First People Then And Now: The Mabo Decision

First People Then And Now


The Mabo Decision



The 25th anniversary of the Mabo Decision was 3 June 2017.

People in Australia celebrate Mabo Day each year on 3 June in recognition of the work Eddie Mabo has done for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Torres Strait Island flag

Eddie Mabo with four other men in 1982 began a court case to establish traditional rights over Merian land in the Torres Strait. This action led to the historic High Court decision in 1992.

Captain James Cook


On 19 April 1770 Captain James Cook reached the east coast of Australia. Cook was instructed to take possession of the eastern half of the continent for the British crown.

At Possession Island, off Cape York Peninsula in North Queensland, Cook took possession of the whole of the eastern coast in the name of King George III. Cook declared that Australia was terra nullius meaning that Australia was land without people and that it was unoccupied and unowned.

Terra Nullius

Therefore, the belief of the time was that the British could justify claiming the country as theirs.

The European legal view of Australia was that it was vacant and that the land belonged to no one. This is the concept of terra nullius.

This taking of so called unoccupied land was an application of the dictum of terra nullius (land without people). Terra nullius comes from the Latin meaning “nobody’s land”.

The concept of terra nullius was the justification the British Government used to claim the eastern side of the continent as theirs.

What the British did not know or acknowledge was that Australia with its first people was one of the earliest centres of civilisation in the world with its beginnings at least 60,000 years ago.

High Court of Australia

The High Court overturned this legal view and recognised that the people of Mer had owned their land before 1788 and that native title to Australian lands could have continued after 1788.

Eddie Mabo was born in the Torres Strait in 1937.

In 1992 six months prior to the High Court decision Eddie Mabo died. He lies buried now on the island of Mer.

Marji Hill

Author: First People Then And Now

First People Then And Now