Edward Koiki Mabo: The Journey to Native Title

Article excerpt

Edward Koiki Mabo preferred his Murray Islander name, Koiki, to the colonialist,

Eddie, by which he was known to the Australian public. Koiki was the name used

by other Murray Islanders and by those white Australians who had become close

friends and interacted with him over a long period of time. I had addressed him

for so long as Eddie that it took me quite a while to change and then only as a

result of his persistence. My wife, Betty, who saw him less frequently than I,

had to do so many double takes, which they both found amusing, that Koiki

eventually gave up. `You can call me Eddie!' he laughed. He continued to use

Eddie as his public name, probably because he thought it would have been too

confusing to change it; and that was the name that was registered in 1982 m

the high court challenge that led on 3 June 1992 to the acknowledgement of

native title in Australia.(1) By that time Koiki had been dead for just over

four months.

When George Mye, Eidi Papa, read his poem, `Who Was That Boy' to the united

nations working group on indigenous populations in Geneva in 1995, the name

Eddie did not appear even though the poem counterpointed his childhood on Mer,

Murray Island, with the fame he had achieved through destroying terra

nullius.(2) Apek kebile, the little boy from the other side of the island, was

unafraid of lamar, ghost or spirit, and lug-le, sorceror. George Mye had

dramatically highlighted the independence and assertiveness of the child with

the achievement of the adult. The lug-le is still `the greatest fear of

islanders even today', George Mye told me. `You show me an Islander who doesn't

believe in sorcery', said Koiki's cousin, Donald Whaleboat. land I'll show you

a liar'.

Yet, when I read the poem after George Mye, Donald Whaleboat and Elemo

Tapim had translated the Miriam words and explained the nuances, it was `apek

kebile' that resonated with me. Literally Mabo was `the little boy from the

other side of the island'. His village Las, sacred to the Malo-Bomai cult, is

as remote as you can get on Murray Island from the centre of population that

had grown up around the site of the mission. George Mye, Koiki's friend and

relative, had referred with affection to `that Las mob' when I was discussing

Murray Island affairs with him. The small village of Las was different and

special. Apek kebile, `the boy from the back blocks', I thought, the creative

maverick that Koiki had been for the 25 years I had know-n him, was moulded by

his origin.

Koiki Mabo was certainly a `battler and stirrer'. He had grown up on an

island that had become a colony of Queensland in 1879 and had been administered

by a white administration throughout the twentieth century. In this situation,

his proud and independent nature ensured that he would be a `battler'. He posed

challenges to white colonial power and to the Torres Strait Islander

establishment that had grown up under it, and this made it easy for him to be

treated as a `stirrer', a troublemaker, to the last years of his life. While

this is not an uncommon fate for battlers, it was not one be deliberately


Throughout the twentieth century, the oppressive Queensland administration

had segregated the Meriam and other Torres Strait Islanders from mainland

developments under the policy of protection. It had fostered the change from a

comfortable, satisfying subsistence economy based on agriculture and fishing to

a cash economy based on the pearlshell, beche-de-mer and trochus fisheries. The

coming of Christian missions in 1871 had, in effect, reinforced the cultural

changes occurring in the Torres Strait. …