The Mabo Case Manuscripts

"The indigenous peoples of Australia and its adjacent islands were, when they first came into contact with Westerners, huntergatherers. As such, they were constantly on the move within their hunting territories. When the British first settled on the coasts of Australia in1788, their lawyers decided that the indigenous peoples, because they were not settled and did not till or use the ground except for hunting over, could not be said to own it. The Common Law held that for land to be owned, it must be ""possessed"", that is, it must be fenced in, used for the private purposes of the owner and be marked off from the waste lands outside. Land not so ""possessed"" was terra nullius or ""no-mans-land"". Such land could, therefore, be settled by incomers without any compensation being paid to the indigenous people. This remained the settled legal view, and not in Australia only, until recent years. The doctrine of terra nullius had the effect of quickly destroying the culture and lifestyles of the indigenous peoples, as their lands were taken by settlers, and they were forced off them.

Between 1982 and 1992, a Torres Strait Islander, Edward Mabo, brought a case to Court which overturned this legal doctrine. Accordingly indigenous peoples, even if hunter-gatherers with no settled place of residence, had rights to the land and could only be evicted from it if compensation was duly paid. This court case profoundly changed race relations and the framework of interracial relations, not in Australia only, but also in many other places around the world. Sadly Edward Mabo never knew the result of his legal case as he died in January 1992, five months before the High Court made its decision. The Mabo Case Manuscripts were inscribed on the International Memory of the World Register in 2001."

International Register



The documents consist of 19 boxes of Edward Mabo's personal papers and 73 volumes of material submitted to the court during the case of Mabo v. State of Queensland. The papers are held in the National Library of Australia. ~ National Library of Australia