DREAM BIG Little Leader: Who was Bonita Mabo?

Bonita Mabo was a South Sea Islander reconciliation activist.

Bonita was the widow of Torres Strait Islander land claimant Eddie Mabo. She was born near Ingham, a descendant of Vanuatuan workers (formerly known as ‘Kanaks’) who were taken to Queensland, some 2000 km west of their home, to work in substandard conditions on sugar plantations between about 1860 and 1904.

She married Eddie Mabo in Ingham in 1959; they were to become parents of ten. In 1972, disenchanted with the education her children were receiving, she set up Australia’s first Aboriginal community school. Eddie Mabo was also involved, but came to focus on his own campaign; she supported him through his historic land claim.

Following his death, she increasingly sought recognition for her own ancestors. She was an advocate for reconciliation for all Australians, especially between Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander and South Sea Islander peoples, speaking frequently of the need to ‘work together as one to fight for our rights’.

She, and the rest of her family, longed to see 3 June, the anniversary of the successful Mabo decision, declared a national holiday with a focus of the day on reconciliation for all Indigenous Australians and Non-Indigenous Australians. The Mabo case was legally significant in Australia because it ruled the lands of this continent were not “terra nullius” or “land belonging to no-one” when European settlement occurred. JUST WOW.

Days before she died, James Cook University conferred an honorary doctorate of letters on Bonita Mabo for her contribution to social justice and human rights. Mabo is remembered as the “mother of native title“.

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