Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people.
After a long journey through the Coral Sea, a god who went by the name of Bomai arrived at Mer, an island inhabited by the Meriam people. There, in the shallow reefs, Bomai took the form of an octopus. A local fisherwoman caught Bomai in her basket and brought him to shore. Bomai’s nephew, Malo, came to look for his uncle. Once reunited on the island, Bomai and Malo became a single deity, and taught the Meriam people how to make music with drums, and how to dance the dances of their ancestors. Bomai and Malo brought a new way of life to Mer. They decreed that all should swim with their own kind, sow their lands, and conserve their seas.
From that time onwards, the eight clans of the Meriam people cultivated banana trees, sweet potatos and yams, built stone-walled fish traps in their reefs, danced the dances of Bomai and Malo, and passed their land and traditions down from generation to generation on the Island of Mer.
In 1936 a young boy called Koiki was born of the Piadram clan in the south of the island of Mer. Much had changed since the time of the ancestors. White people had arrived and brought with them a new language, and a new god. They also brought large boats from which divers trawled the bottom of the ocean to pull up precious shells, which they traded for money.
Koiki’s mother died not long after he was born, and his father left to look for work. Koiki went to live with his aunt and uncle, Benny and Maiga Mabo. Benny taught young Koiki the way of life passed down from his ancestors, before white man arrived. He taught Koiki the rhythm of the seasons, and when to plant yams and bananas. He taught Koiki how to fish, that if a neighbour helped you build a fish trap, you would reward them with fish, not money. At night, by the fire, Benny would tell Koiki about his ancestors. “You are the 17th generation of this family,” Benny would say. “This land will be yours. You will be head of the Mabos and will teach your children our way of life.”
At school, Koiki learned a different way of life. His teacher, Bob Miles, came from far away in the south. He taught Koiki English, that this language was the key to understanding the white man’s world. The white man’s world, Koiki learned as he grew older, had many rules for the Meriam people. How to dress, how to pray, who to talk to, how much money to sell fish for, who to love. At 16, Koiki, who followed his own rules, was caught drinking coconut liquor and sleeping with a woman out of wedlock. The penalty: he was banished from the island for 12 months. So Koiki took a job on a fishing boat and left the land of his ancestors. His task was to dive down 50 feet with only the air in his lungs, and to untie the ship’s anchor. All the money he earned was sent back home to his family. At night, Koiki would sit on deck, under the stars, and sing songs of longing: “How sad it is my home, my sorrow goes out to you. We are just moving along with the wind moving south.”
The first time Koiki’s boat anchored in Cairns, he never imagined a village so big could exist. With 12 pounds in his pocket, and a swag on his back, Koiki stepped off the boat onto the mainland, walked out west along the railway line and found work as a labourer. Koiki introduced himself to Australians by his English name, Edward, or as they called him at the pub, Eddie—Eddie Mabo.
Some mornings, out on the railways in the deserts of western Queensland, Eddie imagined that he was back on the ocean. The land was so flat, and shimmered in the sun, like the glassy surface of the Coral Sea at dawn. In the evenings, Eddie made small watercolours of the banana trees, the ocean, the hills of his island home. Eddie moved around a lot in those first years in Australia, shifting from job to job. He noticed how the black folk worked with the black folk, and the white with the white folk—and that the white folk got paid a lot more. Eddie’s journeying brought him to a small town called Halifax, where he found work cutting sugar cane. There he met a community of South Sea Islanders who had built a small village called The Gardens. The houses were built from mangroves, there were gardens filled with fruit trees, and in the afternoon the men went catching crabs for dinner. It reminded Eddie of his island home.
Eddie was invited to a wedding at The Gardens, and sat at the same table as a young woman called Bonita, who everyone called Netta. He didn’t take his eyes off her. She carried herself with poise and dignity. The morning after the wedding, Eddie had to leave The Gardens to cut cane in a nearby town. Over the next few months, Netta and Eddie exchanged love letters, and in 1959 they were married.
For the first few years of married life, Eddie stayed on the railways and Netta worked as a cook. Netta, who was devoutly Christian and hated the drink, taught Eddie how to hang on to his money. With their savings, they bought a house in Townsville, and started a family. In Townsville, working as a deckhand, Eddie decided to join the trade union. Netta was suspicious of his new friends. She heard around town that they were Communists. Eddie told her that if they were Communists, it didn’t matter to him. They encouraged him to speak up at meetings about the issues facing black workers in Australia, and they were the only white folk who would share a drink with him at the pub.
The Mabo family grew fast. Eddie and Netta taught their children the traditions and values of their ancestors. At home, they planted yams, banana trees and sweet potatoes. The children would harvest them, and the Mabos hosted feasts. They both believed that education should be a parent’s responsibility, a passing down of culture between generations. So, in 1972, Eddie and Netta started the Black Community School to help other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander parents teach their children their heritage before they learned the ways of white Australia.
In the mid-’70s, Eddie found work as a gardener at James Cook University. On his lunch hour, Eddie would pore over Alfred Cort Haddon’s six-volume Reports of the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to the Torres Strait. He became well-known with the academics on campus as the scholar in the gardener’s uniform. One afternoon, while eating lunch with Noel Loos and Henry Reynolds, two historians from the university, Eddie started talking, as he often did to those who would listen, about how he would one day return to the Island of Mer, and live on his land as his ancestors did. “Don’t you realise that nobody actually owns land on Murray Island?” Reynolds informed Eddie. “It’s all crown land.” Eddie laughed. How could anyone question whether the land his father had given to him was his? They explained that Australian land laws were established on the claim that before colonisation, Australia and the Torres Strait Islands were terra nullius, land belonging to no one.
Over the next few years Eddie, Reynolds and Loos continued discussing the land rights of the indigenous people of Australia. Eddie told them that his father taught him the names of the 17 generations of families that came before him on the island. This, they realised, was more than enough to prove that the Meriam people had continuously and permanently inhabited the Island, and lived according to their own political and social organisation. Mabo’s knowledge of his heritage, they thought, might even be enough to overturn terra nullius.
In 1982, Eddie and four other Meriam people began their claim for the native title of their land on Murray Island. The case was heard over 10 years. Eddie’s life became consumed by lawyers, hearings and cross examinations. His personal integrity and the credibility of his people were put on public display, questioned repeatedly by lawyers and judges. Most hurtful for Eddie was the accusation from some of his own people on Mer that he was pursuing the case out of greed, to grab more land on the island. Both white and black Australians saw him as a threat to the established order. He and his lawyers signified a very different, uncertain future. He became the focus of so much hatred that Netta began to fear for their children. They made plans to take off and live back on the island, set up a small shop selling hardware and building materials.
In 1991, after nine years in court, Netta noticed that Eddie’s energy was waning. His walking slowed. He held his back as he got out of bed in the morning. She made him see the doctor. He was diagnosed with cancer of the spine, which had spread to his lungs and throat. Netta set up a bed in the garden, so Eddie could lie underneath the large canopy of banana leaves and finally relax. On January 21st the following year, Eddie Koiki Mabo died with Netta by his side. The last words he said to her were, “Land claim.” Four months later, six of the seven High Court judges found in favour of Mabo and his co-claimants. This decision, as Eddie had always known, was bigger than him or his family, or even the Island of Mer. The decision was for all indigenous Australians. With this decision, white Australia finally acknowledged that the idea of terra nullius, that Australia and the Torres Strait Islands had no owners prior to European settlement, was nothing more than a colonial and racist fiction.
Paul Keating, who later ratified the court’s decision in federal legislation, said that the decision was for all of Australia; it gave the nation an “opportunity to right a historic wrong, to transcend the history of dispossession, an opportunity to restore, an opportunity to heal bitterness, an opportunity to recognise Aboriginal culture as a defining element of our nationhood.”
In 1995, Eddie was given a traditional burial in Townsville, followed by an enormous islander feast, just like the Mabos had always held at their home. During the feast, eight swastikas were sprayed on his grave, and the bronze image of Eddie’s smiling face, which adorned his tombstone, was stolen. Australia, the Mabo family was reminded, still harboured deep racist hatred toward its indigenous people. Eddie was taken and buried once more, this time on his land in the south of the Island of Mer, just by the village of Las, the burial ground of his ancestors. The dance of Bomai and Malo was performed for the first time in 80 years. People from across the Torres Strait Islands came to pay their respects to Eddie, or Koiki as he was known there. The islanders believed the spirit of Malo lingered over Koiki’s ceremony. That night the winds blew and shook the canopy. People heard dogs barking, but no dogs lived on the island. Koiki, the elders whispered, had returned to the world of his ancestors.