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Mer (Murray Island)

An aerial photo of an island thickly populated with trees. The white beach is dotted with small buildings. The surrounding seabed is noticeable.
Mer (Murray Island)

Fishers, divers and traders

Alo Tapim, Meriam elder, 2014:

When colonisation took place it was the understanding that there was no-one living here, you know, the Mabo story ... It’s very important for us to give the message, that we are the first Australians.

Many Australians recognise Mer (Murray Island) as the birthplace of Eddie Koiki Mabo, who took on the Australian legal system – and won. In 1992, the High Court overturned the doctrine of terra nullius and recognised the rights of Indigenous Australians over their lands.

But there is a longer history of Mer, pervaded by the sea. The people of Mer have always been fishers, divers and traders. Stories abound of a rich trade between Meriam people and early British visitors.

Lieutenant George Borlase Kempthorne, commander of the Tigris, described the lively exchange between the Islanders and his crew during a brief visit in 1836:

George Borlase Kempthorne, ‘A narrative of a voyage’, Transactions of the Bombay Geographical Society, 1840:

The Natives [held] up in their hands the articles they wished to dispose of, consisting of cocoanuts, yams, plantains, tortoise-shells, and their implements of war ... In exchange they received small looking-glasses, empty bottles, beads, clasp-knives, axes, and old clothes; but iron was of all commodities ...most prized.

letter from Alfred Cort Haddon to Charles Hercules Read, British Museum keeper, 1891:

I had definitely decided to take up anthropology seriously ... Out of this year I shall spend quite ¾ of my time on anthropology.

Alo Tapim, Meriam elder, 2014:

This art reflects the society, the Meriam people or the eastern Island people. That art mirror that society at that time.
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