Thursday, October 22, 2009

Edward Koiki Mabo: His Life and Struggle for Land Rights, by Noel Loos and Koiki Mabo

The heart of this book is a fragmentary autobiography by Edward Koiki Mabo, put together from interviews conducted by Professor Noel Loos, who teaches the history of black-white relations at James Cook University at Townsville. (The book was published in 1996, so I don’t know if he still teaches at that university.) In addition to Koiki Mabo’s autobiographical material, there is a personal memoir of Mabo by Professor Loos. The last part of the book concentrates on Mabo’s final years, and his struggle for the native title rights to his Torres Strait Island home of Mer.

Like most Australians, I’ve always had a general outline of what happened when Koiki Mabo challenged the legitimacy of lands declared to be the possessions of the British Crown. However, recently I watched the last episode of the SBS series, The First Australians. This episode dealt explicitly with Mabo’s achievements, and I found the episode so moving that I decided to try and read up more on Koiki Mabo.

I don’t have to go into Mabo’s extraordinary achievement in overturning the whole idea of terra nullius. To think that a man from the fringes of Australia, on a little known island to the east of the Torres Strait, could turn how Australia thought of itself on its head, beggars belief. It mystifies why we don’t have a national day in the man’s honour. Then again, maybe not.

This book is okay. I didn’t find it too riveting a read though. The autobiographical part was never completed. Nevertheless, it does give the reader a good impression of Mabo’s character, temperament and thinking. He seemed to have a simple and clear minded idea on what he wanted to achieve, uncluttered by political ideology. The most pressing case for Mabo was to get the best possible deal for his people.

Students of Mabo will no doubt find this book indispensable. Those already interested in Koiki Mabo and his achievements will find this rewarding reading. But for those looking for a bigger political and cultural picture, this won’t really fit the bill.

I guess you could say the bigger political and cultural picture was what I was after.
Nevertheless, Edward Koiki Mabo: His Life and Struggle for Land Rights provides a valuable document of a man who changed Australia for ever.

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