Eddie Mabo

Eddie Mabo
Born Eddie Koiki Sambo
(1936-06-29)29 June 1936
Mer, Torres Strait Islands, Queensland, Australia
Died 21 January 1992(1992-01-21) (aged 55)
Brisbane, Queensland, Australia.
Spouse(s) Bonita Mabo (m. 1959)
Children 10

Eddie Mabo (c. 29 June 1936 21 January 1992[1]) was an Indigenous Australian man from the Torres Strait Islands known for his role in campaigning for Indigenous land rights and for his role in a landmark decision of the High Court of Australia which overturned the legal doctrine of terra nullius ("nobody's land") which characterised Australian law with regard to land and title.

Early life and family

Mabo was born Eddie Koiki Sambo[1] but he changed his surname to Mabo when he was adopted by his uncle, Benny Mabo.[2] He was born on the island of Mer (Murray Island) in the Torres Strait between mainland Australia and Papua New Guinea.[2]

Mabo married Bonita Neehow, an Australian South Sea Islander, in 1959. The couple had seven children and adopted three more.[3] One daughter, Gail, is an Aboriginal artist[4] and dancer who works with schools in New South Wales as a cultural advisor[5] and serves as the family's designated spokesperson.[6]


Mabo worked on pearling boats, as a cane cutter, and as a railway fettler before becoming a gardener at James Cook University in Townsville, Queensland at the age of 31. The time he spent on the campus had a massive impact on his life. In 1974, he was talking with JCU historians Noel Loos and Henry Reynolds, and Loos recalls:

we were having lunch one day in Reynolds' office 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 and even ... he said and I remember him saying 'No way, it's not theirs, it's ours.'[7]

Later, when Mabo was a research assistant on an oral history project in the Torres Strait, Reynolds records:

He got as far as Thursday Island and no further. He was refused permission to land on any of the other islands in the Straits[sic]. A reputation as a radical was a heavy burden in Queensland at the time. For Eddie the rejection was devastating. He could not go home. He was not only landless in the eyes of white man's law, he was an exile as well.[8]

Land rights advocate

In 1981 a land rights conference was held at James Cook University and Mabo made a speech to the audience where he explained the land inheritance system on Murray Island. The significance of this in terms of Australian common law doctrine was taken note of by one of the attendees, a lawyer, who suggested there should be a test case to claim land rights through the court system. Perth-based solicitor Greg McIntyre was at the conference and agreed to take the case; he then recruited barristers Ron Castan and Bryan Keon-Cohen.[9] McIntyre represented Mabo during the hearings.[10]

Of the eventual outcome of that decision a decade later, Henry Reynolds said: "it was a ten year battle and it was a remarkable saga really."[11]

Death and Mabo decision

Mabo relaxed by working on his boat or painting watercolours of his island home; however, after 10 years the strain began to affect his health. On 21 January 1992, he died of cancer at the age of 55.[12]

Five months later, on 3 June 1992, the High Court announced its historic decision, namely overturning the legal doctrine of terra nullius - which is a term applied to the attitude of the British towards land ownership on the continent of Australia.

That decision, formally "Mabo v Queensland (No 2)", now commonly called "Mabo" in Australia, is recognised for its landmark status. Three years after Mabo died, that being the traditional mourning period for the people of Murray Island, a gathering was held in Townsville for a memorial service.

Overnight, Mabo's gravesite was attacked by vandals who spray-painted swastikas and the word "Abo" (a derogatory slang term for an Aboriginal person) on his tombstone and removed a bronze bas-relief portrait of him. His family decided to have his body reburied on Murray Island. On the night of his re-interment, the Islanders performed their traditional ceremony for the burial of a king, a ritual not seen on the island for 80 years.


In 1992, Mabo was posthumously awarded the Australian Human Rights Medal in the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Awards, together with the Reverend Dave Passi, Sam Passi (deceased), James Rice (deceased), Celuia Mapo Salee (deceased) and Barbara Hocking. The award was in recognition "of their long and determined battle to gain justice for their people" and the "work over many years to gain legal recognition for indigenous people's rights".[13]

In 1993 The Australian commemorated his work by voting him the 1992 Australian of the Year (not to be confused with the official Australian of the Year awards issued by the Australian Government).[14]

A documentary, Mabo: Life of an Island Man, directed by Trevor Graham was released in 1997 (and received the AFI Award for Best Documentary).

On 21 May 2008, James Cook University named its Townsville campus library the Eddie Koiki Mabo Library.[15]

Mabo Day is an official holiday in the Torres Shire, celebrated on 3 June.[16]

On 10 June 2012, Mabo, a television drama based on the life of Mabo was broadcast on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC).[17]

On 24 August 2015, Tony Abbott became the first Prime Minister to visit Eddie Mabo's grave on Murray Island where he paid tribute to his legacy.[18]

In 2016, Google Doodle commemorated his 80th birthday.[19]

See also


  1. 1 2 "Mabo: The Man - Adoption". Screen Australia Digital Learning. Retrieved 2014-05-12.
  2. 1 2 "Facts Sheet - Edward Koiki Mabo 1936–1992". Racism No Way. Retrieved 21 July 2016.
  3. "It's time, says Bonita Mabo". Sydney Morning Herald. 2004-08-01. Retrieved 2015-03-11.
  4. "Mabo Art". jcu.edu.au. 21 May 2009.
  5. "Social Justice and Human Rights Issues: A Global Perspective". csu.edu.au.
  6. "Mabo's gift". Sydney Morning Herald. 2 June 2012.
  7. Created by Thomas Rickard (2 November 2008). "We Are No Longer Shadows". First Australians. Australia. 13:45 minutes in. SBS. SBS. See also Reynolds, Henry (1992). The Law of the Land (2 ed.). Ringwood, Vic: Penguin. pp. 185–186.
  8. Id., p. 186.
  9. "About Bryan Keon-Cohen". Retrieved 17 June 2015.
  10. "You're part of the family, Mabo clan tells lawyer who led landmark case". Sydney Morning Herald. 4 June 2012.
  11. "Eddie Mabo". ABC. 12 November 2015.
  12. Noel, Loos. "Mabo, Edward Koiki (Eddie) (1936–1992)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. Canberra: Australian National University. Retrieved 10 August 2016.
  13. "1992 Human Rights Medal and Awards". Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. Retrieved 2007-08-11.
  14. "Papers of Edward Koiki Mabo - MS 8822". National Library of Australia. Retrieved 2007-09-23.
  15. "Architecture - Eddie Koiki Mabo Library Building Award - JCU". James Cook University. Retrieved 2009-09-01.
  16. "Mabo Day". Torres Strait regional authority. Retrieved 13 March 2011.
  17. "Personal face of a public battle". Sydney Morning herald. 31 May 2012. Retrieved 2012-05-31.
  18. "Tony Abbott visits Eddie Mabo's grave on Murray Island". ABC. Retrieved 2015-08-25.
  19. "Edward Koiki Mabo's 80th birthday". Google.com. Retrieved 2016-06-28.
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