Eddie Mabo: Man and Legend?

Eddie Mabo is only seeking recognition and power in his claim of Murray Island. To what extent do you agree?

Dave Passi, Eddie Mabo, Bryan Keon-Cohen and James Rice outside the Queensland Supreme Court in 1989, (c) Yarra Bank Films, photo by Jim McEwan

In  preparing your speech you may find the following useful as a supplement to your class activities, but not as a replacement:

The following links are well worth a look in regard to Eddie Mabo the “man and the issue”:

“Rachel Perkins, director of the new film, says Mabo’s is ‘an iconic story in the tradition of great Australian tales, how a man, his wife and his mates profoundly changed the nation’.

That is the view most widely endorsed by history.

Eddie Mabo had challenged the very ideological establishment of Australia and the first Australians.

He had refused to surrender his interests, or those of his people, to the domination of others.

He was, if you like, an Australian Nelson Mandela, someone who led his people in a struggle against incalculable odds, to what was rightfully theirs.

This is a strong endorsement and very powerful emotive appeal for Eddie Mabo’s recognition as a person of great courage and persistence.

  • Return of Mabo’s land to Traditional Owners: Friday 14 December 2012 – It should be remembered that since the Mabo decision (1992) the determination of the Murray Island (Mer) native title issue was not resolved until 2012, some twenty years after the landmark decision and since Eddie Mabo’s death in January, 1992.

You may also find the next link of interest – it involves the history of “film” since Mabo until 2004, which predates Perkins’ film, but it does contain reference to Eddie Mabo as a “tragic hero” who, it is argued, had more influence following his death rather than in life. The argument is of course an opinion, but it may provide you with a further line of argument:


In deciding your view and arguing either that Eddie Mabo is only seeking recognition and power in his claim of Murray Island, or that he is simply seeking equality and common law justice for indigenous people’s based on the laws of Australia and recognition for prior indigenous occupation, you may need to recognize that there are those who would suggest his motives were selfish and even pursued to exclude others., just as there are those who see his personal sacrifice and tenacity as heroic.

Each view needs to be tested and argued in relation to Rachael Perkins’ film and whether her film accurately reflects the historical events or idealizes Eddie’s undoubtedly successful challenge, against considerable odds, to have established that the concept of “terra nullius” had no legal justification in Australia under Common Law. Again, remember that Eddie Mabo originally sought to establish “native title” to Mer (Murray Island) but this was not actually granted until 2012.

The following quotes (and link) detail some of the actual criticism of Eddie’s claims in regard to “power” and “recognition”, but they did not, in the end, influence the final High Court decision and Eddie’s significant contribution to the establishment of “native title”.

Eddie Mabo: Native Title, The Law  and Anthropology

“Mabo’s most extravagant claims in his written statement, tendered in evidence … ‘My arrival on the Island rejuvenates hope amongst the people. I am their leader to be compared to the elected chairman. I am the leader in the people’s memory according to tradition.'”

Eddie Mabo had to admit that it was only his ‘clan’ that had the understanding that the word ‘Aiet’ refers to a hereditary title, as opposed to being simply a personal name. He attributed the lack of widespread recognition of the hereditary title to the ‘petty jealousy’ of other groups (T. 812). Similarly, he was forced to retreat from claims that his succession to the position of Aiet had been acknowledged in various ways by the Murray Island Council and, more fundamentally, he was forced to admit that it was no longer possible to become an Aiet, in the traditional sense of the term, given that no zogo le had been initiated into that position since 1925 (T. 823–7). Thus, the strong assertions made in the Statement of Claim and in his own written statement had to be pared back from an ‘is’ to a rather feeble ‘would have been’ but for the intervention of the LMS and subsequent colonial history.

Moreover, what might be called the politics of Eddie Mabo’s assertion of traditionalism became increasingly transparent with the unfolding of the evidence. He had suffered under the power of the Island Council for many years. He had received the harsh sentence of banishment for one year for being caught drinking alcohol on Murray Island in 1956. Adding an intriguing note of complexity … it was revealed that the Island Court that had sentenced Mabo was constituted by three other exemplary Islanders: Marou, Sam Passi and George Mye (T. 780). In addition, it was the Island Council—whether pressured by the Queensland administration or not—that had refused Eddie Mabo’s formal requests for entry to Murray Island during the 1960s and 1970s. Following the cross-examination of Mabo’s expansive assertions of his own executive decision-making power in matters of custom, Justice Moynihan summarised the obvious divergence of the bases for decision-making authority on Murray Island as a power struggle between the elected council leaders and those wanting the restoration of tribal authority.

Eddie Mabo’s naive agreement with the Judge’s summary—one of a number of moments of dangerous honesty—probably contributed to the negative impression being formed of his credibility. There was, however, an abundance of material on which Justice Moynihan could base such a negative impression of Eddie Mabo: the very large number of portions of land claimed on various bases; his insistence on recalling exact conversations with his grandfather when Eddie Mabo was only six years old; his insistence that only those adopted from close kin could base their claims to inheritance on adoption (thus conveniently disposing of a counterclaim to one of his claimed portions by another adopted Islander); and, generally, his defensive and on occasion hot-tempered, argumentative responses to cross-examination. Overall, the extraordinarily long and gruelling examination and cross-examination of Eddie Mabo exposed his claims to minute scrutiny, which was made possible by the mobilisation of the resources of the State of Queensland. Every government document relevant to the cross-examination was found, analysed and deployed, and other Islanders, who disputed some of Mabo’s claims, were interviewed and presented as witnesses. Through this process, a much more complex and flawed character emerged. The Eddie Mabo of Stars of Tagai was revealed as an idealised portrait: Mabo before cross-examination.”

Mabo – Brief Webography

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