What does Terra Nullius mean?
From at least 60,000 B.C., Australia was inhabited entirely by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with traditional, social and land rights. To the Aborigines the land was everything to them and is closely linked to their Dreaming stories. Dreaming is the belief system which explains how the ancestral beings moved across the land and created life and significant geographic features.
In consideration, the Indigenous Australians are a people with a close relationship with the land, and through the land they maintain the spiritual links to the ancestral beings. The land is sacred, and for many thousand years, Aboriginal people lived in harmony on their land.
After the arrival of the British colonies in 1788, Australia was declared “Terra Nullius”, which is a Latin term meaning land belongs to no one. As a result of this, Captain Cook, the British captain of the first fleet of ships to arrive at Australia’s shore, claimed that all of the east coast of Australia belonged to Britain.
The underlying argument was that Aboriginal people were so low on scale of human development that their needs were discounted. Because Aboriginal people did not farm the land, build permanent houses on it or use it in other familiar ways, the British decreed that they did not have rights over the land nor did they have any proof of land ownership. Another reason was that there was no identifiable hierarchy or political order which the British government could recognise or negotiate with.
Once European settlement began, Aboriginal rights to traditional lands was disregarded and the Aboriginal people of the Sydney region were almost obliterated by introduced diseases and, to a lesser extent, armed force. First contacts were relatively peaceful but Aboriginal people and their culture was strange to the Europeans as well as their plants and animals. Consequently, Terra Nullius continued on for over 200 years.
Figure 1: Eddie Mabo
Figure 1: Eddie Mabo
Who was Eddie Mabo?
Eddie ‘Koiki’ Mabo (seen in figure 1) was born on 29 June 1936, in the community of Las on Mer, known as Murray Island in the Torres Strait. His birth name was Eddie Koiki Sambo; however he was raised by his Uncle Benny Mabo through a customary ‘Island adoption’. During this time, the concept of “terra nullius” was legislation.
When Eddie was growing up, life for the people of the Torres Strait Islands was strictly regulated with laws made by the Queensland Government. However, the Meriam people strived to maintain continuity with the past and continued to live a traditional lifestyle based on fishing, gardening and customary laws of inheritance. At the age of 16, Eddie was exiled from Murray Island for breaking customary Island law, and he set off for the mainland where a new life was waiting for him.
Through university, Eddie read a speech in front of people about his people’s belief about the land ownership. A lawyer heard him and asked if he would like to argue with the Australian government about the right for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders to have land rights.
After this, Eddie Mabo was successful in addressing the concept of native title to the Australian government on behalf of Murray Island people. He is known for his role in campaigning for indigenous land rights and for his role in a landmark decision of the high court of Australia which neglected the legal doctrine of “terra nullius” land belong to nobody, which characterized Australian law with regards to land and title. Eddie died in 21 January 1992 and was unable to see the native title given to them.
What were the Mabo case and the high court decisions? In the 1970’s, the Queensland Government took over Aboriginal land and was unsympathetic to the concept of land rights or any idea of native title to the land. On the 20th of May 1982, Eddie Koiki Mabo and four other Torres Strait...
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