Mabo: Indigenous Land Rights and Legacies

by Dr Peter Kilroy

18 May 2015

On Wednesday 3 June this year Australia will celebrate its 23rd Mabo Day, named after one of Indigenous Australia’s most famous land rights activists, Eddie ‘Koiki’ Mabo (1936-1992). Mabo Day commemorates a landmark ruling by the High Court of Australia on June 3, 1992, only months after Mabo’s tragic death from cancer, but ten years after Mabo had begun a legal challenge over the ownership of his ancestral land on Mer Island, part of the Torres Strait Island group between Queensland and Papua New Guinea.

The Torres Strait’s ‘in between’ status has always been a crucial part of its history, up to and including the High Court ruling of 1992. Not only were the Islands long part of North-South cultural and economic flows between Melanesia and Aboriginal Australia, but by the mid nineteenth century, the Islands were discovered to possess large quantities of pearl shell, popular in Europe, and bêche-de-mer, a type of ‘sea cucumber’ popular in Asia. This also placed Islanders on an East-West axis which involved many becoming wage labourers for international trading companies as pearl divers or trepangers (Beckett, 1987, chs. 2 & 4).

On 1 July 1871, an event still commemorated today as the ‘Coming of the Light’, the London Missionary Society arrived, and between 1872 and 1879, the State of Queensland annexed the Islands, an act which brought them within the Commonwealth of Australia upon federation in 1901. This meant that the Islanders had to negotiate a complex set of forces associated with capitalism, Christianity and colonialism, or ‘Pearlers, Pastors and Protectors’ as anthropologist of the Torres Strait, Jeremey Beckett (1997, ch. 2), would have it.

This ‘in between’ status was also crucial throughout the twentieth century, with the Islands playing a key role in the Pacific portion of the Second World War, as well as becoming a strategic border zone during the Cold War, and today as part of controversies over Australia’s immigration policy (Wordsworth, 2013).

This history has placed Islanders not only at the centre of their own events, but at the centre of national and international events well beyond their shores. Indeed, this was precisely the pattern that resurfaced in the early 1980s when Eddie Mabo, effectively exiled in Townville, Queensland, discovered that his ancestral land on Mer was Crown Land, thus making any claims null and void. This led to a lifelong series of protracted legal struggles against the State of Queensland (Loos, 1996).

The final case (Brennan et at, 1992) centred on two core principles: that Mabo was inheritor of his ancestral land by virtue of being adopted into the Mabo family and, crucially, that aside from any specific claim to land, a pre-exiting system of land rights could be shown to compromise colonisation. The pivotal moment came in 1992 when Australia’s High Court finally delivered its ruling. Mabo’s specific claims were denied, but the broader principle of pre-colonial land rights was upheld. Most importantly perhaps, as Queensland had annexed the Islands, the judges ruled that such a decision could set a legal precedent for Australia as a whole. This was the watershed moment when the basis for the colonisation of Australia was challenged. The idea that pre-colonial Australia was unoccupied, unowned or unused was utterly discredited (Sharp, 1996).

More than twenty years since the Mabo case, some of the initial euphoria has given way to impatience about the slow pace with which specific cases have been making their way through the courts (cf. Connolly, 2014). Setting a landmark legal ruling is a crucial part of recognising Indigenous rights, but converting that recognition into the redistribution of land, power and wealth is another matter. Indeed, this tension is at the core of recent debates about constitutional amendments to recognise Australia’s Indigenous communities (Murphy, 2014). This is the beginning rather than the end of the story, but Mabo – the man, the case, the story – has set a seismic cultural, legal and political precedent that will resonate across Australia for many years to come.


In honour of Mabo Day 2015, the Menzies Centre for Australian Studies, in association with the Royal Anthropological Institute, is delighted to announce a screening of Trevor Graham’s award-winning 1997 documentary, Mabo: Life of An Island Man. This film compellingly weaves together Mabo’s personal life and activism with the High Court ruling of 1992. We are particularly pleased to announce that the screening will be followed by a Q&A with the director.

18.00-20.00 Tuesday 26 May 2015
Anatomy Lecture Theatre
6th Floor, King’s Building, Strand Campus
King’s College London WC2R 2LS

Entry is free but RSVP:

Mabo – Life of an Island Man (1997). A Film Australia National Interest Program. Produced with the assistance of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. © 2011 National Film and Sound Archive of Australia. Screening courtesy of the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia.

Further reading:

Beckett, Jeremey, 1987. Torres Strait Islanders: Custom and Colonialism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Brennan, Frances Gerard, et al. 1992. ‘Mabo and Others v. Queensland (No. 2)’, High Court of Australia [accessed 11 May 2015].
Connolly, Ellen. 5 July 2010. ‘Torres Strait islanders win ocean rights’, The Guardian [accessed 11 May 2015].
Loos, Noel, 1996. Edward Koiki Mabo: His Life and Struggle for Land Rights. St Lucia, Queensland: University of Queensland Press.
Murphy, Katharine. 26 January 2014. ‘Indigenous recognition referendum’, The Guardian [accessed 11 May 2015].
Sharp, Nonie. 1996. No Ordinary Judgement: Mabo, the Murray Islanders’ Land Case. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press.
Wordsworth, Matt. 13 August 2013. ‘Torres Strait looms as a new route for asylum seekers escaping PNG’. ABC News [accessed 11 May 2015].

Peter Kilroy is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow in the Menzies Centre for Australian Studies and the Department of Film Studies at King’s College London. His project explores documentary films made by, about or in collaboration with Torres Strait Islanders after the Australian bicentenary of 1988. | |

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