Eddie Mabo's address to Land Rights Conference
Eddie Mabo 143
Eddie Koiki Mabo: Land Rights in the Torres Strait
I would like to first of all express my sincere thanks to the organizers of this conference: in particular the James Cook University Student Union and the Aboriginal Treaty Committee in Townsville for allowing me to speak at this very important conference. I am also pleased to see so many of our people as delegates, and interested participants from all parts of Australia.
Struggle for land rights has been a major issue in Aboriginal and Islander politics for the last decade. It is interesting to note that our struggle for land rights has attracted so many of our fellow white Australians to join with us. Some larger institutions such as the churches and trade unions have also made public announcements giving their support for Aboriginal and Islander land rights claims. However it is extremely pleasing to see so many of our white friends here representing organizations and various professions giving us moral and professional support.
Before I address you on the topic which I have been requested to speak on, I want to tell you that I will not be making references to any books, because what I know about my people and our culture did not come from books written by academics. My text books were my parents, especially my late mother and father Maiga and Benny Mabo of Las village, and so many other people who contributed to my traditional education, and all my people of the Eastern Torres Strait Islands who unknowingly contributed to the knowledge I now have.
In the Torres Strait, land ownership is the same throughout. It is different from Aboriginal land ownership on the mainland. Although we have tribal regions, we go much further into the clan area and then to individual or family holdings. This system existed as long as we could remember. When the first white men arrived in our islands they found people as village dwellers who lived in permanent houses and in well-kept villages. They also discovered that we were expert gardeners and hunters.
The land was inherited always by the male descendants just as male children in white societies always retained the family name. The terms we use for the male name-holders are Neai Borom or Neai Lied-Lied. Girls inherited
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land only in cases where the couple had no male children. In some instances daughters were given land as a wedding present.
Before the father died, or during his life-time, he would make sure that his family and friends knew his wish as to which one of his sons would be the heir to his land. He would also insist that the heir to his land must not deprive the rest of his sons or daughters of the use of his land. In most instances the decision for the use of their father's land remains at the good-will of the heir. Such was the case of my father allowing his sisters to garden in the land that I now inherit.
I want to use some examples here so that you may become more aware of our land ownership. For instance in Britain you have three distinct areas, Wales to the south, England, and Scotland to the north. I will discuss Scotland because I have a close friend, Brian McLeod, who actually gave me this information.
In Scotland they have different areas of land distinctly belonging to certain clans, such as the McLeod country etc. I also recall there was a TV coverage of Mr Malcolm Framer, who returned to his family castle in Scotland, situated in the Fraser country of Scotland, owned by Mr Fraser's clan. My understanding of the Scots is that Scotland was divided into clan groups, and within each clan grouping you have the individual or family holdings such as the Fraser castle.
On Mer we have the same situation. Let me explain further. The island is divided into three major tribal divisions (see table). These are Meriam Pek, Komet Pek and Dauer Pek. These are divided and subdivided right down to clan groups. The laws relating to land were maintained by the Aet of Mer or Dowar. Whenever there was a dispute over boundaries, the Aet was called upon to settle the disputes in each of their respective islands.
In case you may wonder what the Aet is, it is much the same as you have King of England who was the defender of your Christian faith. In much the same way our Aet was the upholder of our laws, the defender of Malo-Bomai cult and the Au zogo zogo le, the central figure of all the sacred people
Typically of the colonists, the first Europeans disrupted the Aet system of government by appointing their rep-
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resentatives (known as mamooses). Three mamooses were appointed for Mer and Dowar.
Again in this case, people who were not traditional leaders were appointed as mamoose in order that they would suppress traditional leaders. The people who were appointed as mamoose and police officers were people whom we regard as Zogo kak buai. This term has a variety of meanings and I do not want to explain it here.
In relation to land distribution in the Torres Strait I'm going to use Mer as an example and I want you to know this exists throughout the Torres Strait and I want you to use your own imagination in this case. Murray (Mer) Island is firstly divided into three large tribal divisions. Draw a line from North-West Coast to the South-West Coast of the Island. Within each of the subdivisions of the tribal districts, we have individual, family or clan holdings (see table).
Inside our Piaderam tribal subdivision of Las village, I own the land handed down to me by my father, and on the right of my clan (Mabo), I have Sagigi and Kanieu clan and on my left are Sam, Wailu and Dawita clans. The boundaries between us are all distinct and known to us all. From my point of view, we have a similar system to the English, Welsh and Scots. None of the land will ever be sold for cash.
I can see that lots of problems will be created if the Queensland government decides to de-reserve the existing reserves.
I want to make a proposal to all Queenslanders and the Queensland government. This proposal is based on several reasons.
Torres Strait has been a lost paradise in the State and in the Commonwealth. Since the boom in plastics and decline of pearl and trochus industries, we have been the non-productive area of the State, and according to the State Department of Aboriginal and Island Advancement we have been a liability to the State government. This is unmistakably untrue. It is a deliberate attempt to mislead the people of Queensland on how well we are looked after.
The only area in which the State contributes is a means of travel to and from Thursday Island on the MV Melbidir. Little tin and fibro cottages which would cost no more than $1000 in southern markets have been provided for us to live in as family homes, all of which are not much
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more than an average chicken coop. But nevertheless most of these are paid for by the Islanders on a long-term loans basis.
I myself and my colleagues of the Torres Strait Land Council fail to see any good reason for Torres Strait to remain as part of Queensland. Our wish for the area to be transferred to the Commonwealth has gradually caught on in the Islands themselves. Problems associated with our well-being in the area of health, education, housing and industrial development are all lacking attention from the State. Whatever services are being provided are inadequate compared to the standards on the mainland. Education and health are the prime examples of Queensland's lack of interest in the area and its black people. This race will either die out or be made into zombies as a result of VD and lack of attempts to eliminate the disease.
What we actually want is real help, not patronising colonial rule anymore; more advanced help from our prosperous white Queenslanders to enable us to stand on our own feet and be able to exercise our rights as Australians and 'Members of the British Empire' as stated by Douglas at the time of annexation of Torres Strait by Queensland. We do not want to remain as your poor neighbour any more. The only real help we want from Queensland is to transfer the area to the Commonwealth, to be under the Department of Home Affairs and the Department of Aboriginal Affairs for financial assistance.
Here is the draft summary of the proposal for the transfer of the Torres Strait Islands to the Commonwealth, extension of democracy and elimination of colonial rule of Queensland in the Torres Strait area:
(1) Transfer all islands north of the Cape York Peninsula from Boigu in the west to Bramble Cay in the east, from Queensland to the Commonwealth government.
(2) Declaration by the Commonwealth of the area as an autonomous region within the Commonwealth of Australia.
(3) Election to be conducted to elect a Constituent Assembly on an adult franchise basis.
(4) Drawing up of the Constitution of the Torres Strait by the Constituent Assembly.
(5) Members of Commonwealth government and members of the legal profession to be appointed as
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advisers to assist in (4) above.
(6) All rights of marine industries currently exploited by foreign companies, and all other natural wealth including seabed rights be reserved exclusively for the Torres Strait Islanders with heavy penalties to outsiders
infringing on these rights.
(7) Financial assistance to this region and appointment of other necessary advisers who would assist in the implementation of administrative machinery, technical and business enterprises to the democratically elected Assembly and the people of Torres Strait.
Australia already has Norfolk Island existing as an autonomous region. Declaration of Torres Strait as an autonomous region would not be new to the Commonwealth government.
While we the Islanders would be involved in deciding our constitution for the area, we would want the Commonwealth government to police the area by permanently employing three naval patrol vessels; one to be stationed in the Western Islands, one in the Central and one in the Eastern Islands. These patrol vessels would be aided by the employment of three Canberra bombers to be stationed at Horn Island air base. Employment of these naval vessels and the aircraft would provide on-the-job training for our young men to be involved in the defence of Australia's most northerly point and protection of their internal rights within the Torres Strait region.
Keywords: conference, land rights, land rights, Land Rights Conference, 1981, Mabo, Edward Koiki, Mer, Townsville, 1981
Eddie Mabo's address to Land Rights Conference. Still:Tribal Divisions on Mer.
Author: Graham, Trevor.
© Mabo Family Collection
Source: Mabo, Edward Koiki