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Edward Koiki (Eddie) Mabo (1936–1992)

by Noel Loos

This article was published:

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Edward ‘Koiki’ Mabo (1936–1992), Torres Strait Islander community leader and land rights campaigner, was born on 29 June 1936 at Las, on Mer, in the Murray group of islands, Queensland, the fourth surviving child of Murray Islands-born parents ‘Robert’ Zesou Sambo, seaman, and his wife ‘Annie’ Poipe, née Mabo. Koiki’s mother died five days after his birth and he was adopted by his maternal uncle and aunt, Benny and Maiga Mabo, in accordance with Islander custom. As a child he participated in fishing and farming activities on Mer, absorbing Meriam culture. His first language was Meriam, but he also spoke Torres Strait Islander creole. He learnt English at the state school with special assistance from one of his teachers, Bob Miles, who recognised his ability and stressed the importance of English for his future involvement in mainland culture. His first two jobs were as a teachers’ aide and as an interpreter for a medical research team in the Torres Strait. Fluency in English also placed him in leadership positions when he was in groups interacting with white Australians.

On 2 February 1956 the Murray Islands Court found Mabo guilty of drinking alcohol and exiled him for one year in accordance with community by-laws. He worked aboard fishing vessels until 1957 and then as a cane cutter and railway fettler in Queensland. He married Queensland-born Ernestine Bonita ‘Netta’ Nehow, a South Sea Islander, on 10 October 1959 at the Methodist Church in Ingham.

During the 1960s Mabo became involved in trade union politics, and became increasingly comfortable mixing with white people and adept at public speaking. In 1960 he was appointed a union representative for Torres Strait Islanders on the Townsville-Mount Isa rail reconstruction project. From 1962 to 1967 he worked for the Townsville Harbour Board, and became the Islander representative on the Trades and Labour Council. He was also a leader in Indigenous  politics, serving as secretary of the Aborigines Advancement League (Queensland) from 1962 to 1969. Involved in the campaign for a ‘Yes’ vote in the 1967 referendum to remove discriminatory references to Aboriginal people in the Constitution, he subsequently helped to organise an inter-racial conference entitled ‘We the Australians: What is to Follow the Referendum?’ The conference showed Mabo that he could find supporters for Aboriginal and Islander advancement among academics such as Margaret and Henry Reynolds, Nonie Sharp, and Noel Loos.

Mabo gave occasional guest lectures to Loos’s students at the Townsville College of Advanced Education and James Cook University. This involvement increased after he was employed at the university as a gardener (c. 1967–75). He sometimes sat in on lectures, and regularly used his lunch hour to study A. C. Haddon’s six-volume Reports of the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to Torres Straits. In 1970 he became president of the all-black Council for the Rights of Indigenous People. Concerned that his children were losing their language and cultural traditions, with Harry Penrith (later known as Burnum Burnum) he set up the Black Community School in Townsville in 1973 and served as its director until 1985. This led to his involvement in the National Aboriginal Education Committee (1975–78) and the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies Education Advisory Committee (1978–79). A talented performer of Torres Strait Islander music and dance, Mabo was a member of the Australia Council for the Arts for four years from 1974. He was president of the Yumba Meta Housing Association Ltd (1975–80), an organisation that acquired houses in Townsville using Commonwealth funds and rented them to Indigenous tenants, and was employed by the Commonwealth Employment Service as an assistant vocational officer (1978–81).

Informed by Henry Reynolds and Loos that he and other Murray Islanders were not the legal owners of land inherited under Meriam custom and tradition, and that instead it was crown land, Mabo was shocked. As co-chairmen of the Townsville Treaty Committee, Mabo and Loos joined forces with the James Cook University Students’ Union to stage a conference on ‘Land Rights and the Future of Australian Race Relations’ in 1981. The conference attracted lawyers and others familiar with questions of Indigenous rights in both domestic and international contexts. After Mabo’s presentation on ‘Land Rights in the Torres Strait,’ H. C. Nugget’ Coombs encouraged him and other Meriam people to take a case to the High Court of Australia to establish ownership of their land.

On 20 May 1982 Mabo, Sam Passi, David Passi, Celuia Mapo Salee, and James Rice initiated proceedings in the High Court against the State of Queensland and the Commonwealth. Meanwhile, the Queensland government introduced legislation designed to retrospectively cancel any native title that might exist. The Queensland Coast Islands Declaratory Act 1985 was subsequently challenged by Mabo and his colleagues in the High Court. On 8 December 1988 the court found in favour of Mabo, ruling that the Queensland law breached the Commonwealth’s Racial Discrimination Act 1975. This judgment became known as Mabo v. Queensland [No. 1].

In 1986 the High Court had passed the original land claim case to the Supreme Court of Queensland to determine the facts. The Supreme Court handed its findings to the High Court in 1990. Justice Martin Moynihan determined, on the basis of evidence presented to him, that Mabo had not been adopted by Benny and Maiga Mabo. He considered Mabo’s legal right to inherit land was based on individual rather than native title. The community could prove native title: it had observed traditional laws and customs and had continuously occupied and inherited its land on Mer since before white settlement. If Mabo had not been adopted, as Moynihan decided, then individually he had no claim on the land in dispute, that is Benny Mabo’s land on Mer. This brought Mabo’s individual land claim to an end.

Of the original five plaintiffs, only two remained to present evidence to the High Court; Salee had died, and Sam Passi had withdrawn his claim. Hearings began in the High Court in May 1991 and a verdict, in favour of community entitlements rather than individual claims, was delivered on 3 June 1992. Mabo v. Queensland [No. 2] overturned the doctrine known as terra nullius (land belonging to no-one), and paved the way for the Commonwealth Native Title Act 1993. Mabo’s role in this landmark judgment was summed up by Bryan Keon-Cohen, junior counsel in both cases: ‘without Eddie Mabo there was no case’ (2011, 1:46).

During the preceding decade Mabo had pursued various lines of education and employment. From 1981 to 1984 he was enrolled in an Aboriginal and Islander Teacher Education Program at the Townsville College of Advanced Education (later, following amalgamation, James Cook University), but he did not finish the course. He worked as a field officer with the Townsville Aboriginal Legal Service in 1985, and served as director (1988–87) of the ABIS Community Cooperative Society Ltd in Townsville. He was employed by the Department of Aboriginal Affairs as a community arts liaison officer (1987–88) for the Festival of Pacific Arts held in Townsville, and also served as vice-chairman of Magani Malu Kes, an organisation that stressed Torres Strait Islander identity and autonomy.

Diagnosed with cancer in 1990, Mabo did not live to hear the High Court’s ruling in Mabo No. 2. Survived by his wife, two sons, five daughters, and three adopted children (two sons and a daughter), he died on 21 January 1992 in the Royal Brisbane Hospital and was buried in Belgian Gardens cemetery, Townsville. On 3 June 1995 an elaborate marble tombstone featuring a sculptured image of his face was unveiled in front of a large number of assembled guests. That night the grave was desecrated. The Federal government assisted Mabo’s relatives to transfer his remains to the Murray Islands. On 18 September 1995 Mabo was reburied at Las.

Throughout his life Mabo had demonstrated initiative, originality, determination, intelligence, and commitment to obtaining justice for Indigenous Australians and recognition of the traditional land rights of his family and people. Following his death, and in the wake of Mabo No. 2, he became a household name. Posthumously awarded a Human Rights Award by the Australian Human Rights Commission in 1992, he was also the Australian newspaper’s Australian of the Year for 1992. A memorial sculpture was unveiled in Townsville in 2007, and in 2008 James Cook University named its Townsville campus library the Eddie Koiki Mabo Library. In the Shire of Torres, and across other regions of Queensland, 3 June—known as Mabo Day—has been declared a bank holiday, a significant move given that for much of his life Mabo was regarded with hostility by many Meriam leaders. Mabo’s life has become the subject of academic scrutiny, art, literature, film and television; the television movie Mabo starring Jimi Bani was released in 2012. Mabo Boulevard in the Canberra suburb of Bonner is named after him.

Select Bibliography

  • Forbes, Cameron. ‘Mr Mabo is Entitled to be an Agitator.’ Age (Melbourne), 11 February 1992, 3
  • Kennedy, Fiona. ‘Mabo Returns to Native “Cradle”.’ Australian, 19 September 1995, 3
  • Keon-Cohen, Bryan. Mabo in the Courts: Islander Tradition to Native Title: A Memoir. 2 vols. North Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2011
  • Loos, Noel, and Koiki Mabo. Edward Koiki Mabo: His Life and Struggle for Land Rights. St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press, 1996
  • National Library of Australia. Papers of Edward Koiki Mabo
  • Personal knowledge of ADB subject
  • Russell, Peter H. Recognising Aboriginal Title: The Mabo Case and Indigenous Resistance to English-Settler Colonialism. Sydney: UNSW Press, 2006
  • Solomon, David, Deanie Carbon, and Fiona Kennedy. ‘Aborigines Rejoice as High Court Ends Terra Nullius.’ Australian, 4 June 1992, 1
  • Walker, Jamie. ‘Eddie Mabo—Australian of the Year.’ Australian, 26 January 1993, 1

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Noel Loos, 'Mabo, Edward Koiki (Eddie) (1936–1992)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 19 July 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2012