June 3 – "Nobody's Land" Tossed Out

Posted on June 3, 2017

If you say something absurd or racist in Latin, does it sound better?

There was a Latin phrase used in Australia as settlers from Britain and elsewhere began to explore and settle that continent: terra nullius

It meant "nobody's land," and it is generally used to describe territory that has never belonged to any nation -- territory that is therefore, apparently, "up for grabs."

To use this term for Australia and its nearby islands was completely incorrect, of course. People DID live in those places, and these native Australians (also known as indigenous peoples or Aboriginal people) should have been acknowledged as the rightful "owners" of the land. 

But ever since British explorer James Cook spotted the world's largest island, or the world's smallest continent, it was considered terra nullius. This was what could be called a legal fiction, a way of making it "legal" to steal other people's land.

Which brings us to Mabo Day. Today is Mabo Day because, on this date in 1992, a Torres Strait Islander named Eddie Koiki Mabo won a landmark decision in Australia's High Court. The decision ended the fiction of terra nullius and gave an indigenous person land rights. 

Mabo didn't just happen to win a court case. He worked to establish the idea of indigenous land rights; he spoke out on the subject, earned a reputation as a radical and met a lot of resistance, but he continued to speak out. Eventually he found some lawyers interested in helping him make a test case for indigenous land rights.

Unfortunately, Mabo died of cancer before the case was decided. But five months after his death, the decision was reached and announced, and centuries of British attitudes about land ownership on Australia were overturned.

 Now Mabo's name is enshrined in a public holiday!

The two-tone blue flag is the Torres Strait Island's flag.
The yellow sun on a black and red field is the Aboriginal flag.


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