Most Australians would only know the word Mabo as a legal term, the name of a land rights case that was not popular with the government or big business. Few know the interesting story of the man who gave his name to the landmark case, Eddie Mabo.
Mabo: Life of an Island Man, the film biography of Eddie Mabo, takes up the court case which occupied the last years of Eddie's life, his long life of struggle since he first left his home in the Torres Strait Islands, and found work in northern Queensland on the railroads and in the sugar cane fields.
Mabo gained an education, and became an activist for black rights, working with his community campaigning for things such as the right for Aboriginals to have their own schools. He worked with members of the Communist Party, the only white political party to support Aboriginal campaigns at the time.
The quest for his ancestral land began when he realised that, despite his traditional ties, the land was legally the crown's. The court case he waged was not merely to reclaim his land, but to prove that it always had been his and his family's. This would disprove the white invaders' legal myth of Terra Nullius -- that Aborigines had no concept of land ownership.
Mabo rejected the more militant direct action tactics of the land rights movement, seeing the most important goal as being to destroy the legal justification for the land theft.
The final decision of the High Court upheld this, although Mabo died of cancer before the court reached its decision. The case has huge ramifications as it challenges ideologically the very basis of Australia's dispossession of the original owners of the land.
The film gives some examples of the hysterical scare-mongering that the mining and pastoral industries, the media and the government have engaged in, claiming that Aborigines would try to claim three-quarters of the country back.
Mabo: Life of an Island Man tells part of the story of the conditions faced by Aborigines in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s and their struggles during this period. It exposes a side of Australia's history that is rarely given attention in the mainstream.
Originally published in Green Left Weekly issue 286, 20 August 1997.