Eddie Koiki Mabo, c. 29 June 1936 – 21 January 1992 was a Torres Strait Islander who is known for his role in campaigning for Indigenous land rights and for his role in a landmark decision of the High Court of Australia that overturned the legal doctrine of terra nullius ('land belonging to nothing, no one') which characterised Australian law with regards to land and title.
Mabo was named Eddie Koiki Malboy but he changed his surname to Mabo when he was adopted by his maternal uncle, Benny Mabo. He was born on Mer (Murray Island) in the Torres Strait between Australia and Papua New Guinea.
Mabo worked on a number of jobs before becoming a gardener with 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 this culminated in a discussion he had with Professor Noel Loos and Henry Reynolds, who recalled Mabo's reaction:
"...we were having lunch one day in Reynold's 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'".
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 spelt out the land inheritance system in 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.
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."
Mabo's death and legacy
Mabo relaxed by working on his boat or painting watercolours of his island home, however after ten years the strain began to affect his health. On 21 January 1992, Mabo died of cancer at the age of 55.
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.
"...so Justice Moynihan's decision that Mabo wasn't the rightful heir was irrelevant because the decision that came out was that native title existed and it was up to the Aboriginal or Islander people to determine who owned what land." Henry Reynolds.
That decision is now commonly called "Mabo" in Australia and 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 derogatory word "Abo" (Aborigine) 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 eighty 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".