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Throughout Australian history, there have been men and women who fought for the entitlements of the indigenous people. The most respected and recognised of these is Eddie Mabo, a Torres Strait Islander. Mabo stood up for the rights of his people from a very young age all the way to his death, in order to generate changes in the policies and laws of the government. Mabo battled for his right to own the land which he had inherited from his adoptive father, a fight which was resolved only after his demise. Despite this, Eddie Mabo became one of the key influential figures in the Aboriginal rights movement, as his strong will, determination, and intelligence allowed him to bring about change.
Mabo was born on July the 25th, 1936 in the village of Laos on Murray Island. However, soon after his birth, his mother passed away. Because of this, Eddie’s father gave him away, to his brother, and Eddie’s uncle, Benny Mabo. From birth Eddie was taught the traditions and customs of the indigenous people by the elders as well as his family, while at the same time he learned to read and write from a teacher at the island school, Robert Miles. However, due to the state of the country at the time, no islander was expected to pass beyond primary school. His life was very simple and rudimentary, spending most of his time learning how to fish, grow plants, and sing the songs of his culture.
At the age of 16, Eddie learned how to speak English, and began to question the way the system was run, and ask why his people were treated the way they were.
However, he became infatuated with a young islander girl, which at the time, unless permission was given, was outlawed by the Queensland government. Because of this, Mabo was exiled from the island and sent to the mainland. He settled down in Cairns, and worked various jobs, until he met his future wife Bonita, whilst working on the railroads in 1958. They married on October the 10th one year later, and it was around this time Mabo became interested in politics, and fighting for rights.
Mabo was raised by his Uncle from what was practically birth, due to his mother’s death. He lived a simple existence with his family, caring for the land and learning the traditions of his people, until his exile from the island.
However, meeting his soul mate Bonita in 1958 and marrying her in 1959 was one of the most significant events to affect him. Bonita quickly became the most significant person in his life and the driving inspirational force behind his political agendas. She stood by her husband no matter what, supporting him even when the pressures and struggles of life almost became too much to bear. Due to the nature of his political agenda, Eddie needed to move around a lot, and so Bonita helped to raise money in order to pay for these ventures. Towards his later life, Mabo began to drink heavily to escape from the pressures of daily life, and took out his frustration on his wife, both verbally and physically. Despite this, even when Bonita took the children and left, she always returned to support him, because she understood what he was going through. Eventually, Eddie learned to focus his frustrations onto other things, politics in particular.
At the age of 16, Eddie began to question the system, and the government. He began to ask why it is that his race is treated differently, and subjected to cruel and unjust laws. This was the beginning of his career in politics. Later in his years, he learned that the land on Murray Island, which he believed belonged to him, as he had inherited it from his adoptive father, was actually the property of the Crown. The revelation changed his life forever, and motivated him even further to fight for his right to own the land which his family had lived on for generations. During his time working as a gardener at James Cook University, he would sit in on lectures. It was through this behaviour that he learned about the white legal system, and devised ways in which he could use it in order to reclaim his land. After a long and arduous battle both inside and outside the courtroom, the government began to consider Mabo’s requests. However, while they considered it, they did not want to give him ownership of land on Murray Island, instead attempting to find loopholes through which they could discredit his claims. The main excuse which they used was that Mabo was not adopted legally through the Queensland court system, instead through islander law, which does not hold any authority in their courts.
The court case to give the land on Murray Island back to the original, indigenous owners outlived Eddie however, as he passed away in 1992 after an extensive fight against cancer.
Throughout his life, Mabo was the victim of many setbacks and faced many obstacles. The first of these was his banishment from Murray Island, as he had to fight for survival from a young age, fending for himself at 16. This, coupled with society’s racist views at the time, made growing up very difficult for him. Because racism was still prevalent at the time, obtaining work and shelter was a challenge, even after marrying Bonita. He was refused and sent away when applying for jobs, or accommodation in motels or apartment buildings, forcing him and his family to camp outside. In addition to the injustice he faced from the general population, Eddie also had to deal with the court case and his political career. This was hindered by his lack of funds, as some days he could not even afford public transportation to the courtroom. He was fighting a battle which some days he didn’t feel he could win, and it all became too much for him. He would go home and cry as he expressed his fears and anxieties to his family, and sometimes get drunk and physically abuse his wife. During this time, he was diagnosed with cancer, which only made things even harder. He stayed determined however, and fought for his land rights all the way until he died in Bonita’s arms.
Qualities He Possessed
All throughout his existence, Eddie Mabo demonstrated numerous admirable qualities. He had considerable leadership skills, especially considering his lack of secondary education. He knew how to get people to believe in what he was saying, and was an inspiration to all of them. He was one of the first indigenous Australians to stand up for land rights, and would not back down even when everything seemed to be against him, displaying his powerful determination and belief in himself as a person. He also carries a great respect and love for the land and his culture, which is the main driving force behind his fight for land rights.
Conclusively, the labours which Eddie ‘Koiki’ Mabo put towards the still ongoing battle for indigenous land rights have gone down in Australian history. He has become a well known, well respected, and well liked representative of the indigenous people, even in death. The effort which he placed into his endeavours is inspiring for future generations of political activists, showing that through hard work, and determination, anything can be achieved, and as such has become a role model for young Australians, indigenous and white alike.
He has become a figurehead for the land rights movement, and his actions and personality will never be forgotten.