Eddie Mabo

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Eddie Mabo was a Torres Strait Islander who became famous in Australian history for his role in a landmark decision of the High Court of Australia that overturned the legal statute of terra nullius which characterised Australian law with regards to land and title.

Eddie Mabo was born in the Torres Strait islands in 1936. He was born Eddie Koiki Sambo, but changed his name later in life. Eddie lived a hard life, his mother dying during infancy, leaving him to be raised by his uncle, Benny Mabo. Eddie was exiled from his home because of a teenage prank, and ended up living in Townville and working in the railways. This was an important turning point for Eddie as through his work in the railroads he met many other Torres Straight islanders like him. He became spokesperson for the railroad workers and often voiced their opinions to the trade union officials.

Eddie Mabo started making a difference to the people of Townsville when he opened the first black school in the area. In 1959 Eddie married Bonita Neehow and went on to raise 10 children with her.

Over the next decade, Eddie Mabo worked a number of jobs, before becoming a gardener at James Cook University in Townsville, at the age of 31. This was a massively significant period in his life as he would sit in on lectures, go to the library to read books – particularly those written by anthropologists about his people. It was around this time that it became aware to the professors at the university that Eddie believed that he owned his land, not the crown.
In 1981, when Eddie was 45, a Lands Rights Conference was held at James Cook University and it was here that Eddie gave a speech to the audience, in which he defined clearly land ownership and land inheritance in the Murray Islands, the significance of this in terms of Australian common law doctrine was not missed by one of the attendees, a lawyer who suggested that there should be a test case to claim land rights through the court system.

The Murray Islanders decided that they would be the ones to challenge the legal principal of Terra Nullius (meaning ‘no mans land’) in the High Court, and that Eddie Mabo would be the one to lead that action.

This landmark case was a 10 year battle, “A remarkable saga really” says Henry Reynolds of the case. After listening to the argument and investigating it, Justice Moynihan came to the conclusion that Eddie Koiki Mabo was not the son of Benny Mabo, and declared that he had no right to inherit Mabo land.

While personally devastated by this decision, Eddie Mabo persisted in pursuing the matter and appealed it to the High Court of Australia.

At 56, Eddie Koiki Mabo died of cancer in January 1992, 10 years after the appeal was put forward to the High Court of Australia. Five months after his death on June 3 1992 the High Court announced its historic decision, overturning the legal fiction of Terra Nullius. This decision is now commonly referred to as ‘Mabo’ in Australia, and is recognised for its landmark status. This ruling, also for the first time gave legal recognition to the fact that indigenous land ownership existed in Australia before European settlement.

Three years after Eddie Mabo died, that period of time being the traditional period of mourning for the people of the Murray Islanders, a memorial service was held in Townsville.

Due to vandalism of Eddie’s grave site Eddie’s body was reburied on Murray Island, the land that he loved and fought so hard for. The night that Eddie was reburied the islanders performed their traditional ceremony for the burial of a king, a ritual that had not been seen for over 80 years on the island.

In 1993 Eddie Koiki Mabo was voted 1992 Australian of the year in commemoration of his work.