Article 02/06/2023

Eddie Mabo – Pioneer of Indigenous Land Rights

By Luka Osborne

Some figures throughout history seem destined to dig the dying roots of orthodoxy and germinate the seeds that birth a new future. Eddie Koiki Mabo was one such person. Amongst many things, he was an industrial worker, union leader, artist, teacher and perhaps most famously a social activist synonymous with the struggle for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sovereignty. Remembered as a courageous and determined advocate for Indigenous Australians, Mabo had a profound impact on Australian history. His seminal court case ‘Mabo v Queensland (No. 2)’ caused a political upheaval in the fight for Indigenous land rights in Australia and he remains an inspirational figure in the ongoing struggle for social equality and land justice for First Nations People.

Eddie Mabo was an Indigenous activist who fought for the land rights of First Nations people. His social and political struggles changed history and continue to inspire emerging generations.

Early Life

Eddie Mabo was born on July 29, 1936, on the island of Mer (Murray Island) in the Torres Strait. Growing up in a tight-knit Indigenous community, Mabo developed a deep connection to his ancestral land and a profound understanding of the importance of traditional customs and land tenure systems. In his early years, he worked aboard fishing vessels until, in 1957 he moved on to cane cutting, before railway fettling in Queensland. Mabo soon delved into trade union politics, forming alliances with other workers both Indigenous and of European origin.

From 1962 to 1967, he worked for the Townsville Harbour Board and served as the Islander representative on the Trades and Labour Council, while simultaneously working as the secretary of the Aborigines Advancement League in Queensland from 1962 to 1969. He was also a prominent figure in the campaign for the successful ‘Yes’ vote in the 1967 referendum, which aimed to eliminate discriminatory references to Aboriginal people in the Australian Constitution. Through these experiences, Eddie Mabo’s passion for justice and equality continued to grow, laying the foundation for his later endeavours in the pursuit of land rights for Indigenous peoples.

Source: JCU.

The Townsville Black Community School

In 1973 Eddie Mabo and his wife Bonita Mabo founded The Townsville Black Community School – one of the first in Australia. It was an important institution for Indigenous education in Queensland with the school aiming to provide a culturally inclusive and empowering education for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. It was established in response to the discriminatory practices and lack of opportunities within the mainstream education system at the time. The Townsville Black Community School offered a curriculum that reflected Indigenous history, culture, and languages, fostering a strong sense of identity and pride among its students. The school played a crucial role in nurturing Indigenous students’ academic potential and promoting cultural resilience, while also advocating for broader educational reform and equal opportunities for all Indigenous children in Australia.

The significance of Mabo’s achievements as an educator was recognised in 1975 when he was asked to join the National Aboriginal Education Committee (NAEC), an advisory body to the Commonwealth Education Department. He served on the committee for three years.

Mabo v Queensland (No 1)

On 20 May 1982 Eddie Mabo lodged a claim for land along with fellow Torres Straight Islanders, Uncle Sam and Rev. David Passi, Aunty Celuia Mapo Salee, and Uncle James Rice, hence beginning a long process of legal proceedings. In 1988 Eddie Mabo and his fellow plaintiffs, members of the Meriam people from the Murray Islands in the Torres Strait, sought recognition of their traditional land rights. They argued that their people had maintained continuous occupation and connection to the land in accordance with their customs and laws.

“My name is Edward Mabo, but my island name is Koiki. My family has occupied the land here for hundreds of years before Captain Cook was born. They are now trying to say I cannot own it.

The present Queensland Government is a friendly enemy of the black people as they like to give you the bible and take away your land. We should stop calling them boss.

We must be proud to live in our own palm-leaf houses like our fathers before us.”

The case was initially heard in the Supreme Court of Queensland, where the judge ruled against the plaintiffs, upholding the long-standing legal doctrine of terra nullius. The court maintained that the Crown had absolute ownership of all land in Australia, disregarding any pre-existing Indigenous land rights.

Although Mabo (No 1) did not result in a favourable outcome for Eddie Mabo and the plaintiffs, it played a crucial role in laying the groundwork for the subsequent Mabo (No 2) case, with the legal arguments and evidence presented in Mabo (No 1) helping to refine the plaintiffs’ position.

The Landmark Case: Mabo v Queensland (No 2)

Mabo v Queensland (No 2), also known as the Mabo case, was a landmark Australian court case that took place in 1992. Undeterred from their previous case, Eddie Mabo and his fellow plaintiffs, members of the Meriam people from the Murray Islands in the Torres Strait, challenged the legal fiction of terra nullius, which declared Australia as unoccupied before European settlement and denied Indigenous land rights. They argued that their people had maintained an ongoing connection to their traditional lands and possessed inherent rights to those lands based on their customs and laws.

Source: Trevor Graham and Yarra Bank Films.

The Doctrine of Terra Nullius Overturned

Before the Mabo case, the concept of terra nullius had a significant impact on the legal status of Australia’s land and its Indigenous inhabitants. Terra nullius is a Latin term meaning “land belonging to no one” or “empty land.” It was a European legal doctrine that was used to justify the colonisation of various territories around the world, including Australia.

This classification allowed the British to claim ownership of the entire continent as they claimed the land was uninhabited and belonged to no one, without recognising the pre-existing rights and sovereignty of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who had inhabited the land for tens of thousands of years. Under the principle of terra nullius, Indigenous peoples were considered to have no legal rights to their ancestral lands with the British Crown claiming absolute ownership. This notion formed the basis of early land policies, enabling widespread dispossession, displacement, and the marginalisation of Indigenous communities.

The Mabo case challenged the doctrine of terra nullius and argued for the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ ongoing connection to their traditional lands, as well as their rights based on their customs and laws. Eddie Mabo, along with his legal team, led by barrister Ron Castan and solicitor Bryan Keon-Cohen, challenged the concept of terra nullius. They argued that the Indigenous peoples’ connection to the land predated the British arrival and should be recognised by Australian law.

In a historic decision, the High Court of Australia ruled in favour of Eddie Mabo and his plaintiffs, overturning terra nullius. The court acknowledged the existence of native title, recognising that Indigenous peoples’ rights to land and waters could coexist with other forms of land tenure. This meant that Indigenous Australians could claim and be granted legal recognition of their traditional rights and interests in land, subject to certain conditions. This landmark ruling marked a significant turning point in Australian law and set the stage for the acknowledgment and protection of Native Title rights.

Source: Jim McEwan/Fairfax

Eddie Mabo’s Passing, Native Title Act and Legacy

Sadly, Eddie Mabo passed away on January 21, 1992, just months before the High Court’s decision. However, his unwavering dedication and persistence laid the foundation for the recognition of Indigenous land rights. It prompted the Australian government to enact the Native Title Act in 1993, which established a framework for the recognition and protection of native title rights.

The Mabo case led to significant legal and social changes, sparking broader discussions about Indigenous rights, reconciliation, and the need to address historical injustices.

Mabo’s legacy continues to inspire Indigenous communities and advocates for social justice, providing hope and fostering a sense of empowerment. The Mabo case has had a lasting impact on the recognition and preservation of Indigenous land rights in Australia, contributing to the ongoing process of reconciliation and the pursuit of justice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Reconciliation Week, held annually from May 27th to June 3rd, serves as a time to reflect on this process and to honour significant events such as Mabo Day on June 3rd. On Mabo Day, we pay tribute to Eddie Mabo’s courageous fight for justice and his historic role in the recognition of Indigenous land rights.

By Luka Osborne