Eddie Koiki Mabo
was a Torres Strait Islander
Torres Strait Islanders are the indigenous people of the Torres Strait Islands, part of Queensland, Australia. They are culturally and genetically linked to Melanesian peoples and those of Papua New Guinea....
who is known for his role in campaigning for Indigenous land rights
Land law is the form of law that deals with the rights to use, alienate, or exclude others from land. In many jurisdictions, these species of property are referred to as real estate or real property, as distinct from personal property. Land use agreements, including renting, are an important...
and for his role in a landmark decision of the High Court of Australia
The High Court of Australia is the supreme court in the Australian court hierarchy and the final court of appeal in Australia. It has both original and appellate jurisdiction, has the power of judicial review over laws passed by the Parliament of Australia and the parliaments of the States, and...
that overturned the legal fiction
A legal fiction is a fact assumed or created by courts which is then used in order to apply a legal rule which was not necessarily designed to be used in that way...
of terra nullius
Terra nullius is a Latin expression deriving from Roman law meaning "land belonging to no one" , which is used in international law to describe territory which has never been subject to the sovereignty of any state, or over which any prior sovereign has expressly or implicitly relinquished...
which characterised Australian law with regards to land and title.
Mabo was named Eddie Koiki Malboy
but he changed his surname to Mabo when he was adopted by his maternal uncle, Benny Mabo. He was born on Mer (Murray Island) in the Torres Strait
The Torres Strait is a body of water which lies between Australia and the Melanesian island of New Guinea. It is approximately wide at its narrowest extent. To the south is Cape York Peninsula, the northernmost continental extremity of the Australian state of Queensland...
between Australia and Papua New Guinea.
Mabo worked on a number of jobs before becoming a gardener with James Cook University
James Cook University is a public university based in Townsville, Queensland, Australia. The university has two Australian campuses, located in Townsville and Cairns respectively, and an international campus in Singapore. JCU is the second oldest university in Queensland—proclaimed in 1970—and the...
in Townsville, Queensland at the age of 31. The time he spent on the campus had a massive impact on his life. In 1974 this culminated in a discussion he had with Professor Noel Loos and Henry Reynolds
Henry Reynolds is an eminent Australian historian whose primary work has focused on the frontier conflict between European settlement of Australia and indigenous Australians.-Education and career:...
, who recalled Mabo's reaction:
...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...he said and I remember him saying 'No way, it's not theirs, it's ours'.
Land rights advocate
In 1981 a land rights conference was held at James Cook University, and Mabo made a speech to the audience where he spelt out the land inheritance system in Murray Island. The significance of this in terms of Australian common law
Common law is law developed by judges through decisions of courts and similar tribunals rather than through legislative statutes or executive branch action...
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.
On the outcome of that decision, Henry Reynolds said that "... it was a ten year battle and it was a remarkable saga really."
Mabo's death and legacy
Mabo relaxed by working on his boat or painting watercolours of his island home, however after ten years the strain began to affect his health. On 21 January 1992, Mabo died of cancer at the age of 55.
Five months later, on 3 June 1992, the High Court announced its historic decision, namely overturning the legal state of terra nullius
- ('land belonging to nothing, no one') which is a term applied to the attitude of the British towards land ownership on the continent of Australia.
- "...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 is recognised for its landmark status. Three years after 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 Mabo's gravesite was attacked by vandals who sprayed painted eight red swastikas and the racist word "Abo" on his tombstone and removed a bronze bas-relief portrait of him. His 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 80 years.
In 1992 Mabo was posthumously awarded the Human Rights Medal in the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission
The Australian Human Rights Commission is a national human rights institution, a statutory body funded by, but operating independently of, the Australian Government. It has the responsibility for investigating alleged infringements under Australia’s anti-discrimination legislation...
Awards, together with the Reverend Dave Passi, Sam Passi (deceased), James Rice (deceased), Celuia Mapo Salee (deceased) and Barbara Hocking. The award was in recognition "of their long and determined battle to gain justice for their people" and the "work over many years to gain legal recognition for indigenous people's rights".
In 1993 The Australian
The Australian is a broadsheet newspaper published in Australia from Monday to Saturday each week since 14 July 1964. The editor in chief is Chris Mitchell, the editor is Clive Mathieson and the 'editor-at-large' is Paul Kelly....
commemorated his work by voting him the 1992 Australian of the Year, not to be confused with the official Australian of the Year
Since 1960 the Australian of the Year Award has been part of the celebrations surrounding Australia Day , during which time the award has grown steadily in significance to become Australia’s pre-eminent award. The Australian of the Year announcement has become a very prominent part of the annual...
awards issued by the Australian Government.
On 21 May 2008, James Cook University named its Townsville campus library The Eddie Koiki Mabo Library.
Mabo Day occurs annually on 3 June. It commemorates Eddie Koiki Mabo a Torres Strait Islander whose campaign for Indigenous land rights led to a landmark decision of the High Court of Australia that, on 3 June 1992, overturned the legal fiction of terra nullius which had characterised Australian...
is an official bank holiday in the Torres Shire, celebrated on 3 June.