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Eddie Mabo and Indigenous Landrights

Updated on April 29, 2015

This first week of June 2012 Australia is celebrating a milestone for a lesser famous person than the queen but one whose deeds cannot be ignored. Eddie Mabo, from the Torres Strait Islands to the north of the continent (map), was an unknown aborigine with a passion and he did something no one thought possible. He took the government to court over native land rights and helped change the law forever.

Without any financial backing and little hope of success this slightly built aborigine man was incensed enough to fight for what he believed was right - and he won. In the Supreme Court, on June 3rd, 1992, the ruling was handed down that Australia was not 'terra nullis' (without occupiers) when English ships invaded and virtually stole the land from the aborigine people.

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White Invasions Changed the World

The New South Wales Government, after 2 centuries of western occupation, has finally used the term 'invasion' to describe white settlement in this land. Up until now it was never allowed to be used as the country was deemed 'terra nullus'. That is empty land, despite a populaiton of several hundreds of thousands of aborigines inhabiting the continent.

As in Africa, the Americas, India and elsewhere, white invasion was taken for granted as powerful kings sent their explorers out to capture and occupy ever more land to extend their empires. In the case of Australia it served Britain well as a penal colony and a place to send people they needed to be rid of.

My grandmother was one such person. She was of the McClure Clan from the Island of Skye. When the English decided it was a fine place to breed their sheep they took it over and rounded up the clans, having killed off the chiefs. Mary McClure, a young woman at the time, was put into a dormitory with other young women before being shipped out to Australia where females were in the minority and required to breed for the colony.

She never saw her parents or siblings again and the man she met on the way out became her husband and my grandfather. The family never discusses him so I know very little of his background except that he was probably English.

Many of the McCloud clans, of which the McClures are one, were sent to other places such as New Zealand and Canada. There was no contact possible as even sending a letter was very expensive, could take up to six months to travel back to Scotland and then find there is no one by the name on the envelope there to receive it.

That is another side of the sad story of Australia's invasion and for the aborigines they, like their counterparts elsewhere, were murdered off or rounded up and either enslaved or driven into areas to survive as best they could. There are many stories of their hardship and of how the government took children from parents and sent them to missionaries or elsewhere where they were used as slaves or abused.

Meanwhile the invaders felled the trees, killed off a lot of wildlife, planted their crops and introduced strange animals as food sources. Before long the animals escaped into the wild, many devastated populations of native animals and eventually became pests of such proportions that they cannot now be eradicated. Among them are species of rats, mice, rabbits, carp, cane toads and cats. They are now devastating the countryside and native species of animals, that were once a common food source for indigenous people, are facing extinction with some already gone.

Australian aborigines are now able to recive an education and many have made great lives for themselves. Others are not so lucky and struggle to understand white man's ways while losing their cultural links, laws and languages. Alcoholism, drugs and poverty is still the lot of many and violence, child abuse and other things have forced government intervention to try to change things.

Instead of going with nature it seems that some westerners are hell bent on destroying it. Native people have a great reputation for preserving nature and keeping the balance necessary for all things to survive. So why have they been pushed out of the discussion as governments listen only to big business while they allow the manipulateion of genes to try to food production, which is another strike against nature.

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Eddie Mabo

The Importance of Continuing Occupation

The case centred around certain facts about land occupation. Was the aborigine group residing on the land in continuous habitation from the time of white settlement? Eddie Mabo had to also prove that he was a legitimate heir to the family as he was the plaintif in the proceedings. This became difficult as there were no papers to prove his adoption or otherwise into the family on Murray Island.

Aborigines were not included on census forms until the 1970s and birth certificates and other records were rarely kept as official documents. It was demonstrated by clan memory and knowledge that he was born on Murray Island as Eddie Koiki Maliboy but changed his name to Mabo when his maternal uncle, Benjamin Mabo, adopted him. This was finally accepted as fact as he had lived with this family from childhood.

From my anthropology studies it can be revealed that native people had no word for father in their languages, only 'uncles'. These were their mother's brothers and inheritance always came from the mother to the son. He was then the uncle for the next generation born of his sister. While it sounds complicated it is how inheritance works in maternal clans.

After several other jobs he eventually worked as a gardener at James Cook University. He was then 31 years of age. There he met two important people who would change everything for him. One was Professor Noel Loos and the other Henry Reynolds, a historian. Reynolds had written articles and books on the violence and outrageous treatment of aborigines during colonisation and the resistance by indigenous Australians against the numerous heavy massacres of their people.

One day during a lunch time discussion the conversation turned to the Torres Strait Islands and the suggestion that they were Crown Land. Mabo was incensed and said that it was not as it belonged to the people who lived there.

In 1981 he made a speech to the audience of a land rights conference at the University in which he spelled out the inheritance system under which his people lived. A lawyer in attendance suggested tested the land right issue in court. Thus began a 10 year battle in which judges were asked to go against white man's law and the constitution and rule in favour of indigenous people who had, until recent times, not even the right to vote. They were ignored by law as they were black men in white Australia and as such were without legal rights.

Celebration of Mabo

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