Mabo And Native Title And
What It Means To
Aboriginal People

Mabo and Native Title really begins when Australia was settled by Britain as a Penal Colony in 1788.

The perception held by the British as being the dominant power of the time, meant they valued their way of life as superior to others.

The Australia that had been discovered by Cook was seen to be populated by a small number of wandering Aboriginals and the values with which the British equated ownership of land were not present.

They had no dwellings, no cultivation, no domesticated animals, and no discernable boundaries and were seen to be wandering in small groups with no identifiable structure of government.

Therefore for the purposes of settlement it was assumed by Governor Phillip and the crown that the Aboriginals had no land rights under the law.

For the British this assumption suited their purposes.

They had no motivation or insight into the culture of the Aboriginal which had been passed on for thousands of years.

They could not understand that the Aboriginals lived with the land and felt that it was part of them physically and spiritually.

Whilst they had no concept of land ownership in the European sense they had a definite sense of belonging to and owning the land.

These rights having being passed on through generation after generation. They felt that they belonged to the land as much as it belonged to them.

As the colony grew and free settlers arrived explorers opened up more areas of fertile land and the settlers found there were many more Aboriginals than previously thought and that these people did indeed regard the lands they lived on as theirs.

Despite representations to acknowledge the prior ownership of the lands by the Aboriginals the concept of Terra Nullis was still assumed for the purposes of the law at that time.

In 1835 John Bateman negotiated with the elders of an Aboriginal tribe to buy their lands. The then current Governor was furious and set about quashing the treaty Bateman had made.

Governor Bourke issued a proclamation and in this document stated that no one could occupy or sell land without the authority of the crown and that anyone found to be on land without the Crowns permission would be trespassing.

This proclamation reinforces the notion that the land belonged to no one before the British arrived and claimed it.

Terra Nullis denied any right the Aboriginals may have had to their land.

It put into law the concept of Terra Nullis.

Although many people outside of government recognized the prior ownership of the land by the Aboriginals the Proclamation of Terra Nullis would prevail.

This would not change until the Mabo and Native Title decision in 1992.

Eddie Kolki Mabo was born Eddie Kolki Sambo on Mer Island (Murray Island) in 1936.

His mother died shortly after his birth and he was given to his Uncle and his wife to raise.


Eddie Mabo as a young man was exiled from the island as a result of what is referred to as a childhood prank.

He worked on pearling lugers and then moved to Townsville and worked on the railways.

There he became involved with the trade union movement.

He then went to work as a gardener at James Cook University there he would sit in on lectures and read books in the library about what white anthropologists had written about his people.

In 1974 he was speaking with some of the lecturers at lunch and indicated that he had ownership of the land on Mer Island.

They told him it that it was not his land but belonged to the crown.

Clearly he was shocked by this revelation saying it’s not theirs it’s ours.

In 1981 Mabo spoke at a Land Rights Conference at James Cook University about ownership and land inheritance on Murray Island.

A lawyer at the conference suggested a test case to claim land rights. This set Eddie Mobo and Native title into the court system and in all the news press.

Eddie Mabo lead 5 other Meriman people to challenge for land rights in the courts.

After a 10 year long battle and even after several courts overturned their case in 1992, four months after Eddie Mabo’s death, the High Court of Australia ruled in their favor overturning the fiction that was Terra Nullis.

The High Court finally recognized that those rights existed before colonization in common law and property law.

The judgment declared that the Meriam people are entitled as against the whole world possession use and enjoyment of the lands of the Murray Islands.

The judgment was not limited to just the Islands but also to Mainland Australia and provided a basis for other Aboriginal land rights claims.

However, there had to be shown a continuous and unbroken link to the land in order to make a claim in order to have the lands returned to them.

Eddie Mabo and Native Title became synonymous in the many land claims which followed.

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