Mabo Day: Celebrating the Mabo Legacy

Mabo Day: Celebrating the Mabo Legacy
WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are advised this blog contains images of Eddy Mabo who is deceased. 

We celebrate every June 3rd, the anniversary of an important judgment we now know as Mabo Day. For approximately 200 years, the Australian government operated under the assumption that Australia belonged to no one before colonisation. Eddie Koiki Mabo of Mer Island is remembered on June 3 for his successful efforts to overthrow the legal fiction of terra nullius, or "land that belongs to no one." On its 30th anniversary, DulcieDot pays tribute to Eddie Mabo.

What is the Mabo Case?

The legal concept "terra nullius," deprived Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of their inherent rights to their lands and aimed to cut ties with traditions that date back over 65,000 years. The notion was overruled by the High Court on June 3, 1992 after a 10 year hearing. 

The Mabo case, led by Eddie Koiki Mabo, fought the legal notion in Mabo and others verses Queensland (No 2) (1992). 

 By a six-to-one margin, the court found in favour of the Meriam people. They were “entitled as against the whole world to possession, occupation, use and enjoyment of (most of) the lands of the Murray Islands”.

Who is Eddie Mabo?

Eddie  in Townsville, 1991. Photograph by Bethyl Mabo, AIATSIS Collection, ATSIC.002.BW-E00256_31.

Edward Koiki Sambo was born on the island of Mer in the Torres Strait on June 29, 1936. Mabo has been fighting for legal acknowledgement of his people's ownership of Mer for more than a decade. He was a Torres Strait Islander activist who helped to build one of Australia's first black community schools. Mabo and four other Meriam people — Celuia Mapo Salee, James Rice, David Passi, and Sam Passi — went to the High Court to assert their legal claim to Mer's lands. Eddie Mabo unfortunately passed away 5 months before the historic ruling.

He received numerous awards following the judgment. In 1992, the Australian Human Rights Commission presented him with a Human Rights Medal. He was also named Australian of the Year by The Australian newspaper that year. The Eddie Koiki Mabo Library was established at James Cook University's Townsville campus in 2008. Eddie Mabo was also honoured with a star naming ceremony at the Sydney Observatory in 2015.

What Happened after the Decision?

Following the Mabo ruling, Australia's Federal Parliament approved the Native Title Act 1993, which established a legal framework for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander native title claims across the country. The law outlined the procedures for Indigenous peoples claiming native title on Crown land. However, many people consider native title as a flawed system that has caused hardship for many Aboriginal and Torres Strait peoples because of the rigorous restrictions that must be met in order to receive it.

However, it cannot be denied that Eddie left an important legacy. Here is what Gail Mabo, Eddy’s daughter said about the decision:

“For me, Dad’s legacy is that through strength of culture and commitment you can achieve anything. People who are fighting for their own native title have to believe in themselves and their culture because that is what will help them succeed…His strength was that he knew who he was as a man, where he was from and that the fight he was doing was right. He always knew the land was his,”

Eddie's historic feat is commemorated on Mabo Day, June 3rd, each year as part of National Reconciliation Week. National Reconciliation Week also includes the Anniversary of the 1967 Referendum.

Historic moments and stories like Eddie’s inspire us at DulcieDot to continue educating the next generation about the history of our country and the phenomenal Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders who stood before us.