Eddie Koiki Mabo and the Mabo Case

About Eddie Mabo

Edward Koiki Mabo was born on 29 June 1936. He was a Meriam man and grew up on Mer, part 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 Mabo founded the Black Community School in Townsville, which was created to educate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and preserve traditional knowledge and practices.

The Mabo case

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) 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), which was to determine the matter of the plaintiffs' land rights.

On 3 June 1992, the High Court of Australia ruled in favour of limited native title. This effectively overturned the doctrine of terra nullius, which held that Australia didn't belong to anybody before European colonisation.

The Keating government gave effect to the Mabo decision by introducing the Native Title Act 1993, which facilitated the process of recognising native title.

Eddie Koiki Mabo died of cancer on 21 January 1991, before the case was resolved.

Records relating to the Mabo case

The National Archives holds a diverse array of records relating to the Mabo case.

Searching for 'Mabo' in RecordSearch brings up many results, including the files below.

Cabinet records

Several cabinet papers from the time of the Mabo decision reflect on its likely ramifications, including: