Eddie Mabo is one of Australia's greatest heroes. The man who single-handedly (well, with the help of family, other Islanders & a talented legal team) overturned 200 years of legitimised theft of indigenous land by colonial powers.
The pilfering was legitimised in Latin. Now, it is common knowledge that if you use a latin phrase then you must be right. After all, those Latins knew what they were talking about. Terra nullius! oooooohhhh ... Latin ... therefore it must right. What does it mean? Well, it means 'empty land' 'uninhabited land', 'no-man's land'. That was the description ascribed to Australia and it's islands by Captain James Cook as he landed on Cape York Peninsula, in the area that was to become known as Cooktown.
To claim land, the British Empire had three options. They could purchase the land, they could conquer the land or they could deem the land uninhabited. Under international law, to purchase or conquer land required the Empire to respect the rights of people from whom it was being purchased or conquered. This was unacceptable, so Captain Cook claimed the land for the British Empire and deemed it uninhabited - terra nullius.
With the pronouncement of terra nullius, the colonial invaders began settling the continent as there was obviously no-one else settled here, well, apart from around a million aborigines and Islanders. Today there are around 500,000. Settlement was not their friend. Many died from disease, many were murdered. The colonial government classified aborigines and Islanders under the Flora and Fauna Act, which may help explain why shooting them was considered a sport.
Eddie Mabo discovered just how insidious one little Latin phrase could be when he learnt that his family's traditional tribal lands actually belonged to the Crown and not to them.
Eddie was from Mer (Murray) Island in the beautiful Torres Strait. He was born on 29 June1936. In 1959 he married Bonita Neehow and their fruitful marriage produced 10 children. After a stint of pearling, Eddie ended up working as a gardener at James Cook University (JCU) in Townsville. It was here that he met the esteemed historian, Professor Henry Reynolds*, with whom he struck up a friendship. While Eddie was reminiscing about his homelands, Reynolds broke the news to him that the Crown actually owned the land, not Eddie or his family. Eddie was introduced to terra nullius and it came as a shock.
In 1982, Eddie was invited to speak at a Land Rights Conference at JCU, where he explained land inheritance. After hearing Eddie's speech, a lawyer encouraged him to sue the government for land rights and to have terra nullius overturned. Reynolds supported and encouraged Eddie to pursue this.
When I think of this law-suit I can't help but think of Dennis Denuto, the fictional lawyer in the classic Australian movie, The Castle, who sued the government for reclaiming land that belonged to the Kerrigans, in the Melbourne suburb of Coolaroo. Denuto, trying to explain why the dispossession was wrong in light of the Australian Constitution, stated poetically and rather aptly, 'but it's the vibe of the thing, your Honour'.
Eddie and Bonita Mabo, other representatives and their legal team, were tenacious in pursuing justice. Eddie knew that the dispossession of his land was wrong, even though the law said that it was right. Regardless of what was in the Constitution or in the law, terra nullius was wrong. It was just the vibe of the thing!
Ten years after Eddie Koiki Mabo, a humble man from Mer Island, took on the might of the Australian government and 200 years of tradition, the High Court handed down it's historic decision: terra nullius was overturned and native title was recognised. It was a landmark decision, a turning point in indigenous affairs and Australian history.
Unfortunately, Eddie Mabo did not live to see this decision. The stress of 10 years of legal struggle affected his health. On 21 January 1992, five months before the decision was handed down, Eddie died of cancer.
Eddie's name is synonymous with land rights and social justice. He was a man who stood up for what was right, and challenged the law when it was wrong.
Eddie was given a traditional burial ceremony on Murray Island - a traditional ceremony for the burial of a King!
In 1992, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission posthumously awarded the Human Rights Medal to Eddie. The Medal was also awarded Barbara Hocking, a barrister with the legal team, and the other Islanders participating in the case, namely Sam Passi, Reverend Dave Passi, James Rice and Celuia Mapo Salee.
Eddie Mabo is a true hero; an inspiration for his people, an inspiration for all Australians.
* Henry Reynolds is another Australian hero who has written substantially about indigenous history, including his seminal work 'Why Weren't We Told', in which he details indigenous dispossession, and in particular, his discussions with Eddie Mabo. His books are available from most book stores.