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T150 - Townsville Past & Present 4: Celebrating Mabo


Ms Jenny Pilot, JCU Honours student explores Haddon’s six-volume Reports of the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to the Torres Straits (1901–35) held in the NQ Collection.
The latest round of T150 displays focus on the theme “Celebrating Mabo”.
The displays showcase a rich archive of materials that include: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art, stories, language and material culture from north Queensland and the Torres Strait; documents relating to the regulation and punishment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples under the Protectorate system; Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders’ work in the northern pastoral and pearl shelling industries; and resources relating to Eddie Koiki Mabo and his fight for land rights and involvement in the landmark legal battle that led to the Native Title Act.
Art, Stories, Language and Material Culture
JCU Library Special Collections holds a range of resources about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art and culture and samples from the Shaw Collection of Australian Art are on display, along with a variety of books containing traditional stories from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups and information about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island languages and material culture. The display also includes a bark painting by Aboriginal artist Dick Roughsey.
Regulation, Protection and Punishment
In 1897, the Queensland authorities enacted the Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act 1897 (Qld). This Act created the positions of Protectors of Aboriginals and gave the Chief Protector of Aboriginals and the individual Protectors, enormous control over almost all aspects of the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Queensland. They could decide where people lived, who could marry, where they could work and how they raised children. They also administered wages and savings bank accounts for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and kept most of their wages ‘in trust’. This display shows a number of books and other documents from the Special Collections relating to human rights and welfare on the reserves and missions, including items from the Noel Loos Archive and the Australian Metal Workers Union Archive.
Pastoral and Pearl Shelling Industries
Many Indigenous Australians worked in the north Queensland pastoral industry on stations, which enabled them to maintain contact with their traditional lands. They undertook a variety of roles, from stockman to drover and domestic help. Displays include records from Gunnawarra Station, showing pay records for Aboriginal employees, and letters and details of the Aboriginal Wage Cases relating to the cattle industry from the Noel Loos Archive. There are also documents from the WANETTA Pearling Company Archive about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders employed in the industry in the early 19th century, along with a selection of books about the pearl (trochus) shell industry in north Queensland.
Eddie Koiki Mabo – Land Rights and Native Title
In 1982, Eddie Koiki Mabo (who was born in 1936 on Mer (Murray) Island, in the Torres Strait) along with Sam Passi, David Passi, Celuia Mapo Salee and James Rice began a lengthy legal claim for ownership of lands on the island of Mer in the Torres Strait, between Australia and Papua New Guinea.

Although three of the plaintiffs (including Eddie Mabo) did not live to see the outcome of their ten year battle, in June 1992, the High Court of Australia ruled in favour of Mabo in Mabo and Others v. State of Queensland (No. 2) (1992), resulting in the Native Title Act 1993. In recognising the traditional rights of the Meriam people to their islands in the eastern Torres Strait, the High Court also held that native title existed for all Indigenous people in Australia prior to James Cook’s expedition in 1770, and prior to the establishment of the British Colony of New South Wales in 1788.

This decision altered the foundation of land law in Australia. The Native Title Act destroyed the 17th century doctrine of terra nullius (meaning land belonging to no-one) by which Australia had been colonised.
Displays include a recording of Eddie Mabo’s 1981 speech at a Land Rights Conference held at James Cook University where he clearly articulated land ownership and land inheritance on Murray Island; other holdings relating to land rights issues, including from the Mabo and Wik cases; and several volumes of the Reports of the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to Torres Straits (published 1901–35), conducted in 1898 by a team of British scientists led by Alfred Cort Haddon.

In his 2011 book Law’s Anthropology: From Ethnography to Expert Testimony in Native Title, Paul Burke wrote about the significance of the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to the Torres Straits, and its impact on the Mabo case, almost a hundred years later:

Haddon’s six-volume Reports of the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to Torres Straits (1901–35) (the Reports) are imposing - like a huge artistic monument - impossible to ignore, intricate in detail, exasperating in their sprawling organisation, creating their own world of responses and providing a powerful resource for all subsequent generations of Meriam people, including Eddie Mabo. Parts of them were to play a critical role in the Mabo case.”

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