Reconciliation Australia is saddened to learn of the passing of Dr Bonita Mabo AO – an activist and reconciliation advocate who was also the wife of land rights campaigner Eddie Koiki Mabo.
Dr Mabo supported her husband through his historic challenge to the legal doctrine of terra nullius (‘land belonging to no one’). In 1992, the High Court overturned the doctrine and recognised the existence of native title for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
Dr Mabo was a South Sea Islander who spoke frequently about the need for Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander and South Sea Islander peoples to “work together as one to fight for our rights”.
Following her husband’s death, Dr Mabo increasingly sought recognition for her ancestors and awareness of the harsh treatment they endured.
The South Sea Islanders are Australian descendants of Pacific Islanders who were forced to work in substandard conditions in Queensland and northern NSW between 1863 and 1904.
Around 60,000 Pacific Islanders were brought to Australia to work on sugar and cotton plantations, sheep and cattle farms, and in the pearling and fishing industries. Their recruitment often involved forced removal from their homes and long-term indentured service.
Dr Mabo has also been recognised for her advocacy work for Indigenous schooling.
She was the co-founder of Australia’s first Indigenous community school, the Black Community School in Townsville, where she worked as a teacher’s aide and oversaw the day-to-day operations, including providing continuity and cultural training to all children.
Only last week, Dr Mabo received one of James Cook University’s highest awards, an Honorary Doctor of Letters, in recognition of her outstanding contribution to the community.
Reconciliation Australia CEO Karen Mundine said Dr Mabo made a powerful contribution to reconciliation in Australia – both in supporting her husband’s work and through her individual efforts as an educator and advocate.
“Aunty Bonita’s work shed light on the horrendous treatment of South Sea Islander Australians, which is an aspect of Australia’s history that has long been hidden and ignored,” she said.
“She reminded us that Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander and South Sea Islander Australians share some common experiences – and that the reconciliation movement is strongest when we come together to campaign for the equality we all deserve.”
Reconciliation Australia board member Kenny Bedford said Dr Mabo – his aka (grandmother) – was a gentle and caring soul who always put others before herself.
“She was proud of her South Sea heritage and was a quiet achiever who naturally played a significant role in what eventually became the Mabo decision,” he said.
“She is adored by all who know her.
“Because of her, we can.”