Sixteenth Anniversary of Mabo Day
Sixteen years ago today, the High Court of Australia overturned terra nullius finding that native title to land survived British colonisation and could form part of Australia’s common law.
Today is an occasion to commemorate the vision and determination of the man who drove the campaign to contest terra nullis – Eddie Koiki Mabo.
For Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians alike, the Eddie Mabo story has become legendary. His crusade symbolises the tenacity and persistence of so many to overturn 200 years of seemingly entrenched legal precedent.
With fellow Murray Islanders, David Passi, Sam Passi, James Rice and Celuia Salee, Eddie Mabo instituted a claim in the High Court for native title to the Murray Islands within Torres Strait.
Mabo, from Mer (Murray Island) in the Torres Strait, led the ten year court battle culminating in the landmark judgment that acknowledged the world’s oldest continuing culture and its existence in this land long before European colonisation.
Last month, I had the great honour to be at James Cook University to name the university library after Eddie Koiki Mabo.
There I met members of his large, extended family including his wonderful wife Benita and one of his daughters, Gail.
Eddie Mabo’s genesis as an advocate and warrior began at James Cook University where he worked as a gardener, sat in on lectures and read books on anthropology in the library which now bears his name.
He was a 34-year-old father of seven at the university in 1974 when he discovered he did not legally own his traditional land on Mer Island in the Torres Strait.
His refusal to accept this ultimately took Eddie Mabo to the highest court in the land where the court found that the Meriam people were ‘entitled as against the whole world to possession, occupation, use and enjoyment of the lands in the Murray Islands.’
Eddie Koiki Mabo died in January 1992, five months before the High Court announced its historic decision.