Fact sheets

Edward Koiki Mabo 1936 - 1992

Torres Strait Islander Eddie Koiki Mabo was an Indigenous community leader and human rights activist who achieved national prominence as the successful principal plaintiff in the landmark High Court of Australia ruling on native land title. In 1992 the historic Mabo decision of the High Court of Australia recognised traditional land rights for Australian Indigenous People.

Edward Koiki Sambo was born in 1936 on Mer, (Murray Island) in the Torres Strait between Australia and Papua New Guinea. He was the son of Robert Zezou Sambo and Annie Mabo of the Piadaram clan. His mother died in childbirth and he was adopted under customary law by his mother's brother, Benny Mabo, and his wife, Maiga to raise as their son. He became Edward Koiki Mabo and from an early age, he learned about his family's land, traditions and heritage.

Koiki went to primary school on the island without thought of further education. He was a bright student and one of his teachers encouraged him to learn English with a view to possible later employment on the mainland.

When Koiki was sixteen a romance led to his being exiled to the mainland by the disapproving elders of the Meriam Island Council. He found work on pearling boats but when his exile was extended he jumped ship in Cairns and worked at various jobs including canecutter and railway fettler.

In 1959, at the age of twenty-three, Koiki married Bonita Nehow whose family had been brought from Vanuatu to work in the cane fields. Koiki and Bonita eventually settled in Townsville and raised nine children.

In Townsville, Koiki Mabo became a spokesperson for the Torres Strait Islander community and was involved with the trade union movement and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advancement League. He helped found the city's Aboriginal and Islander Health Service and was co-founder and director of the Townsville Black Community School from 1973 to 1983. The school was among the first of its kind in Australia where not only the state curriculum was taught but also the language and culture of the Torres Strait Islander people. Bonita also taught at the school. From 1981 to 1984 he studied for a Diploma of Teaching at Townsville College of Advanced Education and James Cook University.

Mabo was a skilled performer and teacher of Meriam song and dance, which led to his appointment to the Aboriginal Arts Board of the Australia Council, and in the mid 80s he became a member of the National Aboriginal Education Committee.

From 1967 to 1971, Mabo was employed as a gardener with James Cook University in Townsville where he joined in university life and would often sit in on seminars or go to the library and read. He was particularly interested in the history, and anthropologists' views, of his people. Mabo was also regularly invited to lecture students studying "Race and Culture" at the university. After the Referendum on Aboriginal Rights succeeded in 1967 he helped organise a seminar in Townsville on "We the Australians: What is to follow the Referendum?"

In 1973, Mabo and his family travelled to Thursday Island en route to Mer to visit his dying father but they were denied entry to Mer by the Meriam Island Council. Mabo was by this time considered an agitator by the authorities. He was devastated by the decision.

In 1974, a discussion with Professor Noel Loos and Henry Reynolds at James Cook University was a turning point. Mabo was speaking about his family land on Mer when the two men realised he thought he owned that land. They explained that the land belonged to the Crown and not to his family.

In 1977, Mabo hired a boat and went to Mer with his family. He was appalled by the idea that his land could be considered Crown land and saw the fight to win the right to his land as the most important cause of his life.

In 1981, a Land Rights' Conference was held at James Cook University. Mabo made a speech about land ownership and inheritance on Mer. A lawyer at the conference 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 they would challenge for land rights in the High Court of Australia. In May 1982, led by Mabo, they began their legal claim for ownership of their lands.

The High Court required the Supreme Court of Queensland to determine the facts on which the claim was based but while the case was with the Queensland Court, the Queensland State Parliament passed the Queensland Coast Islands Declaratory Act 1985 which stated "Any rights that Torres Strait Islanders had to land after the claim of sovereignty (by Queensland) in 1879 is hereby extinguished without compensation". A challenge to the Act was then taken to the High Court and the decision in 1992, known as Mabo No. 1, was that the Act was in conflict with the Commonwealth Racial Discrimination Act of 1975 and was thus invalid.

Another setback came in 1989 when a Justice of the Supreme Court of Queensland went to Mer to establish traditional laws of inheritance. In 1990 he told the High Court that Koiki Mabo was not adopted by custom and therefore his claims on Mer were denied.

In 1985 while working as a field officer at the Townsville Aboriginal Legal Aid Service Mabo had received a research grant to study land tenure in the Torres Strait Islands. The formal knowledge he had gained became invaluable in the long fight for land ownership and the Meriam group met each new challenge to their claim.

However, it was not until 3 June 1992 that Mabo No. 2 was decided upon. By this time, ten years after the case opened, both Celuia Mapo Salee and Koiki Mabo had died.

Six of the judges agreed that the Meriam people did have traditional ownership of their land, with one judge dissenting from the majority judgment. The judges held that British possession had not eliminated their title and that "the Meriam people are entitled as against the whole world to possession, occupation, use and enjoyment of the lands of the Murray Islands". This decision altered the foundation of land law in Australia.

On Australia Day 1993, the Australian newspaper named Eddie Koiki Mabo their 1992 Australian of the Year.

Following the High Court decision in Mabo No. 2, the Commonwealth Parliament passed the Native Title Act in 1993, enabling Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People throughout Australia to claim traditional rights to unalienated land.

In June 1995, three years after Eddie Koiki Mabo's death, the traditional mourning period was over and the time had come to celebrate his life. The simple wooden cross that had marked his grave at Townsville Cemetery was replaced with a marble headstone. As a mark of respect many Torres Strait Islander People and others from all over Australia travelled to Townsville for a special ceremony with Torres Strait Island rituals performed by the Mabo family.

The night after the ceremony Koiki Mabo's grave site was desecrated. His headstone was vandalised, red swastikas were painted on it and a sculptured image of his face was smashed off. His distraught family took his body back to Mer where he was reburied on the land he loved and had fought so long and hard for. The Islanders performed a traditional ceremony not seen on the island for eighty years which signified that Eddie Koiki Mabo had been buried as a leader.

On 3 June each year Mabo Day is celebrated in the Torres Strait Islands. A public holiday with great rejoicing commemorates the day the Islanders regained control of their traditional lands, and the men, led by Mabo, who made it possible.


Source: Reserve Bank of Australia,Currency Notes/ Notes In Circulation.

Theme: Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders - Australian history and race relations.