Eddie Koiki Mabo, birth name Edward Koiki Sambo, (born June 29, 1936, Las, Mer (Murray Island), Queensland, Australia—died January 21, 1992, Brisbane), Meriam activist who fought for and established land rights for Torres Strait Islander peoples in the 1980s and ’90s. He brought before the High Court of Australia what became known as the Mabo case, which challenged existing law that prevented Torres Strait Islander peoples and Aboriginal peoples from legally owning land where they lived prior to the colonization of Australia.
Edward Koiki Sambo was born to Annie Poipe Mabo and Robert Zezou Sambo in the village of Las on Mer, an island in the Eastern group of the Torres Strait Islands. His mother died shortly after his birth, and he was raised by his maternal uncle and aunt, Benny and Maiga Mabo, whose surname he adopted. Growing up, he learned the local Meriam Mir language as well as English. When he was 16, a local court convicted him of drinking alcohol and sent him away from Mer for a year. Mabo worked on fishing boats during that time and then decided to live on the Australian mainland, in Queensland, where in 1959 he married Bonita Neehow (also spelled Nehow), a South Sea Islander descendent. They moved to Townsville in 1960, and they raised 10 children together.
Mabo became involved in politics in Queensland, representing Torres Strait Islander and Aboriginal workers, and he supported efforts to secure voters’ approval of a 1967 referendum granting Indigenous Australians the same status as other Australians. He gave speeches and lectures championing Indigenous rights, including at James Cook University in Townsville, where he worked as a groundsman beginning in the 1960s and as a researcher beginning in the 1970s. In 1973 Mabo and his wife established the Black Community School in Townsville, which enabled Indigenous children to learn about their own culture and traditions, and he subsequently served in several governmental bodies concerned with education, including the National Aboriginal Education Committee.
In a lecture at James Cook University in 1982, Mabo explained why he and his wife found education to be so important when they moved to Townsville:
…despite the fact that we left the Islands to come here to a completely strange world, to speak strange languages and to be mixed up with strange people, we still maintained strongly the identity and culture that was with us when we were back home. And, as a result of that, we realized that by just being on the mainland we would lose…the richness of our culture. …[T]hat led to an idea that we must be able to retain our identity and culture, and this can only be taught to our kids through our own education system. Because in the mainstream schools, of course, minority culture is always left to rot somewhere in the corner. It just doesn’t exist.
In the 1970s, during discussions at James Cook University, Mabo discovered that his family, according to the Australian government, did not legally own the land on Mer where they had lived for generations. Under the doctrine of terra nullius (Latin meaning “the land of no one”), British colonial law treated Australia as unoccupied at the time of European colonization, which meant that the Torres Strait Islander and Aboriginal peoples who had lived there for tens of thousands of years held no rights, as defined by Australian law, to that land. It also meant that these peoples could not, in a legal sense, pass the land to future generations—something contrary to traditional practices on Mer. This realization motivated Mabo, already deeply engaged with the rights of Torres Strait Islander peoples, to seek change through Australia’s courts.
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In 1981 Mabo took part in a conference on land rights at James Cook University. The following year, in 1982, he and four others (James Rice, Celuia Mapo Salee, David Passi, and Sam Passi) began to pursue their land-title claim by filing a legal case, Mabo v. Queensland, before the High Court of Australia. The case’s resolution was eventually drawn out over a decade, and it was also split into two landmark judgments, known as Mabo v. Queensland (No. 1), decided in 1988, and Mabo v. Queensland (No. 2), decided in 1992. While this case—which became known as the Mabo case—was ongoing, Mabo continued his work in support of the rights of the Indigenous peoples of Australia.
He did not, however, live to see the case’s resolution. Mabo died of cancer on January 21, 1992. Several months later, on June 3, the High Court handed down its decision in Mabo v. Queensland (No. 2), which concluded the Mabo case. The court decided that terra nullius was null and void and recognized the rights of Mabo and his fellow plaintiffs to Mer, thereby establishing native title for all Indigenous peoples in Australia. The court’s decision was subsequently turned into legislation: the Native Title Act, which was passed in 1993 and held up under subsequent legal challenges. The Mabo case was a groundbreaking win for Indigenous communities, who were enabled to pursue claims of land ownership and compensation for lost land.
For his work toward improving the conditions of Torres Strait Islander peoples and Aboriginal peoples, Mabo was posthumously awarded the Australian Human Rights Medal in 1992. In 2008 James Cook University named its library in Townsville the Eddie Koiki Mabo Library, and it also supports the Eddie Koiki Mabo Lecture Series. In 2012 the television movie Mabo was released in Australia.
June 3 is celebrated each year in Australia as Mabo Day, and efforts have been made to turn it into a national holiday.