that ‘Mabo Day’ falls on a Sunday.
It’s worth learning about Eddie ‘Koiki’ Mabo because in so many ways he warrants the title of National Hero. You probably already know a lot about him but let me just refresh your memory. Eddie was born on 29 June 1936, in the community of Las on Mer, known as Murray Island in the Torres Strait. His birth name was Eddie Koiki Sambo; however he was raised by his Uncle Benny Mabo through a customary ‘Island adoption’. At the time, the islands were strictly regulated by the Queensland Government. But like many Indigenous communities around the world, the Meriam people tried to preserve some continuity with the past by living a traditional lifestyle. This relationship was both active and unbroken; they fished, harvested the land, and followed customary Law.
At the age of 16, Eddie was exiled from Murray Island for breaking customary Island law, and he set off for the mainland where a new life was waiting for him. Eddie had many jobs throughout his life, including an assistant teacher; a deck hand on pearl lugger and tug boats; a fettler on the Queensland railway tracks; a cane cutter; and a grounds keeper. Eddie was also an artist and writer. Some of his art works and writings can be found at the National Library of Australia.
It was while working as a grounds keeper at James Cook University in Townsville that Eddie learned about Australian land ownership laws. He believed the land he grew up on, belonged to the Torres Strait Islander people who had lived there for thousands of years. But, Australian law stated that the Government owned the land. Eddie believed that these laws on land ownership were wrong and decided to fight to change them.
For me, Eddie is heroic in the sense that he took on a seemingly hopeless cause and never gave up. Partly, I suspect because he didn’t want to let his father down and prove to him that even though he was living on the mainland, he had not forgotten his cultural heritage.
After an 11-year legal battle, Eddie Mabo died of cancer in February 1992, just 4 months before this historic high court ruling that would change Australian land law. The historic judgement overturned the extremely offensive idea of terra nullius ‘land belonging to nobody’ and claimed that native title survived in many places, even though the land had been taken by the Crown.
On 3 June 1992 six of the seven High Court Judges ruled: ‘The Meriam people are entitled as against the whole world, to possession, occupation, use and enjoyment of the lands of the Murray Islands’. The High Court judge states: “The nation as a whole must remain diminished unless and until there is an acknowledgment of and a retreat from those past injustices.”