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Marou Mimi (1886–1968)

by Ian Howie-Willis

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Marou Mimi (1886-1968), Torres Strait Islands nationalist, was born on 13 November 1886 on Murray (Mer) Island, north-east of Cape York Peninsula. His father was named Marou; his mother's name remains unknown. He attended the island's government school and became a monitor, but at home he learned traditional Meriam ways. In his late teens he joined the crew of the Miriam, Murray island's cutter, and gathered bêche-de-mer. He then went canecutting in North Queensland and later tried to establish himself as a share-farmer before being 'deported' to Murray Island. After a period at home, he returned to the sea, collecting trochus-shell, bêche-de-mer and pearl-shell.

On Murray Island on 16 July 1917 Marou married Wazan Adai; they adopted a daughter and two sons. During the early 1920s he lived on Darnley (Erub) Island where he studied to become an Anglican priest. A diocesan financial crisis interrupted his training and he was forced to go back to Murray Island. After being employed as a teacher and lay preacher, he resumed work in the boats.

In 1928 Marou was elected to the Murray Island local government council. He was to serve as a councillor for seventeen of the ensuing twenty-eight years, and to have several terms (totalling eight years) as chairman. In addition, he spent five years (from 1947) as the council's representative at the biennial conferences of Torres Strait Islands councillors. While chairman, he used his powers fully: he insisted on obedience to by-laws and dealt severely, sometimes idiosyncratically, with infringements and supposed infractions. His periods in and out of office reflected Murray Island's volatile politics, resentment of his autocratic rule, and enmities fostered by his political ambitions.

In 1936 Marou had been one of the leaders of an inter-island strike by the crews of 'Company' boats—vessels communally run, under the direction of the Aboriginal Industries Board. Beginning as a protest over the crewmen's right to control their earnings, the strike led to demands for the islands' autonomy. The Queensland government made some concessions, but Marou was committed to achieving full citizenship for the islanders; he retained a vision of the islands freed of outside control, and possibly independent from Australia. He supported the establishment of the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion in World War II to demonstrate that his people deserved greater respect from Whites.

Hoping to advance the islanders' cause, Marou flirted briefly in 1948 with the Communist Party of Australia, which led one Queensland departmental official to nickname him 'old Stalin'. While Marou's confrontational style enhanced his reputation as his people's champion, some Murray Islanders regarded it as counter-productive. As younger, more accommodating and pragmatic local politicians came to prominence in the 1950s, he was supplanted. He lost his place on the council in 1956. The Queensland government had granted him recognition of a sort, appointing him one of the first islander justices of the peace, presenting him to Queen Elizabeth II at Cairns in 1954, and awarding him a certificate of merit for his service.

In his retirement Marou promoted a revival of Meriam culture. From the late 1930s he had kept a diary. Writing in his native language and in English, he recorded his observations on the customs of old Mer. On 23 January 1963 he set down his understanding of the traditional 'Malo's Law' which governed social relationships and land use. Marou died on 28 March 1968 on Murray Island and was buried in the local cemetery; his wife and sons survived him. Information from his diary provided critical evidence in the legal proceedings instituted by Koiki ('Eddie') Mabo and other Murray Islanders to establish ownership of their land. Their action led in 1992 to the High Court of Australia's 'Mabo' decision on 'native title'.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Beckett, Torres Strait Islanders (Cambridge, 1987)
  • N. Sharp, Stars of Tagai (Canb, 1993)
  • D. Horton (ed), The Encyclopedia of Aboriginal Australia, vol 2 (Canb, 1994)
  • N. Sharp, No Ordinary Judgment (Canb, 1996)
  • Torres Strait Islander, 5, 1983.

Citation details

Ian Howie-Willis, 'Marou Mimi (1886–1968)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://ia.anu.edu.au/biography/marou-mimi-11057/text19677, accessed 26 September 2017.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2012