Eddie Koiki Mabo

Edward Koiki Mabo, a Meriam man from the island of Mer (Murray Island) in the Torres Straits, was a key plaintiff in a land rights case in the High Court of Australia, today referred to as the ‘Mabo Case’.

Early life

Eddie Mabo
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.

Gail Mabo, wrote:

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.

Legal recognition of rights to his land

In 1981, Koiki gave his first speech at a land rights conference at the James Cook University explaining the traditional land ownership and inheritance system that his community followed on Mer Island. A lawyer in the audience noted the significance of Koiki’s speech and suggested there should be a test case to claim land rights through the court system.

Perth based solicitor Greg McIntyre agreed to take the case, representing Mabo and recruited barristers, the late Ron Castan and Bryan Keon-Cohen. Greg McIntyre and Koiki both applied successfully for research grants from AIATSIS to conduct research for the case.

On 20 May 1982, Koiki and fellow Mer Islanders - Reverend David Passi, Celuia Mapoo Salee, Sam Passi and James Rice began their legal claim for ownership of their lands on the island of Mer with the High Court of Australia. With Koiki as the first named plaintiff, the case became known as the ‘Mabo Case’.

Ten years later, on 3 June 1992, the High Court of Australia decided in favour of Eddie Koiki Mabo and his fellow plaintiffs.

The judgments of the High Court inserted the legal doctrine of native title into Australian law. In recognising the traditional rights of the Meriam people to their islands in the eastern Torres Strait, the Court also held that native title existed for all Indigenous peoples in Australia who held rights in their lands under their own laws and customs prior to the assertion of British sovereignty and establishment Colonies across the continent from 1788.

The new doctrine of native title replaced a 17th century doctrine of terra nullius on which British claims to possession of Australia were justified on a wrongful legal presumption that Indigenous peoples had no settled law governing occupation and use of lands. In recognising that Indigenous people in Australia had prior rights to land, the Court held that these rights, where they exist today, will have the protection of the Australian law until those rights are legally extinguished.

Unfortunately, Eddie Koiki Mabo did not live to see the fruits of his life-time commitment and passion. He passed away from cancer aged fifty-six on 21 January 1992.

The High Court decision in the ‘Mabo case’ altered the foundation of land law in Australia. In the following year, the Native Title Act 1993 was passed through the Australian Parliament and opened the way for further claims of traditional rights to land and compensation.

Personal Interests

Koiki Mabo enjoyed art and spent his spare time painting water colours and relaxing on his boat. In its Collections, AIATSIS preserves a unique self-portrait that Koiki drew in pencil in 1982.

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.
Last reviewed: 3 Aug 2017