Eddie Koiki Mabo and the Mabo Case

Edward Koiki Mabo was born on 29 June 1936. He was a Meriam man and grew up on Mer, one of the Murray Island Group in the Torres Strait.

In 1959, he moved to mainland Queensland, working on pearling vessels and as a labourer. During this time he became involved in community and political organisations, such as the union movement and the 1967 Referendum campaign. In 1973 he founded the Black Community School in Townsville, which was created to educate Indigenous children and preserve traditional knowledge and practices.

While working as a gardener at James Cook University, he found out through two historians that, by law, he and his family did not own their land on Mer. With support from legal experts, Mabo, along with fellow plaintiffs and Murray Islanders Reverend David Passi, Celuia Mapoo Salee, Sam Passi and James Rice, brought a case against the Queensland Government in the High Court.

Mabo v Queensland (No 1) (often referred to as Mabo I) was heard in 1986 and 1988. However, in the lead-up to these hearings, the Parliament of Queensland passed the Queensland Coast Islands Declaratory Act 1985, which asserted that, upon being annexed by the Queensland Government in 1879, 'the islands were vested in the Crown … freed from all other rights, interests and claims'. On 8 December 1988, the High Court ruled this legislation invalid. This led to the subsequent High Court case, Mabo v Queensland (No 2) (Mabo II), which was to determine the matter of the plaintiffs' land rights.

Mabo died of cancer in Brisbane on 21 January 1991, before the case was resolved. However, on 3 June 1992, the High Court of Australia ruled in favour of limited native title, effectively overturning the doctrine of terra nullius, which held that, prior to European colonisation, Australia was a land belonging to nobody.

The Native Title Act 1993 introduced by the Keating government, gave effect to the Mabo decision facilitating the process of recognising native title. The Act commenced operation on 1 January 1994.

The National Archives holds a diverse array of records relating to the Mabo case. As well as the High Court, other Commonwealth agencies had an interest in the case. Of particular note are Cabinet papers from around the time of the decision that reflect on its likely ramifications.

Selected records about Eddie Koiki Mabo and the Mabo Case

Selected records are listed in the table below. Additional records relating to Mabo can be identified by conducting searches using RecordSearch, which is available on this website and in all reading rooms. Searches using the keyword 'Mabo' will identify items of interest.

    Cabinet Office (CA 1472)

    Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, Central Office (CA 1297)

     Title or description of recordDate rangeSeries number
    ItemMABO, Koiki (Eddie) photograph – Volume 11964–79A6119, 3287

    Hon Paul John KEATING (CP 665)

     Title or description of recordDate rangeSeries number
    ItemAddress to the Nation re: Mabo [Audio recording available on VRROOM]1993M3983, 1021447

    Other resources

    Sources

    Copyright National Archives of Australia 2017