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Native title

Lag Meta Aus: Home in the Torres Strait

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Native title

Landmark court decision

My father told me. Son, this land will belong to you when I die.
Eddie Koiki Mabo

The 'Mabo decision', the landmark High Court decision in 1992 that the Meriam, or Murray Islanders, were the traditional owners of the land they lived on, made legal history in Australia. Native title followed for other Indigenous peoples, including the Kaurareg people, who are the traditional owners of the Kaiwalagal area of the Torres Strait's Inner Islands.

Mer (Murray Island), Torres Strait.
Mer (Murray Island), Torres Strait. Photo: George Serras.

Land, sea and law

In May 1982 a group of Meriam (Murray Islanders) including Eddie Koiki Mabo, David Passi, Sam Passi, Celuia Mapo Salee and James Rice lodged a case with the High Court of Australia for legal ownership of the island. The High Court decided that the Supreme Court of Queensland should determine the parameters of the case. While this decision was underway, the Queensland State Parliament passed the Torres Strait Islands Coastal Islands Act 1985, which ‘extinguished without compensation’ any Torres Strait Islander claims to their traditional lands.

In February 1986 the Meriam challenged the legislation and in December 1988 the High Court ruled in the Mabo No. 1 case that the Act contravened the Commonwealth Racial Discrimination Act 1975. This enabled the court to begin judgement on Mabo No. 2, the Meriam’s land rights case.

Continuity of custom

Over a period of 10 years, 33 Meriam people including the plaintiffs gave evidence and generated 4000 pages of transcripts of evidence.

The evidence presented included proof that the eight clans of Mer (Murray Island) have occupied clearly defined territories on the island for hundreds of years, and proof of the continuity of custom on Mer provided through Malo's Law. Information such as the structure of traditional family property boundaries drawn on a map by Eddie Koiki Mabo in the 1980s played a key role in the evidence presented by the plaintiffs.

On 3 June 1992, six of the seven judges agreed that the Meriam held traditional ownership of the lands of Mer. The decision led to the passing of the Native Title Act 1993, providing the framework for all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to make claims of native title.

The Kaurareg connection

The Kaurareg people have always played an important trading role, connecting Torres Strait Islanders to mainland Australia. For many years the Kaurareg endured prejudice and hardship. In 1922, by government decree, the entire Kaurareg population was removed at gunpoint from Kiriri (Hammond Island) and relocated to Mua (Moa Island).

They returned to their homelands shortly after the Second World War and were legally recognised as the traditional owners of the Inner Islands in 2001. Today the Kaurareg continue to practise their distinctive culture.

More

Mabo v Queensland (No. 2 ) key documents on the Documenting a Democracy website

audio_w15 Mabo 20 years on: a celebration
Community members and politicians celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Mabo High Court decision which recognised that Eddie Koiki Mabo and others held native title to land on Mer (Murray Island) in the Torres Strait.