” Eddie Koiki Mabo, a Meriam man from the island of Mer in the Torres Straits, forever changed Australian law and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander land rights when he won his landmark case in The High Court.
The decision was handed down on this day in 1992, 11 years after the case began.
The momentous Mabo case finally acknowledged the history of Indigenous dispossession in Australia, abolished the legal fiction of “terra nullius”, and altered the foundation of Australian land law.”
Opening image from Nhulundu Health Service
Terra nullius is a Latin term meaning “land belonging to no one”. British colonisation and subsequent Australian land laws were established on the claim that Australia was terra nullius, justifying acquisition by British occupation without treaty or payment. This effectively denied Indigenous people’s prior occupation of and connection to the land.
In the 1971 Gove land rights case, Justice Blackburn ruled that Australia was terra nullius prior European settlement.
This judgement was unsuccessfully challenged by subsequent cases in 1977, 1979 and 1982.
However, on the 20th May 1982, Eddie Koiki Mabo and 4 other Indigenous Meriam people began their legal claim for ownership of their traditional lands on the island of Mer in the Torres Strait.
Mabo and his companions claimed that the Meriam people had:
- continuously inhabited and exclusively possessed these lands
- lived in permanent settled communities
- had their own political and social organisation 
On these grounds, the Mabo case sought recognition of the Meriam people’s rights to this land.
Mabo v. Queensland
The case was heard over ten years, progressing from the Queensland Supreme Court to the High Court of Australia.
On the 3rd of June 1992, the High Court ruled by a majority of six to one that the Meriam people were “entitled as against the whole world to possession, occupation, use and enjoyment of (most of) the lands of the Murray Islands”.
Three of the plaintiffs did not live to hear this ruling, including Eddie Mabo, who passed away just months before the decision was handed down.
The High Court’s judgement in the Mabo case resulted in the introduction of the doctrine of native title into Australian law, removing the myth of terra nullius and establishing a legal framework for native title claims by Indigenous Australians. The judgement ruled that the common law as it existed:
- violated international human rights norms
- denied the historical reality of Indigenous people’s dispossession 
- recognises that Indigenous Australians have a prior claim to land taken by the British Crown since 1770
- replaces the “legal fiction” of terra nullius, which formed the foundation of British claims to land ownership in Australia 
“It is imperative in today’s world that the common law should neither be nor be seen to be frozen in an age of racial discrimination.” The High Court’s judgement on the Mabo Case, 1992.
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Eddie Koiki Mabo Early life
Eddie Mabo. Image courtesy of the Mabo family.
Eddie Koiki Mabo was born on 29 June, 1936, on the island of Mer (Murray Island) in the Torres Strait. His mother died giving birth and he was adopted by his uncle, Benny Mabo. His surname was changed from Sambo to Mabo and from an early age, Koiki was taught about his family’s land.
In 1959, he moved to Townsville in Queensland and held a variety of jobs including working on pearling boats, cutting cane and as a railway fettler. He married Bonita Neehow, an Australian-born South Sea Islander, and they had ten children.
He was an activist in the 1967 Referendum campaign and helped found the Townsville Aboriginal and Islander Health Service. The issue of land rights became a focus for his energy in 1974, while working on campus as a gardener at James Cook University and meeting university historians Noel Loos and Henry Reynolds, who recalled:
…we were having lunch one day 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… he said and I remember him saying ‘No way, it’s not theirs, it’s ours.’
The turning point
Today, one of Koiki and Bonita’s daughters, Gail is a cultural advisor in schools, an artist and dancer, and is the spokesperson for the Mabo family.
In 1972 my family had planned to visit Mer. My father had hoped to visit his father, Benny Mabo, who was suffering from tuberculosis. Tuberculosis was a major killer of Torres Strait Islanders at the time. Our family travelled to Thursday Island but we were refused permission to travel to Mer.
My mother, Bonita, remembers;
“In those days you had to get permission to go across to Mer, but the Queensland authorities wouldn’t let us. They said Eddie was a non-Islander, because he hadn’t lived there for so long. They thought he was too political and would stir up trouble.”
Our family returned to Townsville. Six weeks later my father received a telegram saying that his father had died. My father cried. We never had the chance to meet our grandfather.
My father never forgave the government authorities for this injustice. It fuelled his determination for recognition and equality in society. This began his ten-year battle for justice and political status.
Black community school
In 1973, Koiki became co-founder and director of the Townsville ‘black community school’ – one of the first in Australia. The school commenced with ten students, in an old Catholic school building in the heart of inner city Townsville. Disenchanted with the approach to Indigenous education within the Queensland State Education system, Eddie volunteered to work for half pay to help establish the school.
The School was regarded with open hostility within the general Townsville community including the Queensland education department, local newspaper and some local politicians. The then State Minister for Education denounced the motives of the student’s parents declaring their attitudes as racist and the school as ‘apartheid in reverse.’
At its peak in the late 1970s forty five students were enrolled at the school. In 1975, Koiki was asked to join the National Aboriginal Education Committee (NAEC), an advisory body to the Commonwealth Education Department and he served on the committee for three years.
And the rest the say is history
This discovery inspired Eddie to challenge land ownership laws in Australia.
At a Land Rights Conference in 1981, a lawyer suggested there should be a test case to claim land rights through the court system. Five Meriam men, Eddie Koiki Mabo, Sam Passi, Father Dave Passi, James Rice and Celuia Mapo Salee, decided to challenge for land rights in the High Court. 
In May 1982, led by Eddie Mabo, they began their legal claim for ownership of their lands.
Awards and recognition
Eddie Koiki Mabo has been rightfully recognised for his landmark work. Unfortunately this recognition only occurred after his death with a number of awards including:
- 1992: the Australian Human Rights Medal as part of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Awards, along with his fellow plaintiffs ‘in recognition of their long and determined battle to gain justice for their people’.
- 1993: The Australian newspaper voted Eddie Mabo as their 1992 Australian of the Year (not to be confused with the Australian Government’s Australian of the Year Awards).
- 2008: The James Cook University named its library the Eddie Koiki Mabo Library.
- 2012: the Australian Broadcasting Corporation aired a documentary drama based on his life.
- Mabo day: named after Eddie, is celebrated on 3 June each year.
- AIATSIS holds the Mabo lecture as part of the annual National Native Title Conference.
Further reading and sources
- Mabo case
- Land rights
- The Little Red Yellow Black Book
- Indigenous Australian case study: Torres Strait Islands, Mer (Murray Island) and Eddie ‘Koiki’ Mabo located on the NSW HSC online website.
- Mabo: the Native Title Revolution
- Mabo: the movielocated on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) website.
- First Australians
- A brief history of the Black Community School
- Founding documents Mabo v Queensland
- Priceless’ Eddie Mabo self portrait held at AIATSIS