Edward Koiki Mabo (1936-1992), the son of Robert Sambo, was born on Mer (Murray Island), one of the Murray Group in the eastern Torres Strait. His mother died in childbirth and he was adopted under customary law by his uncle and aunt, Benny and Mauga Mabo. He attended the school on Murray Island, where he became fluent in English. For a few years he worked on trochus fishing luggers in the Torres Strait, before moving to the Australian mainland in 1957. He worked as a canecutter, as a fettler on the railway near Hughenden, and as a labourer employed by the Townsville Harbour Board. He became involved in trade unionism, representing the Torres Strait Islanders working on the Townsville-Mount Isa railway reconstruction. In 1967 Mabo became a gardener and groundsman at Townsville University College (later James Cook University). In his later years he had a number of short-term jobs, interspersed with periods of unemployment. He enrolled in the Aboriginal and Islander Teaching Program, was a vocational officer in the Commonwealth Employment Service, and was a community arts liaison officer for the 1988 Festival of Pacific Arts.
Mabo first became involved in black organisations in 1962, when he became secretary of the Aboriginal Advancement League in Townsville. In 1970 he was president of the Council for the Rights of Indigenous People, he was one of the founders and directors of the Black Community School (1973-85) and he was president of the Yumba Meta Housing Association (1975-80). In his later years he supported greater autonomy for Torres Strait Islanders, whom he felt were neglected in comparison with the Australian Aborigines.
Despite his long interest in race relations and his association with Indigenous organisations, Mabo only became concerned with land rights when he discovered that Murray Island was Crown land. Very few Europeans had ever lived on the Island and the Indigenous families were acutely aware of property rights and property boundaries. In 1982 Mabo, James Rice and David Passi commenced proceedings in the High Court against Queensland and the Commonwealth. They sought a declaration that the annexation of Murray Island by Queensland in 1879 had not extinguished native title in respect of its lands and waters. In 1986 the High Court directed that issues of fact be remitted to the Supreme Court of Queensland and Justice Martin Moynihan began hearing evidence. Meanwhile the Queensland Parliament had passed the Queensland Coast Islands Declaratory Act, which declared that pre-existing land rights had been extinguished in 1879. In 1988 the High Court ruled in Mabo (No. 1) that the Act was invalid, as it was inconsistent with the 1975 Racial Discrimination Act. Moynihan resumed his hearings and in 1990 he determined that there was a continuing system of customary rights in respect of the lands, but not the waters.
The High Court heard argument in May 1991 and it gave judgment in Mabo (No. 2) in June 1992. By a majority of 6:1, it held that the Meriam people were entitled to the full ownership, occupation and use of Murray Island. This momentous decision incorporated the common law doctrine of native title into Australian law and rejected the idea that before European settlement Australia was terra nullius. The judgment was both acclaimed and denounced and Mabo and native title became one of the great political and legal issues of the next decade. When Mabo died in January 1992, he was not widely known outside Townsville and Murray Island, but after June 1992 his name was known throughout Australia.
The Library purchased the personal papers of Edward Koiki Mabo from his wife, Bonita Mabo, in 1995 and 2002. The papers relating to the Mabo Case were donated in 2000 by Bryan Keon-Cohen, one of the barristers acting for the plaintiffs. Keon-Cohen donated his personal and legal papers to the Library in 2003 and 2005, but they mostly relate to later cases, such as the Wik and Yorta Yorta cases, rather than the Mabo case.
Manuscript and Personal Papers
The two Mabo collections held in the National Library are an extraordinary record of one of the most important and controversial legal cases in Australian history and of the life of the man who is chiefly associated with the case. Their significance was recognised when, together with the Endeavour journal of James Cook, they were the first Australian collections to be placed on UNESCO’s Memory of the World register in 2001.
Personal papers of Edward Koiki Mabo
While most of the papers date from the last twenty years of Mabo’s life, there are some earlier documents. Of particular importance are a series of letters that he wrote to Bonita Mabo in the months before and after their marriage in 1959. At the time, he was mostly working as a fettler near Hugheneden, while she was living in Townsville. Later personal papers include job applications and references, verse, pencil sketches, papers concerning Mabo’s attempts to visit Mer in 1973-74, and correspondence following his death. There are eight diaries (1976-92) of varying detail, with references to his work for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, his involvement in the High Court case, his health, and his hopes for his family. The last entries were written two weeks before his death.
There are extensive papers relating to Mabo’s business ventures, some of them short-lived, in particular a fishing company, the Meriam Trading Company, later Meriam Enterprises (1982-91). There are also many papers concerning the Black Community School in Townsville, of which Mabo was a director. The other papers mostly document Mabo’s involvement in various community organisations, such as the National Aboriginal Education Committee, the ABIS Community Cooperative Society, the Torres Strait independence movement, and Aboriginal legal aid services.
The earliest papers on the Murray Island land claim are a manuscript and typescript of a speech by Mabo at the Land Rights and Future of Australian Race Relations Conference at James Cook University in 1981. Other papers include correspondence with the solicitor Greg McIntyre and the Murray Island Council, maps of Mer showing traditional land ownership boundaries, Mabo family genealogies, notes by Mabo, academic papers and newspaper cuttings.
Papers relating to the Mabo Cases
The litigation papers assembled and organised by Bryan Keon-Cohen QC (MS 9518) provide remarkably full documentation of the two cases known as Mabo (No 1) (1988) and Mabo (No 2) (1992). They are arranged chronologically, beginning with the Plaintiffs’ Statement of Facts (1982). They include materials generated in the interlocutory stages, Mabo’s evidence in chief, materials in support of the Demurrer application in the High Court (Mabo (No. 1)), the transcript of proceedings in the Supreme Court of Queensland (1989), the plaintiffs’ and defendant’s final submissions, trial exhibits, Justice Moynihan’s determination of facts (1990), the plaintiffs’ submissions to the High Court (1991) and the transcript of the High Court hearings. The exhibits are of particular research value, ranging from anthropological reports of the late nineteenth century to statements by Torres Strait Islanders and modern photographs and sketch maps showing property boundaries on Murray Island.
The papers also include the files of Greg McIntyre, the solicitor who acted for the plaintiffs throughout the ten years of litigation. They consist of draft advices and pleadings and correspondence with the clients, witnesses, counsel, solicitors for the defendants, legal aid agencies, archivists and others, minutes of meetings on Murray Island, newspaper cuttings, pamphlets and other publications.
The Library also holds papers of the academics Henry Reynolds (MS 9548) and Nonie Sharp (MS Acc06/51) which contain a good deal of material on the Mabo Case.
The Library holds four cassettes recorded by Noel Loos and Mabo in 1984. The discussions formed the basis of the book by Loos, Edward Koiki Mabo: his life and struggle for land rights (1996). In addition there is an undated recording of Mabo talking and singing, an undated recording of a lecture given by Mabo at Townsville College of Advanced Education, and a recording of part of the proceedings of the conference on land rights and the future of Australian race relations, held at James Cook University in August 1981.
Mabo was fond of sketching and the Library holds six of his works. In addition to a painted self-portrait, there are three watercolours and two drawings, comprising a still life, a tree study, dancing figures, a bay scene and two islands.
The collection contains copies of nine photographs of Mabo. One of them was taken on a visit by the legal team to Murray Island and shows Mabo with the barristers Ron Casten and Bryan Keon-Cohen. There are a large number of photographs of Bonita Mabo, including 20 taken by Loui Seselja at the National Library in 2001.
The following two works deal with the life of Edward Koiki Mabo:
Graham, Trevor, Mabo: life of an island man, 1999 [screenplay of the film produced by Film Australia and post-production script]
Loos, Noel and Koiki Mabo, Edward Koiki Mabo: his life and struggle for land rights, 1996
The High Court decision in the Mabo Case led to a spate of books and pamphlets, some of which expressed extreme views. The following are a few of the more substantial studies:
Atwood, Bain, ed., In the age of Mabo: history, Aborigines and Australia, 1996
Bartlett, Richard H., ed., The Mabo decision, and the full text of the decision in Mabo and others v. State of Queensland, 1993
Bauman, Toni and Glick, Lydia, eds., The limits of change: Mabo and native title 20 years on, 2012
Brennan, Frank, One nation, one land: Mabo – towards 2001, 1995
Butt, P.J. and Robert Eagleson, Mabo: what the High Court said, 1993
Department of the Parliamentary Library, Mabo papers, 1994
Goot, Murray and Tim Rowse, eds, Make a better offer: the politics of Mabo, 1994
Keon-Cohen, Bryan, Mabo in the courts: Islander tradition to native title: a memoir, 2011
Nettheim, Grant, Mabo (1992) [and the three following entries], The Oxford Companion to the High Court of Australia, 2001, pp. 446-52
Rowse, Tim, After Mabo: interpreting indigenous traditions, 1993
Russell, Peter H., Recognising Aboriginal title: the Mabo case and indigenous resistance to English-settler colonialism, 2006
Sharp, Nonie, No ordinary judgment: Mabo, the Murray Islanders’ land case, 1996
Stephenson, M.A., ed., Mabo: the native title legislation, 1995
Stephenson, M.A. and Suri Ratnapala, eds., Mabo, a judicial revolution: the Aboriginal land rights decision and its impact on Australian law, 1993
Yunupingu, Galarrwuy, ed., Our land is our life: land rights – past, present and future, 1997
The personal papers of Mabo are held in the Manuscripts Collection at MS 8822. They occupy 28 boxes and 2 folio boxes. A finding-aid is available online at https://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-224065802/findingaid. The Keon-Cohen papers relating to the Mabo Case are also held in the Manuscripts Collection at MS 9518. They occupy 30 boxes. A finding-aid is available online at https://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-224077217/findingaid. They were also listed in detail by Keon-Cohen in the Index to litigation materials 1982-1992 (1999, 179 pages). Some of the exhibits are restricted. The additional papers of Keon-Cohen and Nonie Sharp have not yet been processed.
The oral history recordings made by Noel Loos and the other recordings of talks by Mabo are held in the Oral History Collection at TRC 3504 (8 cassettes). The paintings and drawings of Mabo are held in the Pictures Collection (PIC/7901), as are the photographs of Mabo and Bonita Mabo. The books are held in the Australian Collection.
Cunningham, Adrian, The Chamberlain and Mabo papers: case studies of personal papers of national significance, Australian Society of Archivists Conference (Alice Springs 1996) Proceedings, 1997, pp. 98-103
Nettheim, Garth and others, Mabo, in Oxford Companion to the High Court of Australia, edited by Tony Blackshield, Michael Coper and George Williams, Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 2001, pp. 446-52
Thompson, John, Making history: acquiring the Mabo Papers, National Library of Australia News, vol. 6 (1), Oct. 1995, pp. 17-21
First posted 2008 (revised 2019)